Thursday, December 1, 2022

The Mayflower Hotel, Washington, DC

MS. REENA NINAN: Thank you so much for joining us. 

DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR ISOBEL COLEMAN: My pleasure, thank you for having me. 

MS. NINAN: Excited to sort of talk about this. When you're looking and applying sort of a gender lens to development, I know President Biden's new budget now calls for more than double, actually, money for gender programs in the previous year. Why is that? What do you think the White House is hoping to achieve?

DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR COLEMAN: I just heard you say on the last panel: we shouldn't be asking the why anymore. I think we are really – I think everybody in this room knows the “why.” The “why” has been documented and researched and written about for decades – when you invest in women and girls, it has such a positive impact not only on the girl child, but on her family, on her community, on her country, on the global economy. We've seen it across the board, investing in women produces better health outcomes, it reduces fertility [rates], it improves farmer yields, it is a bulwark against climate change. 

MS. NINAN: I thought that was big, how Hannah said that – Hannah from the World Bank said that – they're not asking the why, they're asking the how, which is pretty, I guess a moment – this is the moment. 

DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR COLEMAN: I mean, I wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs almost 20 years ago called “The Payoff from Women's Rights.” And I don't want to spend time any more talking about [the] “why,” but let's focus on the “how.” 

MS. NINAN: On the how. So, what is the White House hoping to achieve? And how will they do it? 

DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR COLEMAN: So, in the Fiscal Year ‘23 Budget Request, as you noted, we have requested a doubling of our funding for programs to invest in women and girls. I mean, what we're hoping to achieve is much greater impact, more than a doubling of impact. 

MS. NINAN: What does that mean, when they say greater impact? Where would you believe that you and the White House would look at this and say, we took this money, and it really paid off?

DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR COLEMAN: Well, it really cuts across everything we do today. I mean you can't just say, ‘Oh, this is our gender pot.’ We find our gender money is in our agricultural spending. It's in our climate work. It's certainly in our educational work. We've just invested $50 million in the World Bank's care initiative. I heard the previous panel talking about the importance of investing in the care economy for women. The World Bank has estimated that some 600 million women are not in the workforce today because of lack of access to care – whether it's for childcare, eldercare, whatever it may be. Seventy-five percent of unpaid care in the world is done by women. So that's just one example. But, certainly when we're looking at food security around the world, we know that the majority today of subsistence farmers are women, and women have lower productivity than men. If you can invest in women's productive capacities, and it could be literacy training at the earliest levels to improve their productivity, you're going to have increases in food security around the world. So it really is, across the board, on everything that we're doing. 

MS. NINAN: Can you point to what USAID has done in the space of women and girls, where there's been some sort of transformative change?

DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR COLEMAN: Oh, I mean, there's so many examples. Right now, USAID is supporting 12 million girls in primary school around the world. And that is just this year. For decades, we have invested in girls' education. And you've seen the gains. One of the previous speakers noted Bangladesh as a success. Bangladesh has seen enormous strides. The U.S. has invested heavily in women and girls empowerment and education and in Bangladesh and in countries around the world. Egypt’s girls education, you've seen enormous strides in closing the gender gaps, not that they have been fully closed. But, you've seen a lot of progress. And USAID has really been behind a lot of those U.S. government investments that have been made. 

MS. NINAN: You just returned from a trip to Niger, which there is explosive population growth. But it's fascinating, there's also been some investment in women's girls education. Tell me a little bit about what you saw.

DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR COLEMAN: Well, let me step back. And even before I went to Niger, I had an amazing conversation with the Foreign Minister, who was here who was talking about his challenges that he faces. He said, “I face three challenges, three crises. I face a climate crisis,” the country is in the Sahel, and it's seen rapid desertification. “It faces conflict in the north of the country and in the south, across the country.” And it's really conflict driven by a growing scarcity of resources. And then he took me by surprise, and he said, “And my third crisis is child marriage.” And I thought, wow, that's interesting to have a foreign minister talking about child marriage. And he said, “look, I have a population of 26 million people.” It is one of the fastest – I think it is the fastest growth rate, fertility rate in the world. Today, a Nigerian woman is likely to have seven children right now, which is fully one more child than the next highest, which means that the population will double every 18 years. And when you're looking at conflict and climate change, a doubling of your population puts enormous stresses. It's a source of opportunity, of course, but it also puts some enormous stress on your systems or lack of systems. They don't have the ability to have all of their kids in school. And with such a fast growing population, they have to invest, invest, invest, so it is a challenge. 

And, girls – the girl child is so crucial to the gains that they want to make across the board. And they recognize that in Niger, 76 percent of girls are married before the age of 18. A very large proportion are married before the age of 15,14, 13 – very young ages of marriage. Girls leave school for a whole variety of reasons. You heard some of them in the earlier panel. There's no sanitation facilities for women, for girls. Schools are a long distance. There are cultural factors. And when they leave school, they get married. And so, one of the programs that we're doing in Niger is really trying to address that issue – those structural factors that really drive early marriage in Niger. 

MS. NINAN: One country can't do it alone in this space. Obviously, you've got to have partnerships. Where do you feel that USAID has partnered that's been partners or countries that have made a difference in this space? 

DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR COLEMAN: Well, USAID can't do it alone. A country can't do it alone. USAID can't do it alone. It really has to be a concerted effort that involves the leadership of a country. Niger, right now, its leadership is very dedicated to trying to improve the status of girls and women and the society. But, it needs money. You've got, for a country like Niger, the MCC – the Millennium Challenge Corporation – is working there and really investing also in women and girls. You've got the World Bank there, trying to invest in infrastructure and building schools. And of course, you've got USAID there and other donors there that are really trying to all pull in the same direction to help this country achieve its objectives. 

MS. NINAN: USAID recently concluded a public review on gender equality and women's empowerment. When you sort of look at that review, how have the Agency's priorities shifted under the Biden Administration?

DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR COLEMAN: Well, I think you've seen over many, many years, USAID, as I said, investing in women and girls. I would say that the shifts today are really recognizing the intersection of women and girls rights, the climate challenges, and making sure that women are very much on the frontlines of being agents of change on climate. Also, increasingly recognizing the important role of women and girls and food security. So, it's not revolutionary change, but more evolutionary change, and that these things have been evident for a long time, but really doubling down on our investments. As I said, [USAID is] doubling our investments that we're making this year in women and girls, because we recognize that all of the challenges that we face, women and girls are at the center of it. Both, as in many cases, as victims, but more importantly as agents of change who can really deliver on results and really drive towards the outcomes that we're looking for. 

MS. NINAN: I find sometimes it's also the same when you're talking about diversity – when you're talking about gender issues. There's still this sense among policy leaders, largely men, that feel this is sort of the feel good thing. I've got to do this to check off the box for the U.S. or for the IMF or for the World Bank. Are you – do you find that sentiment? I know we talked about, it's not so much the why anymore. How has tangible differences happened to these countries that might be on the fence about this? 

DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR COLEMAN: I have been working in this space for a very long time. And I've been writing about these issues for a very long time. And I can tell you that 20 years ago, when I would sit down with finance ministers or labor ministers and I would talk about the low workforce participation rate of women and their economies they say, “oh but you know, we have to find jobs for men first – women they should stay home and take care of their kids. They need jobs first, we can't even employ the men – how can we think about the women?” And I would show them research, where countries that had higher workforce participation rates of women had higher workforce participation rates for men too. It's not zero sum. Women create jobs for other women and for men. And you could see them thinking. 

Today, you have the foreign minister in Niger talking about child marriage, that is one of his priorities. I think there's been so much research done looking at, for example, the work that McKinsey has done, if you can bring women up to the same level of equality, economic opportunity, and education, all sorts of things, around the world, it's $28 trillion of additional global GDP. That's 26 percent, more than a quarter of the world's economy. And the World Bank has done similar exercises looking at closing the gap in education between boys and girls. If you could really bring girls up to the same level as boys over their lifetime, they would earn somewhere between – produce somewhere between $15 and $30 trillion more over their lifetime. These aren't small numbers, these are huge numbers. And I think that people in leadership positions in countries know much better – understand – this is not just checking a box to make the United States feel good. This is critical to their economic development. It is critical to their outcomes that they're looking for. We know it's a human rights issue. It's also an economic issue.

MS. NINAN: Final question. I know we've got to wrap up shortly here. But when you look at everything you've outlined for USAID, the policies, the review that you've just conducted, where do you believe you can see the most change in the coming years of this Administration?

DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR COLEMAN: In the next couple of years? 

MS. NINAN: In the next couple of years – yeah.

DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR COLEMAN: Well, you know, I think that the harsh reality is that COVID was a huge setback for women and girls. You saw girls leave school, and there's a whole generation of girls, they're never going back. You saw women leave the workforce, and they're really going to lose, frankly, years if not decades off their productive ability to participate in the economy. And I think that the focus and push that we have is to try to reverse those setbacks and really turbocharge the opportunities for women and girls. So it's doubling down again on education, on the care economy as an enabler for helping girls and women participate more fully and realize their full capacities. So, I think we've experienced some setbacks. We need to really double down on the good work that we've been doing. 

Of course, food security is one of our highest priorities right now because of Russia's terrible invasion of Ukraine and destruction of the world's breadbasket and in many ways. And making sure that the investments we’re making in food security – and really, this subsistence farming level – are very much focused on women too where we're likely to see the biggest gain. And climate, I haven't even talked much about that, but making sure that even just, I mentioned, increasing women's agricultural productivity allows less tilling of land and less use of fertilizer. I mean, the positive spillover effects are huge, but across the board, education, economic opportunities, climate change, and then also the legal environment. We continue to work with brave civil society actors around the world to to really push on closing the legal gaps that exist. 

MS. NINAN: Yeah food security, climate, legal issues you're so right to raise that. Unfortunately we're gonna have to leave it there. I want to thank you so much. Isobel Coleman with USAID for your work – decades in this space and holding people accountable on this. Thank you. 


Isobel Coleman Empowering Women
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