Episode Four - How USAID Supports Women and Girls, and Why We Do It

Monday, March 26, 2018

In Episode Four of USAID Leads, we highlight the recently-launched WomenConnect Challenge with USAID’s Administrator Green and Senior Advisor on Gender Equality Michelle Bekkering. We also feature Neha Misra from Solar Sister, to discuss how young women around the world can feel empowered to start their own business.

Barbara Feinstein: Hello everyone and welcome to the fourth episode of USAID Leads. I'm your guest host Barbara Feinstein, of USAID's Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean. And I'm thrilled to be hosting the fourth episode of the podcast, which is focused on the issue of supporting woman and girls, and why this is so critical to our development objectives.

As usual we'll first hear from Administrator Green on what he's been up to in the last few weeks. We'll then speak with Michelle Bekkering, Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Bureau for Economic Growth, Education and Environment, who also serves as the Agency's Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment.

In addition, we'll hear from Neha Misra from Solar Sister, a women-driven venture supported by USAID. And to wrap up we'll come back to the Administrator with what's around the corner.

Barbara: Administrator Green, thank you so much for joining us once again for the fourth episode of USAID Leads.

Mark Green: Great, good to be with you, can't believe it's [been] four episodes.

Barbara: Pretty incredible. In February you traveled to the UK and Germany for a variety of USAID-related events, can you tell us what some of your key takeaways were?

Mark Green: Sure, first off it was a very productive trip, it was action packed. The first stop in the trip was at the Africa Strategic Integration Conference in Germany, which was a chance to meet with USAID mission teams from Africa and the Middle East, but also their DOD counterparts. I had a chance to share my vision about what we're working on as an Agency with those at DOD who are very supportive, [but] don't get to see it firsthand, so it was a great opportunity to share information, and also to learn about the challenges that they see out in the field.

We had a couple of days in Garmisch, gorgeous setting. It's funny to be talking about places like DRC when you're looking into the German Alps covered in snow, but no I thought it was a very productive session, and learned a lot from the team. Then we traveled to Munich for the Munich Security Conference, actually my third time at the Munich Security Conference, and at the conference I had a chance to participate with the U.S. congressional delegation that Senator Graham led, and also got to attend a number of events, including H.R. McMaster's presentation there.

Probably the t valuable part of the trip though, I had a number of bilateral sessions, which is the real reason that you go to the Munich Security Conference, because a number of governments and high-level officials, and so it was a chance for me for example to meet with the National Security Advisor from Burma and express our grave concerns over the treatment of the Rohingya. I also had the chance to meet with leaders from Kosovo, a number of UN leaders, and so it was a great opportunity to again share what we're working on, but also to learn more about some of the challenges that we all see around the world.

[And] as if that wasn't enough on the trip, we went from Munich to London, where we met with our DFID counterparts. I had a chance to have a great strategic dialogue with Penny Mordaunt, the leader of DFID, and we talked about issues ranging from - tragically, sadly and with some anger - what we've all seen the misconduct allegations, sexual misconduct allegations involving not just Oxfam, but a number of organizations, including the UN family. Penny Mordaunt and I talked about the commitment that each of our agencies have to taking on these challenges, and that's something that we're moving out on.

On a brighter note, we talked about our shared interests, and working on challenges in particular the Sahel region. The Minister and I plan to travel together to the Sahel region at some point hopefully soon, take a look at the programming that each of us is involved in, but also look for ways to better coordinate, so we can advance the goals that we all have: peace, stability, economic growth, youth empowerment in the Sahel region. It was a great trip in a lot of ways, I really feel as though we got a lot done.

Barbara: As we record this Mr. Administrator, people around the world and indeed here at the Agency are celebrating Women's History Month. Just recently on International Women's Day you welcomed Ivanka Trump to USAID headquarters here in the Ronald Reagan Building for an incredible event highlighting our efforts to empower women and girls. Let's listen to a clip.

Ivanka Trump: 1.7 billion women in low and middle income countries still do not own mobile phones. [And] the gap between men and women with access to the internet continues to widen. USAID's newest venture, WomenConnect, takes an innovative approach to bridging the persistent digital gender divide.

Barbara: Can you share with our listeners more about how USAID is tackling the issue of women's economic empowerment?

Mark Green: Yes, well what I mentioned in the event that we did, is we're taking on the challenge of women's empowerment, the lack of women's empowerment in too many parts of the world, for a couple of reasons. Number one, it's the right thing to do. It's a core part of our values, our belief in equal opportunity, but also secondly, it's a smart thing to do from a development perspective. Every study that I've seen comes to the same conclusion: by empowering women, you accelerate a number of development outcomes, health, education, economic empowerment.

[So] that's really how we approach all of this, and what we're in particular interested in 2018 - in terms of new initiatives - is women's gender digital divide. The fact that far fewer women than men have access, even the most basic access, to the digital world, they lack mobile phones, they lack smartphones, and so we launched the WomenConnect Challenge, which is an initiative in which we're reaching out, we're incentivizing ideas, proposals, initiatives, that will help us all take on the digital divide for women.

We launched it on International Women’s Day, but it will be in the coming months working with our partners [on] some of the ideas that are out there, that I think we're going to see some progress. The challenge is a significant one, on the other hand my money is on the young women who have been coming forward showing the possibilities that emerge when women social entrepreneurs have full participation in the digital economy.

Barbara: Thank you so much that for that sir, and for taking the time to speak again with us today. Next we're going to take a deeper dive with our subject matter experts, stay tuned.

Barbara: For our second segment I'm joined by two guests who will help us dive deeper into development activities that support women and girls.

Michelle Bekkering, Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Bureau for Economic Growth, Education and Environment, who also serves as the Agency's Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment is with us. As is Neha Misra, one of the founders of Solar Sister, a woman-run entrepreneurial venture that operates in sub-Saharan Africa, which USAID has supported.

Michelle and Neha, welcome to USAID Leads.

Michelle B.: Great thank you Barbara.

Neha M.: Thank you Barbara and Michelle. It's great to be with you here and to represent [the] whole Solar Sister universe; 3,000 woman strong. So just a bit of background about Solar Sister and why we exist.

We recruit, train and support women as Solar Sister entrepreneurs. Each Solar Sister gets connected to [the] most cutting edge technologies. Whether it's a mobile charging solutions, or mobile lighting solutions. So she, her family, and her community can have access and can really connect and live a more prosperous life.

We also realize that technology itself is just not enough. We need to give women training.

Neha M.: We need to give women digitally-enabled training. Which means training on leadership, training on technology, training on business.

So far with our partnership with the U.S. Government and amongst other fantastic technology companies from [the] U.S. we have built a network of 3,000 Solar Sister entrepreneurs who have reached one million people.

And Solar Sisters are incredible. They are farmers. They are midwives. They are small shop owners. They are really bringing change in the community and the world.

Barbara F.: Wow. That is so inspiring.

Barbara F.: Michelle, we know that women's economic empowerment and equality are important for achieving development results at a national level. Are there critical areas we can address that have impact on more than one sector?

Michelle B.: Again Barbara thanks for having us here today. And I am delighted to be here with Neha, who is just such a pioneer and inspiring leader in this field.

What we're really looking at right now is women's economic empowerment. We see this as not only important but it is critical, as you said, to our development goals. You'll often times hear USAID Administrator Green talking about, "When women do better their countries do better. Their communities do better. And their families do better."

And we realize that this is because women, when they are economically empowered, when they're making money, they're investing it back in their families. And it has multiplier effect. And so we're concentrating our efforts on how we can help them in their goals [to] become entrepreneurs in all these areas.

And one of the specific things we've looked at this month is what role does technology play in women's economic empowerment? And one of the things we've noted is that technology can really help us accelerate our development goals.

It offers [a] lifeline to critical health services. Opportunities for education. Access to finance. Basically services and opportunities that might have once been out of touch for many women.

However, we're concerned. Because when we look at the statistics, when we look at who has access to technology, who benefits from it we actually see a digital gender divide.

I was really blown away by a statistic I heard which is; today 1.7 billion women in low and middle income countries still don't own basic mobile phones.

Michelle B.: And when we actually even look at who's accessing the internet. Women access the internet much less than men. And in fact, that gap continues to increase. So we're concerned about this.

But we also feel positive. We really think that we can use technology to advance gender equality. To advance women's empowerment. But specifically to unlock human potential.

Barbara F.: Michelle, you and Neha participated in an incredible event on International Women's Day. Where Ivanka Trump came to USAID headquarters to help shine a spotlight on a new challenge called WomenConnect. Can you talk about what that event looked like for those who were not able to participate? Give us a sense of what it was like to be in the room?

Michelle B.: It was inspiring. And I'm not sure that's even a strong enough word.

First of all, it was on International Women's Day. And I always like to say in the women's empowerment and equality community that's like our Super Bowl. Like this is the day every year where we come together and we celebrate the achievement of women, of girls. And so just imagine being in this room. You had all of these people from USAID and our colleagues in the U.S. Government. And we were there to celebrate women like Neha, who are making a difference.

One of the things that made it so exciting is that we had Administrator Green and Advisor to the President Ivanka Trump really celebrating this with us. And leading the cause. And really getting us all thinking about what more we could do. And so we had this great opportunity to have women who are leaders in their field. Like Neha and her colleague Esther from Uganda. As well as Ana Maria from Peru.

Women who have actually used technology to transform their communities and countries. And it was a really great setup. So they were all linked in from their home bases via video teleconference. And it gave us an opportunity for Ms. Trump, for Administrator Green, for myself to really ask them the questions.

Barbara: Here's a clip from the event: [ Inserted audio from live event]

Michelle: We are delighted to have you all here today, and to really give us your best practices and your leadership in this subject. So, let me start out, if I may, with this: the theme of today’s discussion is technology and connection. And so, let me ask each of you this question: think about what connection and access means to you. Tell us what it means because you’re connected, what can you do? Ana Maria?

Ana Maria Martinez Franklin Well, because I’m connected, I can learn and support other women to learn.

Michelle: Neha?

Neha Misra: Good morning and happy International Women’s Day. Because I’m connected, I have the power to transform lives in my own hands.

Michelle: Esther?

Esther Karwera: Hi, everyone. Because I’m connected, I can create more digital solutions for women.

Neha: And what was really exciting about the event was, as the WomenConnect Challenge has been launched, really support from the U.S. Government. And not just support, the powerful ecosystem of networks and partners and resources. A small boost can go [a] really really long way. So between all of our work. Even how far we have come so far, that has played a big role. But I'm really excited and hope that the WomenConnect Challenge can bring together people, resources and ideas.

And in a way which is not narrowly looking at let's say connectivity is, "Let's just give everybody a mobile phone." But then we have to think about. Do they have electricity to charge that mobile phone?

Neha M.: Do they have confidence that they can start businesses using mobile tools? Do they feel supported? Do women have other role models? So we have to bring all of these together. And that's what was really fantastic about yesterday's event. To hear remarks by all the panelists and the other speakers who joined me as well. And I hope we can really build on this more.

Barbara F.: So for all of those listening around the world and wondering what they can do to promote women's empowerment. What advice would each of you give them? Is there something that we can all do today?

Michelle B.: Absolutely. And I think the possibilities are actually limitless. I think Neha is such a great ambassador for [the] WomenConnect Challenge. We at USAID recognize that there is, as Neha pointed out, so much untapped potential in the world. There [are] so many ideas that are really yet to be realized.

The idea with WomenConnect is [that] we want solutions. So if you're listening to this podcast and you're thinking, "I know how to bring more women online." Or, "I know how to use technology to provide more opportunities." We want to hear from you. This is an actual active opportunity for you to submit those ideas to us. And we hope to make them a reality.

The second thing I would say is think about young women you know in your life. And think about the role of mentorship. I'm a big believer in mentorship.

It is as simple as mentoring someone you know. If you're in your career find someone who is younger than you and starting out. And maybe they just need some advice.

Neha M.: I really loved what Michelle just said about mentors. I started Solar Sister with one of very dear mentors. And friend and role model, Katherine Lucey. Who came from investment banking background. And Katherine grew up in Atlanta. And I grew up in New Delhi.

So how women from very different worlds can come together. And look at a problem. And see that although our worlds are different, some of the challenges we have faced being the only woman in the room. So really connecting and coming together I just want to emphasize how important mentors are. And to your question what can listening people do?

I would say that women entrepreneurs and changemakers, no matter wherever in the world, you are, we are, not unicorns. We exist. So please, inclusion doesn't happen by accident.

If people are more interested in the WomenConnect Challenge is there a specific place where they can go for more information?

Michelle B.: Absolutely. First of all I would encourage them go right to our website. On the USAID website there is a link to the WomenConnect Challenge. And on there you will find contact information for our project manager. But you can also through that site you can apply, you can send us your ideas. And so we'd love to hear from you.

Barbara F.: Thank you both so much. On behalf USAID and all of our listeners around the World. We found this conversation incredibly inspiring. And thank you for all that you do every day to empower women and girls around the world.

Neha M.: Thank you for having us.

Michelle B.: Thank you Barbara.

Barbara F.: We're back with Administrator Green to hear more about what's around the corner. You've got quite a lot on your plate as usual in the coming months, tell us more.

Mark Green: You're right, we have a lot on our plate, but all good things. First in terms of travels, I'm anticipating attending the Summit of The Americas, being part of the delegation that goes, which will be in Peru. I've never been to Peru, I look forward to that, but it's also a chance to meet with our partners with regard to the very important opportunities that we see in the Western Hemisphere. I place a very high priority in strengthening our assistance programs in Latin America in particular.

First off they're our southern neighbors, but secondly it's a key part of advancing some of the outcomes that we want to see as an Agency. We believe in empowering women, we believe in tackling the problems faced by marginalized communities, and of course those are pressing issues in so many parts of the Western Hemisphere. I'm excited about going there, talking about the great work that our team is already doing, and getting ideas for future programming. I look forward to that trip.

I'm also anticipating going to Asia, I'm very concerned about the plight of the Rohingya and other minorities in Asia. Hopefully soon I'll be going to Burma and Bangladesh. It's very important for the Agency, myself, and others to go and see things firsthand. I get briefings, not that they’re bad briefings, and I get reports, not that they're bad reports, but you really can't replace having a chance to see things for yourself and meet with local leaders from the Agency, but also outside the Agency.

I really want to learn more about the challenges that we're all reading about with respect to Burma, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere in that part of the world. That's also coming up soon, and then there are also some interesting occasions that we'll all be marking. Early this summer is the 70th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, and the Marshall Plan in many ways is really the birth of USAID. We point back to some years later obviously in the Kennedy Administration, but the notion of American leadership at helping other countries to rise and to recover, in the case of the Marshall Plan, of course from the devastation of World War II, that really is what led to USAID.

We plan on taking a very visible role in marking the Marshall Plan, so we have that coming up as well as the 50th anniversary of the Tidewater meeting, which was the big gathering of the Development Advisory Council I believe it's called, ourselves, and our counterparts largely from Europe. We'll be talking about progress that we've all made in the development sector, but also challenges that we see, and looking for ways to better align, better cooperate, and work together to produce good outcomes.

Barbara F.: The last question for this episode comes from one of our colleagues, and it's regarding the budget hearings.

Mark Green: Yes, those are coming up as well.

Barbara F.: [You’re] to testify later this month, and in the month of April. Patrick asks, what you specifically hope to accomplish, and hope to communicate as you testify before Congress at the upcoming budget hearings?

Mark Green: Well I actually do look forward to the budget hearings, that may seem like a strange thing to say. I look forward to meeting with both the authorizing and the appropriating committees that affect USAID in our work, both sides of the House. What I hope to do, is to provide a progress report on the work that we've been doing as an agency since I was last up on the Hill, because I feel very good about the great work that so many of our team members are doing around the world, and it's a chance to talk about that.

Also, some topics that we've covered in these podcasts, the Redesign, our efforts to pull together metrics and guiding our work, that's something that we look forward to talking to. Also, an important part of my role as being a truth teller, so while we are in a budget-constrained environment, and we openly admit that, I think it's very important that policymakers understand the challenges that we see. We see unprecedented humanitarian needs around the world, and so it's important I think to go meet with Republicans and Democrats, listen to their questions, but also to make them aware of the difficult working environment that we face in so many places, the humanitarian needs we see in so many places, and what we believe that we need to effectively fulfill our mission, and to do the great work that they expect of us, and the great work that we want to do.

That's what I hope to do at the sessions, we've been doing some briefings in anticipation, and there is almost universal praise for the caliber of our team, and the work that they're doing. While it has its contentious moments, I really do look at reaching out to Congress as an opportunity to reinforce a very important partnership for us.

Barbara F.: Thank you, and we wish you the best of luck with the budget hearings.

Mark Green: Thank you, I may need it.

Barbara F.: It's important to all of us.

I want to thank you once again for your time and for your insights. If you as listeners would like to suggest a topic for a future podcast, or ask the Administrator a question, we encourage you to visit the MyUSAID Portal, and send us your feedback by adding #USAIDLeads to your post. For those outside of the Agency, please feel free to Tweet us @USAID, or @USAIDMarkGreen.

If you'd like to learn more about the work we do at USAID please visit our website USAID.gov and remember to subscribe to USAID Leads on your favorite podcast app. Leave a review or comment or tell a friend about our new podcast.

Last updated: February 08, 2019

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