Opinion: 3 takeaways from the International Women's Forum

A view of the “Solve Problems: Shape Opportunities” panel session at the International Women’s Conference in Stockholm, Sweden. Photo by: Swedfund

Last year in Tel Aviv, Shimon Peres opened the International Women’s Conference with the following words: “We must be dissatisfied with what is but remain visionary about what can be.” His statement continued to resonate when more than 700 global women leaders gathered in Stockholm last month for the 2017 International Women’s Conference to examine sustainability, migration, populism and technology — with emphasis on how these issues play out in the emerging markets.

The conversations that took place between global leaders such as Swedish Minister for the Environment Karolina Skog and #BringBackOurGirls Co-Convener Oby Ezekwesili focused not just on what is, but what could be possible.

Leaders attending gatherings like the one in Stockholm, or annually in Davos, must realize these issues and topics are more than lofty discussions; they require real and continuous action. Change comes from unlikely champions who are willing to forge partnerships across sectors and cultures. It was in this spirit that much of the conference focused on the value of strategic partnerships.

Here are the takeaways.

1. Partnering across sectors creates success.

During a panel discussion on the role of private capital in developing economies, Swedfund Managing Director Anna Ryott made a statement that became the overarching call to action on global issues: “Partnership is the new leadership.”

Collaboration among diverse partners will bring creative solutions to well-established problems — whether it be improved microenterprise, infrastructure and telecommunications, or increased access to financial services, lending and education. International expertise and funds must be paired with local knowledge and know-how.

Swedfund uses partnerships with Swedish companies to channel millions of dollars into the developing world while also opening new opportunities for those companies. In Ethiopia, Swedfund brought together the Swedish government, clothing retailer H&M and the industrial group DBL to create a textile factory that will focus on employing women. The factory will be co-financed by Swedfund and DBL, while H&M has agreed to lend manufacturing expertise and purchase garments produced by the plant. In total, this unique partnership will create 4,000 formal-sector jobs.

Swedfund’s manufacturing projects are evidence that innovative partnerships are more often than not the fuel behind successful outcomes. It is a symbiotic relationship that leverages and enhances the vast potential of developing markets. The World Bank Group commissioned a study to analyze the success rate of International Finance Corporation investments, Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency guarantee projects, and World Bank loans given to public-private partnerships over a decade (FY02 – FY12). Their evaluations included data collection at the time of operational maturity and at project completion, more than two-thirds of the PPPs reviewed had positive development outcomes and 83 percent of the IFC’s investments were rated satisfactory or better.

2. Feminist policies at the top create a gender-equal future

In his keynote address, Jan Eliasson, former deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, spoke of the potential of women in the developing world. “[Women’s leadership] is a great thing for all of us — men and women. I know from working for peace and working for development and human rights that if women are around the table, and in the field, things will go so much better.”  

Research shows that when women are included in discussions and in leadership roles, a greater likelihood for success exists. An example from the corporate sector illustrates this: According to an MSCI study that analyzed more than 4,000 firms, strong female leadership results, on average, in a return on equity of 10.1 percent versus a 7.4 percent for firms that lack female leaders.

Sweden is an ideal example of the benefits of empowering women leaders: 50 percent of Swedish cabinet members and 44 percent of members of parliament are women. Sweden has a stated feminist foreign policy, which is reflected in how it approaches its engagement beyond its borders — particularly in its strategy for deploying foreign aid and investment in emerging markets.

In 2003, the Rwandan government passed a quota system for its national parliament, mandating that 30 percent of parliamentary seats be reserved for women. In following elections, women have continuously found an increased voice in government. In the most recent elections, women gained control of 64 percent of the House of Deputies. Since this quota system has been implemented — and women’s voices have been magnified — the national GDP has quadrupled, the average life expectancy has increased by over 12 years, and the overall enrollment ratio for primary school children has increased.

France is another example of a government taking action at the sovereign level to increase women’s access to representation. Under a law enacted in 2002, political parties must endorse an equal number of male and female candidates. Earlier this month, France elected a record number of women to its parliament — 229 members, equaling 38.6 percent.

For our female leaders to be empowered and system-wide change to take place, it is critical that countries embrace pro-feminist policies. The success of deliberate policies, like those in place in Sweden, Rwanda and France, prove that when women lead, societies thrive.

3. ‘Bank-shots’ create the best solutions

When partnerships are formed to fight significant institutional problems, indirect benefits often occur. In international development, as in basketball or billiards, sometimes the most effective tactic is a “bank-shot.” For example, there are many cultural, economic and governmental challenges to keeping girls in school, and many interventions have been structured to address these macro issues head on. But a bank-shot has changed the landscape dramatically.

Connie Collingsworth, chief business operations officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, spoke in Stockholm about the indirect benefits of Family Planning 2020, the global partnership designed to increase access to contraceptives and provide reproductive control to women in the developing world. Collingsworth pointed out that the indirect result of a program focused on women’s health has in fact been a bank-shot for improving women’s education. When a woman has more control over the number of children in her family, girls are more likely to be sent to school. When that control is taken away from the woman, education resources must be divided among many children — and girls are the ones who suffer. When girls suffer, the developing world takes a hit. Research shows, when girls don’t persist past middle school, infant mortality rates increase, early marriage is more likely, and it’s less likely that a girl will work outside the home as she ages.

Like Swedfund’s innovative partnership employing women in the Global South, FP2020 works with governments, civil society, the private sector and the development community. These partnerships are the future of business in emerging markets. They aren’t just the right thing to do, they are also the smart thing to do. By having women at the table, forging partnerships across sectors and taking advantage of the bank-shots, progress will continue to expand.

IWF has challenged our 6,500 members around the world to use their resources and collective influence to take advantage of these three lessons and lead change. While thought-leadership and discourse take place on a global scale, leaders must act both collaboratively and locally.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Stephanie Mathews O'Keefe

    Stephanie Mathews O'Keefe was appointed chief executive officer of the International Women's Forum in September 2016. Her career has spanned the private sector, government and nonprofit organizations where she has held senior leadership positions for over two decades. Most recently, she served as the chief communications officer for CTIA, the telecom trade association and as executive vice president for communications at the American Bankers Association.