On International Women's Day, March 8, we celebrated around the world. The conversation turned to all that has been done and all that remains to be done to advance gender equality and women's empowerment. This is a conversation we can and should have -- but we must first recognize that the critical goal of women's empowerment has been given short shrift in terms of what it really accomplishes.
As the founder of FXB, an organization with a 26-year history of successfully disrupting the cycle of extreme poverty in the developing world, my own experience has taught me that by investing in women, we are investing in global peace and security. And, by the same token, our failure to invest in women can have dire consequences for every global citizen -- not just those on faraway continents.
In Africa in the early 1990s, I saw how AIDS was ravaging families, leaving behind millions of orphans who were vulnerable to the ills of society. Young girls and boys, bereft of parents, were subjected to human trafficking, "drafted" as child soldiers and seduced by extremist groups, drug dealers, criminal gangs and worse. The world had largely abandoned these AIDS orphans, and in doing so tragically multiplied the negative effect that this "lost generation" would have on society.
This phenomenon continues today, not only among the ultra-poor in faraway places, but in places like the banlieues of my home city of Paris, where disaffected young men and women with no future are swept into extremism. As one French official said in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, "We need more security and resources to fight terrorism. But we also need to address what it is within our society that is capable of producing monsters."
This brings me back to what women can do for the world, if we would only let them. In my work with AIDS orphans, I soon came to understand that the best way to help these children, and indeed all children living in extreme poverty, was to focus on the women in the community, who were often caring for the orphaned children of relatives and neighbors as well as their own. Thus began the FXBVillage, a three-year program that addresses the five key drivers of poverty eradication: housing, healthcare, education, nutrition and, most importantly, economic empowerment via training in an income-generating activity. By supplying these essential needs to families in extreme poverty -- those who are too poor to even access micro-credit schemes -- we empower families to achieve sustainable health and a brighter future for their children.
To be clear, this is not a charity: It is a carefully calibrated, cost-effective investment that is paying off. Independent external evaluations have shown that, four years after our program, 86 percent of FXBVillage families are able to maintain long-term self-sufficiency, and their children are able to stay in school and succeed.
What would have been the cost to society had those children remained in extreme poverty? A few years ago I decided to explore this question. In partnership with the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, we began an initiative to uncover the "cost of inaction" -- what happens when society fails to aid its most vulnerable members. Harvard assembled a team of top economists and public health researchers, led by Professor Sudhir Anand, to address the complex challenges of enumerating and quantifying the multiple social and economic costs that follow when societies fail its citizens.
The resulting study found that the costs of investing "upstream" in children can be much smaller than investing "downstream," where the effects of the lack of investment can be irreversible or extremely costly to reverse. However, it was also noted that downstream costs -- the costs of inaction -- have less political clout as the benefits are less tangible and are therefore less likely to be taken into consideration for political reasons. In a foreword to the study, Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen urged that the "cost of inaction" analysis be adopted by policymakers, who must set priorities based on an empirical framework.
Which again brings me back to women. I propose that theme of next year's International Women's Day be "Ensuring Global Peace and Security," because this is really the end result of empowering women. A major initiative of that theme would be to demonstrate to governments and policymakers that investments in women - the chief caretakers of children and families - represent the best way to stabilize societies and allow all its citizens to not just survive, but to thrive.
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