Economic Empowerment: Investing in Opportunity

04/07/2015 04:47 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2015


From conversations I have had with people all around the world, what I have come to realize is that we all want the same things: something to believe in, health, prosperity, to belong, and opportunity. And everyone has a story to tell.

I lived and studied in Chile during college, researching for my thesis on post-conflict justice. While there, I worked with a women's cooperative, a group that had come together to heal as a community, create beautiful goods rooted in cultural traditions, and learn business and leadership skills.

I helped the cooperative to create an international market for their "arpilleras," tapestries that depicted the era of dictatorship in Chile. When I brought these arpilleras to the U.S., and shared their story (pre-social media: think actual paper brochures), people were immediately enthusiastic about the designs, the stories behind them, and the chance to support these artists. We sold out on our first day.

A background in innovative approaches to economic development and behavioral economics, international trade law, war crimes, and political reconciliation, and my work as an international human rights attorney with a focus on localized approaches to economic empowerment and new models for improving access to justice, have formed my understanding that we can have a huge impact on people's well-being by supporting their economic agency, so that they can make their own choices about their lives.

That may mean utilizing technology to provide people with increased access to tools, networks, and training; upholding artistic traditions passed down from generations; advocating for policies that support equality, more transparent supply chains, and decreased barriers to entry for entrepreneurs in the developing world; or bringing local goods to global markets so that community members can better afford healthcare and education for their children, so those children can go on to choose among yet more opportunities.

The key to providing opportunity is to support others in their own self-directed empowerment initiatives that are both sustainable and rooted in local communities. This is why I founded Malena, a social enterprise that partners with groups and organizations worldwide to empower people economically. We support these groups and individuals through growing their commercial enterprises, giving them a global market for their goods, and sharing their skills, their craft, and their stories. And we plan to continue to invest in creative ways to support dignity and economic agency in communities worldwide.

Investing in people and their entrepreneurial endeavors, so they can become economically independent, is essential to the implementation of human rights frameworks that can have lasting impact. Thus, we partner with people around the world who have come together, often overcoming enormous odds, to combine traditional techniques with modern designs in innovative ways, using the highest quality, locally sourced materials, while also learning new skills, receiving a fair and sustainable income, and flourishing together as a community.

"International trade is an essential component of an integrated effort to end poverty, ensure food security, and promote economic growth. An ounce of trade can be worth a pound of aid." ~Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General

Empowerment and social justice are about much more than having rights in the abstract, and foreign aid alone is insufficient to address the need people have to feel proud about their work and lives. International norms and development policies must be bolstered by locally built and led solutions that will in turn include a broader base of citizens in the process of development. Some of these people will ultimately have their first and rightful opportunities to add their voices to business, educational, political, and other decisions.

Economic empowerment is the capacity to bring about economic change for oneself, including a fair income and a raised standard of living, which are crucial for diminishing inequality and poverty. I believe that empowerment is about people being able to make their own choices about how they live their lives, using their hard work and creativity in ways that bring them security, self-expression, and joy, on their own terms.

For example, artisans are the keepers and innovators of cultural traditions, and should be able to generate a sustainable income based on their skills. However, in much of the world today, they face extreme barriers to achieving a dignified livelihood: from lack of access to markets, infrastructure and training; to poor working conditions; lack of bargaining power; and lack of knowledge and enforcement of their rights.

However, when these artisans are economically empowered, poverty decreases, their vulnerability to abuse diminishes, they have more resources to provide what their families need, and they have access to better technologies to further enhance their entrepreneurship, leadership, and educational opportunities.

In particular, the research on investing in women across the world demonstrates that these benefits will cross over to their families and their communities, furthering their autonomy. "When women hold assets or gain income, the money is more likely to be spent on nutrition, medicine and housing, and consequently their children are healthier." Thus, the empowerment of women is a crucial element in our collective welfare. In investing in them, the benefits spread to entire communities. This is critical.

"If women everywhere had the power to determine their futures, the world would be forever transformed." ~Melinda Gates

When you get involved with initiatives that provide empowerment, you become part of a chain reaction that reverberates around the world. When you shop at Malena, for example, you help provide our partners with a global platform for their beautiful work, a just and sustainable income, and support for their communities, changing lives worldwide.

"Poverty is a call to action -- for the poor and the wealthy alike -- a call to change the world so that many more may have enough to eat, adequate shelter, access to education and health, protection from violence, and a voice in what happens in their communities." ~World Bank

The most effective way to solve the root causes of poverty and inequality, and to support everyone's right to dignity and agency, is to provide opportunity for everyone, especially those to whom it has historically been denied. When we celebrate people's skills and work, we invest in them, so they can invest in themselves how they so choose. And in investing in them and their work, we are investing in a better future for them, and for everyone.

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Photo by: Betty Krenek