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As the World Bank Turns

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Something exciting, almost revolutionary, is happening at one of the most conservative of the world's international institutions. The World Bank, which for decades has been criticized has overly focused on the construction of dams and other infrastructures as the cure for poverty, is turning its focus to the real engine of economic progress in the developing world: girls and women.

The shift from physical capital to human capital has been in the works for several years, but it has accelerated under the leadership of Jim Yong Kim, who became the Bank's president on July 1, 2012. Kim, an anthropologist by training, understands that gender inequality is one of the biggest obstacles, if not the biggest, to improving economic conditions in the world's poorest countries.

Two years ago, prior to Kim's appointment, the World Bank's annual "World Development Report" focused on the promotion of gender equality, describing it as "smart economics," but doubts remained as to whether the Bank was really changing its bricks and mortar orientation. The jury is still out, but the Bank's new concentration on girls and women is gaining critical momentum. And the World Bank Group's Gender and Development team, led by Jeni Klugman, appears to the leading the charge.

Last month, the team released a new report titled, "Voice and Agency: Empowering women and girls for shared prosperity." The report argues, and persuasively so, that investing in gender equality will "yield broad development dividends." Gender equality requires, at a minimum, that women have "voice." By voice, the Bank means "having the capacity to speak up and be heard and being present to shape and share in discussions, discourse, and decisions."

But voice alone is not enough. Women also require "agency," which the Bank describes as, "the capacity to make decisions about one's own life and act on them to achieve a desired outcome, free of violence, retribution, or fear."

While full gender equality requires "agency" at all levels, it's particularly true with respect to childbearing. But girls and women in many of the world's least developed countries have very little "agency" with respect to spacing and limiting their pregnancies. In many male-dominated societies, men, not women, effectively make the childbearing decisions, particularly in rural areas where child marriage practices are still prevalent.

While the United Nations recognizes reproductive freedom as a basic human right, child brides have a hard time exercising that right. In Yemen, Afghanistan and other countries where old tribal traditions still prevail, it is not uncommon for a girl to be married off before reaching puberty. And not infrequently, the husband can be 20 or 30 years older than the girl bride. In such cases, girls have little or no "agency" in determining when they will have a child.

If women in developing countries are to exercise "agency," social norms with respect to child marriage, the education of girls, female ownership of property, and desired family size must change. The Bank takes that challenge seriously. Kim insists that "norms can and do change," and the Bank's report outlines a number of strategies for changing social norms, putting particular emphasis on the role that "information and communication technologies can play in amplifying women's voices."

That is the correct approach. In many parts of the world today, "social content" soap operas are providing positive role models for girls and women and, just as importantly, helping to change the attitudes and behaviors of boys and men towards girls and women. By showcasing what girls and women are capable of in the workforce, and addressing socially harmful practices, like child marriage and female genital cutting, radio soap operas and other entertainment media can change public perceptions as to what is normal and beneficial, and what is not.

Social norms urgently need to change with respect to gender violence. So long as boys and men believe that it is acceptable to inflict sexual violence on girls and young women, very little -- if any -- progress will be made with respect to reproductive choice and the economic empowerment of women.

If social norms can be changed, and if the World Bank takes a leading role in helping to make that possible, the goal of eliminating severe poverty and hunger in the world may yet be realized. When girls receive the same education as boys, the productivity of the country's workforce takes a giant leap forward. When girls and women are able to decide -- free from male dictates or coercion -- the spacing and number of their children, they generally choose to have smaller families. With family planning, maternal and infant mortality decline, child nutrition improves, educational attainment levels rise, and the stage is set for rapid economic advancement. The "demographic dividend," as economists and demographers describe it, is a time-tested development strategy that contributed to the economic breakthroughs achieved by the emerging economies of Asia and Latin America.

There will always be a need and a role for economic infrastructure improvements, but unless the World Bank and the broader international donor community realize the "human capital" potential of girls and women, the economic potential of many developing countries will remain untapped.

The realization of "voice and agency" for girls and women is not just a moral imperative, it's an economic one, and the World Bank, it appears, is taking that imperative seriously.