September 22, Members Day of the annual 2014 SEEP Conference, marked the launch of the SEEP Network’s Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE) Working Group.
Throughout my career with Chemonics, I have spent the majority of my time focusing on issues surrounding women’s access to capital, business development services and SME development, particularly in conflict zones such as Afghanistan. Often when I would return from trips to the field, I would reflect on a key takeaway—when women business owners can come together and collaborate, they are stronger than ever.
Unfortunately, this is not something that happens often. But why not? Is it because of the fear of sharing information can take away from their competitive advantage? Is it a common mistrust that exists among peers? Is the business enabling environment so unstable that holding your cards close to your chest is the only option? Oddly enough, these are some of the same questions and challenges implementers face when sharing best practices and lessons learned. Just as I observed with Afghan women business owners, the opportunity to come together freely to share, learn, and grow as development professionals holds great value, if only we had the opportunity.
The SEEP Network’s Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE) working group is allowing us to do just that, to practice what we preach when we travel to the field to support women and encourage practitioners to use each other as resources when growing their businesses or looking for opportunities to further themselves in their economies.
SEEP is well known for their knowledge sharing, networking, and creation of innovative approaches to development issues around the world. SEEP members facilitate working groups based on key trends in economic development with a focus to conduct research, form a consensus on what practices or tools are needed, and develop learning products such as analytical tools, case studies, papers, and workshops to disseminate their findings. The creation of the Women’s Economic Empowerment working group is an encouraging validation that the subject area of women’s economic empowerment is a growing priority in the development of economies.
A Promising Start
The session started off with several statistics highlighting the gravity of this issue, bringing to light the fact that this group was created by a demand from not only practitioners in the industry wanting to learn more about this subject area, but women around the world who have been denied opportunities to be economically empowered. One example is that women account for 58 percent of unpaid employment. This statistic alone highlights the unrelenting need for assistance to support women in entering the formal economy.
Collaboration and Learning Are Key
But how and what can this working group to do support women? The answer is collaboration and learning. The working group filled a room with roughly 30 attendees from various implementing partners, donors, and NGOs to come together and prioritize what the most impactful initiatives would be to get the working group off the ground in its first year. The group started with a discussion around what resources currently exist in this arena, notably the Gender Action Learning System, GSMA study “Unlocking the Potential: Women and Mobile Financial Services in Emerging Markets,” and the Greater Access to Trade Expansion (GATE) Projects, “Gender and Value Chain Assessment.” Beyond sharing resources more openly and frequently, the working group highlighted the need for practitioners to better understand that each country will call for their own interventions and this issue will not have a “one size fits all” solution. Information sharing and breaking down cultural context are only small parts of the foundation for this group. As the priorities are being finalized for this first year, what is certain is that each activity will focus on continuing to push women’s economic empowerment to the forefront of the development agenda.
As a development professional with a passion and drive to further economically empower women around the world, the opportunity to have a forum where like-minded practitioners can come together and work to address this issue is an incredible opportunity. There is something to the saying “there is power in numbers,” and this issue is certainly no exception; whether it is bringing women business owners together for a focus group in Kabul to address barriers to entry in markets or development professionals right here in D.C. to highlight best practices and lessons learned in economically advancing women, bringing people together, leads to impact. Collaboration is and will continue to be a key component for sustainable change for women’s economic empowerment around the world.