More power to your grannies

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If you want a solar engineer, get a granny. That was the message of Sanjit “Bunker” Roy, founder of India’s Barefoot College at a session on women’s economic empowerment at the OECD’s 50th Anniversary Forum.

Mr. Roy explained that there was little benefit in training men from rural villages — “men are untrainable, they are restless and compulsively mobile,” he said. “There’s no point in training them, because when they get a certificate they leave the village.” So, his Barefoot College instead trains grandmothers – women who have usually never left their home village and have little wish to do so. “Grandmothers come screaming onto the plane,” he told the audience, “they hate leaving their lives behind.”

But if the journey is painful, it’s also worthwhile, especially for the home villages of the women. As Mr. Roy explained, the college has trained hundreds of women from India and further afield, including 200 women from across Africa. “Through sign language, not through the written word, we trained these women to be solar engineers,” he said.

Once they return home, they’re keen to pass on their knowledge – another characteristic that distinguishes them from the male counterparts: “If you train a man, he doesn’t want to pass on his knowledge for fear of losing his job,” said Mr. Roy. For the village, electricity can be transformative. Solar lamps mean there’s light for midwives when they’re delivering babies. Access to power also means there’s more for people to do once night falls, which helps cut down the birth rate

Mr. Roy’s reflections were just part of a fascinating discussion on empowering women, and the impact that has more widely for societies. Melanne S. Verveer, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, argued that there was no better way to drive economic growth than women’s economic empowerment. “Women who run small and mediums enterprises are growth accelerators,” she said.

From North Africa, Nizar Baraka, a minister from the Moroccan government, said events in the region this year showed there was a real demand for recognition of people’s dignity – and, “in order to have dignity we need gender equality”. That meant ensuring women had access to employment, he said, and the opportunities to create their own enterprises. In the Middle East and North African region, he said, women accounted for only about 10% of entrepreneurs, compared with 30% in OECD countries. But, he said, progress was being made, with the creation of a range of “incubators” and mentoring programmes to encourage women to set up their own businesses.

Useful links

OECD Gender Initiative

OECD Week 2011: Better Policies for Better Lives

Welcome to OECD Week. We start our coverage with this message from OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. The key themes this year include how to measure progress; new sources of growth, notably green growth; and a new paradigm for development; and gender.

The OECD was created to foster international co-operation. Article 1 of our founding Convention states that our role is “to promote policies designed to achieve the highest sustainable economic growth and employment and a rising standard of living” in member countries, partner countries and on a global scale.

The OECD is marking its 50th anniversary at a time when international co-operation is more essential than ever. The list of global challenges requiring co-ordinated policy action is getting longer, and in most cases, this action is becoming more urgent. This means that the inspiring vision of our founding parents is still relevant and will continue to serve as the guiding principle for our work. Much remains to be done to achieve a cleaner, stronger and fairer world.

 Take climate change. We need to make growth greener, to make our economic and environmental policies more compatible and even mutually-reinforcing. This is not just a matter of new technologies or new sources of renewable, safe energy. It is about how we all behave every day of our lives, what we eat, what we drink, what we recycle, re-use, repair, how we produce and how we consume.

There are other common challenges. The world economy is recovering from its worst crisis in modern times, but this recovery remains tentative. With budgets stretched, governments can no longer spend their way into recovery. They need to implement structural reforms and to find new sources of growth. They need to make the public sector more efficient and they need to ensure that the private sector is more competitive. They need to fight corruption, promote ethic behaviour and restore trust in institutions.

Last but not least, the social dimension. The human and social costs of this crisis are still being felt across the globe. Unemployment, especially among the youth, remains high. Poverty, hunger and preventable diseases still affect millions of people in developing countries. Solving these challenges requires well designed social and employment policies, efficient public services and investment in health and education. Promoting development requires international solidarity, effective and well-coordinated assistance, and a cross-cutting, integrated approach to build institutional capacity and mobilise domestic resources.

The OECD can and should play a major role in addressing all of these challenges. It is an institution with one of the most advanced forms of co-operation and engagement. It has expertise in a broad range of economic, social and environmental policies. Its work involves many stakeholders – government, business, trade unions, civil society and academia.  Its working methods help ensure that the necessary “horizontal” exchange of ideas takes place across policy domains.

As a result, the OECD is a major source of cross-cutting, evidence-based advice for governments and a standard setter to facilitate and galvanise action. It is a forum where policy makers can learn from each other, where best practices can be identified and disseminated, and a place where authorities can get the support of peers to help implement domestic reforms.

These assets will continue to serve the international policy community well for years to come, but the Organisation still needs have to adapt and change. We are witnessing a revolution in the way the world is governed and the only way to remain relevant in the next 50 years is to continue to deliver high quality and substantive contributions to global debates, incorporating the perspectives of countries which are key for this new global governance, but which are not yet Members of the OECD.

The OECD 50th Anniversary Week is a unique opportunity to think collectively about how to best achieve the vision of our founding parents. Achieving better policies for better lives is a journey, not a destination.

The OECD is ready to embark with you in that journey, armed with our foundational values: openness, objectivity, boldness, pioneering spirit and sound ethics.

I look forward to working with you to establish the roadmap for this journey.

How to avoid a jobless recovery

Jobs – or the lack of them – are on attendees’ minds at an OECD Forum session entitled, “How to avoid a jobless recovery”. As moderator Chris Giles, economics editor of the Financial Times, points out, the economic recovery following the recession has yet to be matched by a fall in unemployment (which the OECD projects will peak at about 8½% this year). Concern over unemployment comes against a backdrop of increasing pressure to cut state spending, which many fear could impede efforts to cut joblessness.

And it isn’t simply joblessness that’s a concern, but also long-term and structural unemployment, says Richard Trumka, President of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). He believes workers in the United States are “angry, anxious and going through tremendous amounts of pain”, and warns that headline economic figures don’t really reflect the experience of workers. “All the GDP in the world doesn’t mean there’s a recovery. Until people are back in work, they won’t believe in a recovery.”

The jobs crisis is being felt particularly by young people, according to Luca Scarpiello, a board member of the European Youth Forum. He’s been responding to a question about fears of the crisis creating a “lost generation” of young people who suffer permanently reduced job prospects. For young people, he says, that would mean experiencing unemployment as a structural part of their lives, and relying on short-term labour contracts that offer little in the way of training or skills development. The risk of a lost generation also represents a tremendous potential waste of human capital – after all, he says, “we are the most trained generation in history”.

So, what to do? Panellists are discussing ways in which government policies could tackle unemployment – and the risk that cuts in government spending could actually make things worse. The big run-up in government spending during the crisis has raised deficits and public debts, and there’s intense pressure for governments to get their financial houses back in order. That probably means spending cuts.

But as Pier Carlo Padoan, the OECD’s Chief Economist, has pointed out, we must make the right cuts: In some cases, it might even be a good idea to raise spending – especially in growth-friendly areas like R&D and education. But, considering the still-fragile state of OECD economies, is it too soon to be talking about fiscal consolidation? The noted British economist, Robert Skidelsky, has sounded a warning note. “Many economies are on a life-support system,” he says. “Economic output would be reduced if support was turned off.” And, responding to a question from the floor, he’s also queried the benefits of cutting public jobs: “I am always amused by those who prefer the total waste of unemployment to the partial waste of a large public bureaucracy.”

Nevertheless, as announcements from several governments in Europe this week have underlined, consolidation now seems to be the order of the day. But, as Chris Giles has reminded governments in his summing up, that needs to be balanced with a determined effort to cut unemployment.