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Entrepreneurship: One Answer to Poverty

Author: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Senior Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy
February 19, 2013
Huffington Post

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In his State of the Union address President Barack Obama placed a spotlight on global poverty and the 1.2 billion people on the planet who stay alive on around $1 per day.

"Progress in the most impoverished parts of our world enriches us all," the president said. "So the United States will join with our allies to eradicate such extreme poverty in the next two decades: by connecting more people to the global economy and empowering women; by giving our young and brightest minds new opportunities to serve and helping communities to feed, power, and educate themselves; by saving the world's children from preventable deaths; and by realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation."

One solution that works and went unmentioned merits a moment in the spotlight: Entrepreneurship. All around the world, and in the countries and provinces and neighborhoods held captive by some of the most entrenched and toughest to battle poverty, women and men turn to business to feed their families. These range from banana and potato chip companies in Liberia to logistics companies in Afghanistan and food markets in Pakistan. In the process many are doing much more than surviving. They are transforming subsistence into consistent income and nourishing their families and educating their children, cousins, nieces and nephews on their earnings.

Often entrepreneurship remains forgotten on the list of leading answers to poverty by those who run programs aimed at helping the poor. This is not because they do not want to help, but because all too often small business owners either remain invisible or uncounted. And that is even more the case when it comes to women. As I argued in a TED talk on women entrepreneurs, we don't count what we don't see and we don't invest in what is invisible.

This is changing, with programs from corporate sponsors such as Coca Cola, Dell, Exxon Mobil and Goldman Sachs helping to encourage and train women entrepreneurs, and the work of non-governmental organizations such as Oxfam, which has launched an investment fund aimed at bolstering banks' small business lending. Other NGOs, such as the Business Council for Peace andThe Institute for the Economic Empowerment of Women, along with the Cherie Blair Foundation, focus on one-on-one mentoring in some of the toughest economies, with the Cherie Blair Foundation focused on the unique role of technology in boosting women-owned business.

US Agency for International Development head Raj Shah noted in a recent blog post that "85% of global poverty is now concentrated in the following countries: India and China (combined 618 million people or 48% of the total), Nigeria, Bangladesh, DRC, Indonesia, Pakistan, Tanzania, Philippines, and Kenya."

In Nigeria, along with its West African neighbor Ghana, women are now starting businesses in greater numbers than men. In fact, in much of Sub-Sahara Africa, entrepreneurship levels among men and women were "almost equal," noted the recently published 2012 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor.

The benefits to communities in which women start and run businesses are plentiful. When women have income coming in research shows that the entire family benefits in the form of better nutrition and health. More money also means that parents must no longer face a choice between paying a son's or a daughter's school fees -- a contest which the daughter usually loses - since there is enough money for both boys and girls to be in the classroom. And as plentiful research and a powerful new film, "Girl Rising," point out, girls' education is among the most potent poverty fighters in the world.

Challenges facing women entrepreneurs abound: the three largest are access to finance, access to markets and access to skills-building and networks. Together, the private and public sector are working to fill some of these gaps. The biggest unsolved piece of the puzzle remains access to finance -- fertile territory for innovation.

So file "entrepreneurship" in the category of what works when it comes to the poor lifting themselves out of poverty. The innovation gap that remains, particularly on the question of access to funding, is one that requires creativity, an embrace of risk and, most importantly, determination.

The payoffs, in the form of less poverty, more jobs and greater growth, will benefit us all.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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