Why the world’s poorest women must be our priority

Melinda Gates: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 18 December 2018:

Here’s the good news: Since 2000, more than a billion people around the world have lifted themselves out of extreme poverty. It’s a stunning statistic—and proof that progress is possible.

Even so, we can’t take continued progress for granted. In fact, the evidence suggests we are now at a point where the number of poor people may begin to rise instead of fall.

Changing this trajectory won’t be easy. Most people who have yet to overcome extreme poverty are concentrated in a few countries in sub-Saharan Africa—places where climate change, violent conflict, and instability rob people of opportunity.

These countries also tend to be places with extraordinarily young populations. Sub-Saharan Africa’s youth population is projected to go up by 50 percent in the next 30 years.

We can’t always change the circumstances a child is born into, but we can invest in that child’s potential to thrive in spite of them by investing in their health and education.

Economists call health and education “human capital,” because they’re proven to be the twin engines of economic growth. Multiplied across millions of people, improved health and education can put entire countries on a path out of poverty—as we’ve seen in places like Vietnam and South Korea.

Studies show that if sub-Saharan Africa invests more in clinics, schools, hospitals, and colleges then the region could nearly double the size of its economy by 2050.

Investing in health and education may sound obvious, but it doesn’t always top a government’s list of priorities. Policymakers in charge of budgets often dedicate resources toward investments that provide immediate returns—like bridges and roads.

The economic lift from human capital investments comes decades later and can be harder to see. As a result, the world keeps missing opportunities to get better.

When I talk to finance ministers around the world, I make an evidence-backed case that investing in health and education is key to unlocking a country’s long-term productivity. And when I’m asked how to make this happen, I tell them these investments should focus on women and girls specifically, because healthy, economically empowered women are some of development’s best allies.

Here’s why. While health is important for everyone, a woman’s health is also inextricably linked to the health of the next generation. And while economic empowerment is important for everyone, the evidence suggests that when a woman has cash in her hand and decision-making power over how to spend it, she spends that money on different things than a man would.

Specifically, she spends more on her children’s health and education. In a household like hers, “human capital” isn’t an abstract concept; it’s the best way to position a child to break the cycle of poverty. For that reason, investing in women means investing in the people who invest in everyone else.

“…investing in women means investing in the people who invest in everyone else.”

When I travel for our foundation, I meet so many women and girls who believe that a better future is possible and that they can play a role in building that future. They also tell me that in order to activate this virtuous cycle, they first need safe, reliable access to the tools and information that will allow them to plan and space their pregnancies.

When women get pregnant too young, too old, or too often, the results can be deadly—for them and their children.

When they are able to space their pregnancies and plan them around their goals for themselves and their families, they are better positioned to finish their education, earn an income, and set their children down the path toward healthy, productive lives.

The women and girls who live in the world’s poorest places aren’t necessarily waking up every day thinking about global poverty rates. But they are thinking about actions they can take to make life better for themselves and their family. If the number of people trapped in poverty continues to decline, these women will be a big reason why.

That’s why the world needs to make them a priority in 2019.

About Melinda Gates

Melinda Gates is Co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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