At a recent G20 dialogue in Berlin, Angela Merkel unveiled plans for a new fund—spearheaded by Ivanka Trump—to promote women’s entrepreneurship. The fund will be managed by the World Bank and include contributions from governments and businesses. As some of us at CGD proposed last October, the United States and donor partners can do much more to improve economic opportunities for women and girls. Among the different components of women’s economic empowerment, from closing gaps in education and labor force participation to reforming laws, this new fund focuses on one important pillar: increasing women’s access to capital while breaking down other barriers to growing their businesses. Greater support for women entrepreneurs is a potentially welcome move.
But given that President Trump’s draft FY2018 budget proposes major cuts across development accounts, including on spending and activities central to women’s empowerment, there are significant questions to ask about what appears to be a major new development initiative championed by his Administration. Here are four core considerations in determining whether the fund delivers on the promise of empowering women and raising their incomes:
1. Will the fund be combined with, or crowd out, other critical investments that advance gender equality?
As Amanda Glassman and Rachel Silverman recently blogged, the new fund might represent two steps forward, but it could easily mean three steps back for women if donor support for other programs, such as family planning, are cut in the meantime. A well-designed approach to empower women must recognize and incorporate the rich evidence base that supports the connections between economic outcomes for women and investments to improve their health and education, decrease gender-based violence and unpaid care work responsibilities, and promote women’s voice and agency in advocating for their own rights. With Trump’s proposed 30-plus percent cut to USAID and elimination of the budget for the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, it’s difficult to understand how this new fund is part of a coherent strategy to advance women’s empowerment. This is not just an issue for the US: Reportedly, Canada, Germany and a few Middle Eastern countries are planning to contribute. The Trump administration and its fund partners should explain how this fund fits into and complements their broader efforts to empower women.
2. Will the fund’s design and programming rest on the best evidence on what works and what is most cost-effective?
While initial reports suggest the fund will emphasize giving “women in developing countries easier access to loans,” presumably in partnership with the International Finance Corporation (IFC, the World Bank Group’s entity that focuses on crowding in private finance), those designing the fund should take into account evidence on the effectiveness of a range of interventions. Lucky for the fund’s designers, CGD’s Mayra Buvinic and Megan O’Donnell conducted a rigorous review of the evidence on what works to promote women’s economic empowerment. The evidence suggests that access to loans alone is not enough. Women need a range of support including savings, seed and venture capital, training, cash transfers, health and child care, land and property rights, and rural electrification. The fund should operate in partnership with other parts of the World Bank and with US and other development agencies to combine services in a way that ensures real impact on the income of women and their families. The fund should also consider ways to address barriers to women entrepreneurs entering non-traditional sectors like manufacturing and high-value services, and creative solutions to support them, such as giving them advantages in government procurement. The fund should also make significant investments in data and evaluation, including through partnerships with existing efforts like Data2X, to build the evidence base and business case for supporting women entrepreneurs. Indeed, most evaluations of women’s entrepreneurship programs have focused on microentrepreneurs rather than women-owned small and medium enterprises (SMEs), the anticipated beneficiaries of the new fund.
3. Will the fund reach poor women?
Women who own SMEs are not among the poorest segments of the population. Typically, SMEs are defined as companies that have between 10 and 500 employees. There are compelling reasons to support women SME owners: they can contribute more to broader growth and job creation, are more likely to hire other women, and can serve as role models and mentors for poorer and less-empowered women and girls. However, given the stark needs among very poor women, limited budgets, and evidence that supporting them with bundled services (e.g., capital, training, cash grant, access to savings, and health information) can be sustainable and cost-effective—it’s important to ensure that some of the resources of the fund benefit microentrepreneurs who represent the vast majority of women business owners. With the right design, the fund could create positive feedback loops between its SME investments and women microentrepreneurs, for example, by investing in inclusive women’s entrepreneurship networks, helping women make the transition from micro to small businesses, and supporting women-owned SMEs to source from women microentrepreneurs. And policies and platforms that help SME owners access financial services, such as mobile platforms and e-invoicing, should be designed and extended to reach microentrepreneurs.
4. Will there be a robust consultative process and governance structure that balances stakeholder voices?
The design of the fund is in its early phases and would benefit from transparent and robust consultation with a range of policymakers, experts, representatives from the private sector and civil society, and women entrepreneurs themselves. There isn’t much time between now and the G20 Summit in early July, when we expect to hear more about the fund, but it would benefit from critical information and improved credibility by setting a schedule for public input and consultation. These consultations should begin as soon as possible and extend past the high-level ceremonies through the detailed program design process. One issue that will likely be determined sooner rather than later is the governance of the fund. Building on the model of the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, another fund managed by the World Bank, Steering Committee membership would benefit from diverse representation, including from recipient (not only donor) countries and civil society organizations (CSOs), such as those that work closely with and/or represent women entrepreneurs. Given the focus of the fund and evidence on the benefits of diversity in leadership, the World Bank can break new ground by considering gender balance in representation at Steering Committee meetings and also evaluating the possibility of CSOs serving as voting members, rather than non-voting ones as in the past. The fund should also be designed to coordinate with and complement existing offices and programs, such as the Women’s Entrepreneurship Opportunity Facility, launched as a $600 million partnership between the IFC and Goldman Sachs.
As Ivanka Trump and Jim Kim recently wrote, women are “an untapped source of growth” and “supporting women’s economic participation has enormous dividends for families, communities, and whole economies.” This new fund can advance this vision, but only if it seriously considers and affirmatively answers these four questions. Hopefully, the fund is an important step forward that world leaders follow by dedicating new resources and energy not only to women’s entrepreneurship, but the full range of investments needed to empower women as equal partners in accelerating growth and reducing poverty.