We-Fi garnered much praise at the G20, including from world leaders such as Canada’s Justin Trudeau, Japan’s Shinzo Abe and Germany’s Angela Merkel, as well as World Bank President Jim Yong Kim.
However, it is critical to consider We-Fi in greater depth. Is the initiative just for show, or can We-Fi make a tangible difference in female empowerment in developing countries?
We-Fi targets a real global challenge of enabling women to access financing for their businesses. Less than one-third of businesses worldwide are owned by women, and in the developing world about 70% of women-owned small and medium enterprises cannot access adequate or any finance for their businesses.
Yet this is also not the first time the World Bank has launched a female economic empowerment initiative. The past decades have witnessed a plethora of projects in developing countries, often with underwhelming results. Part of the problem with these is their adherence to the doctrine of 'Smart Economics'. First coined in the World Bank’s 2007-2010 Gender Action Plan, 'Smart Economics' makes the business case that including more women in the economy boosts productivity and growth. More employed women leads to a higher demographic dividend, and women naturally make more sensible economic decisions, the argument goes.
While this sounds good in principle, it has raised red flags over what is felt to be commodification of women, with empowerment viewed primarily as a means for growth rather than a goal in its own right. This simplification has led to a neglect of the structural issues underpinning gender inequality, such as legal restrictions in some developing countries preventing women from owning property, accessing credit and holding political positions; little female say in community/household decisions; and internalised disempowerment at an individual level. When these are not tackled alongside providing funds and training, the impact of financial interventions cannot be realised.
The World Bank has begun to distance itself from pure 'Smart Economics,' and We-Fi represents a positive step towards including country-level public interventions alongside private/financial interventions.
But the rhetoric thus far around We-Fi, which still seems to focus on the provision of finance as an easy panacea, is concerning. For example, Kim’s recent comments that 'empowering women economically is a moral issue, but it’s also a critical economic issue' still appear to couch issues of rights and morality very closely with economic instrumentalism.
If We-Fi is to be a truly impactful empowerment initiative, there are several important points that its architects and implementers should consider. It is important to recognise that simple inclusion of women in the economy through providing financial resources will not target the root cause of financial disempowerment. In reality, women are included in the economy and contribute much labour and time in the home and through other informal activity which goes unpaid or underpaid. Even if more resources are freed up for women entrepreneurs, women are still expected to shoulder these burdens.
While women are pigeonholed as self-sacrificing and thus able to take on these additional demands, it is important to fight these stereotypes to bring about real justice and provide women with greater economic, political and social freedoms.
For example, many initiatives that give women access to finance are based on the premise that women are better at paying back loans because of their selflessness. This detracts from the case for independent and self-serving women, qualities which contribute to business success. It is important that initiatives such as We-Fi detach themselves from these narratives.
We-Fi should devote significantly more resources to the legal and social aspects of its gender equality initiatives, including policy support accompanied by gender education workshops and programmes. It also must include persistent follow-through on community understanding and domestication.
Local men must be encouraged to play active roles to counteract culturally-based patriarchy. Such efforts towards equality and justice will not immediately bring the same cost-reduction effects as pure economic interventions. It won’t be quick and easy, but it will lead to lasting gains in female empowerment.
We-Fi’s initial undertaking to include structural and policy-related gender issues is encouraging, but the extent to which it follows through on these principles will only be known after We-Fi begins its rollout in October.