Economic Empowerment

“Your education is the only wealth you can carry with you throughout your life”, (Dr. Song Pok-Shyn)

In the midst of the Watergate scandal, the anonymous source Deep Throat urged Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post, to forget all the other distractions and “follow the money.” They took the advice, and it ultimately led them to unravel the political intrigue behind Watergate.

What was true for the young media watchdogs is equally relevant to other political situations. Resolutions and campaign promises aside, the real story of the politics of development is where the money is coming from, where it is going, and what it is supposed to achieve. For poor, rural women and girls, the burden of missteps falls on them the hardest. Ask any girls in a mountainous Nepalese village if she has seen UN funds, and she is likely to respond with puzzled looks.

At the annual UN High-level Political Forum, the hope that the private sector would kick in additional resources to make up for shrinking government spending hasn’t been realized yet. The trends in the UN budget crisis are not encouraging. Many women were shocked to learn that the promise of additional resources at the Fourth World Conference on Women was followed only six months later by drastic cuts in the UN’s budget for women’s programs.

The question remains: does any money reach those who need it? If not, why not?

Here are some answers. At the level of international assistance, high-level corruption may result in goods being siphoned off to private warehouses and cash being spirited away to Swiss bank accounts. However, fraud and mismanagement ultimately bite the hands that feed them. Isolationists and conservatives can cite them as reasons for not giving taxpayers’ money to the UN. Similarly, the abuse of public funds supports arguments for a turn to privatization. However, the private sector seldom shows an inclination to help the poorest of the poor. As a result, the flow of money slows to a trickle, and the oil fields of international funding dry up.

The little public money available is often channeled indiscriminately at the national level. Grants are given to small town and village development projects for political reasons and without regard to who is really controlling the funds. In community and household-based data, gross averages hide income disparities within communities. The money flows to the well-organized or well-connected, not necessarily where it is needed the most. Women’s groups are no exception. In more than a few countries, elite women also monopolize access to critical resources.

Does the money have a positive effect? It often depends on the structure of how funds are allocated. A classic example concerns how national health programs were designed to reduce maternal mortality. A ministry of health decides to make maternal mortality a high priority. However, rather than fund programs that could have a positive impact on poor, rural women and girls, local politics sways the health department to build expensive, high-tech health centers in the capital. If there are funds left over, a new machine is purchased. In this scenario, everyone is happy. The politicians get their pictures in the paper at the ribbon-cutting. A few well-to-do patients get access to modern medicine. However, the health prospects of most mothers aren’t changed at all. There is simply no money left over to provide supplies to provincial hospitals or to establish community emergency transport for villagers.

Financing for development is a feminist issue. The current trends show that gender-blind economic policies continue to undervalue women’s unpaid work. One solution would be to demand that governments make their accounts public for all to scrutinize. If we are to be serious at the UN, we need to address the issue of money from the very beginning. In the midst of all the distractions and rhetoric of sustainable development debates, there must be straight talk about cash and how we can be more accountable for its uses.