Republic of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President speaks at a seminar titled "Women in the Private Sector: Good for Development and Business" – Photo by Zofeen Ebrahim for Dawn.com
President of the Republic of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf speaks at a seminar titled "Women in the Private Sector: Good for Development and Business" – Photo by Zofeen Ebrahim for Dawn.com

It makes smart economic sense to invest in women entrepreneurs to end poverty. This remained the underlying theme in the 2012 World Bank-International Monetary Fund(WB-IMF) Annual Meetings held at the Tokyo International Forum between October 10-14. It was reiterated over and over by the WB support staff and media team wearing black t-shirts reading “end poverty.” The president of the WB too, promised that this would be “central to the debate.”

“Gender equality is smart economics,” Caroline Anstey, managing director of the World Bank group, pointed out. “Under-investing in women not only limits economic and social development, but puts a brake on poverty reduction.”

Would it mean lifting the thousands of women and their families – making hundreds of incense sticks or agar battis, rolling biris, cleaning shrimps or even working in garment factories that are nothing more than sweatshops – out of poverty? Would it help in sending their daughters to schools, put a brake on child marriage?

It just may. It may even give women a chance to have control over their bodies and make decisions. The opportunities women would get, if economically empowered are limitless.

According to the WB, 22 per cent of Pakistani females over the age of 10 now work, up from 14 per cent a decade ago, government statistics show. The Pakistan Labour Force Survey of 2007-8, showed that women formed 73 per cent of the workforce in the informal sector outside agriculture.

At the discussion of Women in Private Sector: Good Development and Business which explored challenges that women entrepreneurs faced, Liberain President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf talked about key strategies to adopt, taking “innovative and bold actions” and “risks” on women to “increase their participation” in economy. She called women’s economy the “new emerging market”.

The 74-year old Nobel laureate emphasised on women to take on key leadership positions on company boards as well as government to bring about effective change and smooth out the frustrations of women entrepreneurs in the developing world face including not being able to get loans for business expansion even if they have sound business plans and ever-growing clientele.

The change, however, seems to be coming if you ask Larke Riemer, director of the Women’s Markets for Australia’s Westpac Banking Corp. Terming the young women entrepreneur the “sleeping giantess” she said she was waking up and now “demanding to be noticed”.

Walking past the tree-lined streets around Hibiya district, hundreds of young volunteers in red, and past the high-rises, plush fashion stores and cafes named in English, one fails to get a sense of global economic crises. Even the weather is perfect to put one at ease.

But prod deeper and within Japan there are signs that everything is not alright. Worries of joblessness among the youth and the huge demographic challenge of aging is gnawing at the edges.

Held in Washington every two years but every alternative year in a developing country – Bangkok, Istanbul, New Delhi have had their shares –this year the IMF/WB annual meetings were to be held in Egypt, but the political instability led to shifting the venue to Tokyo.

Last week, Tokyo took on a whole new hue as 22,000 delegates from 188 countries moved about in all their cultural fineries. But there seemed to be little frustration. “We are perfect organisers; we take pride in hosting such events and a lot of emphasis is put on ensuring smooth running of the show,” said a young Japanese on the road, when stopped randomly.

Sixty years ago, Japan was World Bank (WB) borrower, said its president. Today, it’s the third biggest donor to the the Bank itself which helped build the first Bullet train.

Not even the absence of China from these meetings seemed to have affected it, at least not outwardly. But Christine Lagarde could not help add, during a press conference early today that the Chinese officials who cancelled their trip to Tokyo amid a territorial dispute with host Japan would “lose out” by not attending a “great meeting”. She said: “We have a lot of substantive issues to discuss.”

The author is a freelance journalist.

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