A few days ago, the United Nations announced the 500-day milestone for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)—500 days until it's time to assess how far we have come as a world in tackling poverty, health issues, hunger and gender inequality.
The formation of the MDG plan just 14 years ago was a landmark in itself—one of the crowning achievements of Former United Nations Secretary Kofi Annan's tenure and a far-too-rare instance of cooperation on a completely global scale.
The progress, considering again the dragging nature of many multi-country initiatives in the past, has also been extraordinary. The goal of cutting extreme poverty (less than $1.25 a day) in half has been reached—the World Bank reports than there were 700 million fewer people living in extreme poverty by 2010 than in 1990. An estimated 2.3 billion people have also gained access to improved water sources, maternal deaths have fallen 45 per since 1990 and the gender disparity in education has been narrowed.
Of course not all is sunny. Though most African countries have made massive strides towards the MDGs (Ghana and Kenya are notable among them), conflict, weak government and weaker infrastructure have led many to lag behind developing peers in Asia and Latin America. Country poverty rates remain the highest in Sub Saharan Africa, with rates among women especially high.
Any number of studies will tell you that girls and women are disproportionately impacted by poverty despite being key drivers of a country's economic development. This is particularly true in Africa, where women commonly make up a large part of the workforce in agriculture, typically one of the biggest GDP-driving sectors.
Take Niger for example—one of the poorest places in the world and dead last on the UN Human Development Index. The country also scores among the lowest on the UN's Gender Equality Index, has one of the highest fertility rates worldwide, (7.6 children per women) a correspondingly dangerous maternal mortality rate. Only 2.6 per cent of Niger's female population has received a secondary education and only 39.9 per cent participates in the labour force, compared to 23.7 per cent and 64.7 per cent averages for Sub Saharan Africa as a whole.
A recent study by Sandra Taylor and Narjess Boubakri in conjunction with the African Development Bank (AfDB) found that minimal education and informal sector work (like, say, as agricultural labour) correlated strongly with lack of formal banking services, and as a result, access to finance. Governments have an obvious responsibility to address gender inequality and harmful cultural norms that are obstructing women's empowerment. However private companies and financial institutions also have a key role to play in empowering women and, by extension, eradicating poverty.
"There is an increasing awareness that the growth and start-up needs of women entrepreneurs go beyond micro-loans. This need represents an opportunity for designing targeted customer management strategies in this sector," the AfDB report said.
Access Bank in Nigeria is a significant example of the impact and benefits of targeting financing for women. As part of a program with the IFC, Enterprise Development Centre and Fate Foundation, the Bank began offering customised credit lines to women entrepreneurs, as well as training course in financial literacy, business management and trade finance. AfDB reports that by the end of 2010, $35.5 million loans had been disbursed over the past four years with a non-performing loan rate of just 0.5 per cent. Nearly 700 women had been trained in the programme.
The World Bank has brought up a key point as the first MDG mark draws closer—as the rate of poverty worldwide declines, it will become progressively harder to continue reducing it. In other words, getting to the next target in eradicating global poverty 'will not be achieved with a business-as-usual model.' The next step will require a more comprehensive approach to development financing—one that includes private participation and makes women's access to finance a priority.