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Think equal, act equal!

Obiageli Ezekwesili's picture

This week’s release of the 2012 World Development Report (Gender Equality and Development) forced me to reflect, not on the life of my grandmother or women her age, but on the women of my generation and girls the age of my three young adult sons, whose voices and life stories the report brought to us so poignantly.

If they have to live through the inequality the report unveils, how can we who are blessed to work in development deliver better on our mission to lift slightly more than half of humanity out of the status of “second best”?

It was thrilling to see World Bank staff sporting t-shirts marked “Think Equal” around the Bank’s premises on Wednesday and I could not help thinking of what I believe the report is calling us to do. It invites us to do more than “Think Equal”. We have to “Act Equal”. In Gandhi’s words, “be the change we want to see”.

Happily, the WDR tells us what a better Africa we could achieve if we do indeed “Act Equal”. Maize yields would increase by 11 to 16 percent in Malawi and by 17 percent in Ghana if women farmers got the same access as male farmers to farm inputs, extension services and technical know-how. Burkina Faso’s agricultural production would rise six percentage points if farm inputs such as fertilizer were reallocated from men to women.

Imagine the difference this could have made in the man-made starvation we now witness in Somalia.

The “feel good” effect of knowing that the international community, through institutions like the World Bank, has moved significant resources into agriculture in Africa over the last few years does not prevent us from being haunted by how much more we could have achieved if we moved earlier, faster, delivered better, pushed ourselves more and kept the focus strictly on delivering results for the poor and the most vulnerable, among them women.

One of the report’s key messages—gender equality is also smart economics—has been around a while, but reiterated within the context of the grim figures the report delivers—excess female mortality after birth and “missing” girls at birth account for an estimated 3.9 million women each year in low- and middle-income countries—it constitutes an urgent call to action, especially for African policymakers and those of us who work on the world’s last development frontier.

Even the most macho policy- and decision-makers surely recognize the benefit countries, communities and companies would draw by reducing the productivity gap between male and female workers by one-third to one-half simply by eliminating barriers that prevent women from working in certain occupations or sectors. The gains accrued from increasing output per worker by three to 25 percent across a range of countries creates the kind of win-win that we must seek in order to deliver on the promise of development for Africa.

As a “knowledge bank”, we must do a better job not only of disbursing development finance but of leveraging our resources to support countries across the continent to implement the recommendations of the report. The sales pitch is a winner: countries that create better opportunities and conditions for women and girls can raise productivity, improve learning and nutritional outcomes for children, make institutions more representative and advance development prospects for all. Period! No mention of money. Policy entrepreneurship is what Africa is sorely in need of.

We owe it to the 51 percent of Africans who just happen to be women and girls to ensure that their children’s memory captures footage of women with a greater say in households and societies across the continent; women who earn equal pay for equal work and qualification; and women who lead truly better lives than my grandmother, my mother and I lived.

They deserve it. Our job warrants that we deliver for them. Our collective future depends on achieving and maintaining that gender equality.