Imagine for a moment meeting a young girl in Afghanistan or Eritrea, walking to primary school in the morning. She tells you that she loves school; she tells you with enthusiasm that she wonders what is out there in our galaxy. You can see that she has the confidence to let her imagination explore the possibilities for affecting real change, and she yearns to learn more. While her primary education undoubtedly will provide her with the tools to be a better and more informed family member, mother, and contributor to her community, you are left with the certainty that she is capable of more. At age 12, there are few, if any, options available for her to continue with her education. In fact, we know this girl and what her future holds. It does not look like yours. She is hardly empowered and, in the long term, who benefits?
This is precisely the scenario faced by far too many young girls in developing countries, particularly across the global South and within disadvantaged populations, such as those with disabilities and indigenous peoples. They are not alone. Too many bright girls and boys all over the world have no pathway beyond primary education outside their home communities. Society has no chance to harness the potential, innovative contributions that these millions of isolated, marginalized, and disempowered young women and men can offer. How do we change this?
More than anything, this global scenario points to the intractability of extant foreign development policies of industrialized countries, the paucity of quality educational and research practices of developing countries, and the imperative for advanced research capacity in developing countries to partner with researchers in developed societies.1 At the same time, it places the development agenda, and in particular the issue of gender equality, in a uniquely critical and opportunistic position. Access to talent, particularly talented women, from all corners of the world, is now increasingly viewed as one of the most important natural, untapped resource. However, “the real power comes from [the diversity of ] women and men working together and using their experience to solve complex problems and accelerate innovation”. In fact, the professional services network Deloitte claims that those who master that talent challenge will dominate the markets in the twenty-first century.
International recruitment of students, faculty, highly skilled workers and executives has become the norm, as countries seek to secure a competitive advantage in the highly interdependent and interconnected global marketplace. Ideas are borderless and talent is mobile. Quality human capital— educated people—is what drives excellence and solutions, and is the pillar of an established knowledge economy.
Ironically, these goals are at odds with current practices that perpetuate gender inequality and inhibit the advancement of developing countries, thereby constraining the development and free flow of talent. With the exception of a few countries, women are significantly under-represented in leadership roles, including academia, even where their qualifications equal or surpass those of men. Although part of the reason may be due to gender differences and choices, the gender discrimination, cultural differences and institutional barriers are major contributing factors.
In 2009, Newsweek International identified 1,000 scholarships for international students and 100 specifically for students from developing countries to study internationally. There are also many scholarships that target women. Nevertheless, the number of scholarships is nowhere near sufficient to bridge the gender gap for women and the need for access to quality higher education for students from developing countries, particularly in the science and technology sectors. Notably, women are seriously under-represented in the Information Technology (IT) sector, a sector that is integral to all innovation: social, cultural, technological, and organizational. The IT sector and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the STEM disciplines) are critical to poverty alleviation and addressing climate change, health, and energy. Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women speaks forcefully and eloquently on all of these issues.
Developing countries and vulnerable communities must shift away from a classic development model to one that creates an enabling environment, not only to solve domestic challenges of inequity and social injustice, but to establish truly multilateral and mutually beneficial relationships to address pressing global issues, secure competitive advantages, and build stable economies. In other words, just like established and emerging economies, developing nations must create an infrastructure for ensuring sustaina-bility. To do this, they need partnerships for quality higher education, advanced research, and an integrated innovations agenda.
The strategy of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) continues to proffer the classic view of development. In fact, it does work to address basic goals for 50 per cent of the world’s 7 billion people that live in vulnerable communities. Although improvements have come, many countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, are unlikely to reach the goals.6 Furthermore, “while the MDGs may have galvanized activists and encouraged bigger aid budgets…promising too much leads to disillusionment and can erode the constituency for long-term engagement with the developing world”.
The fundamental weakness of the MDG strategy is that it does little to build domestic capacity for innovation through investment in quality higher education and research, especially through programmes for women. It fails to enable the communities to advance their own development. Further, there has been a failure to recognize many of the advances that developing countries have made and are making in relation to core performance metrics that are central to development and innovation.
Focusing on advanced education for women and for developing countries and other vulnerable communities can bring powerful results: decreasing birth rates, remittance support to families and communities, increases in productivity and consumption, and diversity in the workforce leading to innovative ideas and products. Indeed, it has been noted that “there are positive correlations between female educational attainments and capacity to make informed decisions about various aspects of life including health, marriage, and reproduction…there is a positive correlation between educational attainment and economic productivity, exercise of social and political responsibility and the authority to demand the respect of individual and groups’ rights”.Where organizations and communities have invested in women, the results have been both dramatic and profound, and all benefit.10 Enabling women to take on leadership roles in the STEM disciplines will address global labour shortages in core areas of infrastructure, development, and innovation.
The question is, do we have the willpower to mobilize an agenda for gender equality and higher education? The answer to date, sadly, is no. However, times do change.
The imperative is for international and domestic Governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), industry, and multilateral agencies to establish both the mechanisms for working together,11 and a new set of norms for advancing sustainable development. The first step is to shift from a goal-oriented, traditional development strategy to an enabling and creative investment strategy that focuses on impact. Second, the principle of equity for women and men must be at the centre of that strategic agenda. In other words, all programmes must benefit women to create equity and diversity. The result is the creation of a global dividend that will provide maximum impact—a GDM-I.
Opportunities need to be made available to women in developing countries which advance women and men through a lens of innovations and equity. That is the power of the GDM-I, an innovative, equitable approach that can help achieve environmental, social, and economic balance, security and stability, and explore new frontiers, such as space, science, commerce, history, and relations for the benefit of all. An innovations agenda that steadfastly maintains a strategic focus on women will lead to immediate global dividends in the emerging knowledge-based economy.
A broad strategy for developing countries and vulnerable communities designed to increase the number of women who have access to quality higher education, with a focus on research and knowledge translation through multi-stakeholder partnerships, will lead to a GDM-I. This includes the chronic problems that the MDGs recognize and address, but the solutions to address them need to utilize alternative financial models and innovations. By cultivating globally aware citizens and global networks committed to gender equality and diversity in decision-making, and by providing incentives for institutions to include women in all leadership roles at all levels of their organizations, GDM-I transformations will follow. To inform and engage the brightest young minds to be entrepreneurial, creative and invest in their ideas through collaboration will bring new solutions. Collectively, these initiatives will create global awareness and harness limitless opportunities and talent in developing countries with life-changing impact.
A GDM-I strategy that would complement and enhance the MDGs requires considerable thought and consultation cannot be fully addressed in this article. What is envisaged, however, is an investment plan in women and higher education in developing countries and other vulnerable communities that would encompass the following core components:
1. invest in campus-based and e-learning quality higher education and advanced international research institutes for at least 10 million students;
2. provide 100,000 international scholarships for female undergraduate and graduate students to study in high quality educational and research institutions;
3. invest in 100,000 global mobility internship scholar- ships for students from all over the world in developing countries or within vulnerable communities to undertake research and professional development, in collaboration with public and private sector institutions and agencies;
4. encourage institutional policies and incentives for gender equity for all development agencies and programmes, including donor and multilateral agencies;
5. institute competitions for the most gifted students from all over the world to provide leading creative and implementable solutions to tackle development challenges.
All programmes must ensure equal participation for women. The programmes should target the STEM and IT sectors. Industry, NGOs, universities, and foundations should be encouraged to match the contributions of donors by providing at least 20 per cent of the funding.
It is estimated that such a plan would cost in the order of $20 billion a year over a minimum of 10 years—approximately one-third of the proposed increased investment in the MDGs.
The GDM-I strategy will provide nothing less than a bold and expanding cadre of innovators; a resource desperately needed. A vibrant, global knowledge economy where women and men around the world are aware of the cultural, social, technological and geographic diversity present in the world is within our collective grasp.
Challenges will continue, but they will be offset by opportunities. Over time, the building of domestic infrastructure, combined with the potential for growth, will curtail the need and desire for students to travel abroad. It may even encourage the diaspora to return to their home country, as has happened in the emerging economies.
This is a challenging but powerful moment in time. Those in influential positions need to weigh in. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon himself has been witness to the value of investing in higher education in his home country of South Korea. He has also witnessed the cultural and societal barriers that face highly educated women. By virtue of the United Nations mandate, he has the ability to bring together all countries, and a powerful network of like-minded, influential stakeholders, such as Cherie Blair in the United Kingdom, Jeffrey Sachs, Bill Clinton, Marissa Mayer and Bill Gates in the United States, Zhang Xin in Asia, Graça Machel in Africa, Peter Singer in Canada, and Dilma Rousseff in Latin America. Together, along with their networks, they can spearhead the changes necessary to end poverty, advance global stability, and pursue new frontiers. This can be done by harnessing the power of women, and providing them access to quality higher education.
At the very least, such leadership would provide hope, opportunity and choice to half of the global population. That young girl in Afghanistan or Eritrea could study. She might explore our planet and whatever lies beyond. She might even bring advances in e-health satellite technologies to counter- act the shortage of health workers in isolated regions of the world.13 We can see the opportunities that could be available to her, but we need her to see them, and we need her to be able to realize them. This is possible.