By Stan Crock First Lady Laura Bush made headlines when she took to the airwaves of Radio Free Europe on May 21 to urge the women of Afghanistan to play a major role in the reconstruction of their battered nation. Mrs. Bush isn't alone. She was echoing a growing school of thought among foreign policymakers that the key to fostering democratization and economic development, especially in impoverished Muslim and African nations, may lie in the empowerment of women.
In state after state plagued by civil war or ethnic cleansing, thousands of men have been killed. That has left women as the majority of the population. And it sometimes means there's no one else to shoulder the leadership role in both politics and economic development in what are often conservative, patriarchal societies.
BUILDING BRIDGES. The statistics can be stunning. In Bosnia, 67% of the population is female, and the figure is 70% in Kosovo. Women and children account for 80% of refugees. And the men who don't get killed often live abroad and send money home.
The good news is that several nongovernment organizations (NGOs) -- some run by women -- have been focusing for years on helping women with such issues as political involvement and microeconomic projects. And the experience has paid off. "NGOs run by women are more successful than NGOs run by men," says Joseph Presel, a former American ambassador to Uzbekistan. "There has been fairly rapid and measurable success. It's not readily apparent but is very much the case."
One example is World Learning Star Network, based in Brattleboro, Vt., which has done extensive work in the Balkans. The group, which receives 80% of its funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, started out in 1994 with an emphasis on political reconciliation but has since expanded to focus on such issues as market reform, entrepreneurship, and trade.
VOICES FOR CHANGE. The organization brought Serb and Bosnian women together to figure out strategies for persuading political parties in both countries to accept women. What was supposed to have been a weekend training conference for four political parties mushroomed into a four-month project for 23 parties, which produced candidates at the national and local levels. Local women's groups in Afghanistan now are seeking help from the group.
On the economic front, Star Network started small. In Osijek, the last part of Serb-controlled Croatia to revert back to Croatia, the organization provided some greenhouses, and the Dutch offered seed so the women there could launch a produce cooperative. It's still up and running five years later.
Star Network also brought together Macedonians and Kosovar Albanians, under the aegis of a Bosnian Serb economist, to discuss how to start a business and get access to credit, according to Jill Benderly, the group's regional director for the Balkans. It was the first contact between the Macedonians and Kosovars, and the meeting led to a business deal. Kosovo needed housing, and Macedonia had the sand and trucks needed for the task. "Instead of thinking of them as Kosovar Albanians or enemies, the Macedonians thought about them as their markets and business partners," Benderly says.
THE BANGLADESH MODEL. To deal with credit access, Star Network needed to get creative. In Serbia, men own 80% of the cars, meaning women couldn't get loans because they didn't have any collateral. So the group worked with banks to reduce collateral requirements for women, and one bank started a new kind of line of credit that a government agency guaranteed.
Progress has been slow. The changes haven't transformed these countries from basket cases into the European equivalent of Asian Tigers. But it's a start. Star Network continues to study those nations' competitive advantages and how women fit in. It found, for example, that women are more willing to cross borders than men stuck in the mire of ancient hatreds.
Bangladesh offers a model for what can happen when women are given a greater role in such societies. According to A. Tariq Karim, a former Bangladesh ambassador to the U.S., when the country split off from Pakistan in 1971, both countries had literacy rates of 32%. The population of Bangladesh was 75 million, while Pakistan's was 65 million.
"AGENTS OF CHANGE." Today, Pakistan's literacy rate is about the same, while Bangladesh's has doubled to 64%, Karim says. Pakistan, with a birth rate of 3.2%, is larger than Bangladesh, whose birth rate is 1.6%. And in the Bangladesh election in October, in which 76% of eligible voters turned out, 56% of the voters were women, says Karim, who declares: "Women cannot be left out of the development process."
In the Balkans, Benderly looks for similar hopeful trends. "In 1994 we looked at women as war victims," she recalls. "Now we view women as agents of change." This may be hard for the men in these countries to accept. But given the harsh reality of the demographics, they may have no choice. Afghanistan, if women there heed the First Lady's call, may be the next test case. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online