Faithful Politics

Being faithful with our politics, not political with our faith.

Every Part Matters: How Women Could Change the Developing World

By Oxfam East Africa, Wikimedia Creative Commons photoThere are over 150 developing countries in the world—countries with little to no economic growth, extreme inflation, massive debts, and devastating levels of sheer poverty. Their populations are uneducated; their resources are under-employed; and there are few prospects for real advancement.

Economists have presented dozens of ideas on the best way to stimulate economic growth in these developing countries. Some say the solution lies in fully embracing international trade. Others say the answer is to emphasize manufacturing instead of agriculture. Still others say the real problem is the developing world’s dependence on the developed world, and all we need to do is break that dependence. Dozens of other models of economic development exist, but most economists agree: there is no perfect process for development. Now, keep all of this in the back of your mind, and let’s switch gears.

The O-Ring Theory

In the 1970s and 80s, the United States was at the apogee of its space exploration program, achieving unprecedented success. However, in 1986, the unthinkable happened. 73 seconds into launch, the space shuttle Challenger literally disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean, killing everyone aboard. And what was the cause of the disaster? It turns out that a small cylinder disc, an O-ring, failed to seal one of the rockets, causing the whole shuttle to fail. This tragedy strikingly illustrates how even the most insignificant part can be crucial to a successful launch.

A few years later, the Challenger disaster yielded an unlikely result. An economist by the name of Michael Kremer took the tragedy as a metaphor for any type of successful launch—most specifically the launch of economic development. He argued that just as the seemingly insignificant O-ring played a critical part in the success or failure of the shuttle launch, so too, many equally insignificant players in an economy can determine the ability of a country to economically develop. For economic develop to occur, every part must function properly. It doesn’t happen by chance; it’s the result of well-timed, concerted effort.

The Undervalued Resource

Kremer’s O-Ring Theory of economic development sparked a correlation in my mind: what about the role of women in economic development? Women represent very nearly half of the world’s population, and consequently half of potential labor resources. Yet when you compare women to men in the developing world, you find that women are significantly more underemployed, undereducated, and undervalued than men. Women are so undervalued in many parts of the world that potential parents practice gender selection by aborting baby girls. In China, given their decades-long one-child policy, the practice has yielded a gender ratio of up to 150 men to 100 women. In most developing countries, the role of women is constrained to that of child-bearer—women will routinely have up to 10 children, not because they desire to be a stay-at-home mom (as we see quite successfully done here in the United States), but because they want to create their own labor force. The women’s ability to thrive is related to how many children they can produce.

I find this quite tragic. Studies show that women are an invaluable resource in the workplace. According to an article in Fast Company, women are more likely have a balanced leadership style, better communication skills, and better innovation by emphasizing collaboration.

And in the developing world, the value of women is even more significant. In her game-changing book, Half the Sky, Sheryl WuDunn builds a strong case that an important future indicator of a developing economy is the way it treats their women. Women represent half of the nation’s brainpower, half of their ability to have a productive and creative labor force. The best way to fight poverty, she says, is to mobilize women. And what’s more, women are more nurturing, meaning they’re more likely to educate and advance their children.

Conclusion? Women Could Change the Developing World

As I mentioned before, economists agree that there’s no perfect solution to solve poverty and promote economic development. But what if Kremer is right: what if economic development requires the mobilization and functioning of every part of the economy? What if women are the O-Ring—in this case, a tremendous, yet largely ignored resource? This is just a brief conversation of an incredibly complex topic, just the tip of the ice berg. In closing, I strongly believe that we as Christians must pro-actively pursue a role for women in the modern world so that they too may contribute the talents and abilities that God has given them. Granted, this touches on a different topic (namely, your theological views on gender roles), but for now I’m content to suggest that women could change the game for the developing world.  What do you think?

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