Minister Antoinette Sayeh and I were sitting together in her office on the ninth floor, pausing our frenetic workday in Liberia's Ministry of Finance to eat lunch together in what had become one of my very favorite rituals of my summer internship. At this moment, we had just turned to a discussion of the Gender Ministry's role in Liberia's Poverty Reduction Strategy.
"To really advance the cause of women in Liberia," she said," "what we need is data. Hard data and rigorous economic analysis." Without such data, the policy agenda for Liberian women would be more of the same: one-off benchmarks (training xx numbers of women in sewing, for instance, or providing xx numbers of women with business training), without a broader strategy to fundamentally change economic opportunities for women. And, importantly, without the ability to measure progress.
That night I went home to the "Baptist Compound," to a late dinner with the fellow members of Team Liberia. Over fried plantains and jollof rice, I shared my lunchtime discussion with my rock star classmate, Emily Stanger. Minister Sayeh's comments were music to Emily's ears. A deeply passionate advocate of women and a dynamite intern in Liberia's Ministry of Gender and Development, Emily also happens to be a brilliant economist who loves data.
Thus the seeds were sown for a year-long collaboration. Heeding Minister Sayeh's call, Emily and I came together, combining the mission of the Ministry of Gender with the Ministry of Finance's purview of technical economic policies. The former our inspiration, the latter our medium for impact.
- Where are Liberia's women in the economy? What sectors do they work in, and what are characteristics of their work and pay?
- How will Liberia's projected growth over the next three years affect women? Do women stand to benefit from this growth?
- What are specific actions that the Liberian government can take during President's Sirleaf to fulfill her pledge to Liberia's women, particularly in three sectors: agriculture, the informal urban sector, and formal employment?
- Liberian women comprise the majority (54%) of Liberia's labor force
- The vast majority (90%) of women workers are clustered in the least productive sectors
- Urban working women are predominantly self-employed (74%), mainly in street vending and as market women. Men are 2.5 times more likely to be skilled workers.
- Women conduct 85% of marketing and trading and contribute 75% of all cash and food production.
- As major economic actors, women make significant contributions to household income; alone and with other household members, women contribute to 65% of urban household income and 45% of rural.
Many countries with successful labor-intensive industries have employed a very large percentage of female workers: in horticulture, jewelry making, garments and toys. In Liberia, it might be tempting to attempt to stimulate these types of industries through the creation of an Export Processing Zone (EPZ). Yet EPZs have had little success in Africa, would be administratively and fiscally infeasible right now in Liberia, and most importantly, would not address the most serious underlying constraints on investment. Instead, to lay the foundation for the emergence of nontraditional industries over the next 5-10 years that employ women, the Government should take steps to improve the overall business environment and investment climate.
Research to Policy: Sharing our Findings in Liberia
Once Emily and I finally had our research findings and our thesis in hand in the spring of our final year at the Kennedy School, this was really just the beginning. While our academic requirements box had been checked, we were both bound and determined to make our research useful and have an impact on policy in Liberia and, ultimately, Liberia's women. Taking a page from the Center for Global Development's smart and savvy communications, we turned our unwieldy 80-page thesis into a short, colorful, heavily imaged 4-page policy brief, based on the assumption that busy policymakers would never read our long thesis. (Let's be honest, I'm not even convinced our parents read every last page, and they are as proud as parents can be!)
For me, this is largely where the story ends. But for my partner-in-crime, Emily Stanger, this was just the start. After a brief stint working for Cherie Blair on her new womens-focused foundation after graduation, Emily has been back in Liberia for the past year, working as an Ed Scott Liberia Fellow in the Ministry of Gender and Development and helping to manage the Nike Foundation-World Bank project for adolescent girls. She is currently working for the UN on these same gender issues. I am so proud of Emily's commitment to Liberian women, for continuing to advance these causes on a daily basis, and for contributing her boundless energy, unparalleled talents, smarts, and economic know-how to this endeavor to advance the economic plight of women in Liberia. Emily, you are a marvel and a role model in so many ways.