Panel Discusses Innovative Approaches to Help Poor Women

Article Date

10 March 2011

Article Author

By Gillian Gaynair

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

WASHINGTON – By creating more multi-sector partnerships, organizations and governments will be better positioned to quickly execute innovative ideas that improve women’s lives in developing countries, stressed a panel that included USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah and former British first lady Cherie Blair during the International Center for Research on Women’s (ICRW) International Women’s Day event.

Cherie Blair and Andrea Mitchell

Former British first lady Cherie Blair and NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell.

Moderated by NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell, the March 8 discussion focused on innovations that have the potential to change women’s lives. Shah and Blair were joined by Tim Hanstad, president and CEO of Landesa, and Bobbi Silten, chief foundation officer at Gap Inc. The event, attended by close to 300 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., officially kicked off ICRW’s Passports to Progress year-long 35th anniversary discussion series.

ICRW also honored Gap Inc. for its Personal Advancement and Career Enhancement (P.A.C.E.) program during the evening. P.A.C.E. provides life and educational skills to female garment workers in factories that make Gap Inc. products in India and Cambodia. ICRW is a partner on the effort.

“These women are not only changing their lives, but they’re bringing change to the lives of their families and communities,” Silten said of P.A.C.E. participants as she accepted ICRW’s annual Champions for Change award. “We really believe at Gap Inc. that if we can advance women, we can change the world.”

Bobbi Silten, chief foundation officer of Gap Inc.

Bobbi Silten, chief foundation officer at Gap Inc.

During the discussion, Silten offered more details on how the P.A.C.E. program developed. She said that key to Gap Inc. was to assess how it could leverage its assets – beyond writing a check – to create social change. And it was important to the company that its investment not only advance women, but benefit their children and communities, too.

“We really believe that’s the way to create sustainable programs,” Silten said. “When everybody gets something, they keep doing it.”

She added that in the case of P.A.C.E., the various components of the program were not necessarily ground-breaking. Rather, the innovative approach was in how those components were put together. “Innovation doesn’t have to be invention,” Silten said. “It can be looking at a problem differently. It can be bringing existing solutions to a different application.”

Tim Hanstad, president and CEO of Landesa.
Tim Hanstad, president and CEO of Landesa.

Other panelists also expanded on their organizations’ efforts and addressed how they measure whether their ideas are successful. Shah highlighted USAID’s reform strategy, called USAID Forward; Hanstad discussed new approaches for ensuring that women can own and benefit from land, such as developing micro-plots; and Blair touched on the work of her Cherie Blair Foundation for Women to get more mobile phones in the hands of women entrepreneurs.

She and others also called for more partnerships between the private sector, governments, donors and nonprofit organizations on programs aimed at helping impoverished women. “What distresses me somewhat is that while there is all this great work going on, we still are not very good at sharing; we still have a rather siloed mentality,” Blair said. “We have to learn to have a little more confidence in the power of partnerships. If we come together … we can all in fact become better at what we do.”

USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah.
USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah.

And particularly in today’s tight budget environment, Shah said that collaborations between diverse sectors can help speed the time between when a good idea is born to when it takes root in women’s lives.

That’s one of the great challenges in development work, he said, and to tackle it requires an open mind, risk-taking that is rewarded and a willingness to challenge old assumptions.

“We need to make a commitment to say that we will make big investments in trying new things, developing new innovations and experimenting in how we do our work,” Shah said.

“We need to get better and faster at what we do.”

Gillian Gaynair is ICRW’s writer/editor.

Photos: ©Kaveh Sardari/