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"The world's greatest challenges cannot be solved by isolationism"

"The world's greatest challenges cannot be solved by isolationism"

Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President and CEO of Women's World Banking, talks about social progress and how to tackle the great challenges ahead.

Mary Ellen Iskenderian (60) is President and CEO of Women's World Banking, the world's largest network of microfinance institutions and banks. An economist, she previously worked for the World Bank. She also serves as an advisor to the Clinton Global Initiative.

Mary Ellen Iskenderian

"Social and cultural issues are linked."

- Mary Ellen Iskenderian

Interview Laura Hemrika, Global Head Corporate Citizenship & Foundations, Credit Suisse

We are at the end of a decade in which many social issues – from LGBTQ+* rights and women's rights to the impact of immigration – have figured prominently in the popular discourse. Do you feel progress in these areas has accelerated in the 2010s?

Generally, yes. But I believe that the past few years have also seen a backlash against change in many areas – to an extent, progress on a number of issues has stalled. There is a race between those who are working to further drive things forward and those who are, for many social or economic reasons, resistant to further progress.

Does this vary by country?

There are certainly geographic and cultural differences, as there are differences in people's attitudes toward progress by issue. For example, the Credit Suisse Progress Barometer shows that equal rights is an area where a majority of respondents globally want to see progress accelerate, and there is even greater consensus on work-life balance and childcare. On the other hand, people are more ambivalent about immigration and, unfortunately, LGBTQ+ rights. In general, the desire for social progress is highest in emerging countries; people in Western countries seem less enthusiastic, based on the research.

Why do you think this is?

Individual choices are complex and hard to generalize. One explanation could be that, where people have more to lose and may even feel threatened, it is more tempting to try and freeze the status quo, and to create barriers between oneself and those who have less. This may also explain why progress on immigration and LGBTQ+ rights tends to be viewed with more skepticism. Citizens of wealthy countries who fear for their social or economic status may be more inclined to believe that the pie must always be the same size, and that change can only be about someone else getting a bigger slice at their expense. On the other hand, many countries with high support for social progress – for example, South Africa, Brazil and India – have a young and growing population intent on further improving their lives rather than mainly defending what they have. They see the whole pie getting bigger and the opportunities for advancement that brings. It's important to see that social and cultural issues are linked – poverty and climate change impact developing countries more, which leads to more aid into, and migration from, developing countries. This then adds to social tensions in developed countries. If we work together toward solutions for poverty and climate change, both developed and developing countries benefit.

Countries with a high desire for social progress generally show even higher support for accelerating economic development. How are the two linked?

Overall, I believe there is a positive, albeit complex, relationship between the two. An example that comes to mind is Bangladesh, where employment in garment factories and microfinance have lifted millions of people out of poverty, but the conditions in those factories and their impact on environmental degradation and climate change are increasingly contentious. So it can be a double-edged sword. On the other hand, there are areas of social progress that inevitably help economic progress – I'm thinking of the empowerment of women, for example. It is well documented that more women entering the workforce leads to more prosperity for everyone. I was also favorably surprised to see empowerment of women is the number one issue that people want to see faster progress on in India, which, India being the world's largest democracy, is significant.

Women's World Banking aims to contribute to the empowerment of women through financial inclusion. What innovations are needed to push things forward in this area?

Our focus is on rapidly expanding the formal financial inclusion of underserved women in our six priority markets. As an aside, we chose these six countries because they are good environments for us to create, test and scale new solutions, learning and development programs, and policy recommendations more broadly. Often, the barriers to inclusion concern basic problems, such as ensuring that everyone has the documentation required to establish their legal identity, and technology such as biometric IDs can address these challenges. But it's important to remember that technology is not a panacea; when we design new technological solutions we must take into account the socio-cultural barriers that women face and their need for a balance between technology and human interaction.

While many respondents in the Credit Suisse Progress Barometer survey view social and economic endeavors quite positively, they are more skeptical of progress on political issues in the majority of countries. Can social and economic change move forward without political support?

Yes, but only to an extent. Trust in political actors has declined over the past years in a large number of countries, especially democracies. So people may want change without getting "more politics," but this doesn't mean that they don't want politicians and governments to be enablers of progress. The great challenges of the 21st century – demographic changes, large-scale migration and climate change – cannot be solved if we become isolationistand fragmented. Real progress can only happen if all actors work together.

*LGBTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and other sexual identities, and is a generic term for persons who are not heterosexual or whose gender identity does not fit the binary model of male and female.

Credit Suisse has been a partner of Women’s World Banking since 2011. The bank supports the organization through its Financial Inclusion Initiative with the aim of fostering the development and implementation of products and services for women globally. The jointly organized Leadership and Diversity for Innovation Program partners a senior executive (female or male) with a high-potential woman leader, developing their skills to successfully serve low-income women while charting a path for more diverse leadership within the microfinance industry.

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