IMF Advancing Asia Conference
New Delhi, India
March 12, 2016
Thank you, Madame Lagarde, for that generous introduction and for inviting me to speak at this important conference today.
When Bill and I started our foundation about 15 years ago we were driven by a simple but powerful vision.
We want a world where every person has the chance to lead a healthy, productive life.
In pursuit of that ambition, we are learning many lessons.
And one thing we know beyond doubt, is that progress in global health and development is inseparable from economic growth.
This diverse and dynamic region is proof of that.
Asia’s emergence as a global economic powerhouse has contributed more to the reduction of absolute poverty than anywhere else.
Of the one billion people worldwide who have escaped extreme poverty since 1990, about 560 million live in this region.
Economic success has transformed the lives and livelihoods of families from Turkey to Indonesia.
And improvements for women and girls have been especially remarkable.
More of them are fully participating in the formal economy.
They are healthier and better educated than at any other time in history.
And they are leaders at every level of Asian society and politics, including as presidents and prime ministers.
Progress on this scale is why we can now set ourselves ambitious Global Goals - such as eradicating poverty, hunger, and malaria – and not be dismissed as cranks.
Asia has led the way in showing the world what’s possible.
But as economic managers and decision-makers you know that while progress is possible, it is not inevitable.
As we’re hearing at this conference, headwinds are buffeting Asian economies and even growth brings with it real challenges.
I know, for example, that all Asian leaders are concerned with inequality and how to deal with it.
In too many places too many people are still being left behind.
Women and girls especially.
Those living in rural areas and heavily populated countries, in particular, are stuck without a foothold in the modern economy or any obvious way forward.
The IMF recognizes that more than 800 million women in emerging and developing countries could contribute more fully to their national economies.
And the Asian Development Bank estimates that Asia-Pacific loses up to $47 billion every year because of women’s limited access to employment.
So as economic stewards, unlocking their potential is one of the best investments you can make to reduce inequity and increase growth.
A big lesson that I have learned over the last 15 years is that empowering women and girls is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.
And today I want to briefly share with you how my work through our foundation has given me insights and experiences as they relate to the challenges you face in the management of your countries.
For me, it all starts with health.
When health improves life improves by every measure - which is why our foundation places such a premium on it.
A study published in The Lancet found that every dollar invested in health returns at least $9 to low- and middle-income countries as healthier children and adults learn and work more productively.
So strengthening primary health care systems with increased funding is imperative.
For women and girls, that would mean many more getting access to medicines, attended births, nutrition, and the advice and tools they need for planning and spacing their pregnancies.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of family planning.
And we need urgently to redouble our efforts if we are to keep our promise to reach 120 million more women and girls by 2020.
I know that countries in the region like Indonesia, India, and others are increasingly aware of this and taking steps to get us back on track.
Giving women access to contraceptives gives them control over their own lives.
When women can plan and space their pregnancies, they tend to be healthier and freer to continue making an economic contribution.
Improved family planning also yields a demographic dividend over time.
As the number of healthy, educated workers rises - and the number dependent on government services falls – economies expand.
Many Asian countries, including Thailand and South Korea, have realized tremendous economic gains for decades as a result of this.
Reducing unintended pregnancies in adolescents also leads to more young women staying in school - an invaluable benefit since education is an entry point to a whole host of other opportunities.
Women who are in better health are more likely to be better educated and in a better position to make economic contributions.
That’s why I begin with health.
But we need to give women other tools for a productive life.
These obviously differ for those in different circumstances.
But one thing I have seen on my visits to Asia and Africa is how women in rural areas are held back by their lack of access to formal financial services.
Giving them ways to save, send, and spend their income safely and efficiently – or access to affordable credit, or the ability to pay for assets in installments - can bring them into the modern economy.
Early results from the foundation’s work to improve financial inclusion among rural women here in Indian - in Madhya Pradesh - are demonstrating precisely this.
The benefits provide a powerful basis for finance ministries and central banks to act.
That said, I do understand that regulators in some countries are cautious about the risk of taking digital financial services into rural areas.
But there are some great examples across Asia where countries are pioneering change while maintaining the integrity of their banking systems.
Philippines’ central bank has successfully created significant opportunities for the private sector to develop new products that cater to the poor.
And India’s Reserve Bank recently awarded licenses to 11 “payments banks” whose customers will be able to use mobile phones to perform basic transactions such as deposits, payments, and transfers.
With the expansion of technology and digital platforms it is easier today than it has ever been to take advantage of this economic lever.
But even though mobile technology is spreading quickly, it is not spreading equally.
Around 200 million fewer women than men in low- and middle-income countries own a mobile phone.
By expanding the number of digitized services and reforming discriminatory policies that prevent women taking advantage of them, you can incentivize the mobile industry to close this gender gap.
Doing so across developing economies could unlock $170 billion for the mobile communications industry by 2020.
More women will be empowered to take control of their finances and their lives.
And national economies will grow.
It’s a win all round – and a great opportunity for you.
But I recognize that however desirable, unlocking the economic potential of women and girls is not always straightforward.
Part of the reason for this is that we just don’t have all the evidence needed to make informed, gender-responsive policy decisions.
It’s true in my own country, where we don’t know enough about how women live their lives and how economic decisions affect them.
Indeed, according to a UN survey of 126 countries, only about a third regularly produce gender-specific statistics on unpaid work and informal employment.
As economic managers, you all know that it’s a lot easier to start solving problems when you know what you are trying to fix.
So I encourage you to demand that the economic indicators and statistical surveys informing your decisions are broken down by gender.
Where data is too old to be any use or missing entirely, insist on having more and better insights into women’s lives and livelihoods.
Of course, mandating these changes relies on political will – and on earmarking resources for it.
But it is a worthwhile investment.
Because women and girls don’t just benefit from growth, they drive it.
And, for me, that puts the economic case beyond dispute.
But I want to close by appealing to the men here not as ministers, bankers, or businessmen; but as fathers, husbands, and brothers.
Another lesson I have learned through my foundation work is that it teaches Bill and me that we have to live out our values.
So to those of you in the room with wives, daughters or sisters; think about what you want for them.
Then reflect those personal ambitions in how you act in your roles as decision-makers, policy influencers, and opinion formers.
To make sure that not just them, but that every woman and every girl in your country is empowered to fulfil their potential.
Because only then, will every country reach its potential too.