Monday. September 28, 2015.
At Monday afternoon’s plenary session of this year’s meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City, computer scientist and social entrepreneur Fereshteh Forough talks to moderator Neil deGrasse Tyson about the challenges she faces in trying to teach girls and young women in Afghanistan the skills they need to pursue careers in computing and engineering. Photo courtesy of the Clinton Global Initiative.
First meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative I attended was 2008’s. This is my fourth trip back since then. Each time I’ve arrived full of curiosity and hope. From each of my past trips I returned impressed and excited by at least one thing I learned about at one of the sessions. No doubt I’ll leave here to catch the bus home impressed and excited again. And probably pleasantly but bemusedly surprised because, if things go as they’ve gone in the past, the thing that will impress and excite me will be a seemingly little thing and, on the face of it, a mundane thing.
It’s heartening to learn that great good is being done in the world and that the good is ongoing---that it’s not always the headline-capturing case of someone swooping in to save the day and swooping out, leaving the next day to be saved by someone else or to save itself. But it’s not been the large scale projects and programs that have most impressed me or, at any rate, most riveted my attention got me thinking. It’s been small-scale projects that struck me as practical, useful, workable right away, immediately helpful, and...obvious. Obvious in hindsight. Things of the “Of course! Why didn’t somebody think of that before” sort. And I get the most kick out of hearing about inventions and the introductions of new technologies and the inspired application of old ones. One of my favorites is the self-adjustable eyeglasses I learned about on my first trip down. You put on a pair, give yourself an eye examine, then adjust the malleable lenses to fit your prescription.
Imagine what that means to people living in remote villages a hundred miles along nearly impassable roads from the nearest optician, if there’s one even that close by.
And last year, a corporation announced it was donating 5000 of the solar-powered lanterns it manufactures to field hospitals and clinics in rural areas in countries hardest hit by the Ebola outbreak . Patients who needed round-the-clock care would be cared for round-the-clock because nightfall wouldn’t mean being plunged into total darkness anymore.
But another program that grabbed me, one I also heard about my first time here, was a very simple exercise in ordinary capitalism that arranged loans for women looking to set up their own small businesses.
What was exciting about that, beside the individual opportunities it would provide, was the potentially liberating and democratizing effect it could have on tradition-bound, patriarchal societies that would suddenly have to deal with women who weren’t dependent on men for their money and had developed the habit of making decisions about their own lives and livelihoods for themselves according to their own judgments of their needs and interests. People who are bosses themselves aren’t easily bossed around.
A connecting theme of all the annual meetings of the Clinton Global Initiative I’ve attended, because it’s an important part of the work the Clinton Foundations fosters and towards which it directs money, is the empowerment of women around the world but especially in the developing world where economic and educational opportunities for women and girls are severely limited not just by their nations’ general poverty and lack of resources but also by war, natural disasters, disease, and, of course, cultures and traditions established and perpetuated by men protecting their power, status, privilege, dominance, and control.
So it struck me as fitting that on the cab ride over here this morning, the driver had the radio tuned to President Obama’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly.
Mostly, the President spoke about the arms deal with Iran and the terrible troubles in Syria. But he said this:
I recognize that democracy is going to take different forms in different parts of the world. The very idea of a people governing themselves depends upon government giving expression to their unique culture, their unique history, their unique experiences. But some universal truths are self-evident. No person wants to be imprisoned for peaceful worship. No woman should ever be abused with impunity, or a girl barred from going to school.
And a little bit later he added:
It's not simply a matter of principle; it's not an abstraction. Democracy -- inclusive democracy -- makes countries stronger. When opposition parties can seek power peacefully through the ballot, a country draws upon new ideas. When a free media can inform the public, corruption and abuse are exposed and can be rooted out. When civil society thrives, communities can solve problems that governments cannot necessarily solve alone. When immigrants are welcomed, countries are more productive and more vibrant. When girls can go to school, and get a job, and pursue unlimited opportunity, that’s when a country realizes its full potential.
I’m not here alone. My students are with me. Or they will be. Or they have been here already and will be back.
They’re “attending” the meeting virtually.
Their assignment for the week is to explore the website, watch the webcasts, do some background research on the speakers and commitments that grab their attention, and then write about it on their blogs. Should be interesting to see what they found interesting. I did the same thing last fall and that worked out pretty well, giving me good posts to read about astronauts, elephants, efforts to contain the Ebola outbreaks in Africa---there was an excellent post from a biology major warning Americans about the outbreak of panic here. (She was one of the three best bloggers in the class. All three were science majors. No surprise there. Scientists are the best bloggers. That’s a fact.) But the post I’m thinking about now is one that was critical or, at any rate, skeptical about efforts to increase economic and educational opportunities for women and girls in developing nations.
For one thing, my student doubted claims made by several speakers and Hillary Clinton herself that sending girls to school and setting women up in businesses improved the economies of the places that did that.
Did it really happen, she asked in her post, and if it did how did it work to make that happen?
Her other concern was with the endeavor itself.
What gives us the right, she wanted to know---and by us she meant us Americans---to interfere in local cultures and tell people to abandon their traditions and beliefs and adopt ours?
Why, she went on, should we be able to make people do what they don’t want to do?
I dealt with her first questions by pointing out, amiably, that while there might be some mixing up of cause and effect in some cases, there was plenty of research that showed that it did happen and explained how and I suggested, kindly, she should have done a little Googling before writing her post. To her credit, she did the Googling right then and there and her reaction to what turned up on her laptop screen was, “Oh.”
But it was other students in the class, other young women, who responded, amiably, kindly, but a touch indignantly, to her second set of questions.
How can we know what “people” want, they asked her, when half the people have no say in deciding what the people want?
We’re talking about places where men oppress women as a matter of course, insisting that it’s their right. Places where women and girls aren’t just treated like second-class citizens but where they’re practically property. Places where they’re worth less than livestock and valued accordingly.
Are we to assume the people in those places who happen to be female want it that way?
It’s true, as my student worried, that in many places, educating girls beyond a certain level, even educating them at all, is an assault on local customs and traditions. It does go against what some people there want. It’s also, despite the larger benefits to a country, a threat to the economies of many villages within that country.
The American physicist Francis Slakey tells a story in his memoir of his quest to climb the tallest mountain on every continent, To The Last Breath. When he was in Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro, he visited a Masai village and while there he met and became friendly with a schoolteacher named Johnson who explained the “trouble” caused in some people’s by sending girls to school.
In Tanzania, primary school is free. The primary schools in this part of the country put sixty children into a classroom. The next four years of education make up secondary school---roughly equivalent to our high school---and it must be paid for by the family. The quality of education is much higher, the benefits seem clear, and yet very few Masai children attend secondary school. It’s the father’s decision and, for many, education comes at too high a cost.
“At $120 a year, it would mean selling a cow to get a child through secondary school,” Johnson explains. But the Masai seem to have plenty of cows to spare, I observe.
Johnson shakes his head. “You don’t understand the problem.”
The vast majority of Masai men consider education “trouble,” he says. “When a girl completes secondary school, she realizes she is more valuable than a cow.” That’s trouble. Warriors start to define their place in society when they marry and receive a dowry of cattle. They take three wives, get three dowries, start amassing a herd. So educating girls threatens the cattle business; it threatens the Masai way of life.. To Masai warriors, education is a raw deal.
As far as I know, all the organizations and operations facilitated by the Clinton Foundation are at work where they are at the invitation of the local governments or at least with their approval and in many cases, the projects and programs have their support and encouragement if not their cooperation. Often the local governments are running the projects. So, in that sense---that governments are supposed to represent the people---what’s being done is what the people want done.
But in many cases, it is in fact the people doing it. The people who’ll be most affected by the changes are the ones effecting the change.
At this afternoon’s plenary session, which just wrapped up, one of the scheduled speakers was Fereshteh Forough, a young Afghan computer scientist and entrepreneur who’s looking to fund her start-up company, Code to Inspire:
How do you create jobs for women in a place where their travel and employment is restricted, prevailing views about their abilities severely limited, a banking system is lacking, and getting paid in cash can jeopardize their lives?
The answer: Code to Inspire, the latest effort of an Afghan entrepreneur to empower women in her country — setting up computer labs that teach them to write software, providing a safe woman-only space to accommodate conservative attitudes, and finding them jobs cloaked by the anonymity of the internet. To address the limitations of Afghanistan’s banking system, as well as safety issues, the jobs also pay in digital currency that the women can spend online.
Needless to say, there are some Afghan people who don’t want other Afghan people to have the opportunities Code to Inspire is offering. As Forough told Neil deGrasse Tyson, who was moderating the session, “There are very high cultural limitations for women,” in Afghanistan who want careers. “A lot of families are very conservative about women’s education and job employment.”
“Is ‘conservative’ code,” Dyson asked, “for not giving them education and not giving them employment?”
“Both!” said Forough.
But a family’s cultural conservatism isn’t the whole basis of parents’ reluctance to send their girls to school or let their daughters pursue jobs away from home. Afghanistan is a war zone, after all, and even in areas not controlled by the Taliban there are enough fundamentalists that girls and women who want an education and a career are putting themselves at great physical risk. What parents, no matter how well-meaning and progressive, “want” to send their child out the door to school only to have acid thrown in her face? And where that’s the case, can it really be said that those parents don’t want girls to go school?