Hewlett Shines a Flashlight at Forgotten Women's Work in Poor Countries

Empowering women, typically through advocating for sexual and reproductive health and rights, has been part of Hewlett’s mission since the foundation was established in 1966. Over the decades, Hewlett has broadened its Global Population and Development program (formerly known as the Population program) to engage a broader swath of challenges facing women. 

Now, Hewlett has pushed out the boundaries of its women's empowerment funding even further with a new line of grantmaking that aims to get a better fix on the economic contribution of women's work in developing countries—and to ensure that an accurate gender lens informs economic policymaking. The initiative is described in a foundation strategy paper released last month. 

One way to think of this new work is that Hewlett will be shining a big flashlight into a part of the global economy that is now obscured in shadows, since so much women's work takes place in the informal economy or in households. The light the foundation helps to shed won't just inform its own grantmaking; plenty of other funders and NGOs will find this information helpful, too. After all, empowering women is a red-hot issue right now, as a range of players swing behind the view that this strategy is a linchpin to economic and social progress. In key areas, though, these efforts are flying blind, since there remain big unanswered questions about the role women play in the economies of poor countries. 

Spending millions to answer those questions is very Hewlett-esque: First you find the data, then you can find the solution. 

The initiative is slated to run for the next five years, and Hewlett sees plenty of gaps in current knowledge that need to be plugged. While women make significant economic contributions through work in the informal economy, this work is only measured in 41 countries. Unpaid work is measured in even fewer places.

This means that current labor statistics aren’t accurate or comprehensive when it comes to reporting the work done by womenor the gender dynamics of how economies really operate in practice. In turn, those blind spots make it hard develop good economic policyincluding approaches that ensure more opportunities for women. "The tendency toward economic policymaking that ignores gender is particularly unfortunate in sub-Saharan Africa," Hewlett points out. And that region, of course, is the focal point for the foundation's population and development funding. 

To get this work going, Hewlett has tapped the UK-based group Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), which last month received an 18-month, $3 million grant. WIEGO aims to give a bigger voice to workers in the informal economy in policymaking bodies as well as to bolster overall awareness and knowledge of these workers. 

We'll be watching to see what other groups pull in Hewlett money for this important new work. 

And as aside, we should mention that this initiative reminds us a bit of Hewlett's (much bigger) cybersecurity initiative. There, too, the foundation has identified an area where it can make a big contribution by underwriting the creation of new research and expert resources. 

More than most foundations, Hewlett subscribes to the maxim that knowledge is power.