Empowering Women and Children for Global Health at Star Island's 2010 International Affairs Conference

On Monday, I had the opportunity to speak at Star Island's 2010 International Affairs Conference on the rock shoal of Star Island off the coast of New Hampshire. It was a very moving experience as I got the chance to interact with a unique group of people -- generations of families who have been traveling to Star Island for years, enthusiastically learning new things from leading academics and practitioners working in international development in a relaxing and beautiful natural environment.

This year, the Conference focused on "Empowering Women and Children for Global Health" with a focus on the growing perspective that the world's health care challenges can be met by promoting and empowering women and children. Along with Donna Barry of Partners in Health, Ann Cotton of CAMFED and other experts in the field, I was asked to share my experiences about social entrepreneurship, microfinance and the empowerment of women. While the participants had read Kristof and WuDunn's Half the Sky and Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea, most of this learned audience had not yet heard of BRAC and its remarkable story and holistic approach to development. They were interested to know about Ian Smillie's book on BRAC, Freedom From Want, as well as my new book, Social Entrepreneurship, co-authored with David Bornstein (and even carried it in their bookstore on the island!).

Among other things, I spoke of the power of social entrepreneurship as an idea that is changing the world, microfinance as the most significant development strategy in the last three decades, women as the key to change, and the major societal change that is possible and in fact taking place in our lifetimes. I advocated that the way to change the world is to change ourselves. I shared BRAC's holistic development approach and talked about our efforts in Bangladesh to reduce maternal mortality and improve child health. BRAC's Manoshi project, for example, operates community-based interventions in the urban slums of six city corporations, currently covering a population of about 5.7 million people. The five year project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, aims to reduce maternal, neonatal and child deaths and diseases by instituting delivery centers, community midwives, linkages to public and private health facilities, community health workers and urban birth attendants.

Started in 2007, the project has already seen great successes: before the project 86% of deliveries in the slums took place at home. In 2009, only 25% of deliveries took place at home, with 33% in BRAC delivery centers and 42% in hospitals. Though the project faces many challenges, including migrations, poor sanitation and challenges with community support, we at BRAC are encouraged by the results we have seen so far in maternal mortality rates and growing awareness.

Thank you to the families at Star Island who invited me to speak and showed me a great couple of days! I enjoyed discussing the issues with you and partaking in your time-honored traditions.