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World Iranian World Bank Economist Counts The Cost Of Barriers To Women


Jan 6, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada
Iranian World Bank Economist Counts
the Cost of Barriers to Women

By Jeff Baron
Staff Writer

Washington — Nadereh Chamlou is a citizen of the world who has stayed put, an optimistic practitioner of the “dismal science” of economics.

As senior adviser to the World Bank’s chief economist for the Middle East and North Africa, Chamlou is an authority on the crucial difference women can play in the economic success of families, companies and countries. She has seen that in her native Iran, where women represent a higher proportion of the work force than in surrounding countries.

Still, even Chamlou said she encountered resistance to entering the work force.

Chamlou moved to the United States for her final year of secondary school and then college. “I was a student at Georgetown [University], so I worked at the library … having a few hours of my time, putting it to good use and earning a little bit of money,” she said. “And my classmates, Iranians, were saying” — and here she whispers — “‘Do you need money?’ And I talked to my father one time about it, and he said, ‘Yeah, people will be asking whether I support you or not.’ … So there was this issue of it’s a shame for a woman to work because that could mean that the man in the family — father, brother, husband — is not able to support her.”

Chamlou graduated from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in 1979 as her country underwent a revolution. Since then, she has worked for the World Bank in Washington and lived in the nearby Virginia suburbs, although her job has taken her throughout the world.

“It sounds like traveling is very exciting. You know, I don’t see anything more than the hotels that I travel to,” Chamlou said, laughing. “I was in Abu Dhabi … at the beginning of December, beautiful Abu Dhabi, the weather was just fantastic, and I literally did not get away from my floor to the basement where this event was taking place. … Up and down, the same elevator going up and down, and that’s all I did, and then I was just rushing to the airport to catch my flight.”

Chamlou still visits Iran, where friends and much of her family live, though not as frequently as she would like: The World Bank doesn’t operate there, so she can’t combine business with pleasure. But her enthusiasm shows as she talks about Iran and its strides to modernity.

“The place is just amazing. It is, truly,” Chamlou said. “I’m not saying that because I’m an Iranian, but when I go there, the dynamism, just what normal, everyday people do, is fascinating to me. … That they read is amazing to me. And there’s still a lot available, and there’s still a lot of news that you can get; you just have to put on your way of understanding and interpreting it.”

Chamlou said her grandmother lived in a village in southern Khorasan, and the family would visit for three months every summer. Electricity was available only from about 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. each day. “The road that went to this place was a dirt road, and it was a 12-hour bus ride to this place from Mashhad, going up and down, a totally dirt road. Today, you can go that distance in three or four hours, totally paved.”

The changes in attitudes have been just as dramatic. She talked of a boy she knew as a child, one of six children — mostly illiterate — of a worker in her father’s household. Like his siblings, he since has gotten an education, and the last time she saw him, he was taking his daughter to Mashhad to get braces. The expense was substantial, but he said that he hoped it would pay off for his daughter: He wanted her to study and become a medical professional, and he said a nice smile would help her be more pleasant to patients.

“What I have been trained for in the last 30 years in the bank … is that if you have inefficiencies, if you have barriers, in one way or the other everybody pays for those barriers,” Chamlou said. “Let’s suppose that Egypt wants to increase shoe exports. And for some reason, on the left bank of the Nile River, shoemakers face certain barriers to getting to the market, and the right-of-the-Nile shoemakers have the access. In one way or the other, everybody pays for it because the shoe exports, the potential that could be achieved, is not being achieved because some people are being held back. And I think this is the thing: What happens if half of your population is not being utilized as much?”

For most of her career at the World Bank, Chamlou was a financial analyst and evaluated projects that had been proposed, helping set the terms to make the projects financially viable. “I actually stumbled into this gender work,” she said. “But then once I got into it, I thought, this is fascinating, really fascinating. Much more interesting than current ratios and EBIDTAs [a company’s earnings before the deduction of interest, depreciation, taxes and amortization],” two financial indicators she used in her previous job.

Chamlou’s family is as international as her work: Her husband is Dutch, and though their two sons grew up in Virginia, one is in college in Holland and the other attends graduate school in Spain. (Her younger brother, for that matter, found his bride in Iceland; they live with their children in San Francisco.)

And Chamlou stresses the global impact that her work, and the work of other women, can have.

The world faces a talent crisis far more dangerous than the financial crisis, Chamlou said, and the innovation the world needs will come from its educated and skilled people, women as well as men, in the developing world as well as in the advanced economies. “We want to grow the pie because once the pie grows, everybody is going to have a bite from it. And the pie is only going to grow for more knowledge-intensive products,” she said.

Chamlou cited a 2009 UNESCO study of students entering college: In 1999, 12 million men and 13 million women in the advanced economies started postsecondary education, along with 24 million men and 18 million women in the developing world. By 2007, the numbers had risen to 15 million men and 20 million women in the advanced economies, and had jumped to 60 million men and 58 million women in the rest of the world.

“The talent pool outside the developed countries is now a multiple of the talent pool inside the advanced countries,” she said. “So the world has to be interested to know that this group — because many of them are medical students, maybe some of them have the cure to cancer — the world has to be interested to know that these people here have equal access to opportunity because that’s now what we need.”

“Gender issues can no longer be seen as a political issue or an issue of culture. No, these are becoming now international issues,” she said.