Thought Leader: Mary Ellen Iskenderian

April 13, 2012

CREDIT: Wikipedia (CC).

As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with Mary Ellen Iskenderian, president and CEO of Women's World Banking, a network of microfinance institutions and banks.

DEVIN STEWART: Mary Ellen Iskenderian is the president and CEO of Women's World Banking, the world's largest network of microfinance institutions and banks.

Mary Ellen, great to see you here. Thanks for coming.

As we said, we are really trying to take a pulse of what people with responsibility, people with ideas, people with unique experience in the world, see as the important ethical questions of our time.

The first big question we have is: Is there something that you have noticed over your career, over your experience, that suggests that we live in a morally distinct period of time in history? Is there anything that comes to mind when you think of do we really live in a different time today; and, if so, what is that thing?

MARY ELLEN ISKENDERIAN: I am by no means—and anyone who works with me can vouch for this—a technology expert. But while the impact of any technology over time has had enormous impacts on people's lives, it does seem like the pace of technological change, the rate at which technology is coming into our lives and changing them and shaping them, has dramatically increased.

I have been doing a great deal of work more recently in some of the mobile technologies that are being used to expand the reach of financial products and services to very poor people in very remote areas. You literally have people saying things like, "Three years ago we couldn't even be having this conversation about what you could do on a telephone." The rate at which mobile telephony has expanded, particularly in the developing world—again, it's that rate of change that just seems to be distinct in the way technology is influencing our lives.

DEVIN STEWART: So is it certain types of technology, or is it the types of technology that connect people specifically, or are you thinking more broadly?

MARY ELLEN ISKENDERIAN: That's a very good distinction. I was speaking about communications technology and the different uses of it. Given that I do spend so much of my day and my life in the developing world, seeing how laptops, the computer technology, is almost discarded, is almost bypassed entirely—here in the more developed world we are still very engaged with our computers and the tablets and the offspring of that technology. But in the developing world, the role of mobile technology, the mobile phone—frankly, very simplistic phones, not even the smartphones that we are used to, although I do believe that is the next generation that will be reaching the developing world. So it's not just the communication between ourselves, but the connection of very remote people to larger systems that they had never had access to before.

DEVIN STEWART: What is the consequence of this change?

MARY ELLEN ISKENDERIAN: So far, so good. So far, it is really a question of people who had been completely denied access to information about crop prices, about what the market for a certain good that they are producing, sometimes in very remote areas, might be in the city. But that has all been very, very good.

I think you have seen in the few countries that have really been most bold in their adoption of mobile banking technology very, very corrupt cash-based systems—really, corruption—almost being eliminated. There is really no point at which people can be taking a little bit of money off the top anymore.

One of the funniest stories I have heard recently—and I think it may be apocryphal—is about the mobile banking system in Kenya, which is probably one of the most advanced in the world. Now when a policeman stops you illegally on the road and asks for a bribe in order to let you continue, he tells you to put that money into his mobile banking account, which seems unlikely, given that it is traceable.

But the technology is that ubiquitous. It is now the way people transact business with each other, through their telephones and not with cash.

DEVIN STEWART: In terms of ethics, a lot of people have different ideas of what ethics are. At Carnegie Council we are providing a discussion place, a platform for people to reflect on ethical issues. But we're not trying to presume that we have the answer or we are the source of ethics.

A very simple question: What does ethics mean to you, and is there such a thing as a global ethic?

MARY ELLEN ISKENDERIAN: What ethics would mean to me is what is the right thing to do. I don't know whether this is a uniquely American guilt burden that I carry with me, but I almost feel that as a privileged white American woman I am really least able to comment on whether there is a global ethic.

My instinct says that there probably is not, that I know too much about the way culture affects so much in people's lives to think that there would be a global ethic. But I am very conscious of my suggesting that there is as almost being an unethical thing for me as an American at this day, in this time, to suggest.

DEVIN STEWART: The tension between culture and universal norms is one of the themes that our fellows are exploring in depth. Have you ever thought about how one squares that tension, how one resolves that? It's a tough one.

MARY ELLEN ISKENDERIAN: That's a very tough one, and it is one that I come up against in my work all the time. The notion, the wellspring, of where Women's World Banking was born was at the first UN Conference on Human Rights for Women, where a group of women meeting at that conference in 1975 in Mexico City, really for the first time as far as I know, articulated this notion that human rights for women would never be fully achievable without economic rights. Then, over the course of the next three years, they came together and formed this organization, Women's World Banking, that was started in 1979.

At the heart of our mission is that access to capital, access to financial products and services, is a very, very important part of the path towards human rights, towards poverty alleviation, and towards gender equity.

So when I travel around the world and I see how utterly difficult it is for women to not only achieve anything approaching those three things in their own culture, but that the denial of them makes their lives just so difficult, the living circumstances so difficult—you know, this whole notion of empowerment—I really can't empower another person. I think it's a word that gets used far too frequently.

But it is quite remarkable to see that money still is power in pretty much every culture. A woman's access to some kind of economic power makes an enormous difference in the way she stands in her home, the way she stands in her community.

This is a very long-winded way of getting to that while I don't believe there is a global ethic, I kind of have a little bit of that Justice Potter Stewart sense of I know bad behavior when I see it, and there are some countries where it is really difficult to be a woman, and that economic empowerment of that woman would be a big step in the right direction, regardless of culture, regardless of country.

DEVIN STEWART: Would you say that this is the greatest ethical question of our time?

MARY ELLEN ISKENDERIAN: I don't know if it's the greatest. But I certainly do know that it is almost becoming a cliché for us to be talking about 52 percent of the world's population is underutilized. But, dear god, 52 percent of the world's population is holding us back from being all that we can be. The data is just pouring in at an untold rate about if you can close the economic equality gap between men and women, the benefits that redound in every other aspect of the society are so palpable.

While I hesitate to say it's the largest ethical question that we are facing, that is, in part, because it does seem like one that is relatively simple to address. If it really were the largest problem, it should be harder to get at.

DEVIN STEWART: If not that, then is there something else you think of as the greatest ethical question?

MARY ELLEN ISKENDERIAN: I guess in some ways it is related to why I find those sets of issues so very compelling and why they are what I am dedicating my life to. That is our responsibility to each other. I cannot go into a Pakistani household and learn to understand the dynamic between a woman and her mother-in-law or a woman and her husband and her other family members and not try to do something about that—not impose it, but try to understand it and then help her within a culturally appropriate mechanism to do something about that.

DEVIN STEWART: Does being more connected lead to more responsibility?

MARY ELLEN ISKENDERIAN: It certainly should, I think, and it certainly can. I was talking to a university professor last week. Simmons University has a women's leadership conference very year, and now it is over 3,000 women and it has really become quite a big deal.

I was speaking to one of the professors. She said on the one hand she is seeing young university students more engaged in the world and more connected to the world. "But," she said, "because they can send a tweet to Richard Branson, it almost makes them have the sense of, 'Because I can contact that person, I've done what I can do.' So maybe the connection also gives us a false sense of agency as well."

DEVIN STEWART: So there is a sort of trade-off?


DEVIN STEWART: What keeps you awake? What really concerns you? Not in terms of perhaps the grandest questions of our time, but what worries you?

MARY ELLEN ISKENDERIAN: Sometimes I worry a lot actually about the unintended consequences of the work that we are doing. There is this very persistent trend—and again, unfortunately, far too resistant to culture—that an activity that is an acceptable one for women to be doing—in business terms, it would be subsistence agriculture or enough to keep food on the table and to eke out a living, but not anything that anyone would consider a commercially viable business; or even in a sports analogy, women's sports prior to Title IX in this country.

But the trend that is so depressing to me is that we'll go in, we'll make this great stand, we'll make a change, we'll make a business more commercially viable, we'll make a lot of money flow in the direction of women's sports, and so you now have a lot of men coaching women's sports teams at universities, you now have—

One of the stories that I tell very frequently—and I don't know if we have time for a little anecdote here, but this one just irks me no end—the dairy supply chain between Nairobi and now Kenya for generations has been entirely controlled by women. They herd the cows, they milk the cows, they manage to transport the milk to the market in Nairobi, and then they sell the milk at market. A very good—I'm not going to name the name—international NGO that does wonderful work saw that this led to an eight-hour turnaround time for the milk, and it really wasn't a viable product. But it had supported at a subsistence level these women dairy farmers in Kenya for generations.

So they go in, they get a grant from some foundation, and they go in and provide cold-chain storage/transportation all along the supply chain, and you now have a really viable dairy business. You've got a 24-hour life for the product and it actually makes money.

So the women start to make money. The things that women invest in when they make money are things like education for their kids and improving their household and health care.

The men in the village—particularly in the village, less so in the market—saw this happening, saw this money being made, saw it being spent in ways that might not necessarily have been the way they would spend the money, and within six months of that business having turned profitable, there wasn't a single woman left in the supply chain.

I'm not saying it needs to be men or women, but there is this really uncomfortable thing that seems to happen, that once something becomes a viable business, women are not allowed equal access to it. Since I'm so much about equal access, I worry all the time that I am building into the solutions that I think I am bringing these women the seeds of their own demise.

DEVIN STEWART: It sounds like a classical ethical dilemma.


DEVIN STEWART: How does one think through this? I'm sure you thought clearly you want to do the right thing. How are you thinking it through in your mind?

MARY ELLEN ISKENDERIAN: The person who told me that story was the Kenyan head of that NGO. It was a man. He was almost telling it in penance to me, because he realized that it was the one thing they hadn't solved. They were extremely proud of this solution, and it had done everything that they had said to their funder it would do, but they had never thought of the gender issue.

I guess that's really who I feel I am in the world, is just reminding people, very well-intentioned people, to always—there is a gender lens to everything. I never believed that before coming to Women's World Banking. I never really thought about it twice. But I have now seen that it really does lurk under pretty much everything.

DEVIN STEWART: Are there often unintended consequences to your work?

MARY ELLEN ISKENDERIAN: Yes, I think there are unintended consequences in all development work. We just have to be very, very alive to what is going on and talking to the women. I think that is ultimately the answer. That's how I get to sleep at night. Women make really very, very good choices when they are allowed to make that choice, when they are given options.

We do a lot of market research on the ground, focus groups, conversations with groups of men and women together and then women alone. It's often very hard. When you've never had access to an insurance policy, you can't sit here and tell me what you would want in an insurance policy.

But then, once we have designed something that we think meets the needs that they have expressed or articulated, it's uncanny how good the choices are that they tend to make.

I'm not by any means putting women on a pedestal here. But, given choice, they really tend to do the right thing.

DEVIN STEWART: That's across sectors, across cultures, as well?

MARY ELLEN ISKENDERIAN: In the work that I do, yes.

DEVIN STEWART: It would seem like a strong case for individual freedom and choice.


DEVIN STEWART: It sounds like a good endorsement.

MARY ELLEN ISKENDERIAN: And I would make one caveat there: educated freedom of choice. I think that, as a development professional, particularly working in the financial services area, making sure that even an illiterate customer has a sense that she is knowledgeable about what she is buying.

We hear from mainstream banks, as opposed to microfinance institutions, but larger banks that are not always as used to dealing with poorer populations, that, "Yes, we'll go down-market, we'll go down-scale, but we want to work with the men because the women just ask so many questions and require so much information." Yeah, that's true, but I think that's our obligation.

DEVIN STEWART: How about the future? What do you see coming over the horizon that we should think about today that people might not be thinking about?

MARY ELLEN ISKENDERIAN: I think there is a very—again, just sticking to this area of women, more than half of the world's university students today are women. You've seen in a number of countries and a number of cultures where women's educational level, and increasingly their earning level, is starting to outstrip men's. What is the consequence of that in the household structure, in the community structure?

Are those women university students going to be allowed to achieve all they can with that? Is it going to be just another version of much of what we saw in Egypt, for example, where you've got millions of educated young men with no economic opportunity? Are we just going to do that to our women, have them very well educated and then not able to achieve?

So I think, again, it's a little bit of that unintended consequences. Education is an incredibly powerful tool, but it may not be a sufficient tool.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you make a prediction for the next 100 years? It's important to think about the past 100 years, the centennial. A hundred is almost too abstract, but hopefully one day someone will be listening to this in 100 years or reading the transcript, if people read in the future. Who knows? They might have chips in their brains or something.

Is there any type of prediction that you could put a theoretical bet on?

MARY ELLEN ISKENDERIAN: I know you're really urging me to look forward, and I'm going to start that by looking back. 2014 is your anniversary. 1914 was the start of probably the most bloody century, certainly the bloodiest war that the world had ever seen. I'd love to believe that the next 100 years would be a recognition that war and violence really are things that belong in the past century, and that if we achieve a greater equality between sexes, between classes, and a greater—and it's not just a leveling, but more an opening of opportunity—that we might be able to get ourselves past the terrible destruction that we did see in this last 100 years.

DEVIN STEWART: What's the biggest obstacle to achieving that better world?

MARY ELLEN ISKENDERIAN: I think it's a sense that the pie is only so big. I do very much understand the concepts of sustainability and that we only do have one earth and that there are such things as nonrenewable resources that we need to be better stewards of. But that's why I am so optimistic about a lot of the research that is coming out now, because it is very clearly showing that with an equalization of opportunity, the pie can be made larger, that it doesn't all have to be about territory that we fight over, that we can expand the territory.

DEVIN STEWART: What issues are being ignored today that we need to address?

MARY ELLEN ISKENDERIAN: I think it's almost a variation on what we have been talking about. The largest population of girls aged 10 to 14 that we have ever had lives today, and it will peak even further in the next decade. The opportunity to affect not only the trajectory of a girl's life but pretty much everybody else that she comes into contact with—the children that she will have, the marriage that she will form—can be dramatically improved with every additional year of education that she is allowed to have, every year that she is allowed to postpone her first childbirth.

Ignoring the enormous opportunity presented to us by this generation of girls as they come to puberty and as their parents and elders around them start to make decisions about the future that they will face—if we can arm them with education, with some negotiating skills, with the ability to bargain in their own interest—is part of the reason why we are so engaged in providing savings accounts for girls and financial education for girls, so that they know about this stuff, just as they are reaching the age where their parents may be deciding: "No, we don't want to pay school fees after you're 14; you can figure out either how you are going to pay those fees yourself or you'll take yourself out of school."

I think that problem has gotten some attention, but it's such an incredible opportunity that it should be getting much more attention.

DEVIN STEWART: You've talked a lot about education and the importance of education, obviously. What does education mean to you, because that means a lot of different things to different people? Is it mathematics and science? Is it ethical education? Is it just the basic skills? What is it?

MARY ELLEN ISKENDERIAN: That's a great question. I think it does mean different things in different contexts.

In the countries that I am most used to working in, we are seeing pretty consistently that a woman's sense of her own ability to negotiate in her household and in her community seems to be driven by three things:

  • Whether she brought any land or any property into her marriage: Even in countries where her name might appear on the title to a marital asset or something, that doesn't seem to have much of an influence on how empowered she is in the household.

  • Whether she has had formal education and more formal education than her husband: So in this context, I do mean pretty formal education—reading, writing, basic mathematics skills. Can it mean some business education? Sure. Can it mean some vocational education so that we don't just have these girls leaving school, going into the city looking for work, but are helping them make that transition? Yes. But we are seeing that essential knowledge, basic education, is a big determinant.

  • The third determinant, interestingly enough, particularly for women in rural areas, is whether they have had any knowledge of the city, whether they have had any knowledge of a larger world beyond their rural area. If they have, they bring that knowledge into the household in which they are more empowered.

DEVIN STEWART: There's a strand of ethics that advocates for cosmopolitan living and that that has an intrinsic value. Do you agree with that?

MARY ELLEN ISKENDERIAN: I'm very much a city dweller myself, so I can certainly understand that. I probably wouldn't have necessarily reached that. But we are seeing it so powerfully.

In fact, my staff and I have been joking that the tag-line of our organization should be "buy your daughter some land and a bus ticket," let her see that wider world. Apparently, even if she chooses to get back on the bus and come home to the farm, she has taken that cosmopolitan sense with her and it somehow, intangibly, becomes a part of the building of her own self-esteem.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you guess what that might be? We like to think that it's experiencing different perspectives that might do it. But what is your guess?

MARY ELLEN ISKENDERIAN: I think there's something to that. In an urban setting—Doris Lessing writes about that young women do particularly well in urban settings because you do have so many choices and that women may have been denied more choices in other settings, and then they come to the city and so much more is made available to them.

She also talks about how women can be a little bit more anonymous here, and that sometimes that can be a good thing. You can move among different populations a little bit more under the radar screen in a city than you might be able to do in a smaller town where your every action is monitored.

DEVIN STEWART: Just to delve a little bit more, are you agreeing that it is probably understanding—not really cross-cultural understanding, but getting—

MARY ELLEN ISKENDERIAN: Just a multiplicity of perspectives. I am absolutely agreeing with that. I think that has very much shaped—I am the only member of my family that lives in a city. I think it very much affects that way I look at the world.

I think the breadth—I hesitate to make too much of this—the breadth of things that are acceptable or that you say, "I've seen that before, so it's not out of the realm of the possible," and your ability to see more things that are viable ways of living your life.

I'm a huge believer in role models. I think that pretty much any woman who gets up and puts herself out there, whether she wants to be or not, is a role model, that every time she does that, there is some girl somewhere who is saying, "I never knew I could be a fireman, and look, there's a firelady on that truck." I think the likelihood of that happening in a more cosmopolitan environment is far greater.

DEVIN STEWART: Very interesting.

Speaking of role models, last question. What does moral leadership mean to you? Do we have role models today? Do we have leaders we can look to? And what does leadership mean specifically to you?

MARY ELLEN ISKENDERIAN: I have a very beautiful photograph of Eleanor Roosevelt in my office. It's actually the thing in my office that people comment on most. I think part of why I always think of her as kind of a benchmark of moral leadership is that she led from wherever she was. I think that concept of leading from behind, leading from within a group—

You know, when we look at, say, Aung San Suu Kyi, that she was leading from house arrest, as big a crackdown on her voice and on her message as could possibly be—and I have been told, or I have read, that now as she moves into the political mainstream and now really becomes a politician, does she lose that? I think that will be fascinating to watch. Will her moral leadership, now that it is not being actively hidden but publicly displayed, be as great? I'd like to think it is.

Nelson Mandela would be another example of that, in prison for 27 years, but what he did with that time and how he used that time to form moral leadership that emerged seemingly full-blown upon his release.

So that notion of leading from wherever you happen to be.

DEVIN STEWART: That's a great remark, Mary Ellen. Thank you.

Is there anything we didn't go over that you wanted to say?

MARY ELLEN ISKENDERIAN: I don't think so. I hope I've got at what you were looking for.


MARY ELLEN ISKENDERIAN: Well, I talked a lot about—the women were well represented here. I feel good about that.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you so much.