I was in Dubai last week for an event on women's economic development in the Middle East. Hosted by my Foundation with the support of JP Morgan, we brought together representatives from the IFC, the National Bank of Abu Dhabi, the Dubai Business Women's Council and women entrepreneurs from my Foundation's Enterprise Development Programme, to discuss what we can do to best support women's enterprise development in the region.
The Middle East is a key region of interest because although increasing numbers of women are receiving a good standard of education, the region still lags behind on the core issue of economic equality. On a global scale, the latest figures from the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report show that although the gender gap in education is 93% closed, the gap in economic equality has closed by only 60%.
Out of 136 countries in the study, the UAE has the best ranking for education, but is near the bottom at 122nd when it comes to economic opportunity for women. Other countries in the region face similar challenges. Lebanon, for example, ranks 87th for women's educational attainment but much lower, at 126th, for economic opportunity.
There is clearly a missing link, so while education will of course continue to be vitally important, we need also to focus on what happens after a woman has been educated. We spoke about this in Dubai last week, and in particular about what support women need in order to set up successful small and growing businesses.
Mariah Khan, head of private banking for women at the National Bank of Abu Dhabi, explained how she is focusing on women led SMEs, because she sees these as a vital driving force in the economy. The bank partners with the Khalifa Fund, dispersing loans on a case by case basis.
We talked about how all too often most banks, when prepared to offer women loans, for example, don't see this as a commercial opportunity. This is a very short-sighted view because the reality is that supporting women's enterprise development is a very good business proposition, and I'm not just talking about the sale of financial products, but about playing a more important role in advisory services, working alongside the women with whom they do business.
As Christine Lagarde, director of the IMF, said recently, "In the long race ahead, it makes no sense to simply eliminate half the contestants before the starting gun is sounded. Letting women participate more fully in economic life can yield enormous economic benefits."
Andrew McCartney, lead global SME and gender banking specialist at the IFC pointed out that a lot of entrepreneurial opportunities are hidden in the informal sector. This is an important area that we need to tap into, whether we are banks, non-profits, the World Bank or other financial institutions.
The informal sector may seem like a viable solution for employment when no other comes to mind but is problematic for a number of reasons, especially for women. The majority of women entrepreneurs worldwide operate in the unregistered sector, without insurance protection, poorly paid and without much hope of expanding to a larger scale.
My foundation's Enterprise Development Programme addresses some of these challenges by making it easier to gain access to capital and markets, delivering tailored business training and facilitating business registration. So far the programme has provided this kind of support for 2,000 women entrepreneurs to date and aims to support 3,500 by 2015.
Our first project was launched in 2011 in Lebanon with the support of the JPMorgan Chase Foundation. Working with Tomorrow's Youth Organisation and the Rene Moawad Foundation, we supported 42 women entrepreneurs in the north of the country to develop and increase the size of their micro businesses.
Despite the political conflicts that have been gripping the country and the north in particular, the project achieved significant results, with a further 49 jobs being created through the growth in these businesses.
And using lessons learned from this first group of women, my Foundation, in partnership with J.P. Morgan, Al Majmoua and Tomorrow's Youth Organization have now joined together to expand and support 200 more women across Lebanon - not only Lebanese but also Palestinian entrepreneurs - and create over 100 jobs in the local economies.
One woman supported by the project told us she had found inspiration in the very difficulties she faced running a business in a country like Lebanon. Carole Hamalaya, a single mother and owner of K-Rol, an event management company, explained how the problems had forced her to think more creatively, not simply to survive, but in order to thrive. Her dream is to be able to expand her business and employ more women in different regions of Lebanon. Her energy, drive and positive outlook were inspirational.
While Lebanon presents unique challenges, my foundation has learned much from working there, and is aware that - while each country will need a different approach - this region also faces many common challenges.
So following our discussions in Dubai, we are now looking forward to expanding our work in Lebanon and exploring how we can support more women in the wider Middle East region in the long term. Investing in women is not an optional add-on for any economy. It is a vital driver of economic growth for the benefit of the whole community.
Follow Cherie Blair on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CherieBlairFndn