The Butterfly Effect

I have been traveling the world all my life now and I have never gotten used to adjusting and assimilating seamlessly from one extreme environment to another.

From Davos to Kigali

The butterfly effect is a metaphor for the concept that small, seemingly insignificant events—like the fluttering of a butterfly's wings—can produce tremendous and unanticipated consequences. In this blog, Zainab Salbi, the founder of the humanitarian group Women for Women International, explores the often untapped and under-appreciated capacity of women around the world to cause major and lasting change for good.

Read Zainab's previous blog post here.

Right after my trip to Davos this past January, where I participated in the World Economic Forum representing my work with Women for Women International, I flew to Rwanda to participate in our annual staff retreat, where we reassessed our implementation plans that are aimed to help women survivors of war in countries such as Rwanda rebuild their lives. I have been traveling the world all my life now and I have never gotten used to adjusting and assimilating seamlessly from one extreme environment to another. And in the case of Davos to Kigali, these environments are drastically different.

Davos is a place that holds the richest and most successful people in the world and stands in stark contrast to Kigali, home to some of the poorest people in the world and the site of a horrible genocide in which more than 800,000 people were killed and 500,000 women were raped in the span of 100 days. Emotionally, such transition always makes me frustrated at the injustice in this world. Small things such as the price of a shirt in Davos can literally help a whole family in Rwanda survive for an entire year–help the parents to get a job and the kids to go to school. The gap between the rich and the poor always frustrates me, even though I know that world is never a just place. The important point is not judging those who have or have not, but how we share, help and reach out to one another.

The more mundane issue of packing for such different environments in one trip is always challenging. Honestly, it is never an easy thing to try to fit all my clothing into one suitcase when I have to pack for Davos - a place where you have to put on your fanciest and warmest clothing (mine a courtesy of Kate Spade ϑ) that will keep you warm while surrounded by snowy mountains and great ski slopes - to packing for Rwanda, where you need light fabric allows you to cope with the hot weather of Rwanda with its lush greenery and bright red soil. Here you need clothing that lets you move freely, sit on the floor if needed, talk, dance, cry and laugh with the amazing women who have survived horrors but are still holding it together with their amazing resilience.

Yet, while so many things may be different between Davos and Kigali, here is the one thing that is not: new and creative thinking, although these two concepts are defined a bit differently in each place. Participants at the World Economic Forum are focused on various intellectual concepts of innovation and creativity, ranging from a new $175 computer where you can lease your software on a monthly basis for $4 per month, to the latest developments in solar car batteries that Holland and a few other countries are pushing forward in their national agenda; from discussions among business leaders on the value of values in business, to discussions among religious leaders on how religion can better create a dialogue of peace among people in the world. Nevertheless, very little discussion takes place about the impact of gender inequality and women's marginalization on so many sectors in the world. Despite concentrated efforts to increase women participation at the World Economic Forum, women still represent between 15-18% of the participants. And while the discussion of gender equality has shifted from panels scheduled in the 7am time slots (i.e. only women attend) to the 9 or 10am time slots (which means more participants), actual gender equality physically and in principle is still significantly missing in the forum that prides itself for the latest, most creative and innovative thinking.

Rwanda, on the other hand, is still struggling to introduce technology in its country (though there are some very creative cell phone projects going on). It is still addressing the very basics in life necessities--for example, ensuring that all kids are going to school, that all people have access to health services, that men and women are using condoms to prevent HIV infection or that they are acquiring basic skills to get jobs. These are among many other things that a country, which only 16 years ago suffered from horrible atrocities, is trying to achieve in order to rebuild itself morally, physically, economically and educationally as it attempts to encompass every definition of rebuilding a nation. But, here is one area where Rwanda is ahead of the World Economic Forum, ahead of Davos, Switzerland itself, and ahead of France, the US, the UK and just about any other country that comes to your mind: Gender equality and women's full participation.

You see, Rwanda recognized that progress cannot happen without a principle shift aimed at stopping the exclusion of more than half of the population and ensuring women's full participation in the rebuilding of their country. Only 16 years after the genocide, Rwanda now has the highest percentage of women parliamentarians in the world (56%) and more than a third of cabinet positions. Every mayor, governor, and minister must have a gender subgroup as part of her or his team and must incorporate a gender sensitive budget that aims at ensuring women's full access and participation in all national plans. The commitment to women's full participation comes from the top leadership, which is from the President of the country to every government official, who as they signed up to be representatives of the government also meant providing support and commitment to gender equality.

Rather than starting with technology as the definition of innovation, Rwanda started with simple concept of gender equality as the foundation of creative thinking. Progress and growth can not be sustained if it is based on a foundation of inequity and the exclusion of more than half of the population. I wonder when the most successful participants at the World Economic Forum will realize that with all the exciting discussions the forum provides, the most essential one is still missing in the 21st century. I wonder how long it will take for the participants portfolio at the World Economic Forum in Davos to mirror the gender representation that Rwanda has reached in such a short period of time. There are many ways of celebrating progress - I choose to celebrate the one that values gender equality as a prerequisite to all other progress to happen and be sustainable. And as I sit in the comfort of my nest in New York City, I realize that a lot more needs to happen in this country and in this city for full equality to take place.