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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

The Launch of the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Washington, DC
November 27, 2012


Thank you, Sarah, and let me add my welcome to each and every one of you and just say this is a day I have been waiting for, for more years than I can count. But in reality, I know just how many years it has been, because as I look around I see many people in this room who have been partners in this kind of effort since it first began so long ago. And to know that it’s finally come together - has got to be just a feeling of great gratitude on everybody’s part.

Let me begin also by expressing my appreciation to the representatives of foreign governments as well as the leaders and advocates from the private sector and civil society, all of whom are here today and who together have made this launch possible.

Back in September two years ago, President Obama signed a Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development, the first of its kind in any United States administration. It called for the elevation of development as a core pillar of American power and charted a course for development, diplomacy, and defense to reinforce and complement one another in an integrated, comprehensive way. Secretary Clinton has ensured that the State Department implemented this directive by making certain that our foreign policy efforts help to lift people up, to lift their families up, and to lift societies out of poverty. And as she has said, this advances our own security, prosperity, and values.

Now, one of the great ways to do this is to grow entrepreneurship at all levels. It is an approach which leverages the power and potential of what the Secretary calls 21st century statecraft, in which we embrace new tools like cell phones, for example, which have an amazing capacity when put in the hands of the poor, particularly women, to transform the lives of entrepreneurs, to protect against violence, to enable access to vital information that would never be available otherwise, and to even increase economic independence and expand commerce through the possibility of mobile banking.

Through these kinds of efforts, in which we unleash the potential of innovators and entrepreneurs and leverage public-private partnerships, we are able to combine the competencies, resources, expertise, and capabilities of the three legs of the stool, if you will – government, the private sector, and NGOs. This collaboration results in our ability to not only unlock opportunity for those who have not been able to embrace it, but also tackle some of the greatest challenges we all confront.

The Secretary has noted that today we find ourselves living in a moment in human history when we have the potential to engage in those new and innovative forms of diplomacy and to use them to help individuals be empowered for their own development. And I think today’s launch clearly is an example of that in spades.

So I’m very happy to be here to launch this new 21st Century Statecraft initiative, which the Secretary just announced at her meeting with members of the International Council on Women’s Business Leadership, many of whom were able to join us here today. Vice versa, we were fortunate to have had a few representatives of the Alliance attend the Council meeting as well. Both initiatives will provide vital sources of economic opportunity and growth for people around the world, especially women. So with the launch of the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise, we here at the State Department are pleased to be able to join in what we have all created together.

Our role, in some way, was like a spark. We started with a series of stakeholder meetings, bringing together the sectors that many of you represent in the hope that we could do more in this field, one that so many of you have talked to us about over a long time. These conversations blossomed into this groundbreaking Alliance under the dedicated leadership of the Aspen Institute, and into a wonderful partnership. I want to thank the people on my staff, Greta Schettler, Natika Washington, and Emily Kearney, as well as Peggy Clark with the Alliance and the Aspen Institute who represent so much of the hard work that was involved over many, many months.

Now globally, hundreds of thousands of people participate in the artisan sector. In the developing world, behind agriculture, artisan businesses are often highlighted as the second-largest employer and often the primary source of income for people living in the developing world. In addition to creating jobs, artisan production fosters economic communities, it preserves ancient techniques and cultures, and it is essential to any healthy, sustainable development.

In regions of conflict, economic opportunity through artisan work can also promote reconciliation, healing, and empowerment. In countries from Peru to Rwanda to Afghanistan and Haiti and so many more, we have seen how artisan activities have allowed women to participate in the economy when few other opportunities existed for them.

I have seen this firsthand in my travels around the globe. I have seen women making and selling jewelry, leather products, apparel, pottery, all kinds of home decor, soaps, and so much more as they put their great talent and their great effort into producing something they hope there will be a market for. That’s where all of us come in--to help expand opportunities for artisans enabling them to improve the lives of their families, their own lives, and certainly to move their economies forward.

For example, I just came back last night from Haiti, and once again there were women, as in so many other countries, proudly displaying, in this case, their bright metal works and so much other folk art indigenous to Haiti. A few weeks ago, I was in Guatemala where I met with indigenous weavers who had teamed up with a designer and a female entrepreneur to take the weavers’ well-known traditional skills and create modern works of art in pillow cushions. Sure enough, just as they told me, I opened Elle Decor this month, and there was a feature on the pillows made by women weavers from Guatemala. And on a recent trip to Jordan, I met with a group of women business entrepreneurs, many of whom were quite successful in turning Dead Sea products into a growing market opportunity. They told me how many more products there were—from herbs to soaps, and so much more—that, but for smart packaging, could make all the difference in creating significant new market opportunities. Everywhere I go, this is the same story. There is so much possibility, which can have so much impact on economies as well as on the lives of individual artisans.

In Afghanistan, Rangina Hamidi is the founder of Kandahar Treasures—and any of you who know her, know how deeply committed she has been over a long, long time to running the first women-owned and operated enterprise in one of the most difficult places in Afghanistan; Kandahar. She utilizes the traditional fine needle embroidery that they know so well there to create a viable income for Afghan women. She now employs more than 375 women living in Kandahar. And as she would say, their beautiful artwork has allowed communities from both inside and outside of Afghanistan to see the positive hope, which Afghans can create. Every time I meet with her, she brings yet another product with her, and each one is more exquisite than the one before, and it too is the kind of work that comes out of the creativity and talent we see around the world.

In Rwanda, after the 1994 genocide, 70 percent of Rwanda’s population consisted of women who were widows. They had little means of support but they came together, Hutus and Tutsis weavers from both sides of the conflict, to organize basket-weaving groups where they made beautiful traditional sisal baskets. They were doing it to rebuild their lives, and learned how it could really be economically empowering as well.

Artisans such as Janet Nkubana, the co-founder of Gahaya Links – some of you may know her – started a weaving association to expand training for women in the art. In 2004, the company started operations with 27 employees. Today, it has over 4,500 artisans in more than 40 cooperatives across Rwanda. Now I first met Janet about a decade ago when I was at Vital Voices. Later on at a conference in South Africa, she came up to me, and said, “Remember me? And I said, “Of course, Janet. Good to see you.” She said, “You changed my life.” But I had no idea exactly what she meant.

What she meant was that years earlier she participated in a training program that we had organized for women, in this case from Africa, to enable them to learn the business skills that they needed if they were going to be able to become successful entrepreneurs. Well, Janet has certainly become a successful entrepreneur. After a meeting at our Embassy in Kigali years ago, she was sponsored for participation in a trade show in 2005, which had a transformative impact due to the huge numbers of business opportunities that resulted. She wisely understood when she heard about AGOA, the Africa Growth Opportunity Act, that this trade preference provided by the United States would make it possible for business women in Africa to grow their businesses, which is exactly what she did.

Janet and her friends have become among the most successful exporters out of Rwanda under AGOA, establishing a strong market in the United States with many significant retailers. Illustrating what can happen when one artisan who has the talent is provided an environment that enables them the ability to act on opportunity. As Secretary Clinton so often says, talent is universal, but opportunity is not. And all of you are opportunity providers.

This kind of artisan activity not only transforms the lives of the women and other artisans engaged in it, it also transforms the lives of their communities and creates a macroeconomic impact in their countries. However, often artisan contributions are economically undervalued as many artisan enterprises are located in the informal economy and well established ways to identify artisan activities through main institutional systems for trade, do not exist. As a result, quantifying the true economic value of this sector is difficult.

But that said, here’s what we know. We know that the global market for artisan goods is significant and continues to expand. Even when the global demand plummeted and international trade contracted by 12 percent in the wake of the 2008 global economic crisis, exports of art crafts actually rose to $32 billion in 2008, a figure that is nearly double the 2002 figure. So we see what potential business this represents as well.

Today, technology, consumer demand, and social awareness is making it easier for such large-scale retailers, many of whom are represented here today – West Elm, Coca-Cola, Walmart, and so many others – to source directly from artisans, allowing consumers to use their purchasing power not just to buy the kinds of products they want to buy, but also to do good at the same time.

Each company has distinctive initiatives as well to grow women’s entrepreneurship. Coca-Cola’s 5X20 campaign is an effort to grow 5 million new women entrepreneurs by 2020. Walmart’s Global Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative is providing a range of new opportunities through their supply chain to source from women entrepreneurs and support training programs. West Elm’s collaborative partnerships with organizations such as the HAND/EYE Fund are also having a profound impact on women entrepreneurs, proving both economic value and social impact in business is clearly a win-win.

Yet, barriers exist that inhibit the sector and the various stakeholders from creating greater economic returns and opportunities, particularly for women. Many of these barriers could easily be reduced through increased global collaboration. This is the conversation many of us have had in this room over many years, and that conversation has brought us to today. The small and growing artisan enterprises need combinations of product development, design expertise, market access, business training, capital, and so many other points of improvement to give them the kind of market access they can take advantage of.

Artisan support organizations have limited reach, work independently of each other, continually need to seek funding, and spend large amounts of time finding new markets. Large scale buyers, museums, and retailers who are interested in sourcing artisans’ goods often find it difficult to locate artisans that can produce products that meet their quality, quantity, and standard requirements at a reasonable price.

Government agencies may lack efficient mechanisms to invest in sufficient market interventions and donor agencies, and philanthropists that are able to invest may be limited by their resources and capacity to connect with the stakeholders and markets. Also, since much of artisan production is done in the informal sector, there is a lack of global awareness of the economic opportunity that this sector provides as well as a demonstration of its actual value.

Better integrating artisans into global commerce would increase the standard of living of many individuals and their families in the developing world, and it would also yield microeconomic benefits that could collectively transform the economic landscape of some nations. Maura O’Neill is here today from USAID, which in its Creative Economy Report stated the following: “The production and international trade of artisan goods are vectors for jobs creation and export earnings and are feasible tools for poverty alleviation, the promotion of cultural diversity, and the transfer of community-based skills.” Thanks to the activity of the Alliance and this collaboration, what is necessary will happen in ways that have never occurred before.

Recently I was in Peru and met with Luzmila Huaranca, who, like many women from indigenous communities, had no opportunity for a formal education and therefore went to work as an artisan, doing what she knew how to do. About 10 years ago, she and her husband got a little boost from USAID Peru, and that helped them to turn their skills and what they already had into a small business. With determination, they grew that small business into an award-winning enterprise. It took my breath away to see the tapestries that they had created. They were displayed as part of a conference that many of us were involved in to grow women’s entrepreneurship in Latin America. Today Luzmilla is supplying an international textile market. She and her husband have trained a network of 800 women in a dozen different communities to create their products, and they’re looking to expand even further with the help of organizations like WEConnect and Full Circle Exchange.

Organizations like the International Folk Art Market, which is also represented here today, are collaborating with organizations such as SERRV, ByHand Consulting, Alternatives, and the Federation Sahalandy to reach even greater numbers of artisans. And due to these partnerships,– the Folk Art Market in Santa Fe in 2012 enabled artisans to take home, on average, $18,253 after two days of sales. Now, that is big money for people who have rarely been able to sell at this level.

Now, the Santa Fe organizers told me that artisans who are invited to participate often can’t afford to travel from their countries to the United States. So the Folk Art Market covers their travel enabling these artisans to showcase their work in a market of the highest standard. Artisans do so well, that by the second time they return, I was told, nobody has to ask for travel money because they are doing so much better financially.

If we were to amplify these all of these types of collaborative efforts, where could we be where we aren’t today? What if governments, NGOs, artisans, retailers, and international organizations were able to partner and leverage each other’s strengths and resources more effectively to tackle those obstacles that still exist?

The Alliance aims to do just that. It will provide a central focal point for private and public sector stakeholders to leverage resources for greater impact. Organizations like Indego Africa, the West Foundation, Nest, Vital Voices, Global Goods Partners, and others will be able to better collaborate to assist artisans supply high quality goods to the shelves of high-end stores, to the front doors of internet shoppers, to the booths of international, regional, and local artisan markets, or to the glass cases of hotel and museum gift stores, such as the Museum of Arts and Design. Governments will have a market-driven resource to guide aspiring artisans to develop new talent and recognize the economic value, cultural preservation, and sustainable development that these artisans provide and represent.

Globally, our embassies and missions every day see the powerful impact that artisan products can have on communities, especially on women, and we want to be able to create greater market access to raise the commercial and cultural awareness they provide, to expand services, to build skills and capacity to create stronger enterprises. However, we know, just like you all know, none of us can do it alone. The untapped economic development potential of the artisan sector makes a powerful case for this Alliance to support, elevate, and expand the artisan sector and to look forward to working with the Alliance and other governments in furthering this global initiative.

And so, to tell us a little bit more about how this will actually work, it is my pleasure to introduce Elliot Gerson, the Executive Vice President of Policy and Public Programs at the Aspen Institute. I want to say, on behalf of all of us, that we are so grateful that Aspen has taken on this important leadership role. We know that the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise will become a significant resource for social and economic progress all around the world in the months and years to come.

Thank you all so much for what you’ve done and for what you will continue to do in the months and years to come.

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