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WE Lead Scholars Explore the Foundations of Economic Growth and Prosperity

In October, 19 women leaders from Afghanistan, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia came to Dallas and participated in the George W. Bush Institute’s WE Lead program. Their focus: developing ideas to promote economic opportunity in their societies.

Article by J.H. Cullum Clark November 6, 2018 //   4 minute read
WE Lead scholars with Jim Otteson

In October, 19 women leaders from Afghanistan, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia came to Dallas and participated in the George W. Bush Institute’s WE Lead program. Their focus: developing ideas to promote economic opportunity in their societies. 

The program reflects the Bush Institute’s belief in the pivotal role of women sparking economic progress and social stability in the world. 

The Scholars devoted the better part of two days discussing economic ideas led by Wake Forest University Professor James Otteson, whose numerous books include a study on the father of economics, Adam Smith. Otteson challenged the Scholars with a thumbnail economic history of the last 1,000 years, raising fundamental questions: Why, for instance, did certain countries break out in Smith’s time from centuries of economic stagnation to achieve sustained growth in human well-being, and why are some economies so rich today while others so poor? 

The Scholars mostly agreed with the consensus answers of modern economists, emphasizing the importance of the rule of law and other growth-friendly institutions. They wrestled with Smith’s justification for private markets in his famous treatise on The Wealth of Nations, raising the central question of whether individuals really know what’s best for themselves. As several of the Scholars noted, they come from societies characterized by the pervasive belief that state and religious authorities know best. 

While one Scholar holds a PhD in Economics, more than half the women indicated they were encountering free market economic ideas for the first time. 

A number of the Scholars recounted that they experienced a “lightbulb” moment when the conversation turned to the moral basis of free markets and entrepreneurship. The idea that thriving markets depend on a degree of benevolence and ethical behavior on the part of buyers and sellers struck a familiar and compelling chord, they indicated. 

SMU Provost Steve Currall encouraged similar lines of thought in his discussion with the Scholars on innovation. Currall suggested that innovation tends to come from groups of people who can achieve “boundary-breaking collaboration,” which in turn requires a high degree of trust within the group. 

The Scholars shared a variety of experiences reinforcing Currall’s ideas. Some of the women pointed to the prevalence in their state-dominated economies of powerful decision-makers in business enterprises and other organizations who owe their position to state connections, despite their lack of trustworthiness. Other Scholars recalled experiences of endemic corruption and fraud, and emphasized how status barriers hold back progress in societies where only high-status individuals – virtually always male – are considered capable of innovation. 

Women often serve as connectors across separated groups of people. They can help empower low-status contributors. By placing more trust in subordinates and associates, they can demonstrate that people who are trusted achieve better performance. Finally, women lead by example. 

One scholar, an architect and real estate developer from Lebanon, spoke of how her years of entrepreneurial success have started to transform doubtful attitudes about what women can do into grudging respect – and emulation on the part of younger women and girls. 

The Scholars frankly acknowledged the challenges their countries face. One Afghan scholar said to President and Mrs. Bush, “I try to be optimistic … all these troubles are on our minds.” President Bush urged the Scholars to stay strong. “We chose you because you’re natural leaders who can return home and help other people.” 

After two weeks with the forceful, determined, and upbeat women of the WE Lead program, it’s clear that President Bush is right.