11th May 2015
Cherie Blair is the wife of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was in power between 1997 and 2007. After graduating from the London School of Economics, she became a barrister, later starting Omnia Strategy LLP, an international law firm that provides strategic counsel to governments, corporates and private clients. She is involved with a range of charity work and, in 2008 established the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, a charity which supports women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging markets.
Q: What were your experiences as the wife of the Prime Minister?
A: It was an amazing privilege to be the wife of the Prime Minister. To have a front row seat at so many political and diplomatic events in our country, without having the responsibility of actually making the decisions, which of course describes the role of the spouse of the Prime Minister: it’s somebody who has a position, but no power. When I was in Number 10, I tried to use the position I had to support my husband in the things he held to be important, and to pursue some of the things I care about, including, of course, the women’s issues that I still work on today.
Q: What were the highs and the lows of being in this position?
A: That’s quite a difficult question. The highs were certainly the outstanding people I was able to meet. Firstly, as a Catholic, it was a huge privilege to meet two Popes and to attend the funeral of John Paul II. I also met the Queen, two Presidents of the United States, Bill Clinton and George Bush, as well as Nelson Mandela, although I had already met Nelson Mandela before my husband became Prime Minister, as the traditional links between the anti-Apartheid movement and the Labour Party go way back almost to my youth. Meeting these great people definitely constituted some of the highs. But I would also include learning so much more about the good work that lots of non famous people do in our country and abroad. As far as the lows are concerned, well I suppose one of them is being photographed in my nightie on 2nd May ‘97, as I opened my front door – this was before we moved to Downing Street! I can laugh about it now but it didn’t feel that funny at the time.
Q: What are your objectives for your charity, the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women?
A: I was brought up by strong women, after my father abandoned his wife and two children when I was eight. My mother and my grandmother were determined that my sister and I would have the education that they didn’t have – neither of them had had any schooling after the age of 14. So for me, the idea of strong women is a very big thing, as is financial independence for women, because my mother was left with no income, literally holding the babies. She did very well to get where she ended up, as a manger in the travel business, but she had to start from scratch, working in a fish and chip shop, to do that. That’s why I wanted to do something that promoted the financial independence of women, and also because of what I had seen across the world, I felt that there was a real need to promote that in developing and emerging economies. The Foundation works in 80 countries across Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and we will be launching a new project in Latin America next year. Our aim is to support women entrepreneurs to build their confidence, capacity and access to capital, so that they can establish and grow their own businesses and have a stronger voice in their societies. It’s something I’m passionately committed to.
Q: And where do you think the charity has been most effective?
A: Well, I think we did two things which were very effective. One is that we wanted to focus on what are called SMEs (small and medium sized enterprises). A lot of the work done in the developing world, and particularly with women, focuses on micro-finance and women working inside the home making extra money and, of course, that’s important. But I wanted to focus on those women who already had businesses, who actually employed not just themselves, but also the people in their wider communities, so becoming drivers of development. That was one thing, and I think it was right to be focused on an area which people hadn’t been looking at in 2008 when I set up my Foundation. Now happily everyone is saying that we’ve got to do more to help women with small businesses. The other thing that my Foundation focuses on is the use of technology. That’s again because of my own experience. I would never have been able to do all I did in my own career without the use of technology. I wanted to see whether the flexibility, and the ability to upscale and to reach more people that technology brings, could be applied not just to fortunate women like myself, but to women in emerging and developing economies. We’ve done that really successfully with our mobile phone projects. For example, one of our projects delivered business training and tips via text message to over 100,000 women in three countries: Indonesia, Tanzania and Nigeria. We also run a global mentoring platform, where we’ve got 1,800 women teamed with 1,800 mentors. Each mentee-mentor pair works together over the course of a year to achieve key business goals for the mentee. We now have a global community in up to 80 different countries, and we are really using technology to enable women to access support and break down the barriers they face in setting up and growing their own businesses. One of our mentees describes her mentor as her “invisible friend” who walks with her on her business journey.
Q: What do you think is the future of philanthropy in Africa?
A: I think the future of philanthropy, not just in Africa, but across the world is to be a lot more focused on target: I believe that help should be a ‘hand up’, not a ‘hand out’, and that it’s really important to improve people’s capacities and skills so that they can stand on their own feet. That means that instead of doing things for them, you are helping them do things for themselves. I think, particularly with women entrepreneurs, and indeed with women in general, if you enable them to make choices for themselves and their families, you find that they make choices which actually benefit not just their families, but the wider community and wider society. This is the origin of the statistic that is always bounced around in development circles: if you give a development dollar to a woman, 90% of it will be reinvested in her family, and if you do the same with a man, it’s only 30-40%. Now that upsets me, because I have three sons and only one daughter, and I have a husband who is not a man who only invests 30-40% of what he has into his family. There’s a real problem here, where we seem to have created across the world a society where men doing things like my father did and abandoning their families is just regarded as ‘that’s what men do’, and I want to say ‘that’s not what men do’. Good men actually do care about their families, good men do contribute to their families, and it is unfortunate that those men are pulled down by the other men, who may not even be doing 30-40% but just 1%. For this reason, it is very important to me that men are involved in the work of my Foundation – for example, around 20% of the mentors in our Mentoring Programme are men. That’s fantastic, and I would love even more men to get involved!
Q: What African country are you most optimistic about?
A: It would have to be Rwanda, I think. My first visit there was in 2005, after the Gleneagles [G8] summit. I was very keen to go because I was a lawyer and I was interested in what they had been doing in relation to war crimes and crimes against humanity. But while I was there, I became fascinated by the fact it was already a society where women were really playing a strong part. And since that time, my Foundation has run projects in Rwanda, and we have one at the moment, called ‘Skilling for Change’, which I visited in July. Thanks to funding from Accenture, we are working with CARE International to support 15,000 women, helping them with business development and financial literacy training, access to financial services via mobile phones, and mentoring. We’re half way through the project, and we’ve already reached over 8,000 women, so we’re well on target. It was fantastic to meet some of these women and hear about how the training we are providing is making a difference to their lives. One woman I met used to have a small business growing and selling vegetables, but after attending our business training she decided to take out a loan to buy fertiliser and now she has a more successful business selling fertiliser not only in her village but to the surrounding areas as well. By giving this concerted help to women, we can help them contribute more to their own societies.
Q: Who is the most interesting person that you’ve met?
A: It’s so difficult to identify one person. As I said earlier I’ve been very lucky in the number of really outstanding people I’ve met, who were all of course very interesting. But in the end it’s the people, particularly the women, that I’ve met around the world who aren’t famous outside their own village or their own town, but who are absolutely the bedrock of their community, especially when, sometimes, terrible things happen. We’ve been helping women build up businesses in Sierra Leone, for example, and they’re doing really well, but they’ve had to cope with the terrible impacts of Ebola. Naturally you can’t run a business in a country where people can’t move around because of Ebola. One of the women our project supports is Gladys – she had to make a number of staff at her guesthouse redundant last year. Our project has helped women like Gladys to put cost-cutting measures in place to ensure their businesses survive the crisis, but it is the resilience of the women themselves that is truly inspirational. The way they have coped with that level of adversity is a lesson to me whenever I feel a bit down; I wonder if I could even begin to cope in the way they have? So they’re the truly inspirational people. And I know there are people, not just across the world, but in our country too, who do that. In fact, I would say that my mother was one.
Q: Last week was the General Election, and David Cameron got re-elected. Do you think that Samantha Cameron is happy that this has happened, or do you think that she wants to get her past life back?
A: Well, I’ve met both David and Samantha Cameron on a number of occasions, and we get on well, but I wouldn’t dream of speaking for her. I’m sure though she has feelings like any other spouse of a Prime Minister: happy to see her husband succeed and conscious that being Prime Minister is a really difficult and stressful job, and that means that he is going to have a lot on his hands over the next few years.
The Cherie Blair Foundation can be found at http://www.cherieblairfoundation.org/.