The following is a speech given at the United Nations General Assembly this week by former investment banker Durreen Shahnaz, founder of the Impact Investment Exchange (IIX), the world’s first social stock exchange. To date, IIX has brought in $75 million from the private sector to benefit 15 million people across 40 countries. Shahnaz believes that reducing inequality will reduce conflict and lead to sustainable peace. She has launched a new five-year initiative that leverages finance to tap $1 billion and help 100 million people.
I stand before you not only as an expert on innovative finance but also as a woman whose life has been shaped by wars. During the first years of my life, in 1971, I lived through the Bangladesh Independence War, and once I became an adult and created my first start-up in New York City, I was one of the lucky few to live through the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11. I have emerged from these experiences as a defiant optimist with a relentless determination to change the way the world works and a resilient optimism that change is possible. To catalyze this change, I have enlisted one of the greatest weapons on this planet — finance — as a tool to create peace.
While I myself, as well as many of you in this room, have lived a life shaped by war, if one steps back and looks at post-World War II history – at history since the creation of the United Nations – the truth is that the world today is the most peaceful it has been in human history.
I truly believe that one of the reasons we have been experiencing relatively more peace in comparison to earlier eras is that we have evolved in how we think about peace.
In the last few decades, we have grown from thinking of peace as something we keep, to acknowledging peace as something we build. We have evolved from thinking of peace purely as a product of policy, to peace as a product of our systems. As a result, today we are advocating for sustainable peace – addressing at their very roots the inequalities and injustices within today’s world that can lead to conflict; and building peace in a new way by changing the existing systems — including the financial system — within which every being operates.
“If we don’t achieve sustainable peace, the costs will be high, very high.”
Today, there is no escaping that we live in a globalized world where everything is interconnected — ideas through the internet, people through travel, and capital through the global financial markets. However, the connections are not always smooth or obvious, and not everyone has a ticket to travel in this interconnected global highway. Globalization opens doors to new opportunity — but only to some. The divide between the winners and losers of globalization exaggerates inequalities on a global scale — creating social and economic unrest. If we can promote inclusion and close inequality gaps in our financial and economic systems, we can tackle a crucial source of conflict.
As the first Bangladeshi woman to work on Wall Street, I experienced first-hand that our global financial system is an elite club where only a limited group belong. I wanted to change that. I wanted to open access to credit and economic opportunity to even the most remote and marginalized corners of the world — I wanted to connect the Wall Streets of the world with the back streets of underserved communities. I wanted to erase the inequalities in this system that make people feel they don’t belong — the inequalities that prevent peace.
Hence, a decade ago, I started on an audacious journey to use finance to create peace. I founded IIX and its sister organization, the IIX Foundation, two pioneers in the impact investing movement based in Singapore. This is a movement that harnesses the power of finance to benefit society and the environment. IIX’s work in this space transforms finance to promote sustainable peace by creating innovative solutions to build inclusion and reduce inequalities.
Through innovative finance, we have built the infrastructure for a new financial system where all people belong. We started by creating the world’s first social stock exchange, followed by Asia’s largest debt and equity crowdfunding platform for impact investing, and most recently we listed the world’s first Women’s Livelihood Bond. The Women’s Livelihood Bond brought over 385,000 disadvantaged women of Southeast Asia to the forefront of the capital markets. It created a place for the Cambodian woman entrepreneur, the Filipino farmer, and the Vietnamese mother in the financial market — an opportunity previously not only unavailable but unthinkable to these women. This is the result of defiant optimism — the result of defiantly identifying the flaws in the existing system and optimistically setting out to change this system.
To date, the work of IIX has spanned 40 countries and has successfully impacted the lives of over 15 million disadvantaged people and used innovative finance to bring in over $75 million of investment from the private sector to build a more equal, resilient and peaceful world. IIX has now embarked on a series of Women’s Livelihood Bonds, Women’s Health Bonds and Sustainable Fisheries Bonds.
To create sustainable peace requires that we acknowledge that peace is not solely a product of policy but of today’s systems that each of us lives within. These systems are created, structured, and reinforced by the public sector, the private sector, and civil society. This means we all have a shared responsibility to build peace. We have a shared responsibility to promote inclusion. We have a shared responsibility to create a sense of belonging. Not only do we each have this responsibility but we have the capacity — especially when we work together.
“This means we all have a shared responsibility to build peace. We have a shared responsibility to promote inclusion.”
If we don’t achieve sustainable peace, the costs will be high, very high. The economic impact of violence to the global economy was $13.6 trillion in 2015, the equivalent of $5 per day for every person on the planet, or 11 times the size of global foreign direct investment. This amount is on top of the $5 trillion to $7 trillion estimated to be needed annually to meet the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. These figures may seem overwhelming; however, if we can harness the power of financial markets, which globally total $210 trillion, the figures become more manageable.
In order to tap into this vast capital market to promote sustainable peace, I present to you today the Innovative Finance for Sustainable Peace Initiative.
Innovative Finance for Sustainable Peace is a five-year initiative that aims to advance the global peace-building agenda by leveraging the power of the financial markets. The overarching mission of the program will be to use innovative financial mechanisms to unlock $1 billion, impacting 100 million lives, to drive forward sustainable peace-building efforts across the globe — in post-conflict countries, countries with high-risk of conflict and countries seeking to mitigate rising threats of violence by creating systemic social-economic resilience. The initiative will aim to achieve three underlying objectives:
- To effectively use financial markets to drive sustainable peace across the world by creating “business-worthy” companies, equal communities and a resilient planet for all
- To embed a gender-lens into the global peace dividend and shift the narrative from viewing women as victims of war to recognizing women as solutions to peacebuilding
- To galvanize key stakeholders from the public, private and philanthropic sectors to jointly create innovative financial products for peace
This is an initiative that IIX and its partners have already begun to implement. I invite you all to join us in this movement.
Today is my 50th birthday. Fifty years ago I was born into a conservative Muslim family as the fourth daughter. Growing up, my grandfather used to tell me that, according to the astrological charts, the moment I was born came once in a century – the moment was called ‘chura moni’ — the peak and jewel of a moment ensuring a child born that moment will reach great heights. My grandfather would then continue on to say, “if only you were born a boy, then you could have reached the peak.”
I stand here today, proudly, as a woman who is reaching her peak with defiance and with optimism.
Your Excellencies, I want the girl who is born today to know that she has already reached her chura moni because she is born in a world that celebrates her birth; a world where she, and all of us, belong; a world that is embracing a new financial paradigm to promote equality; and a world that is giving sustainable peace a chance.