Anne Mulcahy’s new pitch for prosperity

May 3, 2011, 6:04 PM UTC

Save the Children released its 2011 State of the World report today, ranking the world’s best and worst places to be a mother. At the top of the list: Norway, Australia and Iceland.  Afghanistan ranks last, while the U.S. comes in at  No. 31 among the 43 developed countries ranked. Former Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy, who chairs Save the Children, wrote an essay for the report and offered to share it with us here. Here’s our slightly edited version–important work of a Fortune 500 star retiree deploying her skills for the greater good. – Patricia Sellers

Guest Post by Anne Mulcahy, former chairman and CEO of Xerox

When I became CEO of Xerox 10 years ago, the company’s situation was dire. Debt was mounting, the stock sinking and bankers were calling.

People urged me to declare bankruptcy, but I felt personally responsible for tens of thousands of employees. I believed that together we could put Xerox on solid financial ground.

By the time I stepped down as Xerox’s CEO in 2009 — and as chairman in January 2010 — Xerox had become the vibrant, profitable and revitalized company that it still is today. What made the difference was a strong turnaround plan, dedicated people and a firm commitment from company leaders.

The same smart business approach could transform the global economy — if one critical thing occurs: The investment is targeted at women and children in the developing world.

Whenever an earthquake or tsunami takes thousands of innocent lives, a shocked world talks of little else. I”ll never forget the wrenching days I spent in Haiti last year for Save the Children just weeks after the earthquake. Such natural disasters rightly bring an outpouring of aid to the ruined families. But every day, 22,000 children under age five die in the developing world from treatable and even preventable conditions — principally diarrhea, pneumonia, malaria and complications of childbirth.

That’s more than eight million families a year left just as devastated as if an earthquake had struck.

If there’s any upside to the horror we recently witnessed in Japan, it’s that the country is strong, dedicated and well-prepared to invest and recover. If we could muster the same determination and sense of responsibility that saves a country like Japan — or a company like Xerox — then investing to save women and children who are dying in the developing world would be very good business.

Here’s the first advantage we have: We know what to do. And it involves low-cost, low-tech projects. When mothers, newborns and children have access to basic health care — skilled attendance around childbirth, vaccines, inexpensive antibiotics and anti-malarials — millions survive who would otherwise die.

When parents are confident that their children will live, they have fewer of them. They invest more in each child’s food, health and education.

As a result, many children do better in school and become more prosperous.

In turn, they have smaller, healthier families.

It is a magic circle.

The return on investment is phenomenal. The Guttmacher Institute estimates that a dollar spent to provide family planning, education and services to low-income women returns four dollars in savings on later health care.

The World Bank says that keeping a young girl in class raises her adult income by about 9% for every year of her schooling. For every year beyond fourth grade that girls attend school, an entire country’s wages rise by 20%, according to the Women’s Learning Partnership.

The magic circle, by the way, works in OUR self-interest. Women in developing countries are the biggest emerging market in this planet’s history: They number more than twice the combined populations of India and China. As the global recession eases, most new-income growth will come from developing countries, and U.S. corporations depend on that. Today, 11 of the 15 largest importers of American goods and services are countries that graduated from U.S. foreign-aid programs.

I left Xerox for the non-profit sector because it was clear to me that only public/private partnerships can pull off a turnaround plan at the scale we need to tackle global poverty. And I’ve now seen firsthand how successful partnerships work.

IKEA, one of Save the Children’s largest corporate supporters, works with us in countries where they source their products to keep children out of the labor force and in school.

Starbucks supports school construction, teacher training and health care in coffee-growing areas from Guatemala to Indonesia.

Nike supports girls’ education, health care and credit services.

Procter & Gamble teaches health and sanitation to students in Africa, Pakistan, Nepal and southeast Asia.

These investments are smart business. Do your part for women and children — for the sake of our own prosperity as well as theirs.

Anne M. Mulcahy was CEO of Xerox from 2001 to 2009, retiring as chairman last. She now serves as chairman of the board of trustees of Save the Children and is on the boards of Johnson & Johnson , Target , and the Washington Post Co.

You can help children harmed by the Japan earthquake. Text “JAPAN” to 20222 to donate $10 to Save the Children. (U.S. only. Standard message rates apply.)