The girl outside a remote rural school in South Asia is as sharp and vivid in Chloe O’Gara’s mind as a Polaroid image: thin as a rail, eyes big, forehead crunched in concentration, leaning against the glassless window frame of a sweltering, tin-roofed schoolhouse.  She stared intently at the chalkboard and strained to hear the teacher.  One young sibling was hoisted on her hip, the other orbited her like a giddy, pint-sized planet.

“She was maybe 9 or 10,” said O’Gara, “right on the edge of puberty. And I will never forget that girl, doing her very best, her very best, to learn to read while all this other stuff was going on around her.  Judging from her muttered words, she read better than most other kids who were actually in the classroom, had pencils in their hands and paper to touch and look at.  She was so hungry to learn, but life had other plans for her.”

Of all the revelations that O’Gara has unspooled in a career that’s spanned three decades, four continents and nearly 60 countries, none is as revolutionary—nor as simple—as this:

Child care can change the world.

O’Gara left  the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation July 1 after four years as a program officer in the Global Development and Population Program. Since 2012, she had managed the program’s investments in International Women’s Economic Empowerment, a grants portfolio created by Program Director Ruth Levine and O’Gara to address the increasingly pivotal role that women play in their economies, at both micro and macro levels.

There is a lot about women’s work that is simply unknown but what is clear, O’Gara says, “is that every economy in the world has an enormous donated workforce” like the girl at the schoolhouse. The best data suggests that if all unpaid domestic work—of which the biggest chunk is child care—were compensated, it  would account for as much as a third of a country’s national income.

Valuing child care as a part of overall production would trigger a domino effect, the result of which would almost certainly be a model for broad-based personal and economic development. Take the example of the little girl yet again: Relieving her of her child care responsibilities would surely augment her education, providing her with better employment opportunities down the road. Her younger brothers and sisters would also fare better. For children whose mothers work, verbal and social skills can be dramatically enhanced by interaction with other children their age and trained childcare workers in a safe setting.  

More immediately, though, are the expanded opportunities that would be available to the little girl’s mother. “Working is not a choice for most people around the world,” O’Gara said. “And we know that a third of women raising children today are single parents. So, if mom has to work, who is going to take care of the kids? One of the things that we do have evidence of is that women pursue better jobs when they have reliable child care because they know that they have someone to watch the kids when their child gets sick. Child care even makes women better entrepreneurs because they are better able to work the hours necessary to make their small business a success.”

O’Gara raised three daughters of her own while working many years both in the field and in Washington in the international development world, most notably for the nonprofit organization Save the Children. She is leaving the Foundation before her eight-year term limit to spend more time with her family.

In her absence, Levine will manage the Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative, which seeks to fill key gaps in data about women’s work and the factors that facilitate or impede it. This, in turn, enables governments to target economic policies so they expand and improve opportunities for women to earn a living and control the assets they have.

“Everyone wants women to become more active in their local economies,” said O’Gara, “but if they become active at the expense of their children’s development, you’re really just perpetuating this global underclass.

And that does none of us any good.”