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Davos Man meets Girl

UPDATE 12:40 pm: Readers point us to an example of a “girl-focused” campaign gone badly awry. The Girl Store markets school supplies in an extremely creepy and objectifying video that asks you to “Buy a girl before someone else does.” Sign a petition against this campaign here.

In the new issue of the e-journal Contestations, Rosalind Eybens asks, What is Happening to Donor Support for Women’s Rights?:

Recent years have seen a marked shift in official development discourse, with less emphasis on a rights-based approach and more on an efficiency approach to gender equality, a tone set by the World Bank’s 2006 action plan – ‘Gender equality is smart economics’….Other equally disturbing trends are emerging, such as DFID’s adoption of the Nike Foundation’s ‘Girl Effect’ theme of ‘stopping poverty before it starts’ by ‘investing in girls’ – an approach that entirely ignores the historically derived structural inequities that are keeping many millions of girls [and boys!] in conditions of poverty.

Davos 2011. Reuters/ Vincent Kessler

The yearly gathering of the word’s rich and powerful that took place at Davos last week is an equally good example of this new approach. “Six Global Challenges, One Solution: Women” was the not at all over-promising title of Thursday’s panel on women and society. Recent years’ sessions on women and development have also taken place within the “Girl Effect” rhetorical framework: girls are the “world’s greatest source of untapped potential” and must be seen as “a resource and an asset.” “Investing in adolescent girls” “yields a higher return in improving the local economy than any other type of investment” and is a “cost-effective tool” in “lesser developed countries.”

(Never mind that this year, to compensate for the rich world’s utter failure to achieve gender equality at the highest levels of power, Davos organizers had to make it a requirement that their top 100 corporate members make at least one of their five delegates a women, and 20 of them were unable to do so. They were perhaps outnumbered by “Davos wives” whom, according to one poignant account, the other Davos men snub as non-persons.)

The problem is that the message of the “Girl Effect,” is “profoundly anti-rights,” according to Eyben, in that:

The seeming triumph of the 1990s had been that social justice was seen as a sufficient reason for efforts to be made to secure gender equality. Women’s and girls’ well-being was an end in itself. Today, it is all about calculating the rates of return from investing in a person as if she were a piece of machinery.

Emily Esplen describes the dilemma posed by “the Girl Effect” Effect for women’s rights advocates:

Our cause is being championed but not in the way we intended; it has been sapped of political intent and reduced to a technocratic problem. DFID’s ‘unrelenting focus on results’ … incentivises and intensifies this technocratic, de-political approach to women’s empowerment, and to development more broadly.

Even our own local aspiring feminist weighs in, expanding on a discussion that took place here on the blog a few weeks ago:

The debate over the Nike “Girl Effect” video has unintentionally revealed a deep divide in approaches to development, with the two sides close to mutual incomprehension. The divide is between … the technocratic approach and the rights approach.

…The technocratic approach never really tests the proposition …that technocracy will eventually yield equal rights, despite the technocratic veneration for “evidence.” Nor does the technocratic vision consider how much “we” may violate such rights …of “them” along the way. Even if there were such evidence, it would not address whether the final state of equal rights made it “worth it” to violate rights along the way, and above all – who gets to decide?

Putting rights at the end inevitably enmeshes “us” in a tangle of paradoxes in which it will always be unclear who is benefiting from whom, or who is harming whom. Rights must come first, not last.

Related posts:
So now we have to save ourselves and the world, too? A critique of “the girl effect”
It takes more than a cow, but…girls still count

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6 Comments

  1. Michael wrote:

    I like that the article on “Davos Wives” describes Anna Schiffrin as “wife of Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz”.

    Posted January 31, 2011 at 2:22 am | Permalink
  2. Word_Bandit wrote:

    This came into my Twitter feed today. Interesting intersections, for those who are interested.

    Gayatri Chakravorty: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=garPdV7U3fQ

    Posted January 31, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink
  3. Word_Bandit wrote:

    The photos of their”winners”: overwhelmingly white, middle aged males. And they even have a “Most Beautiful.” category, if I’m reading correctly.

    http://t.co/5Qx9eua

    Posted January 31, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink
  4. Jason Kerwin wrote:

    I think you’re a little too willing to take Eybens’ statements at face value here. As a women’s rights advocate she has a stake in this game and isn’t an impartial evaluator of the evidence. More on my take here: http://methodlogical.blogspot.com/2011/01/aid-watch-vs-girl-effect.html

    Posted January 31, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Permalink
  5. Jeff Barnes wrote:

    I think this post is confusing a number of issues. First, let’s leave bad advertising for the Girl Effect and the under representation of women at Davos out of the central issue– the right’s based approach vs. the “technocratic” approach. I confess that I am sympathetic to DFID’s focus on results since the British taxpayer would probably not agree that improving rights for women is enough. Rights cannot be eaten and will not heal the sick. It is highly debatable whether rights based approaches produce better outcomes than other more technocratic approaches. Describing investment in girls as somehow exploitative of women misses the point. There is a constiuency that is focused on poverty reduction and another one focused on improving women’s rights. There is some overlap between these two constituencies in the area of “investment” in girls. It seems to me that both constituencies benefit from this overlap and it is foolish to complain that the first constituency is not respecting the ideological purity of the second.

    Posted January 31, 2011 at 10:59 pm | Permalink
  6. this buy-a-girl thing is appalling, even for one who has researched and denounced horrible media campaigns on trafficking.

    laura agustín

    Posted February 5, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink

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  4. By Aid Watch vs. The Girl Effect | methodlogical on February 7, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    [...] on January 31, 2011 by jasonkerwin The generally excellent and always interesting Aid Watch has another post today criticizing the Girl Effect. Their general point, which both their regular authors and guest contributors have tackled [...]

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