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It takes more than a cow, but…girls still count

By Amanda Glassman, Director of Global Health Policy at the Center for Global Development, and Miriam Temin, co-author of Start With A Girl

In her blog post on Aid Watch last week, Anna Carella took on the “Girl Effect,” using some faulty logic and evidence oversights. Marketing may have over-simplified the message in the translation of research to advocacy in the campaign, but let’s take the post point-by-point:

[The campaign…] relies…on the view that women are innately more nurturing than men, and that women’s natural strengths lie in the home as the “chore doer” and “caretaker.”

The point is that investment in women directly benefits their children and to a larger extent than if benefits were provided to men. For example, Ben Davis’ paper The Lure of Tequila or Motherly Love: Does It Matter Whether Public Cash Transfers Are Given to Women or Men?.  There is also the huge literature on the positive effects of female education and income on child health and nutrition outcomes (here).

Anna suggests that we instead focus on “structural factors that underlie men’s apparent disinterest in the health and education of their children.” Good luck with that. In the meantime, we’d like to see aid agencies put more money into proven cost-effective strategies: girls’ education, delaying age at marriage, providing greater access to family planning and supporting cash transfers for poor mothers of young children.

The “Girl Effect” is about the community-wide and intergenerational benefits of investing in girls during their adolescence; based on the premise that there are high costs to the counterfactual. In India, for example, adolescent pregnancy generates $100 billion of lost potential income, equal to almost two decades’ worth of aid (Chaaban et al 2009).

This approach does not preclude work with men and boys. In Brazil, for example, Promundo influenced young men’s gender role attitudes, leading to healthier relationships, fewer sexually transmitted infections, and more condom use.

What poor countries need to stimulate sustainable growth are not women taking out loans to buy cows, but better governance and better terms of trade with rich countries.

There is impact evaluation evidence that microfinance –like insurance and cash transfers- increases the accumulation of productive assets and smoothes consumption, both of which are good for helping poor households escape poverty. Better governance and reduction of trade barriers helps with economic growth, which is good for poverty reduction.  But there is no automatic reason why donor policies and activities related to governance and terms of trade would benefit poor adolescent girls in the near-term or be more effective than the better-studied policy options described above.

…women in developing countries already make up a larger proportion of the workforce on average than women in industrialized countries, and yet development is stalled.

Leaving aside the difficulty of defining what work and workforce means, according to 2010 UN estimates, women’s labor force participation as a share of total employment remains below 30 percent in Northern Africa and Western Asia; below 40 percent in Southern Asia; and below 50 percent in the Caribbean and Central America. The gap between participation rates of women and men has narrowed slightly worldwide in the last 20 years but remains considerable. In OECD countries, 60-80 percent of women participate in the labor market. If you want to make a link between the share of female labor force participation and economic growth, this would be a better approach. And according to that study, greater female labor market participation is positively associated with growth. Finally, other research shows that greater female labor market participation improves child schooling attainment and health, probably via income effects.

Increases in domestic violence have been observed among some female microloan recipients.

While this may be anecdotally true, there is research demonstrating that microcredit, when combined with training on gender, reproductive health and violence, can reduce domestic violence and other social ills. Examples are the IMAGE project, BRAC, etc.  In the Latin American evaluations of conditional cash transfers to women, there has been no evidence that transfers increased domestic violence. Instead, there is evidence that women enjoy new respect and negotiating power in their domestic relationships.

The girl effect has nothing to say about domestic violence, rape, the wage gap, or the many other systemic problems underlying and reinforcing gender discrimination in poor countries…

This is inaccurate.  Not in the video, but in the motivating report Start with a Girl.

This message gives more agency to Westerners than to the girls it claims to be empowering.

I don’t know who the “Westerners” are, but if you are a “Westerner” reading this blog, know that if you give some of your hard-earned money to your government or to NGOs that are investing in adolescent girls in partnership with developing countries, it could be a good thing. Just don’t get all “arrogant white man” about it.

This entry was posted in Aid policies and approaches, Women and gender. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. geckonomist wrote:

    Finally! A silver bullet for achieving growth and prosperity!

    Based on conclusive evidence and on logic !

    Thanks, now aid will benefit the poor.

    Posted January 13, 2011 at 6:04 am | Permalink
  2. Word_Bandit wrote:


    Thanks for the pointed and insightful criticism, based on conclusive evidence and logic.

    I can see that the sweeping claims to a silver bullet have been substantively addressed and we may now return to thorough-going skepticism and it’s problem solving brain children.

    Posted January 13, 2011 at 9:01 am | Permalink
  3. Word_Bandit wrote:

    BTW– enjoyed this entry. Thanks for posting.

    Posted January 13, 2011 at 9:01 am | Permalink
  4. Trent Eady wrote:

    I think we should take Anna Carella’s warning about gender essentialism seriously. When we talk about differences between women and men, we are almost always talking about socially constructed differences. It would be a great shame to characterize an underlying social inequality as just a harmless, immutable ‘gender difference’.

    Posted January 13, 2011 at 9:05 am | Permalink
  5. V K Madhavan wrote:

    Simple saying in parts of rural India. Invest in a girl and you can influence three families. The family she is born in, the family that she is married into and those of her children. What better value for me do we require?

    Posted January 13, 2011 at 11:48 am | Permalink
  6. Matt Richmond wrote:

    “Anna suggests that we instead focus on “structural factors that underlie men’s apparent disinterest in the health and education of their children.” Good luck with that. In the meantime, we’d like to see aid agencies put more money into proven cost-effective strategies”

    Perfect example of focusing on easily measured solutions rather than underlying issues. Love the snark, though.

    Actually, I don’t totally disagree. I do disagree with the dismissiveness, however, because her point is not completely off base. The lack of focus on men when dealing with gender issues is really frustrating. The direction from which we approach the issue will decide how adaptive to the needs of local communities we are. Focusing programs on women rather than on the social inequalities as a whole will, inevitably, decrease the effectiveness of what we’re trying to do because it lends bias to proposed “solutions.” Just naming an organization the Girl Effect is inherently going to skew the type of donors, the type of people working for the organization, and the conclusions that they come to when evaluating a community’s needs. While there is certainly a large amount of literature pointing toward the benefits of aid for women directly, the generalizability of that data to every community is limited and is irresponsible.

    Honestly, I am not particularly critical of the Girl Effect in and of itself. I’m critical of having a women-centric approach, period. We need more dynamic thinking than such an approach has a tendency to elicit.

    Posted January 13, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Permalink
  7. I understand both sides of the coin but The Girl Effect has been very successful, while simple in it’s approach, about creating awareness around the issues that face girls in developing countries. That’s half the battle – getting people in the U.S. to care.

    I completely disagree with the last claim that The Girl Effect gives more agency to Westerners. We’re currently building a hostel for girls in the Everest Region of Nepal because 70% of girls drop out of school after the 10th grade. These girls come from rural areas where higher education is not available and the district headquarters is too difficult to reach both financially and geographically. We interviewed several girls who would benefit from this endeavor and they were all emotional at the prospect of continuing their education beyond the 10th grade. Do we know if these girls will help lift their communities out of poverty? No. Is there more of a chance if they are educated? Certainly.

    I’m not advocating for blind support. Yes, organizations need to be accountable to donors. But I don’t understand how campaigns to create awareness around important issues can be viewed as negative.

    Posted January 13, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink
  8. M. Nelson wrote:


    While including and educating boys and men is indeed part of the solution, addressing the needs of the adolence girl before she turns 12 is the driving force behind the GIRL EFFECT. Boys share some commonality of needs but girls have distinctly different ones; high risk of death or disfigurement from childbirth, historical and cultural marginalization, forced early marriage with men, the highest rates of illiteracy, contraction of HIV/AIDS, endemic poverty, etc..

    Also, it’s a frustrating thing when support of women and girls are lumped together as if each groups needs are interchangeable. Girls needs are definitely different than that of adult women. Or boys. Or men. Not to be redundant, but that’s why it’s called the Girl Effect.

    Fnding, addressing and supporting the girls themselves is a strategy that hasn’t been tried on any broad scale measure before. It is imperative that we continue to study and apply the emerging data which shows it DOES make a difference…..

    …..for everybody.

    Posted January 13, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Permalink
  9. Matt Richmond wrote:

    @ Nelson

    I do not disagree that there are many areas where girls need special focus and special attention. Certainly there are. My issue lies with the original video’s assertion that focusing on girls alone is a magic bullet for everyone’s problems. Or even the magic bullet for fixing just gender issues by itself.

    While I recognize that this may not be the actual stance of the organization when you evaluate it more deeply, the way they portray themselves to the public is important. The things they say to the public are important. Videos like that influence not only public perception of how we should be focusing on aid and development, it influences the actions of organizations in the long run because donor expectations are going to be based on those clever little publicity campaigns. Magic bullets have been a part of whats wrong in development since… well… forever. I don’t really disagree with anything you said, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with an organization having a niche, but the approach needs to be more nuanced than “girl->school->cow->everything’s better everwhere.” It’s an irresponsible way to portray the issue to people who don’t understand the intricacies of development and gender inequalities. We absolutely need to stop this one-world/one-solution, top-down, what’s best for one community is best for all communities approach.

    No, I do not know a lot about this organization and I haven’t done much to change that (yet). But that falls directly into my point. As an outside observer I can tell you exactly what the message looks like to someone who isn’t caught up in what they’re doing. That message is simplistic, it’s misleading, looks like a magic bullet, and needs to change.

    Posted January 14, 2011 at 12:14 am | Permalink
  10. Mr. Econotarian wrote:

    “better governance and better terms of trade with rich countries.”

    The question is how best to achieve that. It is a political effort, and possibly also a cultural effort in many places, to move people away from socialism and to freer markets where both men and women can participate in formal jobs and are able to tap into FDI and other capital to improve their productivity.

    Unfortunately, most people in developing countries don’t like foreign NGOs coming in an proselytizing foreign political concepts.

    Posted January 14, 2011 at 2:51 am | Permalink
  11. One quick thing to toss in here re: the lack of focus on men. There is an immediate tendency to assume that the problems of women in many developing countries is as a result of something the men do, or do not do. That assumption needs some examination and understanding which will vary widely by country. In Nepal, where I live much of the time and where I also work, it (lack of women’s rights) is and is not something rooted in the male population. As you dig deeper you’ll discover that the women have more to do with it all than it may first appear. It’s a complicated structural matter. Mothers must depend on sons in the future for support. Mothers therefore tend to raise their sons to be like little princes so as to curry their favor in the future. In short, the boys have been raised to behave as they do and taught by the mother to believe they are superior in every way to their sisters. Mother-in-laws, the brunt of many jokes in our own society are the instigators of many domestic disputes. When a boy marries it’s the duty of his wife to care for his mother and father. The mother-in-law, quite rightly portrayed in many Bollywood movies as a person who is never satisfied that the wife rises to the standard her son deserves quite often demands the son beat his wife to cure her of her laziness. I am not making that up. I have seen it over and over in many households including my own dear Nepali mother-in-law. Point being that the most effective way to end this generational cycle of violence in the home is target the women primarily and men, secondarily. While that seems counter-intuitive, domestic violence as being discussed herein, is also being viewed as if its causes and hence cures, are the same as western culture. It’s not and a deeper understanding of what goes on inside a Nepali home and the dependency of the family on the boy-child is necessary. It’s not all that simple and certainly I am making broad and sweeping statements here, as after all this is a blog and not a research paper. All that said, I 100% agree with Nike in this matter. Target the girls and you can impact future generations, even if it’s sometimes not perfect, it’s way better than any alternative put forth to date. It’s useless to figure out who is to blame for how things are. Things are as they are. When women have economic security that is theirs and theirs alone, they will invent a more perfect solution.

    Posted January 14, 2011 at 10:52 am | Permalink
  12. Matt Richmond wrote:


    I don’t think anyone would be willing to say that there aren’t areas where women should be the main focus. In your case it may very well be true that the vast majority of resources should go toward providing women the resources necessary so they don’t need to rely on their sons, education, etc. The worry is that we go into areas assuming that ALL areas require exactly that. Top-down versus bottom-up solutions.

    Posted January 14, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink
  13. M. Nelson wrote:


    First off, thanks for your continuing thoughts on this issue. It’s an important topic and deserves our attention.

    If, like you mentioned, you have not taken the time to delve more deeply into this topic, I’d invite you to do just that. The Girl Effect website presents in-depth research from their strategic partners, to substantiate their position of focusing attention, energy and monies on adolescent girls as agents of change. If, for no other reason than to encourage you to investigate further, there is a eye-popping statistic which shows that for every $1.00 spent on international aid in the developing world – .05 cents is allocated for adolescent girls specifically. ONE HALF a cent! Yet, if girls have the opportunity to earn income (by finishing school, delaying marriage and childbirth etc. ) they re-invest in their families and communities at double to triple the rate of boys.

    Without delving into the reasons such a discrepency exists (hence the blunt comment from Amanda and Miriam wishing Anna good luck with that), even a modest increase in support, say .20 cents for every dollar could have an immense ripple effect.

    This isn’t a “magic bullet” campaign. It’s justified by ongoing research showing investment in girls pays rich dividends to families and communities and it’s done by partnering with organizations, both foreign aid based and local, already operating in country. And, when looked at more closely you’ll find it’s not “a one size fits all” methodology when it comes to application in the field.

    So, take a look, and hopefully you’ll agree, it just makes sense to increase our investment and support (even modestly) of girls specifically when it has such a huge upside.

    And, interestingly enough, there doesn’t seem to be a downside for boys or men from doing doing just that.

    Posted January 14, 2011 at 8:36 pm | Permalink
  14. TK wrote:


    While you’re comment is perfectly valid and it is overly simplistic to simply assume girls = good, boys = bad, your examples remind me a bit of the structure of FLDS Polygamist families. There are more wives than husbands, obviously, and quite a bit of the abuse is instigated by mothers or even daughters. But in this case you’d still need to look at these actions within context. These women are brainwashed to believe that they are lesser beings and their god-given role is that of mother., and often the abuse is a case of ‘My husband is angry, this will happen to someone, how can I make sure I am not the victim here?’ Add to that that they have swallowed the idea that they, themselves, are inferior and a burden on their families and society: you cannot underestimate self-hatred, whether it be based on personal abuse or societal values.

    The only real power they can ever hope for is that over ‘real’ full humans aka men aka their sons and husbands. It isn’t overly optimistic to assume that, if girls and women were considered full human beings and given personal agency and the ability to achieve their own goals outside a very narrow field, the home and family, and without fear of retribution, their abuse of and contempt for members of their own gender would lessen.

    Posted January 16, 2011 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  15. jmdesp wrote:

    > there is a eye-popping statistic which shows
    > that for every $1.00 spent on international aid
    > in the developing world – .05 cents is
    > allocated for adolescent girls specifically.

    Can you give a reference ? That number is really small, even if I can see how readers will understand it means that only 5% of aid is of any help to adolescent girls whereas I suspect that calculation was made by taking into account only the help that was specifically dedicated to adolescent girls, and *not* the whole percentage of help that ends up aiding them.

    Posted January 17, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink
  16. Sarah wrote:

    I just wanted to add that it is a shame that the authors of this post chose to select comments from Anna that allowed them to put forward their already quite well-known case, rather than confronting her criticisms head on.

    Anna is aware of the pragmatic appeal of ‘The Girl Effect’ but she was cautioning against where such an approach leads and the values that might underpin it. The authors of this post did not address this concern and only went on to reiterate how practically valuable the approach is.

    Even in the UK, child benefit is paid to the mother rather than the father on the basis that she will spend it more effectively than him. This may be borne out by statistical evidence and therefore might convince us that it is the best way to do it. Yet it confirms a prejudice that mothers are better at taking care of their children and thus SHOULD take more of the burden of child-rearing. Is this fair to either mothers or fathers?

    Posted January 18, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink
  17. Michael wrote:

    “There is impact evaluation evidence that microfinance –like insurance and cash transfers- increases the accumulation of productive assets and smoothes consumption”

    Can anyone point me in the direction of these evaluations?

    Posted January 26, 2011 at 3:13 am | Permalink

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by William Easterly, William Easterly, Josef Scarantino,, auedu285 and others. auedu285 said: RT @IdealistNYC I love it when @aidwatch facilitates good debate. Snark and counter-snark in "Girl Effect" debate […]

  2. […] Blog wars on “The Girl Effect” – Aidwatch and Rising Pyramid got into an interesting debate over the effectiveness of “The Girl Effect”, an initiative launched by the Nike Foundation in 2008 that has continued to gain attention over the past couple years. Be sure to read the original critique at Aidwatch, the response at Rising Pyramid, and yet another response on Aidwatch. […]

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