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So now we have to save ourselves and the world, too? A critique of “the girl effect”

by Anna Carella, PhD student in political science at Vanderbilt University

Women have increasingly become the focus of international economic development projects, as exemplified by “the girl effect,” a catchphrase and global phenomenon that suggests that development projects aimed at women will succeed because women are more likely to nurture their families and communities.

The “girl effect” initiative was launched by the Nike Foundation in 2008 and has gained traction in the media (Save a Girl, Save the World,  Saving the World’s Women, and Girl Effect Could Lift the Global Economy) and at the 2009 World Economic Forum, where the girl effect panel ranked as the fourth most popular session. According to President of the Nike Foundation Maria Eitel, the goal is “to eradicate global poverty by investing in girls.”  While this campaign seems like a godsend for those who have been working to improve the lives of women, it may actually be damaging to women. Here’s why:

1) It relies on the essentialist 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.” Rather than attempting to increase men’s domestic workload, the girl effect calls on women to carry the dual burden of housework and wealth creation. Why reinforce perceptions about “women’s work” and “men’s work” by claiming that women make better homemakers? Why not instead address the structural factors that underlie men’s apparent disinterest in the health and education of their children?

2) “She will drive 70% of agricultural production. She is an unrealized economic force, accelerating growth and progress in every sector,” claims the campaign. But 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. Industrialized countries relied on technological advancements to fuel growth during industrialization, not women. It’s a myth that women will drive growth enough to pull the poorest countries out of poverty: 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.

3) The goal of economic development prioritizes the well-being of the economy over the well-being of women, since gender equality is not pursued for its own good but as a byproduct of development strategies. This may be damaging to women in unanticipated ways—for example, increases in domestic violence have been observed among some female microloan recipients. The campaign assures us that once women start working and contributing to household income, their autonomy will grow. In reality, men may feel threatened by the singular focus on women. The greatest subordination felt by women is within their own home, yet 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 (and rich ones too!).

4) The girl effect reinforces the perception of women and more generally people in developing countries as needing “saving.” In the girl effect video above, the viewer is told to “imagine a girl living in poverty.” Then the word “GIRL” is displayed with flies buzzing around the letters, drawing on a stereotypical image often conjured by Westerners to depict sad, impoverished children in developing countries. Such images perpetuate the dichotomy of modern Western world vs. the backwards, charity-dependent rest of the world. In the slideshow, Westerners are invited to “fix this picture,” and told that if they invest in girls they will change the course of history. This message gives more agency to Westerners than to the girls it claims to be empowering.

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  1. Jeff wrote:

    Prof – this is the exact kind of analysis I enjoy and why I follow your various media outlets. Now a question – how can one actually do something to help reduce poverty? If a middle class, white male is prepared to dedicate his career to “development” how does he go about it? I appreciate your opinions on how not to do it, but I am asking how to do it.

    Posted January 4, 2011 at 8:01 am | Permalink
  2. whereas the development work being done by the girl effect is based on research, this post is strictly nitpicking and conjecture. come back when you have facts.

    Posted January 4, 2011 at 8:25 am | Permalink
  3. Jeremy C-H wrote:

    I like Jeff’s question. Since I’ve subscribed to your blog I keep hoping after all the (albeit constructive) charity bashing that you’ll have a post on charities you support and information on how those of us CAN help. What can I do to help developing countries get a better government? What can the average joe do to balance the terms of trade?

    Also: I’m not entirely convinced your last point is a problem.

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

    This message wasn’t directed towards the girls it’s claiming to empower. I don’t feel there’s anything wrong with a commercial doing this. Such images perpetuate the dichotomy of developed and undeveloped worlds? So what? A dichotomy exists. With such a drive in the States towards individualism and independence (libertarianism) charities – good or bad – have to appeal to the needs and wants of the donor/volunteer to convince them to get involved.

    Posted January 4, 2011 at 8:26 am | Permalink
  4. Amanda wrote:

    On your third point:
    “…yet 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.”

    I’m curious if you wrote this analysis based on the videos and a cursory review of the website alone, or if you actually took the time to look at the “Girls Count” policy paper and other resources on the site? The paper addresses some of those concerns, though perhaps not in the level of detail you would like:

    Posted January 4, 2011 at 9:15 am | Permalink
  5. C A A wrote:

    As a “girl” born, brought up and currently living in the Kenya, I find the advert very amusing. While mine is just an opinion and not “research”….I can tell you that in my home province (the second poorest in the country), it is exactly initiatives like this that increase violence against women. Communities have structures…and in some men’s (who by the way are not beasts as portrayed by adverts in the west) roles and duties in the home are taken away by such projects…leaving them feeling frustrated and useless. I’m in no way excusing violent behaviour….but perhaps what NGO’s need to do when trying to implement such initiatives is first try and understand the structure of the community….then see what works best. While in others the girl effect will work fine….in some communities like the one I come from, it will be a disaster.

    Posted January 4, 2011 at 9:37 am | Permalink
  6. Karin L Burke wrote:

    Really good thoughts, but in the end I’m not sure that I agree. 1.Does it ‘rely’ on the nurturing myth? Does it suggest that girls should be caregivers? I don’t know that it does. Saying a girl deserves an education is not saying she needs to go to school AND raise a family. It’s saying she deserves an education. The choice between family and self is lived out in what you call “western” society, and will be (is) in developing countries as well. But that doesn’t mean girls shouldn’t have the choice, and certainly doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have equal access to education. Are you conflating issues?
    2. Women do make up the majority of the workforce – but educating women allows for better governance and technological advances, as well as parity (or closer to it) internationally. Denying education or staying with status quo leaves governance to outsiders.
    3. I think this is your strongest point, but ultimately I think it’s conflating issues again. If this were a drive for women’s safety and gender equality, you’d have a point. But it’s not. It’s an economic engine. Of course the emphasis is on the economy, rather than women’s rights. Just as women’s rights advocates put their agenda before that of, say, the environment or industry. Domestic violence, though, is not ’caused’ by drives like this one. It existed before. It’s a social evil. It’s wrong and victims deserve our support. But it’s analogous to saying women are raped because they go to a bar (or college).
    4. Again, you have a good point, but I question the efficacy of calling a thing by it’s name, expecting it to do something it never set out to do. The drive is addressed to “westerners”, not to the girls in developing countries. Is it sterotyped? Yes. Is it untrue? in many ways. Should campaigns like this not exist?…No. I think something is better than nothing. The idea of ’empowering’ is off center from the beginning, which I think you are saying but not saying. No one can ’empower’ any one else: she already has her power. We can, however, disempower. Ultimately, this is an awareness drive. An awareness, consciousness raising drive for the west. It does meet that goal. That it doesn’t end the feminization of the poor is asking it to do something it wasn’t meant to.

    But thank you, thank you for many thought provoking comments.


    Posted January 4, 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink
  7. Sam Gardner wrote:

    I like this post very much. As a male, I would never dare to write it. While gender stereotyping by man is quite unacceptable (for good reason) gender stereotyping by women goes rather unchallenged. Separating fact from conventional wisdom is not an easy task in such a charged environment.

    It reminds me of HIV/AIDS projects of old who routinely focused on the women (victims) while leaving the men (spreading the disease) unaffected.

    Posted January 4, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Permalink
  8. Laura Freschi wrote:

    Jeff and Jeremy C-H, please note that this particular post is written by guest blogger and political science student Anna Carella, not Professor Easterly.

    On your question, I think the writers of this blog have decided that giving this sort of advice doesn’t really play to our comparative advantage, though there are sites out there for that. For specific career advice, try Alanna Shaikh’s newsletter, for example ( Prof Easterly is still out of town, but you might be interested in reading some of his thoughts on this subject here:
    and also here:

    James Edward Dillard, if you could be a little more specific in your criticism, for example cite passages where you think Anna’s points are not well-supported, it might be easier to answer your comment.

    Posted January 4, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink
  9. Maxamed wrote:

    You know I never really thought about it this way. I say this video a few years ago and thought it was a great idea and even put on my own blog. Even with these arguments, its no doubt that women get ignored a bit in the development race. But even the current development programs that help women are focused on gender specific things like women health, child health, and carrying water.

    except for in sphere of health (which there is no substitute), these developments only discuss the effects of inequality not the cause of inequality. inequality is not gender or economic class specific because its all according to relativity. so it make sense that you can discuss inequality of the lesser without discussing inequality among the greater (more wealthy, powerful people).

    Posted January 4, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Permalink
  10. I have been more than slightly critical of the girl effect especially because we don’t have enough quantitative backing for it. It also ignores narratives that portend serious side effects for males. Thank God someone is finally saying something

    Posted January 4, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink
  11. joe wrote:

    1) seems to me it is based on the practical reality experienced by many families whereby men will urinate excess money up the wall whilst women will use it feed their children. Not all women, not all men, not all circs. But enough more women than men in the same situation to be a real effect.

    2) You’re comparing apples and pears. It is like saying that using a toothbrush is not going to give acceptable dental health because this is only achieved in industrial countries by having a system of affordable dentistry. In many cultures, women do a lot of the work, and assisting their development is likely to have a big effect – albeit not on the same scale as industrialising, but then is industrialisation really an option on the table anyway?

    3) Yeah, ok, in some circumstances the men get jealous when the women have more financial independence. I’m not sure that the presence of some bad reactions necessarily means it is a wholesale bad idea – and I’m not sure there is evidence that this is the norm rather than the exception. Even if it does happen regularly, women must know the risks and be prepared to take the potential abuse it might bring, surely. Or if you’re saying that any level of risk is unacceptable, then you’d have presumably campaigned against the anti-apartheid movement on the basis that it might have damaged people by bringing on them the scorn of the privileged white population. If they’re adults, surely they should be able to make their own decision?

    4) Probably agree here.

    Posted January 4, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Permalink
  12. Laura:

    As I understand it, there is a considerable bit of research that supports the idea that investments in women/girls are higher yield investments than those in the general population. Perhaps I am mistaken on this.

    The central point of this post is that investments in women’s education and economic ability might actually be harmful to women, yet none of the points included in the post cites a study that shows giving women more access to education or increasing their earning capacity has actually been harmful to women.

    Point 1 blames investments in women for stereotypes that have been around for generations. It fails to show how making this investment perpetuates those stereotypes or overwhelms the positive effects of making them.

    Point 2 is inconclusive. It fails to link the proportion of women in the workforce to stalling growth. The point of the video is that women in the developing world are underinvested in, not that they’re completely If women are a large part of the workforce in the developing world, it might make a lot of sense to invest in them, thereby making that part of the workforce more valuable.

    Point 3 argues that increasing women’s earning ability and access to education isn’t empowering to women. It also suggests that it makes them more likely to be victims of domestic abuse or rape without citation. It is possible that this is the case, but unlikely.

    Point 4 harkens back to point 1 and blames investments in women in the developing world for stereotypes that they didn’t create and fails to show how the negative effects of perpetuating those stereotypes overpower the positive effects of making the investment.

    I am not naïve enough to believe that Girl Effect is perfect or even great at what they do. I have never supported them financially and probably won’t in the future.

    But I think the claim that what they’re doing might be harmful to woman should at least be supported with some facts (perhaps a study that shows higher levels of education in girls don’t lead to higher earning capacity or that areas with more educated women have the same or lower living standards) that erode Girl Effect’s underlying assumptions.


    Posted January 4, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Permalink
  13. Andy wrote:

    The aid focus on girls is only popular because it unites the various aid NGOs on a political agenda.

    Why would anyone think there would not be negative ramifications from foreigners intruding into every family of a country to just help one half the family?

    Posted January 4, 2011 at 5:34 pm | Permalink
  14. Dan Kyba wrote:


    1) Are we confusing marketing on the part of Nike with an empirically formulated aid strategy. Marketing, for better or for worse, taps into existing stereotypes and mythologies to achieve its desired response. Companies that market themselves upon the bases of empirically formulated aid strategies put themselves at a competitive advantage if that strategy runs counter to an existing stereotype or mythology and is being tapped into by its competition.

    2) re: violence by men against women, economic development etc. in item three, are we confusing ‘some’ with ‘all’; furthermore how does all this jive with Prof. Gary S. Becker’s definition of the family as an economic unit and the rational wealth maximising behaviour of the actors within that unit; building upon this, there is his other observation that it is the market economy, that is overall, the most efficient and effective in working for racial and gender equality and against racial and gender discrimination. If this is true, which I believe it is, then I would hardly dismiss this effect because it is a ‘byproduct’.

    3) Following Becker’s definition of the family as an economic unit and in terms of the inter-generational transfer of wealth as well as the basic common humanity of all human beings, why would ‘men’ wish to demonstrate any disinterest in the health and education of their children?

    Posted January 4, 2011 at 6:54 pm | Permalink
  15. Laura Freschi wrote:

    James (and others), I want to let the blog post’s author respond, but have a quick comment about the nature of the argument I think this post is making. As I read it, I don’t think the post is disputing the finding that women invest more in their families than men do, or arguing that investment in women’s eduction is damaging to women. Instead, I think the argument is about the specific marketing/awarenesss-raising strategy used by the Nike Foundation, and adopted by others.

    One could see the intended outcomes (ie increased investment in women’s education) as pretty desirable, while still questioning the methods and rhetoric used to acheive them. Some may see this distinction as irrelevant (the ends justify the means etc.) but I don’t.

    Posted January 5, 2011 at 1:15 am | Permalink
  16. If not properly decided and thought upon the effect of some program, it can cause reverse effects. What you have said seems correct to me here. Instead of projecting women as more capable and supportive beings, they are being shown as a way of gaining support for the organization. The focus has been shifted from needy girls and women to the organization. Needs a little thought there i think.

    Posted January 5, 2011 at 2:13 am | Permalink
  17. Anna Carella wrote:

    @Amanda – I did see that they expanded their agenda after their initial marketing campaign. However, I’m not sure the details are trickling down. I’ve heard anecdotally that male-run organizations fighting for women’s rights are having trouble getting funding.

    @Karin – If you click on the link in point #2 you will see I took the language “caregiver” and “chore doer” directly from their press kit.

    @joe – You say “Even if it does happen regularly, women must know the risks and be prepared to take the potential abuse it might bring, surely.” I agree that women must know the risks, but I’m not sure about the decision-making process. I worry that it’s not as simple as you claim. For example, imagine this scenario: a representative from an NGO arrives at a village and speaks to the village chief about a development project only for women. This village is very poor and happy to have an opportunity to make money. Perhaps a village meeting is called or a neighboring village is participating so there is an element of peer pressure. Do you think a woman who fears domestic abuse will dare to be the lone voice turning away the aid?

    @James – If you will click on the link in point #3 you can see the source I cite that finds increases in domestic violence among microloan recipients. That is just one, but there are others. If you search “microfinance domestic violence” in google scholar you will find them.

    Posted January 5, 2011 at 2:18 am | Permalink
  18. Anna Carella wrote:

    I second Laura’s latest comment. It is the marketing that bothers me, not the goals. Their slideshow reinforces stereotypes about women and about people in developing countries. I worry that as this message translates to action, there may be unintended negative consequences.

    Posted January 5, 2011 at 2:45 am | Permalink
  19. joe wrote:

    Anna, there isn’t a lot of point in debating the straw men you erect. Worries about “what might happen” in very tightly defined circumstances is not the way to conduct a logical argument.

    I have not seen the blunt end of these kinds of programmes, but I sincerely doubt that they’re blundering into villages and loudly proclaiming their belief in an aggressive form of womens-lib in such a way as to attract attention.

    Projects I know which address women’s poverty and exclusion tend to operate under the noses of aggressive males by being quiet and ignorable. The men don’t tend to complain because they only notice the benefits – and anyway, if they hold women in such low esteem, they’re hardly going to value programmes directed by and for women anyway.

    But hey, I’m only a man, what would I know?

    Posted January 5, 2011 at 3:05 am | Permalink
  20. Manuel wrote:

    Great post, Anna! Even if we readers may disagree with many specificities, a little thought on this questions is surely welcome. Point 3) seems to me particularly well-taken. It makes me think about grand-sounding goals like “to eradicate gender inequality by investing in development”. But maybe there are not enough donors interested in this.

    Posted January 5, 2011 at 7:00 am | Permalink
  21. Dan Kyba wrote:

    Re: my first point – it read ‘competitive disadvantage’.

    Posted January 5, 2011 at 11:05 am | Permalink
  22. Robert wrote:

    Anna, the start of your comment is flawed. You state that “Women have increasingly become the focus of international economic development projects”. If only, I’d say. If you look at , you’ll see that the attention for women and women’s issues is still very very limited. The report refers to the way women are portrayed in the news, but it’s exactly the same in development activities. Just look at the Tag cloud on this website: ‘women’ and ‘gender’ are nonexistent. If you search this website on ‘gender’ or ‘women’, you’ll only get 10 hits out of the hundreds of posts.

    In reply to your specific points:
    1 and 2: most economic policies are male biased. You might say that they are mostly ‘gender neutral’, but that’s just another word for male bias, since there is no such animal as ‘gender neutral’. This led the Economist to write some time ago: “forget the Internet, forget China, invest in women”. Also business guru Tom Peters has been literally shouting at CEOs that they should look more at women. The Girl Effect should be seen in that perspective: what it basically says (to biased(WASP) men mostly) is to stop looking at women as irrelevant victims and/or bystanders and start looking at them as actors that can bring about change in society, just as much as the clones of these WASP men can, or [watch out: provocative!] maybe even more.
    3. I agree with Joe that what you basically say here is that if you economically empower women, then you’re making them into potential victims. And then concluding that that’s a bad thing. So why not forbid teenagers to get a driver’s license because of the risks of getting yourself into motorized traffic? Even better, why not forbid kids to leave home at all? If you’ll only ask worried parents about such an action, you might come to this conclusion. The same applies to only talking to a male village chief about the problems in a community. Or to only talk to people with beards on how to achieve a sustainable peace in Afghanistan, for that matter.

    Posted January 5, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  23. Dan Kyba wrote:

    @ Robert

    re: “The same applies to only talking to a male village chief about the problems in a community. Or to only talk to people with beards on how to achieve a sustainable peace in Afghanistan, for that matter.”

    Are we confusing socially prescribed public roles with actual behaviour. Just because it is the men that make the public statements on behalf of their family or village, it does not follow that the women in private within the family did not have their say.

    Posted January 5, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  24. Kevinn wrote:

    I think this skepticism goes way too far. Gender equality, including economic equality and empowerment, and human rights make economies function better.

    Posted January 5, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink
  25. Anna Carella wrote:

    @Robert – I’m not saying economically empowering women is making them into potential victims in every case. But NGOs ought to be sensitive to this possibility and plan accordingly rather than assume that women know the risks and should just deal with any negative consequences on their own.

    Uma Narayan says it best:

    “Feminists have shown that women have a long history of being strategically evoked in a variety of discourses that link women’s emancipation to the well being of their colony, their nation, their culture, their religion, and the like. Calls for women’s emancipation have historically served to justify the vaunted benefits of colonialism, the aspirations to modernity of nation states, and the safeguarding of patriarchal religious or cultural traditions. Economic development appears to be the latest incarnation of the greater good that is to be served by the emancipation of women… The ubiquitous insistence that women’s inclusion is ‘good for development’ is not identical to showing that particular forms of development are good for women.”

    Posted January 5, 2011 at 5:08 pm | Permalink
  26. Jeff wrote:

    Very helpful links – thanks. Jeff

    Posted January 5, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Permalink
  27. Raphael wrote:

    1. Nike is not essentializing women. They are just “targeting” girls as the solution because, in practice, girls tend to be marginalized in programs that target everybody under the sun. There are plenty of projects that work with “communities” and end up working mostly with men and boys, rather than both sexes . So there is certainly space for a movement that targets girls as a “corrective.”

    2. You are saying that governance, trade, and technology are the key to growth. Not women. Well … apart from the fact that it is quite hard to prove what causes growth (as Easterly so often points out), I think you ignore the link (more correlation than causation really) of educated women and growth. Moreover, what is the point of growth? Is it not to have better health, education, and nutrition? There is certainly a lot of literature that shows that assistance to women does much more for the health, edu, and nutrition of children than does assistance to men. (And it looks like you already agree with this). So doesn’t girls’ empowerment achieve some of the same goals you want through growth?

    3. Yes, there are unexpected outcomes – including perhaps domestic violence. What project does not have unintended outcomes!? The question is, what do you do if you see this? Any project worth its salt will try to identify and mitigate unintended negative consequences. A girls’ empowerment project does not happen in a vaccum. There is community sensitization, mobilization, monitoring, etc. If there is evidence of increased domestic violence, one works to find out the causes and address them. That’s the whole point of needs assessements and formative research. The key is knowing whether domestic violence is inherent to your intervention, or an unintended consequence that you can prevent. If it is inherent, you stop what you are doing. If it is a preventable consequence, you work to resolve it.

    4. Yes, I agree the video gives agency to the viewer with money (western or not). If I want someone to give me money, I’m going to show her how she can make a difference. That’s basic PR. If you are doing a video or theater skit in a rural village to change gender behaviors, you are going to do something different because your purpose and audience are different. I don’t see the problem with gearing the video around your “ask.”

    Posted January 5, 2011 at 6:33 pm | Permalink
  28. Matt Richmond wrote:

    I was at a conference put together by the local board of a large aid organization, which will remain nameless, the first speaker being the president of that large organization (one you’ve heard of). He mentioned how giving loans to women tends to be a stronger investment than giving loans to men, countless studies backing him up. He made a side comment concerning it being because it’s in “our” (men’s) genes to spend it all on alcohol and waste it away. It wasn’t meant to be offensive, it wasn’t whispered or followed with a laugh – it was just a statement. Like the sky is blue. The sun is warm. Men are neanderthals.

    This is my largest problem with the focus on a “girl effect.”

    Why do we focus on women when we could focus on the system? Why do we call it the girl effect when it could be the gender effect, or the effect of structural inequalities?

    By framing these issues incorrectly we only help to perpetuate stereotypes. Use what we know to better target, to better provide a helping hand to those individuals who need it… but do not forget that men are half of the population as well. They are half of the equation. Our focus should be on empowering all people, educating all individuals, giving everyone an equal chance – THAT should be the rallying cry. If that means educating men to better understand the lives of their wives and daughters, or giving loans to women in specific circumstances, or requiring that women fill out 50% of the village’s clean water council, ok. But it should be in the spirit of promoting equality for all: gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, hair color, height, etc. etc.

    Is that not a stirring enough rallying cry? Or do I need a picture of children with flies buzzing around their head (or an allusion to it)?

    Posted January 5, 2011 at 10:31 pm | Permalink
  29. Matt Richmond wrote:

    hm, should have said social inequalities*, not structural (though those are a problem, too)

    Posted January 5, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Permalink
  30. joe wrote:

    Stirring stuff, Matt. And also complete rot.

    All programmes focus on one group or another – this is a fact of life. By defining a target beneficiary, you are by definition excluding others who do not fall within your scope. Discrimination is not a bad thing. So why is having one gender as a beneficiary so awful?

    And the tragedy is that any time someone attempts to buck the prevailing trend, they’re accused of ignoring another group. You can’t win.

    We’re not talking about an even playing field where everyone, regardless of gender, gets equal access to the aid and development that is available. We’re talking about a circumstance where one gender gets the raw end of the deal by far the majority of the time. If men commonly behave like neanderthals, maybe it is time they get called on it for a change (and let’s not forget that programmes aimed at women are a tiny minority of the total).

    Of course, in all these things you have a choice. In a circumstance where culturally the women are not allowed much of an education and are expected to remain at home, you can spend all your time attempting to reform the men. Or you can decide that the money would be better and more effectively spent on trying to empower the women.

    I can’t see anything wrong with that.

    Posted January 6, 2011 at 3:42 am | Permalink
  31. Robert wrote:

    @Dan Kyba
    National suffrage in the US was passed in 1920. In Switzerland it was still under debate in 1991. In Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates women are still not allowed to vote. Is that because of local socially prescribed public roles? Will these women be completely happy because they’ve had say “in private within the family”? In 2009 the shia family law was passed in the Afghan parliament, legalizing a.o. shi’ite husbands to forbid their wives to leave the house and legalizing rape by husbands of their wives. Many Afghan women and men protested, because they did not think that the (94% male) parliamentarians were deciding what was best for all Afghan citizens.
    If you travel through a country like Mali you can see quite some dried up water wells which have been built by well meaning western ngos. They’d talked with the village chief on where to build the well. Not with the women and girls who (because of family roles) were responsible for fetching water. The women didn’t use the wells, e.g. because they were built at the wrong location. Apparently the village chief had not been aware of these women’s issues. So you can educate the village chief to better understand the lives of women and girls in his village, or you can educate the girls to speak out to the village chief and make him listen to their demands. The Girl Effect proposes the latter.

    Posted January 6, 2011 at 4:42 am | Permalink
  32. Matt Richmond wrote:


    It’s a systematic issue. While in some instances, like I said, it may be most appropriate to single out women as beneficiaries of programs that best achieve an intended goal of equality, an overarching woman-centric approach is inappropriate. A gender-centric approach focuses on women’s issues as a part of a larger whole, explaining the man’s neanderthal tendencies and women’s roles holistically rather than perpetuating stereotypes that are harmful to both sides. By entering a situation with an eye toward the actual problem, rather than an assumed solution, we are far more likely to find a real way to help women (and men).

    A holistic approach to human and gender equality is much more likely to find and understand core problems. Handing money to women is just a pre-made solution to a pre-decided problem with a pre-decided sequence of events that follow (micro-loan, buys a cow, sells the milk, village council, etc)… I feel most people reading this blog would agree that’s fallacious and a poor way to approach aid.

    Posted January 6, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink
  33. @ Laura and Anna

    “While this campaign seems like a godsend for those who have been working to improve the lives of women, it may actually be damaging to women”

    I think this sentence implies that the program is net negative to women rather than disappointment in the ad campaign/raising doubts about particular aspects of the program.

    On a separate note, I would like to see more discussion on how to properly market aid projects (and charity more broadly). It seems to me that we do a lot of debating about what statements made in marketing campaigns say about this or that, while this rarely happens in other arenas.

    Posted January 6, 2011 at 11:49 am | Permalink
  34. sarah wrote:

    If Nike is serious about wanting to improve the lives of women in developing countries, why not start by ensuring the rights of the approximately 640,000 women who work in its supply factories?
    Women who produce Nike’s products often struggle to provide for their families on poverty wages, they work long hours under difficult conditions, and when they try to organise for a better deal they frequently face harassment and discrimination.
    With freedom of association, decent work conditions and wages, these women have a far greater chance of achieving long term economic security, improved health, empowerment and wellbeing.
    There may well be good intentions behind the “Girl Effect”. But if Nike really wants to invest in the rights and welfare of women, it should take responsibility for the impact of its own supply chain. What about a commitment to ensure that the workers who make Nike’s products—90% of whom are young women— receive a living wage and have access to their human rights?

    Posted January 6, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Permalink
  35. Jacob AG wrote:

    ” 1) It relies on the essentialist 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.” ”

    I can’t find that view anywhere in the link Laura provided. In fact, I think the opposite view is more evident; campaigns dedicated to empowering women tend to try to get women OUT of the home, not shackle them to the stove. Moreover, the idea that such campaigns rely on an “essentialist view” is itself… wait for it… an essentialist view. Not all campaigns are the same, you know.

    Posted January 6, 2011 at 9:17 pm | Permalink
  36. Betsie wrote:

    I don’t think anyone wants to diminish the importance of empowering women and girls, and giving special emphasis to the challenges females face in many developing countries, but I too have some qualms about Girl Effect messaging. And I think the discussion of whether or not the strategy is honest (Give a micro loan to a girl = saving the world) is important. My thoughts here as well:

    Posted January 7, 2011 at 9:29 am | Permalink
  37. Nathan wrote:

    I’d like to call more attention to C A A’s comment than it seems to be getting from the comments so far. She makes a good point, even in the simple fact that she’s entering the debate – shouldn’t we be listening to the “girls” and community members themselves?

    Also, a question for those discussing marketing vs. program strategy: should it be the duty of development organizations to attempt to educate people even as they work to squeeze money out of them? This might help aid workers form getting confused themselves…

    Posted January 7, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Permalink
  38. Lindsey wrote:

    The girl effect is a marketing campaign to get people to donate money with a particular focus on young girls. As of 2006, girls represented 55% of those children out of school in developing countries, with larger disparities based on regions of the world. The benefits and outcomes of educating girls and women have been well documented not only on the impact of economies but impacts on maternal and child health.

    This critique of the girl effect states that it furthers stereotypes the role of women as nurtures and puts them at risk through the following comments “ Why reinforce perceptions about “women’s work” and “men’s work” by claiming that women make better homemakers? Why not instead address the structural factors that underlie men’s apparent disinterest in the health and education of their children?”

    “In reality, men may feel threatened by the singular focus on women. The greatest subordination felt by women is within their own home, yet 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 (and rich ones too!).”

    However, these very statement perpetuate stereotypes in and of themselves by stating that all men in developing countries are disinterested in the health and education of their children (while living in rural Mozambique for 6 years, I actually saw more men than women taking their children to health clinics and sharing equal worry about their ill children) and also brings a western point of view about what women’s empowerment means and how men should behave and what roles they take.

    The critique misses several points in terms of differentiating a marketing campaign directed at a particular audience with a well-defined goal, to actually addressing how such an initiative should be implemented. Any good implementation of a program no matter who the specific target is, as in this case girls, need to bring along men, women, boys and girls. Western views of what constitutes men’s and women’s roles need to be checked and left at the door, and an in depth understanding of roles of men and women within that cultural need to gleaned from members of a community (I believe Raphael brought out this point in terms of community mobilization and formative research). Only then can a process be facilitated to examine the advantages and disadvantages of these roles with community members and how they impact men, women and their families. As an example, I worked on implementing a HIV/Prevention program in rural Mozambique for 4 years with a local Mozambican NGO. Local trained peer educators held weekly sessions over 6 months on various topics and did a great deal of gender work and how this lead to HIV risk in the home. Many light bulbs went off for participants. Many of the issues presented in the sessions were issues they had not previously thought of because their upbringing and socialization. One of the clearest cultural values that came out was the high importance of family and what needed to be done to ensure the health and well being of the family. Based on reinforcing this cultural value, some of outcomes of the project found better communication between couples in the home, and greater sharing of resources between men and women and greater safe sex practices.

    Yes greater structural issues need to be addressed and some of the best development projects work at the micro, mezzo and macro levels. However, just because a marketing campaign targets one specific issue, doesn’t mean that the implementation of project has to be done or should be done in a vacuum that imposes western values and belief systems.

    Posted January 8, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Permalink
  39. Ned Breslin wrote:

    Perhaps one of the worst blogs I have ever read. Let me see if I get this right – are you seriously challenging the premise that girls face a particularly dire challenge, and that girls genally have a small window in which they can go one way or the other? Really? I could talk about my daughters friends in Africa who very much either made it or went the route of sugar daddies and prostitution – around age 14 actually… Or perhaps highlight the great work of organizations like Nishta in India who are working hard to get girls through school so they do not get married before… Um… 14.

    Point 4 in your blog is on the right track (selling povert is a disgrace in the development sector). But otherwise wow…

    Posted January 8, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Permalink
  40. Dawn Pankonien wrote:

    beautifully argued, anna. thank you for posting.

    Posted January 10, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Permalink
  41. Martin Burt wrote:

    In my view, Anna Carella misses the mark in her criticisms of the Nike’s “girl effect” campaign. Other comments posted here have noted why her arguments seem to be little more than straw men, so let me add a few other points:
    Even a decade ago, the evidence was overwhelming that, as the World Bank put it in its 2000 Policy Research Report, Engendering Equality “…ignoring gender disparities comes at great cost– to people’s well-being and to countries’ abilities to grow sustainably, to govern effectively, and thus to reduce poverty.”

    Indeed, by then, gender equality and women’s empowerment were already at the center of the internationally accepted Millennium Development Goals: two MDGs focus directly on women (MDG3 and 5), and women’s empowerment is an important channel for achieving universal primary education (MDG2), reductions in under-five mortality (MDG4), improvements in maternal mortality (MDG5), and reductions in the likelihood of contracting HIV/AIDS (MDG6). Today, the subject is still important enough to be the subject of the World Bank’s forthcoming 2012 World Development Report.

    What is fresh and different about the “Girl Effect” campaign is that it highlights a fact is all too often overlooked: the most effective time to educate and empower women is before they drop out of school, become pregnant before they are ready, contract HIV/AIDS and/or become irremediably discouraged by their life prospects– that is, when they are still girls!

    Though not mentioned in the video, the Nike Foundation is quietly investing in a variety of pilot projects to find the most effective ways of economically empowering adolescent girls. (In the interest of disclosure, one of these projects is the Fundación Paraguaya’s financially self-sufficient high school in Paraguay, which is transforming low-income, rural girls into “rural entrepreneurs” with the skills and attitudes to overcome poverty.)

    Of course, the “girl issue” is not only about economics – it’s also about social justice: why should some people have fewer rights and opportunities because they were born of the “wrong” gender?

    However, if takes some catchy videos that shine media attention on the economic benefits of educating and empowering girls to wake people up to the importance of this issue, then Nike and its “Girl Effect” campaign have done the world a tremendous service. Hopefully, more and more people will “get” it.

    Posted January 15, 2011 at 7:20 am | Permalink

4 Trackbacks

  1. By Micro-finance is also not a replacement for trade on January 4, 2011 at 5:06 am

    […] watch is pretty much my favorite blog: 2) “She will drive 70% of agricultural production. She is an unrealized economic force, […]

  2. […] efforts. But Anna Carella, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Vanderbilt University, writes on the Aid Watch blog that while the effort seems like a “godsend for those who have been working to improve the […]

  3. […] By Bryan Farris This post is in response to Anna Carella’s recent piece in Aid Watch, titled So now we have to save ourselves and the world, too? A critique of “the girl effect” .  Anna rallied against the Nike Foundation for their “Girl Effect” movement, and in particular […]

  4. […] 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 […]

  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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