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.