Archive | July, 2010

Not to crush your spirit, but…

30 Jul

Sorry, but they already have shirts. (photo by Malik Sidibe)

A few months ago there was a raging discussion on the development blogosphere surrounding an NGO called “1 Million T-Shirts”. The guy running the organization got shredded by a number of experts, and he has since discontinued the work. Really, I think the discussion was more about intentions vs. expertise. A good summary:

“A number of NGOs – most of which are driven by western funding and ideas – are household names, while others are micro-projects that are off the radar of most media but are nevertheless helping to improve the day-to-day lives of many Africans. Yet there are also many wannabe rescuers who are actively doing harm in Africa: bad ideas are duplicated across the continent, objectives and deadlines missed or efforts badly targeted, and promises broken, while mediocrity and incompetence are rarely challenged, leaving the poor ending up where they started. In extreme cases their work is not only inadequate but actually destructive in social, economic and environmental terms, crushing the hopes and dreams of millions.

Given what is too often a lack of accountability and credibility along with the huge funds that pass through NGOS, there are growing calls for closer regulation. We also need to end the often corrupt relationship – characterised by favouritism and bribery – between certain NGOs and some African governments. This situation cannot continue.”

Read the rest of the article here.


toutes les filles a l’ecole

21 Jul

School Girls in DRCongo

Some very, very good news: girls and women are gaining more and more attention, and gender issues are becoming increasingly integrated into development work. Gender components are required of all official US government development programs (translation: all development projects funded by U.S. tax dollars must address their impact on gender, usually their impact on women and girls). The United Nations recently created an entity focused entirely on gender issues, which has streamlined a number of UN bureaus in the hopes of increasing the UN’s ability to address the challenges faced by women and girls the world over. Nike, Oprah, Ban Ki Moon, and a multitude of other individuals and organizations have increased funds and attention focused on women and girls. This is exciting stuff, in large part because it will enable the countless women and men around the world, who have been working to end discrimination, increase equity, and empower millions of girls and women who, for many reasons, are limited by their gender.

This isn’t just feminist, feel-good mumbo-jumbo. This is cause for celebration, not because it furthers some sort of Western feminist agenda, but because it brings resources and attention to real problems women and girls face in places across the globe. Discover:

  • Studies show that more women die or are disabled due to violence against women than from severe diseases, wars or accidents.[1]
  • While girls’ access to education has increased over the past decade, in 2008 for every 100 boys in primary school, there were 96 girls. For every 100 boys in secondary school, there 95 girls. In Benin, as in much of sub-Saharan Africa, the statistics are even more dire: only about one in five girls are enrolled in secondary school, compared to nearly half of all boys.[2]
  • Every year, more than 500,000 women die during pregnancy or childbirth. In Africa one in 16 women, and in Asia one in 43 women, will die from maternal causes. Contrast this with one in 2,500 women in the United States.[3]

With such depressing news, it can be overwhelming to try to imagine how to develop policies and programs and systems and inputs that might change these numbers. Oh, my god, where do we start?

A growing body of research is emphasizing one place to start: Education.


  • “An extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent. An extra year of secondary school: 15 to 25 percent.”[4]
  • “Research in developing countries has shown a consistent relationship between better infant and child health and higher levels of school among mothers.” [5]
  • “When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of it into their families, as compared to only 30 to 40 percent for a man.”[6]
  • “Investing in girls’ education globally delivers huge returns for economic growth, political participation, women’s health, smaller and more sustainable families, and disease prevention.”[7]

If you haven’t already synthesized this information, allow me to help:

More schooling for girls contributes to higher average income for women, healthier children, greater investment of income into families, and lots more good stuff.

With all the benefits that come from empowering women and girls, not to mention that it’s just the right thing to do, how have organizations gone around spreading this good news? Many, I believe, have done a good job of explaining why educating and investing in girls is important. Others, have decided to do this:

Allow me to be blunt: this clip sort of makes me want to bang my head against a wall. While I encourage, no implore, anyone reading this to spend a bit of time looking into issues of gender and development more, and to support work that seeks to address gender inequalities, I also ask you to keep these points in mind.

Correlation is not causation. This is statistics talk, and any researcher worth her weight in gold will be incredibly careful to point out that just because you can demonstrate a relationship between two things, let’s say girls’ incomes and schooling, does not prove that one thing causes another. Which is to say, there is no formula. Sending girls to school will not necessarily increase girls’ incomes. There is a connection, but these things are not related in the same way as, say the amount of time I spend in the sun and my getting a sunburn. Besides, if the point is to empower girls, how is it empowering to treat them as if they were part of mathematical equation?

Beware of oversell: As I just discussed, educated girls do NOT always avoid HIV, or wait until later in life to start a family, or start their own businesses, or magically multiple one cow into a herd of cows. This is the trend, this is generally the case, especially when you educate lots of women (I could add another point here about units of analysis, but decided not to). But it is NOT necessarily an input/output scenario. If there is one thing that anyone in development work can agree on, it’s that THERE IS NO SILVER BULLET. Educating and allocating money towards helping girls is so, so important, and so, so good. But if anyone tells you doing so will solve the world’s problem, exercise some judgment. Keep in mind that poor girls are first of all, people, with the same proclivity to vices as you and I. They are also living in environments that may have much more power over their lives than you or I.

Be aware of language: “Invest in a girl” is a sticky phrase. “To Invest” is an economic verb. You only “invest” in something if you have some reason to expect to see, not small, but large substantial returns. You don’t always see this when you “invest” in people. Sometimes people make poor decisions, even women (gasp!). Obviously development funds should be allocated where they will affect the most positive change – but what if there are only small, incremental improvements? Does this mean the “investment” wasn’t worth it? Especially in an environment where development programs are expected to show quantifiable results in a few years, or even months, it is scary to think that the funding being funneled towards girls could disappear if the investment doesn’t deliver in the amazing, exponential way that we have promised “investors”.  I’m not Nicolas Kristof’s most energetic cheerleader by any means, but I appreciate that his book Half the Sky points out, “Maternal mortality is an injustice that is tolerated only because its victims are poor, rural women. The best argument to stop it, however, isn’t economic but ethical” (by the way, Half the Sky is a fairly good intro to the challenges faced by women and girls in developing countries). Helping people, challenging inequality, and opposing oppressive social structures does not always make economic sense. It’s kinda nice when it does, but let’s make sure that we find our inspiration from sources other than our bank accounts from time to time.

Don’t let people talk down to you. The argument for marketing this inspiring, albeit not so accurate, package is that the “average” reader or viewer, is not moved by subtlety or nuance, but by exaggeration. I have read, and been told numerous times that the “average” person will only respond to the most extreme portraits of poverty and the grossest generalizations when it comes to solutions. I am uncomfortable with this, not only because it justifies dishonesty in order to achieve an admirable end, but also because I imagine that the people termed to be “average” are the people I care for and love most. My parents, my siblings, my friends – basically anyone who doesn’t spend their careers reading development research papers and reports. These are the people who have taught me the most about complexity, limits, critical thinking, and kindness. I refuse to believe they are incapable of only responding to over-simplified information. So if something seems too good to be true, or if the solutions presented seem so easy that they seem hilarious, don’t be satisfied. Ask a couple more questions. The odds are, even the most basic problem is a part of a complex web of other problems, and someone is probably leaving out some details.

Now that’s I’ve completely bashed The Girl Effect’s marketing strategy, I would like to return to my original point: more attention on the problems faced by women and girls in developing countries is worth celebrating. But addressing these problems is not easy. There is no recipe for success, just lots of hard work, brains, sweat, mistakes. Luckily, there are not only big name development institutions and celebrities involved in work aiming to increase women and girls’ access to education around the world, but also women (and men) in every developing country who are leading the way. My former Peace Corps supervisor, Maria Soumonni, who has been involved in women’s issues in Benin for decades, is one of them. Even more than the American volunteers, aid workers, policy-makers, and reporters promoting girls’ education, these people are involved in their own communities and governments, fighting for better and more education for girls (and boys!) against economic, political, social, and biological barriers and obstacles. THESE are the people that more funding and international support should aim to empower and strengthen.Here are some links on how to help people

who are already doing good work in this area:

An educated girl: not every girl should be given a cow




[4] George Psacharopoulos and Harry Anthony Patrinos, “Returns to Investment in Education: A Further Update,” Policy Research Working Paper 2881 [Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2002]

[5] George T. Bicego and J. Ties Boerma, “Maternal Education and Child Survival: A Comparative Study of Survey Data from 17 Countries,” Social Science and Medicine 36 (9) [May 1993]: 1207–27.

[6] Phil Borges, with foreword by Madeleine Albright, Women Empowered: Inspiring Change in the Emerging World [New York: Rizzoli, 2007], 13.

[7] Herz, Barbara and Gene B. Spelling, What Works in Girls Education: Evidence and Policies from the Developing World. [Council on Foreign Relations: 2004], Overview.