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Girls and women not a “silver bullet” for ending poverty

February 23, 2018 By Todd Finkelmeyer

Kathryn Moeller first started looking into efforts by major corporations and their foundations to support girls and young women in Latin America, Africa and Asia more than a decade ago. At the time, several global brands, such as Nike and ExxonMobil, were getting behind theories promoted by some economists in the early 1990s that considered investing in girls’ and women’s education to be the most efficient way to end poverty and promote development.

“My work challenges this assumption that investing in girls and women produces a silver bullet for solving global concerns from ending poverty and promoting economic growth, to fighting climate change,” says Moeller, an assistant professor with the School of Education’s Department of Educational Policy Studies.

Photo of Kathryn Moeller

Kathryn Moeller

This week, Moeller’s extensive research on how multinational companies and their foundations conducted this work with development institutions such as the World Bank and and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) was released in a new book titled, “The Gender Effect: Capitalism, Feminism, and the Corporate Politics of Development.”

Moeller argues that while these movements are promoted as a way to educate and empower girls and women, they’re an attempt to end poverty and bolster economic growth in order to develop a new frontier for global capitalism at the bottom of the economic pyramid. She adds that such initiatives transfer the responsibility for change onto girls and women, and away from governments, corporations and global governance institutions whose actions have often led to the unequal distribution of resources, poor labor conditions and other structural inequities.

Moeller is concerned about the consequences this type of development logic has on education.

“When the rationale for investing in girls’ and women’s education is driven by the logic of investment, people begin talking about girls and women as they talk about drilling untapped oil reserves or unleashing new technologies — in the language of maximizing returns,” says Moeller. “When the focus is on rates of return, efficiency and calculating gains to GDP, programs that promote girls’ and women’s education as a fundamental human right are marginalized and underfunded.”

Moeller first started researching inequities in girls’ and women’s education across the globe while conducting doctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley. It was on International Women’s Day on March 8, 2005, that Moeller came across a press release from Nike that jolted new energy into a project that ultimately evolved into the focal point of her academic life for the next 10 years. On that day, the athletic apparel and shoe giant’s philanthropic arm, the Nike Foundation, announced it would be focusing its efforts on helping to “improve the lives and well-being of adolescent girls in the developing world.”

In 2008, the Nike Foundation launched The Girl Effect. The idea behind this initiative, explains Moeller, is that by investing in girls and their education there would be a multiplier effect across a range of development indicators — such as reducing adolescent pregnancy, population growth and the spread of HIV/AIDS, while ending poverty and increasing economic growth. Such efforts, the theory goes, could ultimately bolster families, communities, nations and the world.

Moeller’s book utilizes ethnographic research with rare access to powerful institutions to examine The Girl Effect as a central case study, moving between the corridors of influence in New York and Washington, D.C., corporate headquarters in the U.S., and classrooms in communities in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  For her fieldwork in Rio de Janeiro, for example, Moeller spent a year conducting interviews and observing efforts by NGOs that were recipients of Nike Foundation funding in support of the Girl Effect. She conducted ongoing observations of classrooms and after school activities, while speaking with everyone from executive directors of NGOs and classroom educators, to girls and young women in the program.

In one program focused on economic empowerment, girls and young women were offered training in how to be both an administrative assistant and an entrepreneur. When classes started, Moeller says that the participants shared a wide range of professional aspirations — with students expressing a desire to become doctors and veterinarians, for example. Six months later, these same students were asked what they wanted to become and nearly all now said they hoped to land positions as administrative assistants.

“Rather than an education that is more holistic and transformative, we see the program limiting their future possibilities,” says Moeller. “The Girl Effect is about educating girls and young women in other places, of other races, in a way that would never be acceptable for the children of the elites funding and supporting the programs.”

Moeller recalls an interview she conducted with an executive of an international company who mentored the girls in the NGO’s educational program. He explained to Moeller that the program didn’t need to focus on supporting the young women to attend the university and how, instead, it should try to provide workshops for the students to learn how to become bricklayers.

“An executive would never say, ‘My daughter doesn’t need to go to the university, she should learn to become a bricklayer or administrative assistant,’ ” says Moeller.

Moeller explains that positive changes did come out of the Nike Foundation’s efforts to help girls and young women in impoverished locations across the globe. Perhaps most significantly, these educational programs brought girls and young women together in a safe place where they could learn and build community. Unfortunately, notes Moeller, the economic empowerment program she observed led to few good jobs, with those who did find work being employed in low-wage fields such as call centers or as ticket takers at a bus station — positions the girls and young women likely could have received without the program’s support.

Near the end of her research in September 2015, the Nike Foundation abruptly ended its institutional relationship to the Girl Effect, which was spun off as its own independent organization that Nike continues to support.

Moeller’s hope with her book is that funders, policymakers and development experts will consider the consequences of framing girls’ and women’s education as an investment with high rates of return for economic development and instead think about it as an end in and of itself when designing programs and policies.