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[Review] The Gender Effect: Capitalism, Feminism, and the Corporate Politics of Development

March 12, 2018

It has become axiomatic within the development community that educating women and girls is the most effective way to alleviate poverty and accelerate development in the Global South. Promoted in the early 1990s by economists such as Elizabeth King, T. Paul Schultz, and former Harvard University president Lawrence Summers, the approach has since been adopted by the most powerful multilateral development institutions, including the United Nations, the World BankUSAID, and the United Kingdom's Department for International Development.

Book_the_gender_effectThe approach was given a boost in 2008, when the Nike Foundation, the main philanthropic vehicle of global sports apparel manufacturer Nike, launched a simple, powerful animated video titled the "Girl Effect," which argued that by sending a poor girl in a developing country to school, you put her in a position to secure a loan to purchase a cow, the profits from which could help her family and be used to buy more cows, until one day she had a herd, the profits from which could be used to bring clean water to her village, which would lead men in the village to invite her to the village council, where she would convince them that all girls have value. The video went viral, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But what if it isn't that simple? In The Gender Effect: Capitalism, Feminism, and the Corporate Politics of Development, Kathryn Moeller takes a deep dive into that question and finds plenty of worrisome contradictions. An assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, Moeller argues that the real effect of significant corporate investment in the empowerment of girls and women has been to mask the historical and structural conditions that perpetuate poverty in the Global South and to de-politicize the demands for fair-labor practices and a more equitable economic order by the very women and girls such investment purports to empower. Indeed, by focusing on the economic potential of adolescent girls, Moeller writes, "[t]he Girl Effect...transfers the onus of responsibility for change away from governments, corporations, and global governance institutions whose actions have led to the unequal distribution of resources and opportunities that disproportionately affect the lives and well-being of girls, women, and the poor around the world."  

Based on extensive fieldwork conducted with the Nike Foundation, its partners and grantees, program participants, and the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) — where she helped organize a session on "Investing in Women and Girls"  — Moeller finds that, in the case of the Girl Effect, the primary outcome of what she terms the "corporatized development" model has been the strengthening of Nike's legitimacy and market power without a concomitant examination of its outsourcing practices — practices that, she writes, exploit "poor, racialized female labor" and famously led, in the 1990s, to strikes and protests against the company.

To prove her point, Moeller outlines the history of and discourse around investing in women and girls, an approach predicated on the concepts of "bottom billion" capitalism, philanthrocapitalism, gender equality, and "Third World difference" (the latter defining the post-colonial adolescent girl as both victim of gender oppression and solution to economic development). In this paradigm, women and girls are seen as "instruments" that generate the highest return on investment within a development context because they tend to be "rational, efficient economic actors" willing to invest more of their income in their families and communities than are men.

By embedding corporate social responsibility and philanthropy into their core business strategies, she notes, corporations like Nike both design and benefit from this kind of corporatized development. The Nike Foundation's decision to focus on adolescent girls and, later, to launch the Girl Effect with financial support from the NoVo Foundation and the United Nations Foundation "was a noncontroversial way to redirect public attention away from ongoing labor strikes and campaigns against the corporation in order to secure its social license to operate and, correspondingly, its financial bottom line." Fortune 500 companies with public relations problems such as ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, and Walmart followed suit, promoting programs targeting women and girls at confabs like the Clinton Global Initiative and the annual meetings of the World Economic Forum, creating, as she puts it, "the spectacle of empowering girls and women." Eventually, the increasingly popular idea of "doing well by doing good" enabled corporations to "reconstitute themselves as benevolent institutional actors" even as they were refocusing their philanthropy in ways that helped open new markets, increased market share, and promised a return on their investments.  

This is a problem for Moeller. By focusing on women and girls as a means to grow markets and profits, "corporations are investing in, rather than transforming, existing inequities across multiple axes of difference — gender, racial, class, religious, and geographic — even as they claim to be ameliorating them." Indeed, when pursued to its conclusion, the logic behind the Girl Effect model makes adolescent girls of color in the Global South disproportionately responsible for both market expansion and local economic development through their "unpaid social reproductive labor, anticipated professional or entrepreneurial labor, and increased consumption practices."  

The book illustrates in great detail how, within the Nike Foundation initiative, the foundation's need to prove its theory of change translated into a narrow focus on helping adolescent girls become employable and avoid pregnancy (a condition that diminishes their ability to contribute to local economic development). Moeller describes how one Brazilian grantee of the Nike Foundation changed its educational programming to exclude young men, young women who were pregnant or already had children, and women over the age of 24, and steered participants' career goals away from jobs requiring higher education credentials and toward things like administrative assistant positions, for which low-income girls of color were more likely to be hired. Moreover, in seeking to demonstrate that its model worked, the foundation imposed on grantees a reductive image of which girls had potential, while precluding efforts to address the educational, social, and economic inequities that girls and young women in those communities faced.

Moeller's criticisms extend to the methodologies employed to demonstrate the model's efficacy and justify its budget. As part of its efforts to collect data from beneficiaries around "universal indicators," for example, the Nike Foundation required participants to complete detailed questionnaires at the beginning and conclusion of the program that included questions about their income, assets, education, sexual experiences, attitudes toward gender norms, social integration and friendships, and exposure to violence. Not only did this monitoring and evaluation (M&E) methodology objectify adolescent girls as data in an experiment they had not fully consented to, Moeller argues, it also ignored many of the local, cultural, and individual contexts in which outcomes often contradicted the model's logic.  

At one point, Moeller even quotes a Nike Foundation partner as saying that "they play a little fast and loose from what they can actually say from the data." That tendency caused tensions with the International Center for Research on Women, which in the early stages of the initiative had provided the foundation with its expertise — a collaboration that ended when the foundation decided to keep its M&E knowledge to itself. But by then the foundation had leveraged its new-found expertise and relationships with multilateral organizations enough to see the Girl Effect model institutionalized by the World Bank.  

Given the Girl Effect's limitations as a philanthropic endeavor — "traditional development partners were not operating at the speed or providing the return the foundation sought" — and its unstated focus on expanding corporate profits, it seems inevitable that the Nike Foundation's efforts would conclude in 2014 with the Girl Effect Accelerator, a program designed to help social entrepreneurs envision women and girls in developing countries as future consumers and secure funding for enterprises designed to serve that burgeoning market. The accelerator, writes Moeller, "enabled the foundation to move from talking about girls as engines of development and an emerging market…to being intimately involved in the making…of girls as a new capitalist frontier."  Spun off by Nike and the foundation in 2015 as an independent social enterprise based in London, the Girl Effect no longer is constrained from promoting for-profit endeavors — and Nike is no longer the target of questions about its supply chain labor practices.

Written in a dense academic style, heavy on theory, and brimming with quotes from Michel Foucault, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, and dozens of other scholars, activists, and anonymized foundation staff and grantees, The Gender Effect is not an easy read. It is, however, a sobering and thought-provoking examination of something many of us in the Global North have taken for granted: the unquestioned benefit and feminist appeal of the Girl Effect model. For all the talk of the billions of dollars that closing the gender gap will "unlock" for the global economy, maybe it's time we asked tough questions about how we can truly invest in women and girls to address the myriad inequities they continue to face, instead of framing the perpetuation of those inequities as empowerment.

Kyoko Uchida is PND's features editor. For more great reviews, visit the Off the Shelf section in PND.

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