The sportswear brand Nike talks a big game about how economically empowered adolescent girls are the most potent weapon against poverty. The rationale behind the girl effect theory is that teen girls have the unique potential to stop poverty before it starts. As a Nike Foundation video explains, the answer to poverty should not be sought in government but in the earning power of impoverished adolescents.
This optimistic idea has been making the rounds since Maria Eitel launched the concept in her position at the helm of the Nike Foundation in 2008. Once a special assistant for media affairs for President George H.W. Bush, Eitel has become the world’s leading authority on poverty reduction and gender equality. Even President Barack Obama has called her a pioneer in her field.
By funding and partnering with some of the world’s most influential nongovernmental organizations and institutions — including USAID, Britain’s Department for Internal Development, the World Bank and the United Nations — and promoting the theory on The Huffington Post and The Guardian, Eitel has turned the girl effect into common development sense. Today millions of dollars of development aid and corporate social responsibility budgets are spent on programs that implement girl effect principles, many of them in Africa. They’re rooted in Eitel’s belief that the world's biggest problems need to be tackled by young entrepreneurs who should keep existing systems intact and improve them from within.
The problem is that the girl effect is a myth. In fact, it funnels girls and the NGOs that work for social change into a web of corporate dependency and away from the awareness and human rights education they need to challenge the issues that fuel poverty.
Girls, the story goes, are invisible, undervalued by their families and not yet recognized as economic actors. What makes them unique is that, compared with their allegedly more selfish brothers, educated girls reinvest nearly three times as much of their income into their communities and are willing to pay for their family’s medical bills and school fees and, eventually, drive their countries’ economic growth.
Eitel and her movement insist that helping girls become economically productive is smart economics and a matter of human rights. The girl effect’s economic empowerment principles promote financial literacy education, business development training and access to credit and savings accounts.
However, there are significant blind spots in this program. Girls will never learn that tax evasion — which more and more development experts and women’s rights advocates recognize as one of the most destructive forces of corruption, exploitation and theft — is directly responsible for high levels of poverty, low education budgets and inadequate health services, particularly among women and girls. Corporations are widely seen as the main culprits here (and many NGOs say that if companies want to solve poverty, they should begin by paying income tax) because they often manipulate profits, pressure poor governments to grant them tax breaks and channel these untaxed profits to havens abroad.
Africa has the highest proportion of (private) assets held abroad, which is why some critics want to force corporations and other elites to pay their fair share. Contrary to Eitel, they believe that governments are best equipped to fix this injustice and that it is the responsibility of the state to provide health care and education.
Nike and Eitel can’t possibly be unaware of the unique potential of corporations to unleash such a tax effect. They have a rich history of abusing loopholes and tax holidays abroad and in the U.S. Without such tax strategies, it’s unlikely that Nike could have made $27.8 billion in revenue last year.
Labor rights and living wages aren’t addressed in the foundation’s girl effect program either. Nike’s supply chain vividly illustrates how labor rights training can boost women’s quality of life.
In the 1980s, it was largely due to the efforts of the Korean Women Workers Association that employees of Nike’s partner factories pushed up their wages, as women’s studies professor Cynthia Enloe wrote in her 2004 book “The Curious Feminist.” Nike and its contractors retaliated by moving much of their business to China and Indonesia, where wages were lower and workers were less likely to organize.
More recent studies suggest that high levels of labor rights awareness also helped thousands of Vietnamese Nike workers win better wages. Even though most of these workers still make less than the living wage and fare worse than their colleagues in state-led enterprises, without labor rights awareness, we probably wouldn’t have seen the five-year strike wave that spread across large factories in Vietnam from 2006 to 2011.
Instructing girls to pay for their families’ health and education with micro credit and pushing entrepreneurship and saving schemes on them without teaching them about living wages, labor rights and their rights to social services let governments off the hook.
That’s why the girl effect is a corporate fable that keeps the system intact, turns girls into consumers, expands market power and diffuses blame.
To Eitel’s credit, the stereotypical unproductive girl is no longer invisible. Development elites are talking about her and pressuring NGOs to use Nike’s playbook to save her from her fate for the benefit of all.
Less visible are the corporate practices and untaxed offshore assets that impoverish people all around the world. The woman who has, as a result, fallen off the activist and media radars is the woman whose cheap labor pays for Eitel’s salary and her philanthropic ventures. Unlike 20 years ago, very few global women's groups are talking about her.
Coincidence? Perhaps. It is nonetheless instructive to note that in 2011, two PR strategists who analyzed Nike’s communication strategies suggested that Eitel’s most important duty, after joining Nike in 1998, was to “reposition the company to the emotionally charged sweatshop controversy” by engaging with the media and with the lot of poor women in developing countries.
To protect Nike’s brand equity (after the anti-sweatshop campaigns), they argued, Eitel and her team emphasized “the company’s commitment to economically empowering individual women in underdeveloped countries and thus to respond indirectly to charges that it routinely tolerates the violation of its Asian female workers’ human rights.”
The girl effect addresses critical issues such as reproductive health, child marriage and access to school. Still, the dogmatic assumptions about female liberation on which it rests remain flawed. Girls are citizens, not consumers or entrepreneurs. Their equality should not rely on business logic, and the work of NGOs should not be constrained by the agendas of media-savvy corporations. If the conversation on women and poverty would talk less about whose investments pay off and more about who needs to pay up, we might finally see some substantial change.