The development community has a tendency to repeat the same mistake over and over again. Yet in occasionally replacing “Y” for “X” as the key input, it appears to escape being labeled insane. As Benjamin Franklin famously stated:

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. 

After many decades of trying to lift developing countries out of poverty, the development community, made up of private, non-profit, and (non-)governmental actors, is repeating the same mistake by viewing economic development as a machine that requires exogenous analysis and inputs in order to create the desired output. First, in the 50s to the 70s, it was the capital or investment gap that needed to be overcome, so outside actors started pouring money (loans and aid) for infrastructure projects into developing countries. Second, in the 80s and 90s, after investments in infrastructure didn’t bring the expected results, human capital or education became the magic bullet for success. Third, in the late 90s and early 2000s, institutions matter became the new mantra of the development community, with the expectation that transplanting Western institutions into developing countries would finally bring it all together. 

While all of these steps appeared as though they would take poor countries in the right direction, what the community overlooked is the importance of the endogenous, bottom-up process of establishing the institutions, and making the investments in infrastructure and education that create economic growth and prosperity. The development community is making the same mistake again. This time by inserting “girls” into the equation, seemingly without regard for the potential backlash these girls (their “means” to economic development) could face within their communities.

Anna Carella, guest blogger at William Easterly’s Aid Watch, discusses the development community’s shifting focus on supporting girls as the key to unlocking developing country’s potential for economic growth and she highlights some of the unintended consequences which would harm girls and women in developing countries. Here are her main points:

  1. It imposes a dual burden on women, perpetuating their roles as houseworkers and care-takers of children and the elderly, and adding wealth creation on top.
  2. Women are already disproportionately represented in the workforce in most developing countries. Making them work even more won’t solve the real structural problems to poverty, which require better governance and better terms of trade with rich countries.
  3. Men often feel threatened by the singular focus on helping women accelerate economically. This may increase incidences of domestic and (other) violence for these women.
  4. The campaign emphasizes the savior role of Westerners, making the involvement of foreigners the center-piece in economic development.

Using girls in developing countries as a means to an end in economic development is morally reprehensible, and, despite all the good intentions, may actually expose these girls to more hardships and suffering than it will help them. It is a sad reality that most girls in developing countries do not have the same protections under the law as men do, nor do they have the same standing in society. When foreigners elevate women economically above men, this won’t change the underlying realities of the discrimination and violence these women face. The development community needs to be aware of this fact and needs to put in place pre-cautionary measures to protect these girls from the potential backlash. Whether they will be able to do so, is highly questionable.