Galvanising Girls for Development?

Critiquing the Shift from ‘Smart’ to ‘Smarter Economics’ (2016)

Chant, Sylvia
in Progress in Development Studies, 16:4

This paper traces the mounting interest in, and visibility of, girls and young women in development policy, especially since the turn of the 21st century when a ‘Smart Economics’ rationale for promoting gender equality and female empowerment has become ever more prominent and explicit.

This paper traces the mounting interest in, and visibility of, girls and young women in development policy, especially since the turn of the 21st century when a ‘Smart Economics’ rationale for promoting gender equality and female empowerment has become ever more prominent and explicit.

‘Smart Economics’, which is strongly associated with an increased influence of corporate stakeholders, frequently through public- private partnerships, stresses a ‘business case’ for investing in women for developmental (read economic) efficiency, with investment in younger generations of women being touted as more efficient still. The latter is encapsulated in the term ‘Smarter Economics’, with the Nike Foundation’s ‘Girl Effect’ being a showcase example. In this, and similar, initiatives linked with neoliberal development, ‘investing in girls’ appears to be driven not only by imperatives of ‘female empowerment’, but also to realise more general dividends for future economic growth and poverty alleviation. Yet while it may well be that girls and young women have benefited from their rapid relocation from the sidelines towards the centre of development discourse and planning, major questions remain as to whose voices are prioritised, and whose agendas are primarily served by the current shift from ‘Smart’ to ‘Smarter Economics’.

If the world is to change for better, including for young women, then more transparent and accessible accounts about the root causes of poverty and inequality need to be made available by powerful bodies such as the World Bank, and responsibilities for transformation shared by the institutions and individuals who perpetuate injustices on the basis of gender, class and geography.

In stressing that gender inequality is ‘bad for business’, ’Smart Economics’ advocates investing in women and girls to (re)invigorate economic growth and alleviate poverty. Although gender initiatives still represent a minority of public-private partnerships (PPPs), emerging forms of ‘neoliberal governmentality’ have recognised that ‘gender equality delivered through responsibilised selves is no longer costly; instead inequality is’. Bolstered by a rising trend of corporate involvement in gender interventions, dubbed by Roberts (2015) as ‘transnational business feminism’ (TBF), one of the earliest and most enduring incarnations as far as young women are concerned is the Nike Foundation’s ‘Girl Effect’. This digitally sophisticated movement — characterised as a ‘visually arresting and glossy corporate campaign with multiple online platforms including a website, YouTube channel and Twitter feed’ — was launched in 2008 and has partnered with various NGOs in developing countries, as well as with major multilateral and national agencies such as the World Bank and the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID). The professed aim is to promote girls’ ‘empowerment’ and agency through interventions in education, vocational training, entrepreneurship, health and reproductive awareness, alternative forms of girlhood and womanhood, and sensitisation to human rights.

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Copyright © Sylvia Chant