I have to speak up. As a philanthropist who supports girls in poverty-stricken countries, there’s this term I hear often in association with funding for initiatives that support girls. It’s a term that feels demeaning each time, and I will not stay quiet about it anymore. It’s “return on investment.”
In the philanthropic sector, we often see quotes like this one from UN Women: “the returns on investing in girls’ education and health have a positive economic impact” or “investing in girls’ education not only stimulates the economy but saves lives” or my favorite: “Want to change the world? Invest in an adolescent girl.”
We’re told to “invest in girls” because they will improve the education and health of a community and even the world. When girls and women have access to income they are more likely to spend it on food, education, and healthcare for their families. This is true, and important to understand. Educating a girl now empowers a woman in the future. That woman will become a mother who is better able to provide for her children. Educating girls and economically empowering women lifts entire communities from poverty.
There is no doubt that supporting women and girls is the solution to economic development worldwide. But if we look at girls as a “return on our investment” we’re perpetuating the marginalization that put them in need of support in the first place. Women and children make up the majority of the world’s poor. They also do 66% of the world’s work while earning only 10% of the world’s income and owning 1% of the world’s property.
Complex, multilayered social structures that have been in place for thousands of years created this situation. We must be realistic about what it will take to change it. In the process, let us not add even more burden to girls around the world.
We must heal, educate, support, and empower our planet’s girls not because of what they’ll do in return, but because they deserve it. Access to clean water, food, shelter, safety, education, healthcare, and economic opportunities are intrinsic human rights. Every person on Earth deserves these rights. As philanthropists, while we have a duty to insure that our interventions actually help, we also have a responsibility to curb our expectations.
Let’s put girls in school because they have a right to go to school. Let’s give girls choices because they have a right to make choices for themselves. And let’s give them freedom, unconstrained by the obligation to produce a return on our investment. We must not forget that the people we serve are human beings, not statistics.