Helping Girls Thrive: What Global Development Really Needs


I’ve seen it far too many times. A well-meaning organization funds education scholarships for girls in rural and impoverished communities. This organization knows the value of providing girls with an education—educate a girl and she will marry later, have greater access to jobs, and help lift her family and community from poverty. But when 25% of girls in the program end up dropping out due to pregnancy, early marriage or family need or find themselves pregnant as soon as they graduate, the organization deems their education project a failure and wonders what went wrong.

The organization only looked at one aspect of a girl’s life—her access to education. And they estimated that by paying for her school uniform, school supplies, and tuition, she would receive a quality education and start to turn her life around. What they didn’t know was that at home, her parents or caretakers were critically sick with little to no income or the quality of the education provided is substandard and will provide few gains once she graduates providing little motivation to continue to graduation. Or, perhaps one or both of her parents are died and she is now the caretaker for her younger siblings. She also quite possibly faces personal danger just by virtue of being a girl and becomes pregnant from rape. Let’s not forget that these girls are also sexual beings and feel the same pressures and urges to have sex as any other girl in the world but through lack of knowledge or no access to birth control they become pregnant.

When scholarship programs don’t look at the constellation of factors in a girl’s life, such as her family life, social norms, the quality of her school, reproductive rights, or her basic safety, chances are low that she’ll be able to stay in school. And when she drops out or gets pregnant, she’s considered to be the one that “failed.” This is just one example of the many interventions in global development that only tackle one issue. Projects frequently provide clean water, birth control, or sanitary napkins and expect these interventions to solve a complex range of complex and nuanced problems.

Truly effective philanthropic programs take a holistic approach. Instead of serving a population, such as young women and girls, with a single issue, such as access to birth control, economic empowerment, or sanitation these programs look at all the factors that affect those women and girls’ lives. Are they safe from violence? Do they have access to quality education? Do they have the means for economic empowerment? Are their households stable? Do they have access to health care? Do they have enough to eat? Can they go to school or are they expected to work in order to help meet the family’s financial needs?

So often, in our rush to do good for others, we fail to truly see who the others are we are trying so desperately to help. Many funders never even visit the sites where their dollars are being put to use. Many of us look at the problems of “others” through a Western lens and subsequently fail to recognize the cultural nuances and nuances that direct these girls’ lives. When we are disconnected from the populations we serve because we lack the contextual and cultural competencies, we can continue and/or perpetuate the marginalization they already face. This is a huge disservice that many do not have the luxury to walk away from with an “oh well.”

I’ve seen well-intentioned programs put in place that give women jobs outside the home, but fail to consider that the women have little to no control over their own earnings. Without control over household resources they are not able to invest their money where it is most needed. In addition to outside work they must attend to childcare and household duties, increasing their already heavy load of responsibilities and decreased time to fulfill them.

Giving a woman a cow will not change her life, or the lives of those around her, if it’s not also part of a bigger picture of change. Giving impoverished women a limited supply of sanitary pads will not empower them, unless there’s more to the program than a single short-sighted approach. In philanthropy, if you don’t look at all the pieces of the puzzle, you won’t get the outcomes you seek. The factors we may think are small or even insignificant can actually make a very big difference to the effectiveness of initiatives.

What many initiatives need and what funders should aspire to fund are more holistic, intersectional approaches. An intersectional approach that seeks to fulfill a girl’s purpose needs work to provide access to education, healthcare, reproductive rights, parental support; and so on, in order to provide for all of a girl’s needs.

The disparity and oppression girls and women face around the world has taken centuries to build up to the state we’re in today. Likewise, gender equity will require long-lasting change with multifaceted solutions and coordinated actions. There are many wonderful global development organizations offering excellent initiatives that are sadly limited in their effectiveness as standalone programs. But in collaboration, working together from a holistic perspective, we can multiply our impact and truly change lives.