Is ‘girl-centred development’ harmful fantasy?

Has the worm finally turned on the promotion of ‘girl-centred development’ in terms of claimed macroeconomic benefits? Daphne Jayasinghe posted on aspects of this yesterday; and the academic literature is pointing the same way.

The Journal of International Development has just published a paper by Cynthia Caron and Shelby Margolin, Rescuing Girls, Investing in Girls: A Critique of Development Fantasies.

The authors analyse “three girl-centred campaigns [and find that they] identify and diagnose girls’ problems and prescribe solutions that not only circumscribe girls’ futures, but are also counterproductive.”

From SciDevNet’s handy summary:

These campaigns do not recognise girls as individuals, each with specific abilities and personal aspirations, but rather assume that all girls want to be educated, raise families and become wage earners,” write Cynthia Caron and Shelby Margolin, two development scholars at Clark University in the United States…

The authors say these programmes support a “development fantasy”, promoting education as a way to “invest in girls” and increase their economic value. The campaigns aim to further economic growth under the guise of girl empowerment, say Caron and Margolin, perpetuating what they see as a “failed development narrative that economic growth inevitably leads to an equitable future for all”.

Has the worm turned? Let’s hope so. The need for a genuine focus on women’s empowerment is far too great for it to be pushed down the channel of fantasy.

Here’s the full abstract:

The girl child increasingly is at the centre of development programming. We draw on Slavoj Žižek’s notion of fantasy to show how and, more importantly, why girl-centred initiatives reproduce the shortcomings of women and gender-focused programmes before them. Through an analysis of three girl-centred campaigns, we illustrate how experts identify and diagnose girls’ problems and prescribe solutions that not only circumscribe girls’ futures, but are also counterproductive. We argue that even as campaigns try to integrate lessons learned from earlier gender and development initiatives, the critical reflection that a Žižekian approach promotes would better enable development actors to reformulate campaigns and fundamental campaign assumptions.

Versions of the same thinking are clearly now influencing some of the campaigns that have been critiqued too – take for example Katrine Marçal’s piece in the 2015 State of the World’s Girls report:

Girls and women are not an untapped economic resource in the world; their work is the invisible structure that keeps societies and economies together.

Things are shifting.

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