Girl, Ineffective?

The idea that the fight against poverty needs to put women and girls at the top of the agenda has been gaining traction in recent years. This has been a long slog, boosted by the advocacy of people like Sheryl WuDunn and Nick Kristof, the authors of the terrific ‘Half The Sky’. Equally important has been the corporate oomph of Nike, which has used its charitable foundation to advance the cause of adolescent girls through its powerful Girl Effect campaign.

Indeed, Girl Effect was so effective that the British Government, through its aid ministry DFID, hopped on board in 2010, launching a joint initiative with Nike called the Girl Hub. This was a bold move. Handing £11.6 million ($18 million) of British taxpayers money over to a multinational corporation comes with significant reputational risks. But this seemed to be exactly the kind of risk-taking that governments need to learn to do, scaling up successful private sector initiatives, if philanthrocapitalism is to fulfil its potential. The purpose of this extra cash was twofold: to extend the influence of the Girl Effect on developing country governments, donors and other decision-makers; and to bring girls into the decision-making process in four countries, starting with Rwanda.

So it was a bit of a bombshell when, earlier this week, Britain’s independent aid watchdog, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), delivered a withering report on the DFID/Nike partnership, saying that it is “not performing well” and is in need of “significant” improvement. So what has gone wrong? The problem it seems is that DFID approached its coupling with Nike to help adolescent girls with the gaucheness and fumbling fingers of an adolescent boy on his first date. The IACI reports over-ambitious objectives. There was poor preparation (“The concept was developed during 2009, although there is limited documentation of this or of how each donor’s contributions were agreed.”; “Insufficient pre-grant due diligence was conducted on Nike Foundation and Girl Hub policies, procedures and plans”). And there were unclear boundaries and allocations of responsibility. Basically, DFID didn’t brush it’s teeth before it went out and was expecting to get to third base on a first date.

The good news is that, despite some of these partnership implementation failings, the ICAI is more positive about the actual impact of Girl Hub, which it scored as “performing well”. Rather than a reason to reject the partnership approach, the problems highlighted by the ICAI are probably best regarded as teething troubles of the sort that often happen when pursuing teenage dreams.