Image used with kind permission from the ‘Most Significant Change’ Technique: A Guide to its Use’, by Rick Davies and Jess Dart
Human rights, including women’s rights are dropping off the donor agenda. ‘Give it another two years’, said a United Nations official off the record recently, ‘and they will have completely disappeared’.
We’re told in the UK that ‘women are at the heart of development’. Peel away the rhetoric and a more troubling picture emerges. Warning bells started to sound for me when an influential insider sharply warned us against using the language of human rights – talk about women, fine, but don’t talk to us of rights. More troubling still, the interest in women is underpinned by a concern with what the International Development Secretary formerly termed ‘population stabilisation’. The language has since been softened and made more palatable. Now we hear about improving women’s control of their reproductive lives, but the approach remains instrumental and technical – give girls “family planning” and they will stop getting pregnant.
The debate over the Nike “Girl Effect” video has unintentionally revealed a deep divide in approaches to development, with the two sides close to mutual incomprehension. The divide is between what I will call the technocratic approach and the rights approach. Amanda Glassman at the deservedly well-respected Center for Global Development (which provided material for the Nike video campaign) and Miriam Temin, the co-author with Ruth Levine of Start with a Girl, say in their exposition of the technocratic approach to women’s issues: “you’d think this would be relatively uncontroversial, given the strength and extent of the underlying evidence.”¹ Rosalind Eyben, in her compelling lead article in this issue, gives the “rights” rebuttal: the technocratic vision seems “all about calculating the rates of return from investing in a person as if she were a piece of machinery.”
Notions of ‘measurability’ and ‘evidence’ are often based on concepts that are appropriate for clinical medicine but not for social change. Indeed doyens of the American Evaluation Association such as Michael Quinn Patton make clear that measures of progress have to be developed within an understanding of the unpredictability of change, and the impossibility of attributing change to single players. Rather than a linear approach that narrowly ties impact to input, strategies for social change need to be informed by complexity theory. While this poses challenges for measurability, solid investment in assessing and documenting the diversity of factors that influence social change would provide donors with more confidence to support such efforts.
For those of you as outraged as I was by Nike’s girl effect campaign, and its emotive simplistic message to invest in girls , the good news is that there are at least two Youtube take offs that reveal in equally slick ways the real message of the campaign: The Girl Effect Parody: “The Idiot Effect” and the Boy Effect. Both made me laugh and think there is some creative resistance out there to the marketing/exploiting of gender and development issues by the corporate world.