What will it take to address poverty?
If you build a school for girls in northern Nigeria or give a girl in the Philippines $2000, it might seem like you’re providing her with the things she needs to improve her life. But building a school doesn’t guarantee that girls will get access to an education, and giving them money doesn’t give them the power to use it in a way that will allow them to lift themselves or their families out of poverty. Instead, we’re putting a band aid on a broken bone.
Solving social problems is very different from treating their symptoms, especially if we are talking about problems at a global scale. Treating symptoms does not help you cure the cause. It’s easy to think that if a village doesn’t have money, the solution is give them money, or if girls in the community don’t go to school, we need to build more girl-only schools, but the actual problem lies deeper. It is invisible and it extends through all areas of life.
If we cannot help change the context, including cultural attitudes, that contribute to these problems, we won’t be able to solve them. Girls in particular fall victim to these negative social norms. At the bottom of the pyramid in the global south, a girl’s needs are often not only unheard, but not even articulated, as she doesn’t know how to.
Across the world we find disenfranchised groups who are not included in innovators’ visions of ‘a better life’. Too often, we exclude refugees and immigrants who bear the weight of our unspoken, sometimes unrecognized negative biases. However, if we focus our attention at the bottom of the pyramid we inadvertently start creating change to the larger macro problems at the top.
Governing bodies across the world have recognised that empowering women and girls benefits not only them but those around them, because when you lift a girl out of poverty she takes her whole family and community with her. Once a family living in poverty experiences and recognises this, they are able to create new positive attitudes and norms towards women and girls that can be repeated from one generation to the next. However, there is resistance to this and it often comes from a girl’s direct ‘gatekeepers’, not governments. For example, a mother might need their daughters to stay at home and take care of the younger children so she can work — a common phenomenon across the global south. In places like Nigeria, a girl’s biggest ally is often her paternal grandmother, a woman who still holds sway over her son (the girl’s father) and who, as the mother of a boy, does not have set ideas about what the life of a daughter should be, which the girl’s mother oftentimes has.
Today the development sector increasingly understands poverty from this panoramic perspective. They understand that long lasting change requires two approaches, one that provides individuals and their communities with assets and services and another that aims to break down negative norms and behaviours and to build new positive ones. Solutions must not only provide girls with the assets and services they need, which give the confidence to ask for and use resources, but also solutions that help families and communities see girls as opportunities rather than as a cause or a burden. This means along with providing girls with the HPV vaccine and access to health clinics, we must inform and educate them about the benefits of health care. In addition, we must encourage families and communities to diminish the barriers that girls face. We can achieve these goals with projects that inform but also entertain. Better yet, when we infuse such projects with local culture and work with girls to develop the content, we may not only solve the problem of girls’ access to health care, we can also help them develop the tools and confidence to improve their own lives and help their communities.
Although technology is increasingly becoming a threat to workers within the developed world, it provides an incredible opportunity for the global south. Technology, in particular mobile solutions, can become a medium to supply both approaches for girls and other disenfranchised communities. Today, almost two-third of the world’s population has a mobile phone, however 200 million fewer women than men own a mobile phone and more noticeably once they become connected they arrive in an online world that wasn’t built with them in mind. The lack of positive and empowering content and open social channels often leaves girls and women to be preyed upon. Big players in Silicon Valley, like Facebook, are taking on the challenge of ‘connecting the unconnected’ with programs like Free Basics that work not only to connect people but to also provide the unconnected with positive, empowering content and tools. Technology and mobile, whether provided by tech giants or smaller non-profits, can be a key tool for ending global poverty.
Long term change and success takes exactly that — a long time. If we can combine the energy around the ‘on-demand’ innovations happening in both the private and developing sector for social good, with the 360 degree strategic approach of some savvy nonprofits, we will start creating solutions that not only give cash directly to those in need but also create an environment that enables individuals and whole families to use the money to improve their children’s futures as well as their own. Such solutions must include women and girls from the start.
Dominique Hess is a brand marketing professional based in London (UK) specialising in using storytelling to create positive social change.