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'The Girl Effect': stereotyping the developing world


It is close to 10 years since corporate giant Nike coined the slogan ‘The Girl Effect,’ claiming that girl power held the key to ending world poverty and launching a campaign to support that vision. In a new book| chapter published this month, LSE Fellow Dr Ofra Koffman| critically considers this policy.

Ten years ago, the Nike Foundation made a bold claim: adolescent girls hold the key to transforming the fortunes of the developing world. The empowering of teenage girls, it was argued, is the most effective way to combat poverty and improve health and life expectancy in the developing world. This is because girls who are educated and empowered will go on to  “marry later, delay childbearing, have healthier children and earn better incomes,” breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty and triggering a dramatic transformation in the fortunes of developing countries.

Drawing on its expertise in marketing, Nike created a social media campaign including a range of virals, downloadable web banners and posters. The campaign aimed to communicate ‘The Girl Effect’ message to Western audiences, recruiting them as supporters of girls in the developing world.

Together with fellow academic Professor Rosalind Gill from City University London, Dr Koffman has analysed the key features of ‘The Girl Effect’ campaign in a contribution to the book Youth Cultures in the Age of Global Media|.

The academics argue that while Nike’s virals are very good at communicating the policy idea clearly and persuasively, there are significant problems with the message being propagated. 

“Nike’s depiction of ‘The Girl Effect’ plays into stereotypes of the developing world as a homogenous sphere where women are oppressed by harmful cultural practices,” Dr Koffman says.

“The narrative brushes aside the immense variation in education, marriage and fertility patterns across different developing countries and promotes a single picture of life in the Global South as being plagued by child marriage, teenage motherhood and HIV/AIDS.”

The reality is, of course, much more complex and nuanced. Different countries have different religious, historical, political and cultural practices and to apply such a narrative across the developing world is too broad a sweep.

Furthermore, as the responses to the Kony2012 virals have shown, the stereotypical portrayal of the developing world is increasingly being strongly contested by people from these countries who also view those virals. Such campaigns therefore risk undermining the relationships between the West and the developing world rather than helping to strengthen it.

“Clear and simple messages can be an effective way to engage audiences, but good policy making requires complex and nuanced solutions,” Dr Koffman argues. “Complex and deep-seated problems such as poverty cannot be solved by addressing a single issue, important as this issue may be.  It requires a multi-pronged approach that is sensitive to the values, history and culture of a particular community”.

There is another problem with the message spread by the ‘The Girl Effect’: it implies that gender equality is not a Western problem.  

People in Western countries, particularly girls, are being encouraged to recognise and take action to address the inequality faced by girls in the developing world. The message to Western girls (for example by campaigns by the NGO UN Foundation) is that they are the most educated and empowered generation of girls in history.

 “The reality is that within many Western countries there are still inequalities to be addressed,” Dr Koffman says.

“From pay gaps to reproductive rights, girls and women still face inequalities that undermine their prospects and people need to be reminded that the work of tackling gender equality is not done,” Dr Koffman says,

“We need a message that does not divide the global North and South, but instead draws attention to the similarities in the challenges faced by girls and women across the world.”

Posted: 18 March 2014

Useful notes

Dr Ofra Koffman is an LSE Fellow in the Department of Media and Communications with specific research interests in the study of gender, adolescence, new media and development policy.

Youth Cultures in the Age of Global Media was published by Palgrave Macmillan in February 2014. The chapter co-authored by Dr Koffman is titled I matter and so does she: girl power, (post) feminism and the girl effect.