Originally written by Jamie M. Zimmerman, Nicole Tosh, Nick McClellan, New America Foundation, for New America Foundation.

Over the last decade, anti-poverty initiatives across the developing world have increasingly focused on gender-based strategies, and in particular, on achieving equality and empowerment through gender-focused program innovation. While important progress has been made in the last several years, men still outnumber women in paid employment in almost every region of the developing world, with more women working informally, and in more vulnerable employment positions, than men.

Girls in the developing world are underrepresented in education, too, with female university-level enrollment in Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, at 76 percent and 67 percent of male enrollment, respectively. The United Nations Millennium Development Goal 3, to “Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women,” was aimed at addressing these remaining and widespread disparities.

There are over 580 million girls in the world aged 10 to 19 years, of which roughly 90 million are in low-income countries where the per capita income is less than USD 1,005 per year. Over 85 percent of adolescent girls are estimated to live in poverty in countries such as Bangladesh, Liberia, Tanzania, and Rwanda. They often work in the informal sector, may not be in school, and are missed by many development interventions. Over 100 million girls between the ages of five and 17 are involved in child labor, with the majority engaged in hazardous work, including domestic service and other informal types of work where girls are particularly isolated and vulnerable. In over a dozen countries across the world, more than 50 percent of girls—and in some nations as much as 87 percent—do not complete primary school. Globally, approximately one-quarter of girls in developing countries are not in school at all.

Investing in adolescent girls is important for addressing inequality and is critical for the realization of their rights, but it can also pay enormous economic dividends. Mounting evidence shows that investments in adolescent girls and young women (AGYW) may prove to be an even more effective way of ending intergenerational poverty than programs targeting children generally. For example, in their 2011 paper, “Measuring the Economic Effects of Investing in Girls: The Girl Effect Dividend,” the World Bank’s Jad Chaaban and Wendy Cunningham found that if young women in Brazil were employed at the same levels as men, the annual national GDP would rise USD 23 billion. In lifetime income by that logic, they calculate that India would add almost USD 400 billion to its GDP.

Girl-targeted social protection policies, to the extent they exist, have traditionally aimed at keeping adolescent girls in school, prioritizing HIV prevention, delaying marriage, and offering reproductive health programs before puberty. These are all critical objectives. However, advancements in technology coupled with another emerging trend in anti-poverty initiatives—the shift in social protection programs from in-kind transfers to cash payments, and the increasing disbursement of those cash payments using electronic methods—provide a unique opportunity to consider new and complementary goals that could enhance both the efficiency and efficacy of girl-centered programs.

This paper suggests that as investments in targeted cash transfer interventions for AGYW increase, policymakers and other stakeholders should leverage trends toward financially-inclusive e-payments as a means to achieve multiple potential objectives including:

  1. Counting adolescent girls to ensure they have access to health and educational opportunities by encouraging registration at birth
  2. Improving adolescent girls’ access to financial services
  3. Encouraging asset-building opportunities

We posit that doing so could result in several positive outcomes, such as:

  1. Greater potential to provide adolescent girls with access to formal financial systems
  2. Formal identity and rights
  3. The chance for governments and others investing in girl-focused programs to achieve a better return on investment
  4. Reduce government leakage and corruption that waste precious resources
  5. Provide financial institutions an expanded client base and holdings
  6. Create opportunities for practitioners looking for ways to nudge behavior or enhance social and economic outcomes

The trend toward girl-centered asset-building strategies is certain to gather momentum in the coming years, especially as evidence continues to accumulate on the multiplier effects of investing in adolescent girls. At the same time, social protection payments will continue to become more effective at leveraging human capital investments and more efficient in their delivery, producing benefits for governments, financial intermediaries, and recipients. The nexus between the two offers fertile ground for new pilots and improvements in current programs.

To be sure, there are significant challenges ahead for development practitioners. The relationship between asset-building opportunities for adolescent girls, financial inclusion, and electronic-delivery of social protection payments involves a diverse set of stakeholders and interests. While momentum is building toward leveraging e-payments for savings opportunities, policymakers continue to struggle with program-design issues that are often context-specific.

In short, the shift to electronic payments provides a prime opportunity to experiment with new asset-building strategies aimed at adolescent girls—whether that means piloting in-school banking with the delivery of cash transfers, harnessing the power of biometrics to count adolescent girls and help thwart early marriage, or paying attention to the role of habit formation in developing savings habits. Further experimentation, topical and comparative analyses, and facilitated coordination on the regional and national levels will help ensure these opportunities are well capitalized upon.

Further research and experimentation, with careful monitoring and evaluation plans, must be designed to allow shared best practices where cross-contextual lessons can be gleaned. Very few social protection programs have been evaluated using proper baseline measurements, let alone a randomized design. Most program evaluations are relegated to estimating causal effects. There is real and vast potential for further ambitious yet smart experimentation and research. Technology has just begun to open the door for the development of an innovation renaissance aimed at helping adolescent girls—the most vulnerable population on the planet. The challenge is to walk through that door aware of its true potential.

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