Corporations Do Damage to Poor Women with Their Global Philanthropy

Big corporations are guilty of exploiting Women’s History Month, originally meant to celebrate a labor movement ushered in by impoverished female sweatshop workers. These corporations issue shallow acknowledgments of women who have broken glass ceilings, all the while doing damage to poor women through their exploitive business practices. In her new book, The Gender Effect: Capitalism, Feminism, and the Corporate Politics of Development, Kathryn Moeller, an assistant professor of educational policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explains how Fortune 500 companies cause even more damage through the charitable programs they launch in order to “give back.”

Her work is grounded in a critique of the “girl effect,” an economic theory that says the key to reversing poverty in the Southern Hemisphere is to invest financially in women’s education and economic development. As Moeller writes in her book:

“The Girl Effect is anchored by the idea that the future of humanity depends on poor racialized girls in the Global South. It is promoted as a revolutionary way of looking at girls’ latent potential. If granted access to education, girls are imagined to rise from the obstacles that pull them down—poverty, hunger, disease, early marriage, and adolescent pregnancy—to solve the problems that plague our world. They will marry later and delay childbearing, and in doing so, they will generate economic development, limit population growth, educate their children, improve child and maternal health, conserve environmental resources, and control the spread of HIV/AIDS.”

But Moeller argues that poor black and brown girls are actually hurt by this work. Charity work modeled around the girl effect shifts the burden of change unfairly onto girls and women, asking them to bear the weight of bringing up their communities economically.

Companies like Goldman Sachs, Walmart, Exxon and Nike like to focus their corporate social responsibility work on girls because supporting women is, in theory, noncontroversial. But Moeller writes in The Gender Effect that such charitable efforts actually harm girls and women in the Global South by depoliticizing their problems, which are inherently political. “In doing so,” Moeller writes, “it transfers the responsibility for change away from the governments, corporations and global governance institutions whose actions have led to the unequal distribution of resources, food insecurity, abusive labor conditions, unfair trade policies and environmental degradation that disproportionately affect girls, women and the poor around the world.”

The corporate fear of getting political is evident in the language these companies use. “Most companies avoid the politics of ‘women’s rights’ and use terms like ‘empowerment,'” Moeller told AlterNet. They also avoid working in areas where the suppression of women has been explicitly political and enforced by sexist regimes, like in Afghanistan.

There are significant cultural insensitivities that emerge as a result of the work. Western corporations claim their philanthropy will discourage the practice of marrying off teenage brides. But the goal of pushing back the marriage age according to Western cultural standards is eerily suggestive of recent history when powerful and wealthy white people literally owned those bodies. This philanthropic work has an “obsessive focus on pregnancy,” Moeller told AlterNet. And in her field research on corporate charity in action, Moeller has found the focus is on heterosexual women. “LGBTQ girls aren’t included,” she said.

Corporations want to impose their capitalist values on women in poor communities by encouraging education models that help women become economic actors. But what emerges are flawed education systems. As Moeller writes, “This leads to a disproportionate emphasis on promoting narrow types of education, such as entrepreneurial education, and financial literacy, and the acquisition of economic assets, such as credit and savings, rather than more holistic or transformative forms of education.” Such education models focus on technical skills, but don’t address the racism, sexism or other barriers these women will inevitably encounter in the job market.

While Moeller thinks corporate social responsibility programs are admirable in theory, in practice, they consist of corporate types whose main priority is the image of their brand. They rarely come from development or feminism backgrounds, and historically have taken a top-down approach of imposing their own economic theories on poor communities without really asking what the people living in those communities want.

Many who read Moeller's book will be surprised to hear these criticisms of the girl effect, thanks to marketing campaigns that have normalized the economic theory to a ubiquitous extent. Corporations like Nike have so much money to spend publicizing their charitable efforts, and scholars of global development have so little, that the corporate model for fixing poverty has become the dominant one.

There is a right way for major corporations to practice corporate social responsibility, Moeller says, and she sees some companies making progress toward this. Pepsico and Levi Strauss are engaging in partnerships with successful NGOs on the ground in the Southern Hemisphere rather than imposing their own models on these communities. “It’s difficult to know now how that will play out,” Moeller says, but she undoubtedly will be watching.

Ultimately, the main takeaway of her criticism of the girl effect form of philanthropy is that corporations often engage in immoral and harmful production practices while simultaneously promoting their pro-capitalist, anti-poverty work. “Many of the corporations have histories of hurting these communities, girls and women,” Moeller said. “Many don’t even address that they caused the problems. If companies want to help women, they need to clean up their practices first.”

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