December 27, 2013

Girl Rising: a new take on an intractable problem?

Written by Carolyn CoughlinCarolyn Coughlin

Earlier this month, I had the good fortune to attend a screening of the documentary GirlRising.  It happened by mistake (in other words, it wasn’t planned). I happen to live on the campus of a boarding school in New Jersey, where my husband has taught for the last 15 years and where my three children have grown up. I happen to have been eating dinner at the campus dining hall the night before (which I almost never do). I happened to be sharing a table with a woman who was talking about the documentary, and she happened to mention it was only a 45 minute running time (which is generally about the longest I can stay awake in a dark room—and she happened to have been wrong, it was actually 1hr and 45 minutes), so I happened to decide to go.  As it happens, one of the film’s producers, Kayce Freed Jennings, happens to be a friend of an alumnus of the school, and her father happens to have gone here in the 1930’s, which is why she happened to be here for the screening tonight.  So that’s how I happened to be accidentally introduced to this powerful and innovative movement called GirlRising.

I took you all through this happening scenario simply as a demonstration of how unpredictable—in sort of a random orderly way—events in our lives can be and how sometimes those randomly orderly unpredictable events can have huge impact on a system that has been ticking along slowly without much change for quite some time.  I’m not yet sure how my encounter with Kayce Freed Jennings and her film will change the way I’m thinking about women and development and leadership—perhaps in big ways or perhaps very little, but it will change something.  The thing I got to thinking about, though, is how the events that led to Kayce and others making this film could fundamentally change not only the possibilities for girls around the world, but the course of poverty alleviation programs more generally.  The ways in which this film and the related set of events spawned by it (see the website) changes the system of poverty in developing countries of course remains to be seen, but it strikes me as a great example of a safe to fail experiment (albeit a rather large one) that could ultimately have far greater impact than the larger, more direct, more obvious interventions that have been ongoing for decades. [pullquote]

In the mid-2000’s, producers Kayce Freed Jennings and Richard Robbins were asked to do some research on the causes of persistent poverty in developing countries, and the thing they found again and again was that investing in educating girls is by far the intervention with the highest return on investment.  At first they thought this must be a widely-known fact and that somehow they had simply not been aware of it. But soon they discovered that, while it was well proven that educating girls was the single most impactful thing that could be done to raise living standards in the developing world, it was in fact not widely known and was in fact not being well exploited as a leverage point.  So Robbins and Freed Jennings decided to do something to spread the word.  They undertook the making of Girl Rising, a moving film based on the stories of nine girls in nine different developing countries—all of them had great courage and determination to get educated despite the fact that each of them resided inside a system that was working powerfully against them.

The Girl Rising movement is by many accounts a safe to fail experiment.  The direction is clear (educate more girls), it is oblique (does not seek to directly influence policy or even work on poverty itself), and it is relatively low investment and narrowly focused (the “safe” part of safe-to-fail).  More importantly, it has the possibility to be one of those inputs to the system that has non-linear effects on the system itself.

I’m guessing that Girl Rising is just one of hundreds of such efforts going on around the globe, and that this just happens to be the one that has captured my attention (by accident).  What causes these movements to emerge and what makes them work?  Emergence is in some ways the result of orderly randomness.  In a complex system, things are happening all the time—as in evolution, some of these things survive and some don’t, depending on the conditions in the system that make them either fit for purpose or not-so-fit-for purpose.  In social systems, it also takes visionary, committed leaders (not necessarily charismatic ones, just leaders with a commitment to something bigger and who have the capacity to see the wider system) to notice what could be, what is possible, and have the courage to nurture, to experiment, and to monitor the results over time.  And then to adjust, nurture, and notice some more.

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