10/11/2012 07:35 am ET Updated Dec 11, 2012

Investments in Girls: Half the Sky, but None of the Cash

Today has been sanctioned as the first International Day of the Girl by the UN -- a true testament to the importance that governments, NGOs and others are beginning to place on the lives of girls.

According to a growing body of research in the field of international development, interest in reaching girls stems from two intriguing but seemingly contradictory findings. First, girls are perhaps the most disadvantaged group in the world. They account for 70 percent of out-of-school youth, are more likely to marry young -- 38 percent are married before the age of 18 -- and are more likely to die from complications due to child pregnancy than from any disease.

Second, girls hold an immense amount of potential for improving not only their own outcomes, but those of their families and communities as well. They will reinvest 90 percent of their earnings back into their family compared to the paltry 30 to 40 percent that boys and men do, and higher education among girls is correlated with both later and fewer children. These findings are leading to more and more anti-poverty interventions being directed specifically at girls and women.

But this aid movement, as it stands, isn't getting to the heart of the issue, or what's really holding girls back. As investments in girls and women are increasing worldwide, governments may be missing an opportunity to reach this demographic. Programs have traditionally focused on keeping girls in school or delaying marriage, which are important approaches, but perhaps a wiser investment is direct assets to girls (DATG) -- i.e., giving them cash.

Since the 2010 publication of the book Just Give Money to the Poor, the popularity of cash transfers as a means of reaching the most vulnerable has grown significantly. Indeed, it represents a paradigmatic change in the way that aid is given and inherently demonstrates an understanding that it's the poor themselves who know best what they need. Cash transfers have been shown to have positive impacts in educational attainment, behaviors associated with HIV risk, nutritional improvements in children's diets, and a host of other outcomes.

Further, with increased attention given to electronic payment (e-payment) platforms, as demonstrated by the recent launch of the Better than Cash Alliance at the Clinton Global Initiative, cash transfer programs are increasingly utilizing innovative technologies in their delivery.

Over the past year, the Global Assets Project at the New America Foundation has been compiling data on government-to-person (G2P) payments in the developing world, identifying the various payment and delivery platforms used for making cash transfers, conditions attached to program payments, target populations, payment amounts, and many other variables. We released a paper today, called Investing In Girls: Opportunities for Innovation in Girl-Centered Cash Transfers, that specifically examines the landscape of cash transfer programs targeting girls in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. Our paper also provides recommendations for leveraging the technological advances in biometric identification, mobile banking, and SMS services in order to receive the greatest returns on investment for these programs.

Of the 42 countries for which we have adequate data, only 6 have G2P programs that provide direct assets to girls: Bangladesh, Guatemala, India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Yemen. The programs in these countries reach roughly 3 million of the 600 million girls in developing countries, which is not surprising given that out of every aid dollar, only about half a cent goes to programs targeting girls.

For interventions to really have an impact, a couple of issues need to be addressed. First, all of this attention on girls needs to translate into real and tangible investments, and ideally investments directly to the girls themselves. This will require a shift in priorities for governments and NGOs alike, but promises to provide significant economic returns. Second, more research must be conducted on the programs currently in existence -- on their payment and delivery mechanisms, program designs, goals and outcomes -- so that these programs can be replicated elsewhere. For example, virtually every state in India has enacted programs similar to Apni Beti, Apna Dhan, which seeks to address the sex ratio imbalance, child marriage and school dropout rates among girls. But while Apni Beti, Apna Dhan has been touted as a success, others have had to close altogether. Research into these issues could help us understand why similar programs are having varying degrees of success.

We've made significant progress in how we provide aid to the most vulnerable, but especially with respect to girls, there is still much to be done. As these two trends in development converge in the coming years -- the shift toward cash payments to the poorest and the growing value placed on addressing the unique needs of girls -- we hope the phrase "direct assets to girls" will become as common as "Millennium Development Goals."