“Hey there! It’s us again. We have a situation on our hands, and the clock is ticking.” So begins a terrific little video from a campaign called The Girl Effect. Technically it’s a hit; but the message — that’s something else.

Backed by the Nike Foundation and the Buffett family’s NoVo Foundation in collaboration with the United Nations Foundation and other major players in the population and development game, the animation tells us that poverty in developing countries can be beaten by focusing resources on adolescent girls.

Their claim:

Adolescent girls are capable of raising the standard of living in the developing world. Girls are the most likely agents of change, but they are often invisible to their societies and to our media.

The trouble is, this approach isolates girls and makes the other people in her life invisible — boys, parents, in other words, families. They are to be replaced with teachers and doctors and microfinanciers.

There are 50 million 12-year-old girls living in poverty, we are told, and the future is out of their hands. At 12, a poor girl faces being married off by the age of 14 and having her first child at 15; if she survives childbirth, she may have to sell her body to feed her family, which puts her at risk of contracting and spreading HIV.

But, the good news is, there is a solution: Starting again at 12, if she visits a doctor regularly, if she stays in school, where she’s safe, and uses her education to earn a living, now she’s calling the shots and it looks something like this:

She can avoid HIV, she can marry and have children when she’s ready, and her children are healthy like she is. Now imagine this continuing for generation after generation.

Right? You get the picture. 50 million girls in poverty = 50 million solutions. This is the power of the girl effect: it starts with a 12 year old girl and impacts on the world.

Certainly there is a need in developing countries to change the culture away from very early marriage and childbearing and towards equality for girls in education and employment opportunities; but this calls for a programme directed first of all to the family and the community. If parents are ignored and boys are left behind this can only lead to friction and social division.

Alas, the “regular visit to the doctor” (for contraception and abortion, amongst other things) gives the key to this campaign. The “us” of “It’s us again…” turns out to be the population control heavies, which is evident when you dig down through the layers of generalisations about women’s education, health and economic participation on their websites:

The total global population of girls ages 10 to 24 —already the largest in history — is expected to peak in the next decade. (Centre For Global Development)

Why should we pay more attention to girls? When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children. (The Girl Effect Data)

You have to hand it to them, though — they know how to put together a campaign that captures the imagination and has good chances of going viral through the main social media: FaceBook, twitter and YouTube.

Maybe, one day, all those people who believe in the dignity of girls and boys and the fundamental importance of the family will come up with something just as catchy.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet