The Clock is Ticking

Michelle Murphy


“We have a situation,” a 2010 promotional video for the Girl Effect campaign informs us. The clock is ticking on the future life chances of girls. What happens in girlhood will trigger two possible cascades of correlation. In the dystopic cascade, she is married at 14, pregnant by 15, faced with sex work to support her family, which in turn puts her at risk of “contracting and spreading” HIV. In the utopic cascade, she is “happy and healthy” and stays in school, which allows her to escape sex work and earn a leaving from her education, which in turn allows her to “call the shots” so she can avoid HIV and choose when she marries and has children. The utopic girl then passes on her good fortune to her children, who then pass it on to future generations, thereby “impacting the world.” Thus, girlhood offers an urgent window for pre-emption.

According to the promissory of the girl effect, the cascade of good outcomes can be triggered by a well-timed “investment” in a girl. In the Girl Effect, life is temporized in terms of risk pools, investment potentials, and rates of return. Thus, we can distinguish the futurity as posited by modernization theory (undergirding the demographic transition) with its sense of directing an uncertain unfolding of historical time, from the futurity of financialized speculation that seeks to stimulate or pre-empt particular probabilities for the sake of a predicted payback.

At the turn of the millennium, the Girl Effect had spread to become a dominant logic shaping transnational development.1 Merging financial speculation with feminism, the Girl Effect was first put forward by the Nike Foundation in 2008 as a new feminist form of development. It considers girls a kind of human capital with the possibility of high rates of return, regularly lauded as “the best investment in the developing world.”2 Investment in a girl usually takes the form of primary school education. The idea of Girl Effect builds on work from the 1990s by economists at the World Bank (led by Lawrence Summers) who had calculated that educating girls reduced fertility for less cost than directly funding family planning.

The returns on investing in girls are manifold: they accrue to the future woman the girl will someday become, as well as her progeny, and her nation-state. The returns come in the form of a cascade of good effects, from her reduced fertility, to her increased future wages, and her better health (and hence reduced drain on national resources), as well as contributions to the well-being of her community, and increased success as an entrepreneur. Future reduced fertility and increased wages, moreover, have direct mathematical effects on the calculation of GDP per capita, which is another kind of speculative benefit for the nation-state as a whole. In the boosterism of Girl Effect promotions, the cascade of good effects spreads to the entire globe, offering a way out of our current economic and political “mess.”

The Girl Effect’s analysis of this chain of outcomes is based on a thick archive of data produced by decades of social science family planning and development research (including explicitly feminist work) about girls.3 This archive of research offers a multitude of correlations between girls’ fertility, labor, health, literacy, gender status, and so on. This dispersed literature of correlation is gathered by the Girl Effect and re-narrated as a single cascade that is then elevated an abstract model making claims about girls in general and everywhere, and not a statistical prediction about any given girl life. The girl effect offers another example of a phantasmagram. Generated by the thick data of postcolonial development, the Girl Effect dreams a speculative future where all postcolonial poor girls have become sites of good investment that can trigger a chain reaction with the potential to transform the economy of the entire world.

The promissory of the Girl Effect is largely directed at Western donor communities, policy makers, and transnational agencies. Its appeal is partially that it offers a vision of “empowering girls” in synchrony with the logics of speculative capital. Grounded development workers in local NGOs are not so romantic about the possibility of easily “unleashing change,” even if the resources that flow through the Girl Effect, and its shifting of development priorities from reducing fertility directly to encouraging education, are welcome.4

Within development policy arenas, the Girl Effect is conjured using two practices: quantification and animation. If the trust that animates numbers is not a given, but needs to be generated, Girl Effect campaigns have refined the art of mobilizing feeling with video, graphic design, and music. Significantly, the Girl Effect has helped to crystalize a new visual vocabulary for development promotions.5 Replacing realist photos and film of suffering brown bodies, the Girl Effect is brought to life through colorful animation, lively pie charts, stop motion filming, aestheticized numbers, and ebullient music. Through energetic, if cartoonish, graphic design, the thick archive of postcolonial data is re-presented as animated charged data points that can be “unleashed” into a future of speculative prosperity. The data and statistics do not so much persuade as provoke feelings, including feminist dreams of a better life for girls.

The excited videos with swelling musical scores can be hard to resist. They attach to aspiration and fear, hope and anxiety for the future of children, as well as a liberal political cosmology that extolls the idea that a single individual can make a difference. This dream of a better future that links poor children with the economic future of the planet, can be triggered if the right investment is made now in the form of micro-credit loans, electronic bank accounts accessed through cell phones, or access to primary schooling. The chain reaction just waits to be unleashed.

The Girl Effect has become a potent phantasmagram, spreading to corporate responsibility campaigns of Walmart, Exxon, and Intel, shaping policy at the Gates Foundation, the Clinton Foundation, the UN, and even the office of the US Secretary of State. It is embraced by longstanding transnational NGOs like Plan and Care, as well as the biggest NGO in the world, BRAC, based in Bangladesh. A 2008 marketing report by Goldman Sachs echoes the findings of the World Bank and the Nike Foundation, reporting that investing in educating girls has a “growth premium” that at a macroeconomic level stimulates “higher productivity; higher

returns to investment; higher agricultural yields; and a more favorable demographic structure.”6 Annotated with their standard forward-looking disclosure statement in small font, the report hedges its bets: “Past performance is not a guide to future performance. Future returns are not guaranteed.”7 In speculative finance, the opportunity for high returns comes with high risk. Poor girls are extraordinarily risky subjects, and it is this intensity of “under-invested” risk that speculative finance transmutes into potential. This vision of girls as a well for speculative finance is captured by Intel, in its Girl Rising campaign, which poses a young beaming South American indigenous girl with a sign reading “I am the emerging market.”

At the turn of the millennium, girls in sites as diverse as Peru, Bangladesh, and Uganda have been gathered together by the Girl Effect as agents of a new speculative future, part feminist, part finance. What happens when the math does not add up? When girls are no longer the best investment? Little is said in Girl Effect dreamscapes about the boys that are brothers to these investable girls. Poor brown boys do not often get aspirational speculative futures in this Western dreamscape of uncertain futures. Instead, they are more likely to be mentioned fearfully as sites of danger, as incipient agents of violence through the lens of foreign policy aimed at a war against the never ending potential of future terrorism.

Poor racialized girls living in postcolonial locals have perversely become iconic figures of speculation on which elite technocratic dreams of planetary economics, national development, and security have become attached. The Girl Effect projects a potent mix of firmative and affirmative speculation, where grassroots organizations, Western liberal feminist imaginaries, and financial logics come together to dream forms of investable and uninvestable life. Technoscience does dream futures. Yet these dreams emanate from non-innocent infrastructures of social science practice, acting as phantasma projected onto The Girl as if she was the source of this dreaming.

Feminist science studies has long wrestled with the formative and affirmative possibilities of technoscience, as can be seen in the work of Donna Haraway, Alondra Nelson, and Karen Barad. The feminist science studies scholar and biologist Banu Subramaniam brings affirmative speculation into the domain of science in her book Ghost Stories for Darwin in a way that echoes with the vision in Sultana’s Dream. Discussing her research on plant variation in both India and the US, Subramaniam’s book includes the ghosts of past colonial, racist and sexist violence as active agents in contemporary science, and even further, includes dreams of a “futureworld of alternative science” for South Asian girls doing science. Subramaniam argues that the task of an aspirational science needs “fictional sciences” that have the capacity of “imagining other configurations of knowledge making, reconstructing alternative inter- and a-disciplinary lenses, new conceptual practices, and more engaging plots and stories that are located in the interdisciplinary fissues of the sciences and humanities.”8 Her book gives further hope that it is possible to be awake in the dream. This essay, too, has attempted to be awake to the dreamscapes of technoscience. It suggests that attending to the history of phantasma and the palablability of speculation is not only a necessary critical task, but also a way to engage affirmatively with technoscience as it conjures worlds with and through us.

Whether in the early twentieth century speculative fiction of Sultana’s Dream, in the mid-century simulations of population control, or in the 21st century phantasma of the investable girl, technoscience helps to miraculate the dreamscapes of intangible phenomena that we inhabit. To suggest that technoscience dreams is not meant to denigrate dreaming but to recognize intangible imaginaries and our attachments to them as one of technoscience’s most significant products. What would it look like to be awake to the importance of intangibles enlivened by technoscience in our everyday world? Technoscientific dreaming, while so often oriented towards the speculative future, has had profound and concrete effects in the present. And yet, it can be very difficult to awaken to the dream. That is, it is difficult to awaken to the deeply contingent condition of so many of the phenomena that have become the habitual surround of political and technical life. It is difficult to awaken to more affirmative dreams that might summon less violent, more open futures with and not just about women and girls.9

Technoscience often dreams firmatively. So often, the phantasma of technoscience do not make the world strange, but rather help to confirm the already given sense of the world. It recursively dreams the world it makes sense in. While technoscience dreamscapes often shore up the hegemonic experience of the world, they still hold the potential for opening up alternative ways of being and knowing, feeling and attaching. If we accept that technoscience dreams, how to affirmatively awaken to these potentials not only in our futures, but in our pasts as well?

  1. On the Girl Effect, see Michelle Murphy, “The Girl: Mergers of Feminism and Finance in Neoliberal Times,” Scholar and Feminist Online, under review; Jason Hickel, “The ‘girl Effect’: Liberalism, Empowerment and the Contradictions of Development” 35, no. 8 (September 14, 2014): 1355–73; Kathryn Moeller, “Proving ‘The Girl Effect’: Corporate Knowledge Production and Educational Intervention” 33, no. 6 (2013): 612–21; Heather Switzer, “(Post)Feminist Development Fables: The Girl Effect and the Production of Sexual Subjects,” Feminist Theory 14, no. 3 (December 1, 2013): 345–60.

  2. L. Summers, “The Most Influential Investment,” Scientific American 267, no. 2 (1992): 132; L. Summers, “Investing in All the People,” Policy Research Working Papers, World Bank, 1992.

  3. For more on this history, see Murphy, Economization of Life.

  4. For ethnographies of girl effect projects on the ground, see Moeller, “Proving ‘The Girl Effect’”; Lyndsay MC Hayhurst, “Corporatising Sport, Gender and Development: Postcolonial IR Feminisms, Transnational Private Governance and Global Corporate Social Engagement,” Third World Quarterly 32, no. 3 (April 2011): 531–49, doi:10.1080/01436597.2011.573944.

  5. Kalpana Wilson, “‘Race’, Gender and Neoliberalism: Changing Visual Representations in Development,” Third World Quarterly 32, no. 2 (March 2011): 315–31, doi:10.1080/01436597.2011.560471.

  6. S. Lawson, “Women Hold up Half the Sky” 164 (2007).p.1

  7. Ibid. p. 16

  8. Banu Subramaniam, Ghost Stories for Darwin: The Science of Variation and the Politics of Diversity (University of Illinois Press, 2014).

  9. Taking this argument to its further extension, it is politically possibly and even necessary to conjure other relations not only better, but bigger than capitalism. I make this argument through the concept of distributed reproduction in the coda of The Economization of Life (Duke University Press, forthcoming).

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