A Look into the US Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls

The United States recently issued its first-ever strategy focused on adolescent girls. The release of the strategy follows years of advocacy from organizations promoting the rights and empowerment of girls, as well as related, but more targeted, efforts by the Obama administration, including Let Girls Learn and the DREAMS partnership. We commend the administration for taking the lead in highlighting the importance of adolescent girls. However, as is often the case with large strategy documents, this one is long on highlighting past accomplishments and considerably shorter when it comes to promising future action. In this post, we call upon current and former CGD experts to weigh in.

First, the strategy’s mere existence is a milestone. It is the first country-level strategy anywhere that focuses exclusively on adolescent girls, identifying the challenges they face worldwide. As Maureen Lewis, CGD visiting fellow and co-author of CGD’s Inexcusable Absence: Why 60 Million Girls Still Aren’t in School and What to Do About It and Exclusion, Gender and Education explains, the strategy “signals US commitment to a critical development issue.”

Miriam Temin, a project director at the Population Council and co-author of CGD’s Start with a Girl: A New Agenda for Global Health and the recently published Millions Saved, applauds the strategy’s recognition of the uniqueness and heterogeneity of adolescent girls:

A critical point embedded in the strategy is well worth highlighting: Adolescent girls are neither mini-women nor large children; they comprise a specific subpopulation with unique needs. They need policies and programs that take account of the dynamic nature of their circumstances, which present both risks and opportunities.

But while the strategy is strong in its “whole-of-girl” framing, it lacks on “whole-of-government” coordination and new prioritization in terms of funding and leadership. Much of the strategy’s language summarizes what’s already being done by US agencies (separately) to empower adolescent girls. Temin explains:

The strategy is not a one-government strategy; it is rather mostly a collection of individual agencies’ own adolescent girl strategies. It would give more confidence that something will change as a result of this new strategy if it was accompanied by genuine commitment to new money, new leadership positions, and new incentives. Reading it one hears a familiar strain — lots of good work, lots of wonderful intentions, but I don’t get the sense that we are entering a new era in adolescent girl policy and programming.

A number of the forward-looking parts of the strategy consider possibilities for improving the lives of adolescent girls, rather than make definitive commitments. There are quite a number of examples of “could” and “might consider” rather than “will.”

In fairness, some of the strategy’s language charting future action is a little more definitive, including welcome language on a USAID effort to develop indicators specific to adolescent girls. Even here, though, only two of the four agencies primarily responsible for implementing the strategy (State and USAID) provide a sampling of indicators they will use to track progress. And many of the indicators they suggest are process- rather than results-oriented (e.g., “Number of events held at embassies focused on the rights and empowerment of adolescent girls”). Just as we did in our recent paper on the World Bank’s approach to promoting gender equality, we’d call upon the strategy’s implementing agencies to complement process-oriented indicators with additional indicators that get closer to measuring the impact of programs.

When it comes to financing, Secretary Kerry indicated the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) will invest $40 million in interventions to keep girls in secondary school, through the DREAMS Innovation Challenge. So far, that’s a new financial commitment to back the strategy worth just 0.12 percent of annual US official development assistance.

Without solid financing and M&E frameworks in place, history tells us that similar “whole-of-government” strategies and initiatives have failed to deliver. Nandini Oomman, the former director of CGD’s HIV/AIDS Monitor, weighs in:

How can you complain about a USG strategy that is backed by the POTUS, the FLOTUS, the administration and Congress? And especially to empower adolescent girls globally? You can't. And yet, this is a bit of a deja vu for me. I saw the birth and demise of the Global Health Initiative (GHI) as a “whole-of-government” approach that was launched with much excitement for many (including me) and then fizzled out because the strategy wasn’t designed to deliver. For this strategy to succeed, we must get through the maze of guiding principles and strategic objectives to some crystal clarity on what success will look like for the US government, but more importantly nationally, and at a community level. In this era of Sustainable development Goals and data for development (including sex and age disaggregated data) the US government has a data-driven opportunity to demonstrate that development dollars and sense are indeed working for adolescent girls!

We don’t want that GHI history to repeat itself. And as Maureen Lewis asserts, “the challenge is translating intentions into robust investments and promotion. Implementation will be difficult, but the US has positioned itself to lead on giving adolescent girls opportunity.”

With its new strategy, the United States is leading the way in declaring adolescent girls a development priority; now the administration and Congress should follow up with the firm mandates, money, and measurement it will take to translate objectives into results. 


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.