It looks like Peter Buffett has acquired his father Warren's knack for finding the highest-yield investments. The younger Buffett, along with his wife Jennifer, just announced a collaboration with the Nike Foundation to put $100 million into programs that will benefit adolescent girls in the developing world. Like the cleverest stock pick, this venture is almost guaranteed to bring impressive short-term returns and will steadily increase in value over generations. And, like many high-growth investments, there are risks.
The fundamentals are clear: The better the education, health and social standing of girls and young women as they move into their roles as workers, wives, mothers and citizens, the better the outcomes for themselves, their families, communities and nations. Study after study has demonstrated that girls' wellbeing strongly predicts how well societies do in terms of economic growth and social stability.
And the potential for the bargain-hunting investor is also clear: Remarkably few international development efforts have focused attention on adolescent girls, despite the fact that everyone from Nobel Prize-winning economists to ardent human rights activists understands their importance to economic and social development. It's been easier and less controversial to focus on young children and, more recently, the politically popular cause of treating HIV/AIDS. Creating economic and education opportunities for girls and young women between 10-24 years requires confronting complex social norms and challenging long-standing inequalities. Providing the right health services means admitting that females of this age need to be empowered with knowledge about their bodies' metamorphosis and how to protect themselves from sexually-transmitted disease and unwanted pregnancy. Protecting girls, who of all groups in society are the most vulnerable to sexual exploitation and violence, requires a radical shift in the extent to which governments take responsibility for defending the human rights of the least visible citizens. These may not be easy, but because relatively little has been invested so far there are many promising programs that have been started at small scale and with additional resources could have a much larger impact.
But risks are real. Both the Nike Foundation and the Buffetts deserve praise for their willingness to force a discussion about gender politics, sexuality and discrimination – one that doesn't yet benefit from a strong body of evidence about "what works." They are trying to mitigate these risks by working with experienced partners and by evaluating the impact of their programs, but many challenges remain.
In commenting on this announcement, I am hardly a dispassionate observer. Along with colleagues at the International Center for Research on Women and the Population Council, we put together a report last year, Girls Count: A Global Action and Investment Agenda, that presents the latest research on the potential and vulnerabilities of adolescent girls in the developing world – and offers recommendations about how the sort of resources that the Buffetts are now providing can be put to best use (work on the report was supported by the Nike Foundation and the UN Foundation). I am proud that the report is highlighted on a flashy new website, and has played at least a small role in bringing new attention to the need for more and better investments in the wellbeing of adolescent girls.