Believe it or not, one of the world’s best investment opportunities is actually a philanthropic one: funding long-term girls’ education in countries across the developing world. After 15 years as a full-time philanthropist, I believe this often-overlooked area has the potential to forever change the future for communities, societies and entire countries.
More than 100 million children wake up every day and don’t go to school. Seven hundred and seventy three million people are illiterate. Two-thirds of those two groups are girls and young women. They are trapped in a vicious cycle: too poor to gain an education; but without an education they will always remain poor and will be one more generation to live in poverty.
Too many girls, through no fault of their own, have lost the lottery of life. This magazine’s readers (and I) are likely to be where we are today at least partly as a result of our education. In a sad mirror image, these tens of millions of girls will have their lives defined by lack of education.
The good news is that it’s in our power to massively change this situation — to turn a negative into a positive. Helping a girl in a low-income country such as post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia or post-civil war Sri Lanka is not expensive. At Room to Read, our ‘all-in cost’ to support a girl with school fees, a bicycle, mentoring, life-skills classes and career coaching is a mere US$300 per year. For the price of a nice dinner out with your spouse, you can empower a young woman and help her to control her own destiny.
Education not only empowers the individual, but it also has a great ‘ripple effect’. Studies show that investing in girls yields numerous positive economic and societal outcomes. Economic empowerment: each extra year of secondary school a girl completes increases her eventual earnings by 15 to 25 percent. If you help a girl who would have otherwise dropped out to instead make it through grades seven through 12, her wages will more than double.
Family budgeting: when women earn additional money, they spend 90 percent of it on their families — food, clothing, shelter, and education. With no offence to my fellow men out there, our track record of how we spend additional income is somewhat less inspiring.
Healthier families: an educated woman is twice as likely to vaccinate her children. Each extra year of education for a girl can reduce infant mortality by 5 to 10 percent and reduce the spread of diseases such as HIV/AIDS.
Family planning: women with formal education are much more likely to delay marriage, and they have fewer and healthier babies. They are also more likely to educate their own children.
Democracy and women’s political participation: a study in Bangladesh found that educated women are three times more likely to take part in political meetings.
The above reasons form the backdrop for the opinion of former Harvard president Larry Summers: “Investment in girls’ education may well be the highest return investment available in the developing world.”
The organisation I co-founded, Room to Read, now has more than 38,000 girls benefitting from our long-term Girls Education Program. We plan to expand this to more than 50,000 girls supported by the end of 2017. We’re proud of this growth, but are the first to admit that it’s not nearly enough. We’re all too aware of the forces shaping the lives of young women: apathy, misogyny, cultural bias and nefarious non-state actors such as Isis, Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram.
I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to share my message with some of the brightest minds in business, and I often close by asking them a simple but pointed question: whose version of the future is going to win? Will the negative forces continue to deny girls their right to an education? Or, instead, will we be the generation that helps a young girl, no matter how rural her village or how poor her family, to be the first in her community to finish secondary school?
I hope more of the world will agree with our view that an investment in girls’ education is the ultimate return on the philanthropic dollar. And not only does it help these deserving young women — it also gives you a warm glow worthy of the holiday season.
John Wood is Hong Kong-based founder of Room to Read and the author of ‘Leaving Microsoft to Change the World’. He is a four-term Advisory Board member of the Clinton Global Initiative and a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute.