Another reason for making women and girls the focus of antipoverty programs has to do with an impolitic secret of global poverty: Some of the most wretched suffering is caused not just by low incomes, but also by unwise spending—by men. It is not uncommon to stumble across a mother mourning a child who has just died of malaria for want of a $5 mosquito bed net and then find the child's father at a bar, where he spends $5 each week. Several studies suggest that when women gain control over spending, less family money is devoted to instant gratification and more for education and starting small businesses.
Because men now typically control the purse strings, it appears that the poorest families in the world typically spend approximately ten times as much (20 percent of their income on average) on a combination of alcohol, prostitutes, candy, sugary drinks, and lavish feasts as they do on educating their children. The economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo examined spending among the very poor (those who earn less than $1 a day in some countries, less than $2 a day in others) in thirteen nations. They found that these impoverished families spent 4.1 percent of their money on alcohol and tobacco in Papua New Guinea; 5 percent in Udaipur, India; 6 percent in Indonesia; and 8.1 percent in Mexico. In addition, in Udaipur, the median household allocated 10 percent of its annual budget to weddings, funerals, or religious festivals, often involving conspicuous consumption. Ninety percent of South Africans spent money on festivals, as did a majority of people in Pakistan, Ivory Coast, and Indonesia. Roughly 7 percent of the total spending of the poorest people in India's Maharashtra State went to sugar. Go to little village shops in Africa or Asia, and you'll see plenty of candy for sale, but rarely vitamins or mosquito nets. There's no precise data, but in much of the world even some of the poorest young men, both single and married, spend considerable sums on prostitutes.
Among the poor in Udaipur, people seem by any measure to be malnourished. Sixty-five percent of men have a body mass index that makes them underweight by World Health Organization standards. Only 57 percent of adults said they had enough to eat throughout the year, and 55 percent are anemic. Yet, at least in Udaipur, the malnutrition could in most cases be eliminated if families bought less sugar and tobacco.
In contrast to the profligate spending on sugar and alcohol, the most impoverished families on the globe appear to spend about 2 percent of their incomes educating their children, even though that is the most reliable escalator out of poverty. If poor families spent only as much on educating their children as they do on beer and prostitutes, there would be a breakthrough in the prospects of poor countries. Girls, since they are the ones kept home from school now, would be the biggest beneficiaries.
Excerpted from Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Copyright © 2009 by Nicholas D. Kristof. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.