There's lots of evidence that gender inequality declines as economic development occurs and incomes rise. Prior to development, poverty-stricken families respond to income shocks by re-allocating resources to sons. "In India, the excessive mortality rate of girls, relative to boys, spikes during droughts," writes Duflo, in reference to a 1999 paper by Elaina Rose. "When they cannot afford to feed everyone, families disproportionately sacrifice the welfare of girls." On the other hand, Rose found that wealthier families with assets—land they can sell during particularly rough times—don't show the same gender disparities.
Economic development in a community not only brings more doctors and health facilities, but also increases families' abilities to weather the kinds of crises that disproportionately harm girls. In Duflo's words: "[B]y reducing the vulnerability of poor households to risk, economic development, even without specifically targeting women, disproportionately improves their well-being."
Development is also often accompanied by decreased maternal mortality and increased labor market opportunities for women, both of which may encourage parents to invest more in their young daughters. In other words, parents who think their daughters have a better chance of surviving the perilous childbearing years, or of one day getting a high-earning job outside the home, might make very different decisions about feeding and educating those daughters. A 2009 evaluation of a policy initiative in Sri Lanka found that a reduction in maternal mortality led to increases in female life expectancy, literacy and years of education.
But is it enough? "Is there a reason to design policies specifically targeted towards improving the condition of women?" asks Duflo. "Or is it sufficient for improving women's condition to fight poverty and to create the conditions for economic growth in poor countries?"
Duflo doesn't think development alone will be enough—gender gaps in wages and political participation persist in even the world's most developed countries, and researchers have found evidence of sex-selective abortion in countries like China, South Korea, India and Taiwan—and among certain ethnic groups in the U.S.
So what about the other lever—empowering women through political quotas or scholarships—in the hopes it will drive development for both women and men? Kofi Annan isn't the only one who views gender equality as a prerequisite for development—many microcredit loans and cash transfer programs are offered exclusively to women due to the belief that they make better spending and investment decisions than men.
Empowering women—either through cash transfer programs given only to women, scholarships, parliamentary/government quotas aimed at increasing female participation, or laws designed to protect women's rights—does change the way families make decisions. "[C]ompared to income or assets in the hands of men, income or assets in the hands of women is associated with larger improvements in child health, and larger expenditure shares of household nutrients, health, and housing," writes Duflo.