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$100-Million in Aid Pledged for Girls in Poor Countries

May 27, 2008
By Caroline Preston

Charities that seek to promote the well-being of adolescent girls in developing countries are poised to receive an infusion of money, thanks to a new partnership between the Nike Foundation and the NoVo Foundation, which is run by Peter Buffett and his wife, Jennifer.

The two grant makers will contribute $100-million through 2011 to organizations that work with girls and young women in poor countries.

The Nike Foundation, which will manage the grants, will provide $55-million of that total, roughly a 50 percent increase over the amount the Beaverton, Ore., grant maker contributed from 2004 to 2007. The NoVo Foundation, in New York, will provide the remainder.

The foundations' leaders say that by helping girls they hope entire countries can be lifted out of poverty. When 10 percent more girls in a country go to secondary school, for example, the nation's economy grows by 3 percent.

"To speak from an investment standpoint, it's just a very efficient way to change the world," said Mr. Buffett, a musician who is the youngest of the financier Warren Buffett's three children.

But girls have suffered from a lack of philanthropic and government support, the foundations' officials say. For example, less than 0.5 percent of every dollar of official government assistance to poor countries in 2003 went to efforts that directly support the roughly 600 million young women and girls who live in the developing world.

"It's one of those issues that's extremely difficult to get on the global agenda and extremely difficult to get resources behind," said Maria Eitel, president of the Nike Foundation. "There's this presumption that girls are being addressed, but what we've found is that's not true."

$1-Billion Gift

The partnership is part of a transformation the NoVo Foundation has undergone since 2006, when Warren Buffett pledged $1-billion to the fund, as well as $31-billion to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and another $5-billion to three funds run by other Buffett family members.

Since the announcement, Peter Buffett, a co-chair of the foundation, and Jennifer Buffett, a co-chair and president, have been contemplating how best to spend that windfall.

Mr. Buffett, who had long been interested in projects that empower women, met Ms. Eitel at the 2006 Clinton Global Initiative and learned about her foundation's focus on young women. (The Buffetts also currently serve on the Nike Foundation board.)

"She had such a devotion and experiential knowledge of what it meant to invest in adolescent girls and what a powerful agent of change that was," he said. "We knew that Maria would be a sort of change agent in our world as well."

The $100-million commitment will go to a broad range of charities that work with young women, not only to educate them but to provide economic opportunities, promote their human and reproductive rights, and protect their health.

"Girls' education is fundamental and essential, but it's just one leg of the stool," said Ms. Eitel. "A girl requires a lot more support if she's going to make it through the trajectory from her home to primary school, from primary to secondary school, and then from secondary school to have some choice about her future."

Past grants from the two foundations have helped the charity Brac create learning centers for girls in Bangladesh. The charity is now expanding those centers to Africa.

The International Center for Research on Women has received support for monitoring and evaluating the success of programs that help adolescent girls overseas.

"This is great leadership on their part," said Susan Davis, president of Brac USA. "It's really long overdue recognition of the critical and pivotal role that girls play in the development of a nation."

The Buffetts say that while adolescent girls will be their foundation's main priority, the fund will also support efforts to empower women, fight violence against females, and foster the emotional and social development of all children.

They say they have chosen to focus on a few key, interconnected causes in an effort to foster greater change and encourage other philanthropists and policy makers to take notice. Warren Buffett also urged his children to steer clear of making too many small grants to causes "that would likely proceed without your help."

"One thing Maria and many others have taught us and this was also the message of Peter's father was to focus," said Ms. Buffett. The issue of adolescent girls, she said, "is giving us an opportunity to focus in an extremely powerful and transformative way."

Mr. Buffett says that sharing the experience with his two siblings of building a foundation has brought them closer together.

"It's often the case where siblings share a foundation and then there can be arguments about the right or the wrong way to do something," he said. "But instead we forged our own paths, and found similarities - and also differences in the ways we looked at things and were able to talk about them and learn from each other."

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