Empowering women and girls through development: A to-do list for Gayle Smith

By Melissa Kaplan, Christine Hart 15 May 2015

Gayle Smith, special assistant to the President of the United States and senior director for development and democracy at the U.S. National Security Council. Smith was nominated by U.S. President Barack Obama to head the U.S. Agency for International Development. Photo by: Center for American Progress / CC BY-ND

The Obama administration recently announced the nomination of Gayle Smith to serve as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. It’s an important job and one that is key to ensuring that U.S. development priorities continue in the final two years of the Obama administration.

Smith would bring a wealth of experience to USAID — experience she’ll need to meet both the agency’s challenges and the world’s most urgent issues.

For many of us in the development community, it’s obvious that empowering women and girls is key to ending poverty and building more peaceful and equitable societies around the globe. The research proves it. And since 2012, when USAID released its Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy, the agency has taken great steps to develop real leadership on gender equality, expand resources for gender programming and greatly increase staff capacity. The requirement of gender integration in program design, implementation and monitoring and evaluation has also been a step forward.

Smith will likely have to take on a multitude of competing interests and varied crises. But to be successful in this new role, she should put women and girls’ empowerment at the top of her priorities list and build on the agency’s progress on this front.

To do it, here are five things Smith should check off in her first six months:

1. Build relationships with Congress.

Former Administrator Rajiv Shah spent a substantial amount of time courting Congress and explaining his vision to members. Smith should take her cue from Shah and continue to build that relationship, particularly in the face of dwindling resources and mounting pressures on USAID’s budget. Bipartisan support for the International Violence Act is an indicator of broad support for global women’s issues in Congress. She can use the growing body of evidence to make the case for why investing in women and girls through our foreign assistance is key to U.S. security and prosperity.

2. Support agency gender champions and the Office of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment.

The creation of high-level gender leadership positions — including the senior coordinator for gender equality and senior gender adviser — within the Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning have made a real difference in institutionalizing gender equality across USAID. To improve gender outcomes across sectors, Smith should work closely with the senior coordinator and GenDev staff to continue to build agency staff gender integration capacity and to enhance accountability for gender equality across the agency, at missions and among implementing partners.

3. Prioritize building USAID’s gender accountability infrastructure.

USAID has made progress in building gender into its solicitation and procurement requirements, but we are not there yet. More needs to be done to integrate gender requirements in the solicitation and procurement processes if we are to see consistent implementation strategies that benefit women and girls living in poverty.

The agency has also developed monitoring and evaluation tools like the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index and the Toolkit for Monitoring and Evaluating GBV Interventions Along the Relief to Development Continuum and has facilitated learning events including a Gender Global Learning and Evidence Exchange on food security. While these efforts represent forward momentum, Smith must build on this momentum to ensure that all sectors, missions and implementers are held accountable for programs that are consistently gender-responsive.

4. Increase the focus on local solutions.

USAID Forward emphasizes the importance of local solutions and greater local ownership of development initiatives in countries around the globe, including prioritizing partnerships with local women’s organizations. Local women’s groups and organizations know their needs and solutions best. Smith should focus on building USAID’s capacity to engage and support local partners, particularly women-led organizations and those that represent and empower marginalized groups.

5. Prioritize preventing and addressing gender-based violence.

Smith should expand USAID’s efforts to integrate gender-based violence prevention and response into all of USAID’s programming, in line with the U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally. Gender-based violence is a human rights violation that robs women and girls of dignity, constitutes a high cost to communities and nations, and impacts development outcomes across sectors and regions. Toolkits and training at headquarters are a good start, but knowledge and capacity building needs to trickle down to the mission level and translate to real results from implementing organizations — many of which remain ill-equipped to effectively address gender-based violence.

A real opportunity for women and girls to thrive

Gayle Smith has an enormous opportunity to ensure women and girls’ empowerment becomes engrained in the way USAID does business. Later this year, a three-year anniversary assessment of the Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy will wrap up. This assessment will give USAID and civil society partners an opportunity to explore what has worked well so far and where room remains for improvement.

If Smith takes the lessons learned and builds on what’s working to promote gender equality and female empowerment, USAID’s efforts around the globe to end poverty and help build strong, stable societies will be that much more effective and sustainable.  

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About the authors

Melissa edited
Melissa Kaplan

Melissa Kaplan is a senior manager for policy and government affairs at Women Thrive Worldwide. She brings deep experience within the international development community and previously served as advocacy manager at InterAction, where she managed the InterAction CEO Task Force on Aid Reform and lobbied on issues including foreign assistance and appropriations. She previously held the position of deputy director of government relations at Citizens for Global Solutions


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Christine Hart

Christine Hart is a senior manager for policy and government affairs at Women Thrive Worldwide where leads the organization's work on gender-based violence. Chrissy represents Women Thrive as a co-chair of the Coalition to End Violence Against Women and Girls Globally, where her work focuses on efforts to promote policies and programs for gender-based violence prevention and response at the U.S. and U.N. levels to ensure that it reflects the realities and perspectives of women and girls on the ground.


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