New USAID gender policy driven by politics, not best practice, advocates say

The U.S. Agency for International Development headquarters in Washington, D.C. Photo by: Graeme Sloan / Sipa USA via Reuters

The U.S. Agency for International Development released its gender policy this week, raising renewed concerns from gender experts and advocates who say it has been heavily influenced by politics and fails to follow evidence-based best practices.

When the draft policy was released in late August, advocates and lawmakers said it would be a step back for the U.S. government’s gender equality work. Advocates had hoped that the policy would be left for the incoming administration to adapt and implement, they told Devex, but instead the final draft was pushed through and released in the final weeks of the Trump administration.

The policy is a “dangerous setback” to gender equality efforts, and the Trump administration’s decision to rush the policy disregarded significant questions from the global gender and civil society community, said Nina Besser Doorley, associate director of advocacy and policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition.

“This policy is a pretty cynical 11th hour effort to enshrine some of the anti-gender agenda of this administration in policy before they head out the door,” she told Devex.

Key concerns with the gender policy are that it has a binary view of gender, leaves out LGBTQ individuals, is not based on best practices, and doesn’t use internationally accepted language about human rights, instead qualifying those rights or using the term “unalienable rights,” experts told Devex.

The policy narrows the definition of gender, returning to a “very sharp binary and the exclusion of the diversity of gender identity,” which has a huge impact on excluding people from access to services or programs, Besser Doorley said.

“It continues to be a document not based on evidence and best practice but more on ideological and political decision-making.”

— Aria Grabowski, policy and advocacy manager, International Center for Research on Women

Throughout the document, rights are qualified by the words “basic,” “legal,” or “unalienable,” and while the final version adds a definition of “unalienable rights,” it is not a globally recognized term and doesn’t address the issue of how full or comprehensive it is of human rights, said Aria Grabowski, policy and advocacy manager at the International Center for Research on Women.

The policy also “continues to instrumentalize gender equality” — saying not that it should be realized and is important in its own right, but rather that it is important for national security, economic growth, and the “journey to self-reliance,” according to Grabowski.

Some of the other language is also troubling, with the policy referring to “citizens” rather than “individuals,” which has the potential to exclude refugees, migrants, and other marginalized and vulnerable groups, she said.

In September, USAID told Devex that it had received a “significant number” of comments in response to the draft, but advocates told Devex few of their comments and suggestions appear to be addressed in the final version.

A team of technical leads and USAID leadership reviewed the comments for more than two months and “revised the draft to strengthen the document both from a technical perspective as well as to ensure clarity,” a USAID spokesperson wrote to Devex in an email, adding that the policy reflects best practices and promotes key USAID priorities.

“It continues to be a document not based on evidence and best practice but more on ideological and political decision-making,” Grabowski said.

Justin Fugle, head of policy at Plan International, added that it has not “fundamentally” improved and that USAID did not address “any of our major concerns.”

One of Plan’s suggestions was that USAID revise the strategy to include other relevant policies, including the one on adolescent girls. The response Plan received said that the adolescent girls strategy is outdated, despite the fact that it continues to be implemented across multiple U.S. government agencies, according to Fugle.

One of ICRW’s comments was that the policy was not consistent with language in the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act, and while USAID added text saying that the policy complies with the act, some language in the policy remains inconsistent with the legislation, Grabowski said.

USAID gender policy faces backlash from advocates, lawmakers

A USAID draft gender equality policy, which advocates were told would be a technical update, has instead stirred controversy with what are seen as politically motivated, rather than evidence-based, changes.

In addition to failing to address many of advocates’ key concerns, some of the changes made have raised new ones, including that language about gender-based violence was changed from “prevent and respond” to just “prevent.” Response, particularly in conflict areas and humanitarian settings, is critical, Grabowski said.

Despite not meeting many basic requirements, overall the policy does include some useful updates, including more language about menstrual hygiene management, engaging boys and men, and online gender-based violence, Fugle said.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, once in office, should freeze the policy and “begin a process of developing a technically sound update of the 2012 [gender] policy,” Fugle said. That prior policy does need revisions, but the version released this week should be ignored until it can be replaced, he said.

USAID should be able to do so, as the policy doesn’t appear to include any requirement for how it is implemented, so it would only be pushed out if USAID leadership decides it is a priority, Fugle said.

The USAID spokesperson said that all missions, bureaus, and offices will need to implement the policy, which will also be used to design, monitor, and evaluate programs “as appropriate.” The Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Hub will lead policy implementation by raising awareness about it and promoting good practice through training and guides. It will also monitor implementation, the spokesperson said.

Writing a new policy and going through the required comment and notification process will take time, so it may be some 18 months before a new document can be released, Fugle said. In the meantime, the Biden administration will need to issue new guidance and should be able to continue to use Section 205 of the operational policy, known as the Automated Directives System, which addresses gender and is sounder than the new policy, he said.

Jan. 8, 2021: This article has been updated to include comments from USAID.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is a Senior Reporter at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.