OPIC, USAID praise Trump's commitment to women's entrepreneurship

By Kelli Rogers 01 December 2017
Ivanka Trump at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit held in Hyderabad, India. Photo by: GES

HYDERABAD, India — Ivanka Trump’s presence at the annual summit to convene startups and business leaders from around the world created a media frenzy inside the Hyderabad International Convention Center. But her leadership of the U.S. delegation at the gender-focused Global Entrepreneurship Summit also sent a strong message that the U.S. is serious about women’s economic empowerment, according to several U.S. aid agency delegates at the event.

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It’s a message unlikely to land with the global development community writ large after President Donald Trump began his presidency by reinstating the “global gag rule,” which prevents all non-U.S. NGOs that provide services or information related to abortion from receiving U.S. government funding for any of their programs. In April, he followed with a funding cut to the U.N. Population Fund, costing the U.N. family planning, sexual, and reproductive health agency its second largest supporter and donor. In the meantime, Trump has been assembling what looks to be the most male-dominated federal government in nearly a quarter-century.

Still, U.S. aid agency delegates believe that Ivanka's role as GES’ U.S. delegate, along with the support of several other initiatives in recent months, has shown that some of the criticism of an administration waging war on women’s rights has been misplaced.

“I do think that this administration should get more credit for the focus that they’re putting on women,” Kathryn Kaufman, managing director for Global Women's Initiatives at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, told Devex on the sidelines of the event in India’s tech capital.

For an administration that began by threatening the U.S. Agency for International Development’s gender architecture and fueled early rumors of an OPIC shutdown, some people in both agencies have far different outlooks less than a year into the Trump administration — especially when it comes to gender.

OPIC appeared on a few leaked lists of possible government cuts following Trump’s inauguration. But in September, OPIC President Ray Washburne assured Devex he was brought on board to build the U.S. development finance institution, rather than wind it down. OPIC has a $21.5 billion portfolio of loans and guarantees in more than 100 developing countries.

And it’s with strong backing from the White House that Washburne brought Kaufman on board to double down on gender initiatives at the U.S. development finance institution, according to Kaufman, who hails from the world of venture capitalism.

“Although that initial language did come out of this administration,” Kaufman said of early rumors of OPIC’s uncertain future, “what has happened since then is an amazing education effort on both sides and a lot of work is going into a modernization effort, and gender will be a component of it.”

Kaufman also pointed to Trump making good on his campaign promise to ease the financial burden on new parents; he included a paid family leave program in his budget request to Congress that is more inclusive than he touted during his campaign. It’s important, she said, to “recognize and celebrate when there are good policies” regardless of who or what party is promoting it.  

Michelle Bekkering, who took on the role of senior coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment at USAID in July, also sees “a strong commitment to gender,” she told Devex in Hyderabad.

“If you really look at some of the big initiatives that have come out of the Trump administration in only 10 months, like support for the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative, it was a $50 million U.S. investment — that was something that was strongly supported by the White House,” she said.

The fact that Ivanka Trump, special adviser to the president and first daughter, led the U.S. delegation at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Hyderabad, and that President Trump himself announced the summit with India Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June at the White House, show that “they’re serious about this,” Bekkering said.  

In April, leaked documents revealed the Trump administration’s intentions to dismantle a bipartisan gender architecture, including the roles of ambassador for global women's issues at the Department of State, and senior coordinator for gender equality and women’s empowerment at USAID — the role Bekkering now holds and feels is secure moving forward.

“I would say that the gender architecture at USAID remains in place. If anything it’s been highlighted,” she said.

Read more Devex coverage on women entrepreneurship.