Opinion: Women and girls are greatest return on foreign assistance investment

A USAID program helps these women create a village and savings loan association in Liberia. Photo by: Nico Parkinson / USAID Food and Enterprise Development Program / CC BY-NC-ND

Last week, we heard news that sheds new light on the details behind the Trump administration’s proposal to slash spending on foreign assistance and global engagement by as much as one-third, the largest proposed cut for any sector, in last month’s so-called “skinny budget.”

The leaked document paints a disastrous picture for foreign aid, and also reveals the Trump administration’s intentions to completely eliminate the gender architecture that has been a proud and bipartisan tradition over the course of several recent administrations. The U.S. Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development have worked as partners in advancing the health and well-being of women and girls from Syria to Sudan, Congo to Cambodia.

Strong work requires strong leadership, and this work has been accomplished through direction from the Ambassador for Global Women's Issues at the DoS, and a Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment at USAID. Gender advisors across the system have helped design programs to delay early and child marriage, foster women’s economic participation and empowerment, promote peace and ensure food security in ways that even out the hills and valleys between men and women, and ensures that those investments are more sustainable.

Yet if this budget proposal were realized, all of that would disappear.

Ironically, this proposal came at the same time that the United Kingdom ultimately announced its continued commitment for spending 0.7 percent of their budget abroad — a commitment that was under review and anything but certain, given the unpopularity of foreign assistance among many constituents.

Like our neighbors across the pond, Americans tend to think we’re pouring nearly one-third of our tax dollars into foreign coffers. In reality, foreign assistance rings in at less than 1 percent of the total budget, and by many accounts is one of the best-buys available. And even further, investments in women and girls bring high returns for everything from economic growth to national security, sowing returns on our investments for generations to come.

Studies have shown that gender inequality is responsible for decreased global growth; a recent study by McKinsey estimates a 26 percent increase in global GDP, or $28 trillion in 2025, should women participate in the global economy at the same rates as men. Countries where men and women contribute equally are more stable, more likely to be our trading partners than play host to terrorism and unrest.

The considerable return on the foreign assistance investment makes the U.S. budget details released all the more sobering, yet, happily, they do not spell the end of the story for our budget and appropriations process. The power of the purse ultimately rests with Congress, and last week nearly 80 organizations came together with the International Center for Research on Women in calling on appropriators to honor American commitments to women and girls around the globe by fully funding our foreign assistance. Separately, more than 100 generals have called on Congress to defend foreign assistance if it wants to keep America safe.

It is worth the penny that it costs on the American tax dollar to support women entrepreneurs and peacemakers, to defend against gender-based violence and promote maternal health. With our modest assistance, these are the leaders who can promote peace and pull themselves and their communities out of poverty, advancing long-term returns for American security and economic interests.

For academics and advocates, American war heroes and security strategists, the evidence on this point is abundantly clear. Now we look to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue for its response. Hopefully, our congressional leaders will agree.

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About the author

  • Lyric Thompson

    Lyric Thompson is the director of policy and advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women. In this capacity she leads the institution’s formulation of evidence-based policy recommendations and manages ICRW’s advocacy efforts with the U.S. government and internationally. In addition to serving as the co-chair of the Girls Not Brides USA advocacy coalition, Lyric is also on the steering committee of the Coalition to End Gender-Based Violence Globally, the board of the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area, the Executive Committee of the Civil Society Working Group on Women, Peace and Security and the board of the Community Center for Integrated Development of Cameroon.