US launches women's economic development initiative, questions remain

Ivanka Trump hosts a roundtable on the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative at the White House in Washington, D.C. Photo by: REUTERS / Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON — U.S. President Donald Trump signed a national security presidential memorandum on Thursday officially launching the long-discussed White House women’s economic empowerment initiative — the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity initiative, or W-GDP.

While the first government initiative of its kind was applauded by several aid advocates, it also raised a number of questions about how it fits into the administration’s broader foreign aid priorities, especially as the White House has repeatedly proposed cutting foreign aid budgets.

The memorandum does send a clear message about the U.S. stance on the issue: “It is the policy of the United States to enhance the opportunity for women to meaningfully participate in, contribute to, and benefit from economic opportunities as individuals, workers, consumers, innovators, entrepreneurs, and investors, so that they enjoy the same access, rights, and opportunities as men to participate in, contribute to, control, and benefit from economic activity.”

The roots of the initiative can be found in the president’s 2017 National Security Strategy, and in the year since, administration officials have met to assess current programs and build out W-GDP. Adviser to the president, Ivanka Trump met with more than 200 partners, NGOs, and members of Congress to seek input about the initiative, she said in a press call Wednesday.

“When women are free to thrive, they bring stability to nations, as well as more jobs and economic growth,” said Ivanka Trump, who was a driving force behind W-GDP. “The economic empowerment of women should not be viewed as a ‘woman’s issue.’  It's smart development assistance that benefits whole families, communities, and entire nations.”

The initiative aims to reach 50 million women by 2025 through its work in three key areas: supporting workforce development and skills training; helping women entrepreneurs with access to markets, capital, and networks; and working to change laws, regulations, and norms that limit women’s ability to fully participate in the economy.

Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, wrote in a statement Thursday that the first two pillars of the initiative “seem to suggest a rebranding of existing funding for women’s economic empowerment efforts in USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] and a repackaging of previously announced initiatives at the World Bank and Overseas Private Investment Corporation.”

“But the third pillar is potentially more encouraging,” Kenny said, adding that “quite what is being proposed in this area isn’t yet clear.” He suggested that there is a lot the U.S. can do to combat laws that require a man’s permission to participate in the economy, own property, or leave the house, including making legal reforms a precondition of trade agreements and passing legislation that would push the private sector to work on these issues.

The only concrete funding announcement along with the launch of W-GDP is the creation of a $50 million Women's Global Development and Prosperity Fund at USAID, but much of the initiative’s work will be coordinating existing efforts at USAID, OPIC, and other agencies including the Millennium Challenge Corp. and Peace Corps.

“We've been working on women's empowerment, but now we have an across-the-board interagency effort, the full force of the U.S. government behind this. And I think it's going to make a tremendous difference,” USAID Administrator Mark Green said in a press call.

USAID has established a W-GDP platform that will house the new $50 million fund. This is being allocated from fiscal year 2018 funding that had been set aside for women’s economic empowerment work, Michelle Bekkering, USAID’s senior coordinator for gender equality and women’s empowerment, told Devex.

The fund will prioritize evidence-based proposals that either include private sector engagement or interagency collaborations. In its first year, the focus will be on scaling up programs that have already proven to be successful, including USAID’s “Engendering Utilities” program, which works to increase the participation of women in the energy sector, and to try new innovative approaches.

Much of the criticism that emerged Thursday related to what most saw as a paltry sum to achieve the W-GDP’s goals.

Kenny compared the $50 million fund to the roughly $300 million in cuts to women’s reproductive health and family planning that the administration proposed for fiscal year 2019. Congress rejected those proposed cuts, though the budget has yet to be officially approved.

But Bekkering said the $50 million fund is just a start and doesn’t reflect the other USAID funds that also support women’s economic empowerment that are housed among a variety of the agency’s bureaus and programs. Ivanka Trump said that the issue will be prioritized in upcoming and future budget proposals and the memorandum outlined that the relevant agencies shall “collectively attribute no less than $300 million per fiscal year” to women’s economic empowerment programs, “subject to the availability of appropriations.”

When asked if USAID could achieve its women’s economic empowerment goals if the administration once again suggests cutting the agency’s overall budget by a third, Bekkering said that the agency is tasked with “being really efficient with how we’re spending taxpayer dollars” and “prioritizing work and funding in areas we know are really helping us meet broader development goals.”

Bekkering also pointed out that Congress has been a strong supporter of these issues and said she expects more funding to be allocated down the road. Congress passed the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act late last year, which complements the W-GDP in its call for USAID to work to improve access to finance, reduce gender disparities, eliminate gender-based violence, support women’s property and land rights, and improve education, among other things.

One of the benefits of the new initiative is that it was “set up with rigorous metrics” and for the first time will mean that all agencies working on the issue will track data with the same indicators,” Bekkering said. 

“It’s a great way to tie all of our efforts together,” she said, adding that it helps departments prioritize how to move forward and “calls us to better collaboration.”

Kathryn Kaufman, OPIC’s managing director for global women's initiatives, said the process so far has helped agencies understand what others are doing and said that W-GDP will “force better collaboration with interagency partners.”

“We’re great at investing where there are impactful interventions but we don’t have boots on the ground,” she said. Understanding what Peace Corps and USAID are doing is important to make better investment decisions, she added.

But the launch of the initiative won’t have much of an impact on OPIC’s work on the issue — its 2X initiative has been working to define for the market what it means to invest in women and working to get other development finance institutions to adopt a common definition, Kaufman told Devex. 2X is also working to fully embed gender in its financial analysis and decision making.

One area where questions exist is around how W-GDP will be operationalized and how it will be implemented. While it will be led by the White House and the National Security Council, USAID will also have a coordinating role. It seems unclear exactly how gaps in the U.S. government’s efforts will be identified and who will work to fill them and what funding might be available.

A senior administration official said this is a White House-led initiative that will have a similar structure to the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. But PEPFAR is a large program, led by a U.S. global AIDS coordinator and a senior Department of State position, with a more than $6 billion a year budget.

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.