U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House senior adviser Ivanka Trump at the anniversary of the W-GDP initiative. Photo by: REUTERS / Leah Millis

WASHINGTON — The Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative, or W-GDP, marked its one-year anniversary Wednesday with a set of announcements and research outlining how it will be managed moving forward and what it has achieved thus far.

“Empowering women is central to U.S. foreign policy objectives. … The biggest threat to extremism is an empowered woman.”

— U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul

The State Department will take the lead role in coordinating W-GDP, which has until now been run out of the White House. Kelley Currie, who has served as ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues since her appointment in December, will establish a dedicated team and lead the effort.

“State’s diplomatic and policy expertise is really incredibly critical to all elements of the W-GDP Initiative but particularly as it relates to driving the types of legal and regulatory reforms that are so important to sustainable change across the world,” said Ivanka Trump, senior White House adviser, at an event marking the anniversary.

The U.S. Agency for International Development will apparently continue to manage the W-GDP fund, which was launched last year. “USAID’s program management expertise is essential for this fund to be successful,” Trump said.

USAID Administrator Mark Green said that while women’s economic empowerment has long been part of the organization’s work, W-GDP has brought a “new energy and new comprehensive approach.”

Trump said she was pleased to see that W-GDP got funding in the fiscal year 2020 budget bill and noted that the recently released fiscal year 2021 budget request asks for a doubling of resources to the W-GDP Fund. Some development and global health advocates questioned how the administration could achieve the goals of W-GDP while cutting funding for foreign aid and reproductive health.

Women who die in childbirth cannot benefit from economic empowerment programming and the “gutting” of PEPFAR and reproductive health funding sends an important message, said Beirne Roose-Snyder, director of public policy at the Center for Health and Gender Equity, at an unrelated event Tuesday.

“The idea that we can disassociate these things — as if people aren’t whole people and as if bodily autonomy is not at the core of our ability to access the rest of our rights — it’s a really shiny headline and an incredibly empty promise,” she said about the increase to W-GDP funding.

At a time where there seem to be few areas of bipartisan cooperation, there does appear to be broad support for women’s economic empowerment, and Trump announced that the Senate would be introducing a bill to codify the initiative. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, will be the co-sponsors of the W-GDP Act, which will permanently authorize the initiative and “establish women’s economic empowerment as a core facet of the United States’ foreign policy,” Trump said.

The bill would also require the State Department to establish an office of women’s empowerment and an ambassador-at-large to lead it. It is unclear how these would differ from or interact with the Office of Global Women’s Issues and its ambassador-at-large.

The goal is for the legislation to turn the initiative into a “standing commitment to women” rather than a single administration’s initiative, Graham said. He pointed to other initiatives that have been similarly codified, including Feed the Future, PEPFAR, and Power Africa.

Supporting women’s economic empowerment not only helps create opportunities for American businesses, but supports national security efforts because societies with women engaged in the economy are more stable and peaceful, he said.

“Empowering women is central to U.S. foreign policy objectives. … The biggest threat to extremism is an empowered woman,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, co-sponsor of a companion bill that will be introduced in the House of Representatives in the next few days.

Launched a year ago, W-GDP has a goal of reaching 50 million women in developing countries by 2025. In a progress report released Wednesday, the White House says that W-GDP reached more than 12 million women in its first year, mostly through USAID programs.

While some 1.9 million women participated in government-supported workforce training programs in fiscal year 2019, that figure is down from 3 million in fiscal year 2017. The number of women getting jobs after participating in programs sponsored by the U.S. government also dropped in fiscal year 2019 to 9,107 jobs from 34,006 in fiscal year 2017, though more women seem to have better working conditions after participating in programs over the same period.

The report offers some evidence that the 2X Women’s Initiative launched by the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation’s predecessor, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, has increased the number of women-led businesses receiving financing or accessing financial services through programs backed by the U.S. government. In fiscal year 2019, 1.45 million women accessed financial services, 9,845 women-led businesses received financing, and about $1.6 billion in U.S.-government supported loans went to women-led businesses.

The total government funds “attributed to the objectives of W-GDP” in fiscal year 2018 were $455 million, with information for fiscal year 2019 — when the initiative was announced — not yet available, according to the report.

The initiative focuses on three pillars: improving access to vocational training and helping women secure jobs, supporting women entrepreneurs through access to capital and networks, and removing legal, regulatory, and cultural barriers to women’s economic participation.

For the third pillar, the U.S. has identified five key areas of legal reform: property rights, access to credit, authority to sign legal documents, ability to travel freely, and the elimination of barriers that limit the occupations or hours that women can work.

The White House Council of Economic Advisers conducted research into those legal barriers and found that their removal could result in an annual increase in the global gross domestic product of $7.7 trillion, or 8.3%. If the legal barriers were eliminated completely in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, GDP could increase by more than 60%, according to the research.

Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, pledged to hold a G-7 plenary event about W-GDP at the June G-7 summit.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor 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.