White House senior advisor Ivanka Trump speaks during a Women's Global Development and Prosperity online event. Photo by: Carlos Barria / Reuters

WASHINGTON — A year in, the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative is getting mixed reviews from development and gender experts — the whole-of-government effort to narrow the economic gender gap is broadly praised, but some of the details leave room for improvement.

There is widespread, bipartisan support for the program in general, as evidenced by bills making their way through both chambers of Congress in a push to codify the initiative.

W-GDP launched in February 2019 with the goal of reaching 50 million women by 2025 through three pillars of work: 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.

“I’ve been excited to see an emphasis on a whole-of-government approach, which is unprecedented for these issues,” Megan O’Donnell, assistant director of the gender program at the Center for Global Development, told Devex.

The administration of President Donald Trump has put forward a strategy, defined clear goals that it wants to achieve, and set reporting requirements — all elements that are essential to the success of an initiative, said Lyric Thompson, senior director of policy and advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women.

But she lamented that the White House has, at the same time, consistently tried to cut the overall foreign assistance budget. “If they want to do more work, it should be in addition to gender and development globally,” she said.

W-GDP reached 12 million women in its first year, according to the administration. 

“The second year will build off of the tremendous success we’ve created thus far by scaling the best programs, focusing on real and tangible opportunities for impact and the introduction of legislation. With the backing of the whole of U.S. government, we will substantially impact 50 million women by 2025,” Ivanka Trump, adviser to President Trump, told Devex in an email.

But experts say while W-GDP has made some progress, it is also limiting the scope of the initiative in ways that could hamper success, and the White House isn’t measuring impact effectively.

Early successes

In its first year, W-GDP was able to create momentum, fund some interesting programs, and engage the private sector in efforts to give women a greater role in the economy.

“I’ve been excited to see an emphasis on a whole-of-government approach, which is unprecedented for these issues.”

— Megan O’Donnell, gender program assistant director, Center for Global Development

“There is something to be said of a White House top-down directive galvanizing more momentum at the working level to make sure women are integrated into these tools,” O’Donnell said. It has created opportunities for gender experts in U.S. government agencies to gain further traction when it comes to building more gender-responsive programs or investments, she said.

“It’s a very interesting initiative — a long-overdue attempt to bring women more purposefully into the economy, address some of the legal gaps and challenges that remain for women, and begin thinking through how to create an evidence base of what really works to empower women,” said Karol Boudreaux, chief program officer at Landesa, which was one of the first organizations to get funding through W-GDP.

With that funding, Landesa conducts research to help build an evidence base about what works best in helping women secure land rights and how that leads to different economic outcomes, she said. The money for that research came through an existing project contract, so Landesa didn’t apply directly for W-GDP funding, Boudreaux said.

W-GDP has also effectively brought in companies and leveraged the private sector’s core competencies and resources, said Shamarukh Mohiuddin, principal associate at the consultancy Nathan. One example is a partnership with Mars that is working to build shea supply chains; a USAID grant as part of W-GDP helped make the project bankable, she said.

Silos won’t work

One of the criticisms often raised by development professionals and gender advocates is that the initiative is too siloed, such that failing to address other key needs of women will limit its success in bolstering their role in the economy.

“Programs won't be as effective if they try to do it in a narrow, siloed manner,” a senior gender advocate, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told Devex.

One of the biggest issues missing is women’s health, which has not been mentioned in any of the relevant documents or in the drafts of the bills before Congress to codify W-GDP.

“That’s a big concern and something we’ve been pressing them to figure out. While politically sensitive, it’s something critical to women's economic empowerment if you want programs and policy initiatives to be effective,” the advocate said.

Another key topic left out of the initiative is access to education, several experts told Devex.

The administration has often received questions about why the initiative doesn’t include global health and education, a senior administration official told Devex. W-GDP was designed to focus women’s economic empowerment work across agencies in a way that hadn’t been done before and seeks to identify the programs that will best use limited resources, the official said.

“While recognizing broader factors that contribute to economic empowerment, including health and education … we’ve sort of tried to strike a balance between again focusing on an issue that hasn’t been prioritized before, but within that, also really thinking holistically,” a second senior administration official told Devex.

A narrowing of scope

While a few issues have been largely left out of the initiative from the start, there have been others — including gender-based violence and unpaid care work — that were mentioned in some of the guiding documents but left out of others, raising concerns from experts about whether programs will address them.

Most of the questions center around the focus of the initiative’s third pillar, which addresses the enabling environment. This pillar of work started with a fairly broad scope including legal, regulatory, cultural, and social norms, but that seems to have changed over time as the administration “cherry-picked” some legal restrictions and “left others by the side without justifying why,” O’Donnell said.

During the past year, the administration has decided to focus on 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 limiting women’s occupations or working hours.

While this includes some of the key legal barriers identified by the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law work, it leaves out others related to parenting and pensions and seems to have shifted away from addressing other nonlegal barriers such as informal norms and practices, gender-based violence, and women’s disproportionate share of unpaid care work, experts told Devex.

Those latter two issues are also not included in the Senate version of the authorizing legislation, despite being part of the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act — signed into law in early 2019 — which has struck some experts as odd, O’Donnell said.

Measurement needs improvement

W-GDP is working to harmonize metrics across the 10 participating agencies, but gender advocates and experts say that the current system is too focused on outputs rather than outcomes and that some of the numbers in the first annual report raise questions.

“We’ve done a great deal of advocacy on the measurement piece,” Thompson said. “To the extent possible, it should not be just bodies or dollars counted, but what the change signifies.”

The first annual report does indicate how many women who were trained got jobs, but there are still details missing on what kinds of jobs, whether they are full time or temporary, and what the impact was on women’s decision-making power.

In the development community, there has been a push away from measuring outputs, such as the number of women trained, and a shift to a focus on measuring outcomes — for example, how receiving financing or participating in a training changed a woman’s income, increased her savings, or led to her finding a job. That has prompted some to question how the administration is defining “reaching” women in its metrics.

“We've considered women reached to be women directly benefiting from a [U.S. government] partnership, such as workforce training or receiving a loan,” the first senior administration official told Devex.

Measuring outcomes is going to be a medium-to-long-term effort, but there is a commitment within the administration to do so, the second senior administration official said. In the national security presidential memorandum that launched W-GDP, there was a “strong commitment to metrics, ensuring that we had successful outcomes from programs and working to prioritize and scale up those that are working,” the second official said.

Each agency and department is working on its own to fulfill that commitment, and together they are “increasingly working to see how we can coordinate and improve that across the initiative as a whole,” the second official said.

“It’s a very interesting initiative — a long-overdue attempt to bring women more purposefully into the economy.”

— Karol Boudreaux, chief program officer, Landesa

In the first annual report, there was some data that didn’t quite align with a fortified effort around improving women’s economic opportunities. 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.

“I don't necessarily think I would go as far as to say that programs were reoriented at that time or that that is what would have led to the numbers being lower. I think it's more about how things were reported and how people continued to refine the systems of measurement,” the second senior administration official said, when asked to explain the decrease in participation during the past few years. The official said that she wouldn’t “interpret what’s shown there as a decrease or a deprioritization” and that the better indicators will be “what things look like building off of the baseline of 2019 in future reports.”

Next steps

In late 2019, Trump signed a presidential memorandum outlining the policy and vision around the enabling environment pillar and setting out some next steps for participating agencies.

The memorandum requires the departments and agencies involved to develop an action plan for addressing the third pillar, progress against which will be reported annually.

“The hope would be that this would sort of serve as a guiding tool to help the interagency ... that these action plans in supporting pillar three will further elucidate what departments’ and agencies’ work will look like and how they'll track progress over time,” the second senior administration official said.

The administration is looking at how to develop this work and how to “make sure we are highlighting and streamlining it,” the first senior administration official said.

Agencies are working on those plans now, with a March due date laid out in the memorandum, but given the COVID-19 crisis, there may be some delays, the official added.

Congress will also be considering legislation to authorize W-GDP, and advocates will be looking to push lawmakers to make some changes in the process.

The Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act mandated gender analysis for all U.S. programs, and some advocates would like to see a similar requirement for all W-GDP implementing agencies. Some advocates are also aiming to expand the initiative’s legal and other enabling environment areas of focus, including by incorporating health and gender-based violence.

Update, March 26, 2020: This article has been updated to include a comment from Ivanka Trump.

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.