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February 8, 2019

Who really benefits from Ivanka Trump’s initiatives for women’s empowerment?

Yesterday the Trump Administration officially launched the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative. Led by Ivanka Trump, this program will include moving funds already allocated to the U.S. Agency for International Development (yup, that’s right, no new money) towards partnerships with private companies – all in an effort to “empower” 50 million women around the world.

Up until this point, Trump’s America First agenda has time and again sought to reduce foreign aid or swipe money from USAID to build his wall. So why spin around and give his daughter this $50 million initiative?

Let’s take a closer look at Ivanka’s latest personal brand-building exercise and ask, At the end of the day, who will benefit?

First, should USAID and other development actors be prioritizing efforts to reach and empower women? Of course! But a genuine effort to address inequality and support women’s rights must start with recognizing the humanity of the woman herself.

“Women’s rights are human rights” is not just a chant. It is the starting point. Women are not tools of wealthy and powerful elites to promote peace and prosperity. Women are human beings who have equal claim to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Projects that support women entrepreneurs can be great, but in order for women to achieve gender equality, they also need access to the full spectrum of human rights – including quality healthcare and education and a comprehensive and systemic change in the reality of women’s work, paid and unpaid, in both the formal and informal sector.

I fear that the Trump Administration’s policies – ranging from the Global Gag Rule to assaults on immigrants, many of whom are women seeking work and safety in the U.S., to his flagrant disregard for women’s control over their own bodies –  will outweigh Ivanka’s troika of women’s empowerment initiatives: the initiative announced yesterday, the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative launched at the World Bank, and the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Empowerment Act of 2018 passed in the House last summer.

Perhaps Trump is hoping the new program could be something to point to when people protest the policies and practices his Administration is pushing forward that tear down women’s rights and disempower women.

If this is an attempt to alter the Trump brand, they are certainly doing their best corporate friends a favor. UPS, Walmart and Pepsi Co. are just some of the private investors piling into this initiative. Perhaps they’re all trying to redeem themselves after bad press about labor rights violations. The CEO of UPS was called out for tripling his pay while cutting workers’ health benefits, and just a few years ago, a Supreme Court ruling exposed the company for requiring pregnant women drivers to continue lifting boxes weighing 70 lbs. or more, even when their doctors provided notes warning of the health consequences for the woman or her child. Pepsi Co. has a whopping $650 to $1 ratio between CEO and worker pay. Walmart suffers criticism not only for providing paltry benefits and low wages for its workers but also for the conditions of factories it sources its products from.

Even if the administration wasn’t making blatantly misogynistic policies or ironically trying to clean up their brand, this latest Trump initiative falls into a common development pitfall: when countries and companies wake up to the realization that women’s transformative power can make them wealthier and more stable and end up instrumentalizing women towards their agenda.

Ivanka Trump made this point clearly to the Associated Press: “We think women are arguably the most under-tapped resource in the developing world for accelerating economic growth and prosperity.”

This idea that women, perhaps like the fossil fuels Trump so eagerly seeks to extract, exist for the purpose of generating wealth for the benefit of global elites is not the only aspect of the program that is consistent with the Trump agenda. Look a little more closely at the praise it’s getting from John Bolton, linking women’s economic empowerment to national security. Perhaps the Trumps should have spent less time consulting with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and more time talking with women before attempting to build a comprehensive program for women’s empowerment.

The links between international aid, diplomacy, and national security are not new. Even former Secretary of State General James Mattis made this point when the Trump Administration was seeking to cut USAID funding by a third and reduce spending for the State Department.

There is one piece in all of this that gives me a little hope. The parts of the program being implemented within USAID could include some solid investments that benefit women, just as the much larger “Ivanka Fund” promoted at the World Bank has potential to do. USAID will likely look to the 2018 women’s empowerment bill as an investment guide. There are good things in the bill like requiring gender analysis to be mainstreamed through the program, calling for efforts to reduce gender-based violence in the workplace, and promoting gender equality more broadly. The bill also has a new provision aimed at scaling up graduation approaches, which tend to reach the poorest of the poor, and building sustainable livelihoods in a more comprehensive way.

But the problematic pieces of the new initiative extinguish any hope it offers. They reveal how little consultation was done with groups working closely with the women it seeks to support. One example is the initiative’s push for women’s personal property rights. Women smallholder farmers and indigenous communities have repeatedly called for communal land ownership mechanisms, which protect their access to and control over land and natural resources much more effectively than personal property rights. You can imagine that one woman farmer with a small plot of land vs. a big foreign corporate investor is less likely to prevail than a community defending their rights against ever-expanding foreign agribusiness and energy investments.

Were the Trumps to read this blog, they would likely dismiss it as another attempt by a woman to tear down another woman (really quite a sexist cliché, but that is for another blog). Ivanka, here is some sisterly advice: Women’s empowerment cannot be approached piecemeal, and it is inextricably connected to the realization of a woman’s full human rights and the comprehensive work to dismantle gender inequality. Curious how to build a comprehensive women’s empowerment program? Don’t start with corporate CEOs. Start with real conversations with the women facing the most barriers to their development, and work with them to be the architects of their own empowerment.