National security adviser Robert O’Brien sat to her left at the cloth-covered horseshoe conference table. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sat at the head of the table, to her right.
“In the coming year, we can work to empower millions of women to lift their families out of poverty, to grow the economies in their country, to reduce dependence and to deliver on the promise of greater peace and prosperity,” Trump said. “I look forward to working with each of you around this table as we advance this ambitious goal.”
Around the table was a star-studded cast, by Washington standards, including a labor secretary and the head of the United States Agency for International Development. Also present were two senators and two members of Congress who will co-sponsor legislation making economic empowerment of women a priority of U.S. foreign policy and establishing an office of women’s empowerment at the State Department.
“Ivanka, you are a rock star,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), while O’Brien confessed he meets more foreign officials who want to talk to Ivanka Trump than to President Trump.
“Of all things I’ve been part of, this could be the most consequential,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).
Larry Kudlow, head of the National Economic Council, briefly thanked Pompeo for hosting the day’s event, then added, “Ivanka, great job!”
The women’s empowerment initiative, launched a year ago, promotes women’s empowerment through programs sponsored by 10 U.S. agencies. It aims to “reach” 50 million women in developing countries by 2025 by helping them start small businesses, attend vocational schools and access loans, and to change laws in dozens of countries that restrict the ability of women to own property or work in the same jobs as men do.
U.S. officials say the initiative has already reached 12 million women, a figure that appears to count all the women and girls living in countries where laws discriminating against women were changed after Ivanka Trump visited to push for reform.
The WGDP, as it’s called, is growing exponentially. It started out with $50 million in funding that was bumped up to $100 million in the 2020 omnibus bill. For 2021, the White House has proposed doubling it again to $200 million.
Kelley Currie, recently appointed ambassador at large for global women’s issues, called the increase a good investment, even at a time when the administration is seeking big budget cuts for refugees and international organizations like the United Nations. She told reporters Wednesday that unleashing women’s workforce participation in developing countries could create $7.7 trillion in economic growth.
“Our goal is to get to the point where we don’t need targeted programs, where women’s participation is so fulsome and integrated we don’t have to push for these things,” she said. “In the meantime, we believe this is a good investment of resources.”
But the approach has many critics, particularly among advocates for reproductive rights that have been diminished during the Trump administration.
Charles Kenny, who researches gender issues as a fellow at the Center for Global Development, noted that the administration has proposed cutting women’s health and family planning, from $524 million this year to $237 million next year, and totally erasing $33 million for the U.N. Population Fund.
“Health and the ability to make choices over the timing and number of pregnancies are not only a right, they are a vital part of economic empowerment,” he said. “The administration demonstrates how seriously it takes gender equality when it talks up small projects while slashing large programs like this.”
Many critics consider the programs being advanced by the WGDP to be worthy but question whether they accomplish much in an era of foreign aid retrenchment.
“Individual initiatives — through USAID for women’s economic opportunities or through the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative — make a difference for women,” said Melanne Verveer, head of Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security.
“But they shouldn’t be the end-all of the administration’s efforts for women’s empowerment. They’re doing this at the same time as they’re proposing cuts to the development budget that impact women. You can’t silo women’s issues.”
In her trips abroad promoting the issue, Ivanka Trump has prodded multinational corporations and other nations to contribute billions to train and finance female entrepreneurs. Kudlow promised to carry the torch this year during the Group of Seven meeting at Camp David, vowing that Trump would meet her goal for the big industrialized nations to commit a total of $3 billion for women’s initiatives.
“I will not let them out of the room until they fulfill your pledge,” he said.