This article has been updated to include response from the White House.
Ivanka Trump, the daughter of the president and a senior White House adviser, announced a new global effort Thursday to help 50 million women in the developing world by 2025.
“This new initiative will for the first time coordinate America’s commitment to one of the most undervalued resources in the developing world — the talent, ambition and genius of women,” Trump wrote in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that announced the news. For the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative, the U.S. government will team up with several private companies such as UPS and Pepsi to “facilitate complementary private-sector investments to achieve our shared goals,” Trump said.
But despite the initiative’s ambitions, it is unclear how the White House-led fund would fit into the president’s broader skepticism about foreign aid. Notably, government funding for the project will come from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) — an organization whose funding President Trump has repeatedly tried to cut.
The relatively small sum the U.S. government has allocated for the fund so far — $50 million designed to help 50 million people — also stood out to critics.
“$1 per woman, or rather $0.02 per woman, once you subtract the money WalMart and others will spend on glossy, self-congratulatory advertisements,” Brad Simpson, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, wrote on Twitter.
“If you ever doubted the Trump Administration’s belief in aid effectiveness, think again: the new Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative provides $50m a year from USAID to economically empower 50 million women worldwide by 2025,” Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at a Center for Global Development, wrote in his own tweet. “That’s just a dollar a year each!” Kenny added.
After the initial publication of this article, White House Deputy Director of Communications Jessica Ditto responded in an email that the $50 million figure for 50 million people mischaracterized the initiative.
Ditto pointed toward a presidential memorandum signed Thursday that said that agencies would be government agencies would be expected to “prioritize and increase support for the Initiative within their budget proposals and within allocations of appropriated resources.” The memorandum suggested that agencies would “seek to collectively attribute no less than $300 million per fiscal year.” It did not offer specifics of where this money would come from.
Nancy Lee, a former U.S. Treasury official who is now a fellow at the Center for Global Development, agreed that the $50 million in initial government funding is notably small, but she said she hoped that it could have a larger effect.
“Most important is to firmly embed empowering women across the programs of all of the agencies that are supposed to work together under this initiative,” Lee said. “If agencies actually have to look at how each project can boost benefits for women and girls and measure results carefully and consistently, that would truly transform U.S. development practice.”
Other aid experts said they did not want to speak publicly as they wanted to see the final documents and how things would work in practice.
Liz Schrayer, president of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, praised the measure and emphasized that public and private funding should be involved. “It’s terrific to see this winning initiative on empowering women economically in the developing world,” Schrayer said. “And we know for it to achieve its full potential, the public and private sector must step up and ensure it has the resources it needs.”
The USAID money will come from already-budgeted funds. As part of his America First foreign policy, Trump has twice tried to slash the agency’s budget by a third, but Congress has blocked his moves. USAID funding is $1.6 billion for fiscal 2018, down about $24 million from fiscal 2017.
Former congressman Mark Green (R-Wis.), who serves as the head of USAID under Trump, has defended the administration’s proposed cuts, although he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last year: “I readily admit this budget does not allow us to do everything we might want to do in a perfect world, and it does not allow us to take on every opportunity we might see.”
Tom Babington, acting USAID spokesman, emphasized that the agency had always worked on issues related to women’s economic empowerment. What’s different about the new project is that it would allow better coordination with other agencies, Babington said. “This results in better alignment of U.S. Government efforts, which in turn increases leverage, resources and impact through better-aligned programming."
The new initiative will have to fit into the increasingly complicated world of U.S. foreign assistance. The president is known to favor loans instead of grants and has suggested that aid should be cut to disloyal countries. But many in his administration have expressed concern about losing influence to China and other countries in offering funding.
The Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative is the second fund for women’s empowerment that Ivanka Trump has been linked to. In 2017, she led a push for a new fund at the World Bank that was designed to boost female entrepreneurs in developing countries.
Although it was initially reported that Ivanka Trump would lead that fund, the White House later clarified that she would have “no authority” after experts raised legal and ethical questions about a formal executive office staff member using her position to solicit money for a nonprofit organization.
Analysts who track aid say that funding for gender-related programs often has relatively little support from lawmakers. “I am not terribly surprised that the initial allocation of start-up funding is modest,” said Brad Parks, executive director of the AidData project at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. Parks pointed to survey data that suggested the issue was low on the agenda for both citizens and political leaders.
“My gut reaction is that the popularity of foreign aid programs is a lot more politically resilient than people think if even an ‘America First’ presidency wants to do programs like this,” said William Easterly, an economist and professor at New York University and the author of “The Tyranny of Experts.”
Correction: This article previously said that Mark Green was a former U.S. representative from Tennessee. It has been amended to show that he represented Wisconsin.