Since the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, convened by the UN in Beijing, women’s empowerment has become the leading buzzword in foreign aid … and the flag for American and European “conquest” of women’s (unequal) rights in countries previously economically partitioned during the colonial period. In today’s foreign aid battlefronts, women have become a pawn for peddling development and prosperity for the benefit of America and Europe.
The girl effect
Under colonialism in Africa, the status of women deteriorated. As economic exploitation intensified and the division of labor according to sex was imposed, women’s social, religious and political privileges and rights disappeared. Mirroring European and American colonial powers women’s work was devalued as “traditional” and “backwards”. Let’s not forget that Liberia was an American colony in everything but name. The U.S. also provided funds (Marshall Plan money) to Western European nations that in many ways helped increase their exploitation of Africa between 1945 and 1960 and later elbowed out the French, British and Belgian colonial powers to become the leading exploiter of Africa’s resources. Today, Africa is seen as a safety valve in times of crisis.
Ivanka Trump’s flagship program, Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative (W-GDP) was a supposedly groundbreaking, whole-of-government, bipartisan program aiming to eliminate the legal and regulatory barriers the many women face around the world, took those two concepts to new heights. The W-GDP claimed to empower women by codifying gender analysis, delivering targeted finance and helping poor, individual, women entrepreneurs kick-start their businesses. But in practice it has instrumentalized women’s entrepreneurship. It has proven to be mere window dressing to exploit African women as a game piece on America’s market battlefront with China in Africa. The problem is that you can’t colonize women.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) recent damning report about the implementation of the W-GDP Initiative reveals there have been extensive failure in targeting recipients of aid and measuring the impact of that aid. In fact, USAID, a major U.S. agency for program implementation, still can’t even define what a business owned and run by women is. This just goes to show how USAID, along other U.S. agencies involved in W-GDP implementation, suffer from what Ginger Ging-Dawn Boyd has called “The Girl Effect”.
The underlying “investment in women” logic not only reinforces gendered economic inequity on both micro and macro levels, but also furthers an unyielding glass ceiling that keeps disadvantaged African women on “exploitable” terrain for the benefit of U.S. market designs in Africa. For example, there have been extensive failures in USAID’s women’s empowerment programs launched in the framework of W-GDP. Not only did they not clearly or properly target the money or measure impact, but they didn’t even target funds to the women they were for, the very poor and women-owned and managed businesses.
Don’t use women’s empowerment as window dressing
The GAO findings are, of course, disappointing, and the misspent funds cannot be recouped and must, sadly, be accepted as lost taxpayer money. But the underlying problem requires much more than USAID’s new leadership recognizing the need for better early planning. It means confronting the use of women’s empowerment as window dressing for economic expansion through market penetration. It means planning consciously so that aid is not used to exploit women as prospective debtors in the expansion of credit markets and as a game piece in the expansion of consumer markets open to U.S. “investment”. And it means making sure aid money is managed transparently to meet clear goals that contribute to real empowerment for women instead of their use as an untapped resource for America’s “battle” with China.
What the American foreign aid establishment must do is help re-synch U.S.-Africa policy. But the Biden administration’s Africa policy is still nowhere to be found. Like his predecessor, it seems Biden’s foreign policy establishment view of Africa is still clouded by the distance between the U.S. and African locus of loyalties. It continues to give short shrift to the rationality and values underlying the economic and political choices of Africans. It continues to approach women’s empowerment as a “girl issue” derived from male-centered conventions which render women and girls as “potentialities", or passive subjects to be regulated in service of the market, instead of as change makers in their own right.
The W-GDP Initiative may be good lip service and make for nice foreign aid window dressing, but it has badly served women’s empowerment, in Africa and other continents. It has instrumentalized women as an alibi for American economic expansion. But viewing girls and women as value for money investment is another way of insidiously displacing women as change makers in their own right. It is also a presumptuous way of establishing one's "right" to exploit their supposed “backwardness” for the benefit of U.S. geoeconomic designs.
The Biden administration has the opportunity to advance a truly transformational agenda to further real women’s empowerment outside (and within) America. Let’s hope the change in leadership in the agencies involved in implementing the W-GDP motivates some real changes, beyond just accepting GAO’s recommendations.