Gender and U.S. aid

Obama helping women

New strategic approach can make better use of America's foreign development dollars

March 18, 2009|By Connie Morella and Ritu Sharma

During her confirmation hearings to be secretary of state, Hillary Clinton signaled a new direction for U.S. foreign policy, saying: "If half of the world's population remains vulnerable to economic, political, legal and social marginalization, our hope of advancing democracy and prosperity will remain in serious jeopardy."

This month, the administration backed up those words with the nomination of Melanne Verveer, co-founder of Vital Voices Global Partnership, as global women's issues chief, an ambassador-level position. The White House has also announced a new Council on Women and Girls, charged, among other things, with improving the economic status of women - a mandate that extends to the State Department and USAID.

We hope this elevated focus on women's issues is more than a nod to Women's History Month. Ideally, it indicates a new strategic approach by the Obama administration toward development - the crucial "third D" of our foreign policy, along with defense and diplomacy. Women are most at risk of being poor worldwide and stand to benefit greatly from more effective U.S. foreign assistance. Sensible reforms that emphasize investing in women and that direct aid to those who need it most would mean both women and men can contribute to lifting themselves and their countries out of poverty.

Amounting to less than 1 percent of our nation's budget, our international programs buy us enormous global goodwill - and, as a result, long-term security - at a time when we have suffered diminished respect around the world. Even in these tight economic times, we can't afford to disengage from the rest of the world because we are too interconnected, as the current global downturn illustrates. But we need to ensure that each assistance dollar is being used in the best and most effective way.

There is strong recognition within Congress, the international aid community and the Obama administration that it is time to strengthen "civilian capacity" in our foreign policy work, which has long been underfunded compared with defense. This should include a drive to reform and modernize U.S. foreign assistance programs, which are meant to work for the benefit of the poorest and most vulnerable worldwide.

The current Foreign Assistance Act is a mishmash of often-contradictory provisions, many dating back to the Cold War. At least 12 departments and 25 agencies of the U.S. government are involved in overseeing international programs. Only about a third of assistance flows to least-developed and lowest-income countries, and 18 percent is overseen by the military.

This is not a formula for success. It means that we have soldiers giving out micro-loans to women in Iraq - where women typically do not have the courage to approach the American military and our soldiers do not have the training for this work. Agriculture programs in Africa are often directed at male heads of household, when women do the bulk of farm work. And we have yet to figure out where crucial economic development programs fit within our engagement in Afghanistan and how women benefit.

We have an opportunity to take a fresh approach to our foreign policy by elevating and refocusing our international development efforts. Modernizing our assistance makes economic sense, ensuring that our tax dollars are spent as efficiently as possible. It makes strategic sense, ensuring that we are building stable societies and economies. And it makes military sense, letting our military personnel focus on the missions they were trained for.

It's foolish to think that a Cold War-era foreign assistance apparatus, one that misunderstands the role of women, can work in the 21st century. It's like driving a car from 1961 - it might work, but it is creaky and badly in need of maintenance. We can't afford the waste.

Connie Morella, a former Republican member of the House of Representatives from Maryland, was U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development from 2003 to 2007. Ritu Sharma, an Annapolis resident, is co-founder and president of Women Thrive Worldwide and a principal of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network.

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