Ivanka Trump's women's empowerment push undercut by shoddy implementation

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The Government Accountability Office has issued a damning report about the implementation of legislation supporting Ivanka Trump’s signature women’s empowerment initiative, from her time as an adviser to her father, President Donald Trump.

As Ivanka Trump traveled the world talking up the whole-of-government Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative, deep problems were developing in the roll out of the bipartisan Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act of 2018 at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Trump’s stump speech on the global conference circuit was anchored in stories about the legal and regulatory barriers many women face around the world in establishing their property rights and starting businesses, and she had a solution: W-GDP.

Launched weeks after President Trump signed the WEEE Act in early 2019, supporters of wider W-GDP program saw it as a groundbreaking approach to female empowerment. They hoped to give poor women entrepreneurs around the world the financial kick-start to build a business, and the U.S. Agency for International Development described W-GDP as the "first-ever whole-of-government effort to advance global women’s economic empowerment."

USAID was already managing the spending of $265 million a year for micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises. The WEEE Act brought in stricter guidelines for how that money would be spent — requiring that half of the money go to women, and half to the very poor (with some overlap between the two groups expected). According to the GAO, USAID did not adequately keep track of whether that actually happened.

While Trump touted her work as a delivering a cohesive program that enabled the U.S. government for the first time to “rigorously track the execution and the efficacy of the money that we are spending,” the GAO’s 14-month audit demonstrates that, at least at USAID, there were extensive failures during the Trump administration in both the targeting of WEEE Act money, and measuring its impact.

USAID was unable to conclusively say what proportion of the WEEE Act funds went to the very poor, and women-owned and managed businesses. Shockingly, the agency couldn’t even define what actually constitutes a business owned and run by women, the GAO concluded.

In addition to ongoing programs that came under WEEE Act oversight, USAID launched at least 19 new women’s empowerment programs in 2019 alone, under the banner of W-GDP.

A senior Trump administration official who worked on W-GDP said they inherited a tangled mess of women’s policy programs in 2017. “Everything was scattered with no real clear goal or purpose. That is not a good use of taxpayer dollars and doesn’t help people anywhere,” the former official said. Ivanka Trump and her team spent two years developing the broader W-GDP program, which they say helped 12.6 million people in 2019 alone.

While White House officials held regular calls with USAID to monitor implementation, they say they had limited control over these processes. A 20-person team of career officials — initially known as the Office of Private Capital and Microenterprise, and later as the Private Sector Engagement Hub — monitored and provided "technical support on private capital and access to finance" for micro-enterprise projects, according to the GAO report.

One of Ivanka Trump’s favorite anecdotes about women’s empowerment on global conference stages from New York to Doha focused on her efforts to empower Colombian women, whom she visited in September 2019 with USAID administrator Mark Green. The American and Colombian governments went as far as to issue a joint communique on their shared vision.

Below the surface, there were already problems with USAID’s programs in Colombia. The GAO singled out USAID’s Colombian funding of a Productive Entrepreneurships for Peace program and a Rural Finance Initiative as examples of projects with important general inclusion goals, which also failed to meet the WEEE Act requirement to fund the very poor directly.

“USAID has not defined and does not collect information necessary to meet its statutory targeting requirements” the report noted, including by failing to obtain survey responses from 26 of its 47 bureaus around the world on how they distributed funding.

The GAO’s six recommendations for USAID focused on establishing new internal processes that can provide “reasonable assurance” that the money allocated by Congress gets to its intended recipients.

USAID — which is now under the leadership of acting administrator Gloria Steele, as Samantha Power waits for confirmation of nomination to lead the agency — has accepted all six recommendations. Colleen Allen, acting assistant administrator at USAID, in a written reply to the GAO report, said the agency has already partially implemented several of the recommendations, and recognized the need for better early planning.

Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.) a co-author of the WEEE Act, told POLITICO: “While the GAO’s findings are disappointing, the WEEE Act included this reporting requirement so that Congress can continue to oversee the implementation of this important law," adding that she was pleased USAID accepted GAO’s recommendations.

The GAO audit was based on official financial accounts and interviews with USAID staff based in 11 countries. The report noted that some of the problems linked to mismanagement of the allocated funds date back to 2015, before the WEEE Act was signed into law.

This article has been updated to clarify the relationship between the W-GDP and WEEE Act.

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