A recent article in the Los Angeles Times criticizes Advisor to the President Ivanka Trump for working to empower women in the global economy. Trump, a 37-year old businesswoman and entrepreneur (with a degree from the Wharton School of Business), leads the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative (W-GDP), the first comprehensive “all of government” initiative to help women and girls in developing countries overcome barriers to economic participation and maximize their potential.
Filled with uninformed condescension and sexist statements, the article questions Trump’s role as an advisor and a leader of U.S. development assistance. In actuality, the biased article fails to acknowledge that Ivanka Trump is the first leader within a U.S. administration to effectively focus on what she calls the “most underutilized resource” in the developing world — the power and genius of women. For those of us who have worked in the world of women’s economic empowerment and have seen the dynamic and lasting change it can bring to families and communities, her efforts in this arena are greatly appreciated.
In light of pervasive global poverty and income inequality, Trump’s desire to cultivate women’s full economic potential hits on two excellent points: First, that sustainable development uses a holistic approach to increase the capability and participation of all people in the community — instead of just focusing on the “end goal” of economic growth; and second, that development aid has historically included what Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen called the “extensive neglect of the interests and agency of women.”
Just a few weeks ago, Ivanka Trump and USAID administrator Mark Green traveled through South America to Colombia, Argentina, and Paraguay, creating partnerships and launching programs in conjunction with W-GDP. This was the second trip since the launch of W-GDP in February 2019 to increase women’s global workforce participation, support their entrepreneurship, and reduce legal and cultural practices that hinder economic agency. One of the many accomplishments of this trip included the launch of the Academy of Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) in Colombia, a program run by the U.S. government and local Colombian partners that helps women gain the skills and expertise they need to create, own, and operate small businesses.
It is a well-documented fact that when women, who make up half the population, are encouraged to participate in the economy, the outcome is sustained social and economic growth for the wider society. A simple but clear example is the female-owned organic-strawberry farm that Trump and Green visited outside of Bogota called El Salero. The farm is supported by a Fundacion ANDI–USAID partnership, and with this help, strawberry productivity increased 82 percent and farm incomes increased 65 percent over a period of 18 months.
But when you consider that most of the world’s approximately 200 million unemployed are women and young adults living in developing countries (where the private sector provides 90 percent of the jobs), the importance of promoting women in the workforce becomes even clearer. Moreover, the EY Global Job Creation Survey 2016 suggests that businesses started by women create more jobs and exceed hiring expectations, as compared to businesses owned by men. But women still face higher barriers than men in starting a business or getting a job, and women do not have the legal rights or supporting environment that would enable entrepreneurship.
One approach to development argues that capabilities “should be pursued for each and every person, treating each as an end and none as a mere tool of the ends of others.” (Nussbaum) Too often throughout history, women have been used to support “the ends of others” and not as an autonomous “end in their own right.” Empowering women in the economy also increases their personal agency, meaning that women in developing countries can become “active agents of change” for themselves and for their communities, and not just recipients of foreign financial assistance.
Ivanka Trump’s W-GDP initiative, which plans to economically empower 50 million women by 2025, is working to lead women to self-reliance with the win-win outcome of boosting productivity, creating jobs, and increasing economic growth in their wider communities. As Mark Green said in Colombia at El Sasero, “You cannot have economic growth, you cannot have a brighter future, unless you reach out and empower women.”