Flagship policy program slammed by government auditors
The Government Accountability Office has issued a damning report about Ivanka Trump’s pet project during her time as an adviser to her father, President Donald Trump. As Ivanka Trump traveled the world talking up the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative, a whole-of-government women’s empowerment initiative, deep problems were developing in the implementation of the bipartisan Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act of 2018.
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.
Supporters of W-GDP saw it as a groundbreaking whole-of-government approach to female empowerment, while critics of the new law derided it as too limited to make a real difference.
The plan was to mandate and codify gender analysis and deliver targeted finance across the women’s programs of 10 U.S. Government agencies. At the individual level, the hope was that often poor women entrepreneurs would receive the financial kick-start they needed to build a business.
One of the 10 agencies involved was the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is mandated by the WEEE Act to allocate $265 million a year for support to micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises. Half of the money is required to go to women, half to the very poor (some overlap between the two groups is expected).
While Trump touted W-GDP as a cohesive program “enabling us 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, the opposite was happening.
While USAID launched at least 19 new women’s empowerment programs in 2019 alone, there were extensive failures in both the targeting of the money, and the measurement of its impact.
USAID was unable to say what proportion of 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.
Ivanka Trump and her team spent two years developing the broader W-GDP program. But the White House had limited control over USAID, where 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 — oversaw WEEE Act spending.
Trump’s team held weekly and sometimes daily calls with those officials to monitor implementation.
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 focus 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.
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.
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