Economic Aid to Women

Despite American women's domestic gains, few government resources have been dedicated to enhancing the role of women in developing countries

THIS past presidential election cycle was touted for being the Year of the Woman; indeed, American women voted in record numbers and congressional representation in the Senate and in the House of Representatives rose significantly.

Yet despite these impressive domestic political gains, United States foreign economic assistance, which is congressionally mandated to increase the status of women in developing countries and their access to productive resources - political, economic, social, and technological - failed to match rhetoric with action. Instead, "business as usual" prevailed at the Agency for International Development (AID).

Since the passage of the "Percy Amendment" 19 years ago, Congress has mandated that AID take into consideration the needs of women, recognizing the substantial contribution they make to the overall economies of developing countries. Congress, not AID, doubled the agency's Office of Women in Development (WID) budget this year and required stricter accounting of AID implementation of the mandate.

Yet, the WID office has remained outside the mainstream of economic development decision-making. The foreign service community refused to take seriously the need to include women in projects and the political leadership did not boldly insist on action.

In 1992 AID grudgingly determined, after prodding from Congress, that few resources were dedicated to enhancing the role of women in developing countries. It rejected the need to create a partnership with the private sector to share the burden of this enormous job. In 1992 only $268 million out of $7.5 billion could be identified as impacting women.

There remains substantial empirical and quantitative evidence to support an aggressive role for including women in development projects. There is strong evidence that women enhance their nations' economic growth and income through their participation in the labor force. Yet in many countries women have little access to credit to start their own businesses. In Africa, more than 80 percent of the farmers are women, while few own land.

President Bush's commitment to enhancing the role of women in developing countries has been admirable. He actively supported the WID office and the notion that women play an integral part in the struggle for greater openness and democratic reform. But he said that "at the same time, a number of problems that affect the lives of women call for serious attention: income generation, legal rights, discrimination, housing, environmental issues, AIDS, violence against women."

I took that mandate seriously. The WID office developed an aggressive strategic plan calling for a more focused approach to women's needs.

THE plan included increasing political participation by women in the democratic process; focusing on women's legal rights; forming a new partnership with the private sector; concentrating on women's programs operated by corporate America; initiating a program to increase businesswomen's participation on US trade missions and linking US businesses with businesswomen; promoting women as entrepreneurs and guiding businesses from home-based micro enterprises to small businesses; increasing development banks'

lending to women and industries where women are employed.

In carrying out that vision for the future, the WID office energetically attempted to move mountains at a time when the AID leadership was rudderless.

* In October, through the Center for Democracy, we brought together for the first time US women elected officials and European women parliamentarians to work with newly elected women parliamentarians from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

* We worked with the private sector as a partner in development augmenting US government funds and work to include women as owners in the privatization process.

* We forged new relationships with the private voluntary organizations.

* With the American Center for International Leadership, we addressed for the first time how issues affect women in Eastern Europe.

Yet the unwillingness of AID's leadership to accept the plan and incorporate these issues into its economic assistance program became obvious and the new initiatives were stymied. Unfortunately, AID and its administrator at the time never got Mr. Bush's message.

President-elect Clinton faces an even greater task as he defines and implements the new world order: to remold economic assistance to respond to the needs of the 21st century. One benefit the incoming administration has is the nearly unanimous bipartisan opinion by Congress about the ineffectiveness of AID as an agent of change.

For those who support a foreign policy which includes women as beneficiaries, one solution is a foundation which would create a government-private sector partnership to fund projects and programs impacting women in developing countries. The foundation would replace the WID office and would utilize the private sector's commitment to jointly funding programs responding to US interests.

This solution would address a real problem that stands in the way of economic development: AID itself. The incoming Clinton administration should consider establishing other foundations to address private sector initiatives, education, and health. Humanitarian and food aid might best be housed under the State Department.

All implementation and field work would be carried out by the private voluntary organizations and nongovernment organizations. In this way the spirit of AID would continue with new aggressiveness and purpose.

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