In Trump’s Plan to Gut Foreign Aid, Battle Lines Drawn Over Global Women’s Issues

Even the Republican Congress doesn't seem to think the budget cuts are a good idea.

LAKE CHAD, CHAD - JULY 10:  Girls in colorful headscarves sit in a classroom in their tribal village in central Africa on July 10, 2007 around Lake Chad, Chad.  (Photo by Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images)
LAKE CHAD, CHAD - JULY 10: Girls in colorful headscarves sit in a classroom in their tribal village in central Africa on July 10, 2007 around Lake Chad, Chad. (Photo by Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images)

Women’s issues remain a heated area for debate in Washington as the federal budget battle plays out. And there’s a crucial office in the State Department now facing its own existential battle amid Trump’s plans to gut funding for foreign aid and diplomacy.

Several congressional sources told Foreign Policy one of the sharpest disputes between Congress and the White House over the budget is the proposed elimination of the ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues — a State Department posting that coordinates the U.S. government’s women’s development and empowerment programs around the world. Trump’s proposed foreign aid and development budget completely zeroes out the $8.25 million allotment for the ambassadorship, created by President Barack Obama in 2009.

The proposal sparked ire among congressional Democrats and inside the aid community. Experts warn pulling funding for the post could have ripple effects, because women’s issues underpin economic and political development all over the world. Before Trump, the office had widespread bipartisan backing.

“This is essentially saying ‘off with her head’ to everything that we’ve built over these years,” said Lyric Thompson, the director of policy at the International Center for Research on Women.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), former Democratic vice presidential candidate, called the plan to defund USAID “shortsighted,” and touted the big dividends from the global women’s office in boosting economic growth and resilience to extremism in fragile countries.

“President Trump should consider the message it sends by targeting an important office that empowers women,” Kaine added.

The Office of Global Women’s Issues provides technical guidance for USAID programs in the field, and activists say zeroing out the ambassador’s budget would leave U.S. diplomats orphaned when it comes to figuring out priorities and programs regarding global women’s issues.  

“I consider this an existential threat,” Thompson said.

“The Fiscal Year 2018 request for the State Department and USAID will allow us to advance our foreign policy goals,” said a spokesperson from the State Department. “Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson will use this opportunity to ensure that we are using U.S. taxpayer dollars as effectively and efficiently as possible.”

The Trump administration has targeted women’s rights and reproductive health care since it took office. One of Trump’s first actions was an executive order reinstating the Mexico City Policy, an order first enacted under President Ronald Reagan that prevents federal money from funding international nongovernmental organizations that perform, advocate for, or mention abortion. The administration also defunded the United Nations Population Fund, the world’s leading family planning and reproductive health organization, for which the United States is a top donor.

But eliminating the global women’s office would also undermine U.S. efforts to improve the lives of girls and women around the world — with important effects on development, growth, and stability.

“It’s no secret that investing in women and girls is a catalyst and creates ripple effects across entire communities and countries,” said Liz Schrayer, president and CEO of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, a Washington-based nonprofit. She cited studies that found a 10 percent increase in female school attendance correlates with a 3 percent rise in GDP.

Not everyone sees Trump’s plan to nix the global women’s office as a bad thing. Carrie Almond, president of the National Federation of Republican Women, lauded Trump’s plan to scrap the office.

“President Trump is right to stop treating women as a special-interest group. It’s demeaning,” she said.

“The ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues isn’t going to have anywhere near the impact on international policy decisions as does President Trump’s appointment of Ambassador Nikki Haley,” Almond added, referring to Trump’s envoy to the United Nations.

Aid advocates are already trying to figure out how to parry the threat, and are looking to informal channels to try and convince the administration to change course.

“One of the possible plays we could make here is go ask for meetings with Ivanka [Trump] and go ask for leadership to save this budget,” Thompson said.

This article was updated on May 2, 12:37pm to include a comment from the State Department. 

Photo credit: JEFF HUTCHENS/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

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