About that Elephant…USAID’s new gender equality policy

an elephant's eye

As far as it goes, the USAID draft 2020 Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Policy is a fine document. Unfortunately, being a fine document isn’t enough. Women – and humanity – deserve so much more from this latest iteration of a longstanding development priority.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) – the world’s largest bilateral aid organization – has clout, leverage, convening power, and voice. Its programming is supposed to provide tangible witness to the values and priorities of the people of the United States. Through our development assistance, we place ourselves in a relationship of caring engagement and moral obligation, responding to the urgent development needs and aspirations of people who live in countries afflicted by poverty, poor governance, lack of resources, exploitative colonial legacies, and a poor location in a world that never comes close to offering a “level playing field”. Poor, underdeveloped countries are not the unit of analysis that ought to matter most to this policy, however. Countries are made up of people, and half of those people are female. The plight of that female half is the challenge that USAID – and so many others – are continuously called to address and act to answer.

This new (draft) policy offers an inadequate response.

Women and girls, now and since anyone ever began to take note of them (and presumably long before) have endured inequality, subordination, disrespect (or a skewed, perverse, objectifying form of respect), exploitation, humiliation, and violence. This new (draft) policy won’t change that very much. Its proposed strategies and principles aren’t terribly controversial, and are unlikely to be disruptive to the status quo. Indeed, the policy’s aspirations are conventional. After all, who doesn’t want to “reduce disparities between women and men”? Who would not want to “strive to eliminate gender based violence”? Why would anyone not support a call to “pursue an inclusive approach”? The new (draft) policy waves its hand at all of these laudable goals, but it offers very little grit.

It also misses so much, but those gaps were not the unfortunate product of bureaucratic oversight. Instead, the new (draft) policy takes an ideologically motivated step backwards, in its yearning for a more simplistic world view. It conjures up a reality in which the gender binary is unquestioned, where people like me (a transgender woman) either don’t exist or aren’t worth a mention, and where “diversity” is best left unspecified.  

Women and girls deserve so much more from the world’s largest and best resourced bilateral aid agency. The plight of women in terms of the violence that they endure (which the policy duly recognizes) screams out for a transformational approach to international development.  Women deserve a motivational vision that would drive such a transformation, but it won’t be found in this new (draft) policy. Instead, it is a policy distinguished by its temerity; the patriarchy is safe for another decade or two (neither patriarchy nor feminism made even a cameo appearance in this document).  At its best, this new (draft) policy tinkers at the margins of policy change. Owning my bias as a former Obama political appointee at USAID, I would hazard a guess that concentrating this policy only on the policy  margins probably wasn’t accidental.

When it comes to human development and the health, vitality, security, and future of societies around the world, women and girls deserve – at the very least – an airing of an alternative feminine world view in which people exist in solidarity, such that women might truly be agents and protagonists of their own lives. I searched this new (draft) policy in vain for some hint of terms of engagement that were not limited to maximizing power, wealth, control, and leadership as currently conceived. I sought some vision of an alternative world where notions of collaboration, nurture, compassion, altruism, sacrifice, and service were not afterthoughts, or simply ignored. Is it too much to ask for a world framed in such a way that “prosperity” is measured not only in GDP but in the health of our planetary environment (the climate crisis receives no mention in the policy), in the measurable depth of our commitment to the global (excluding the USA) consensus on the Sustainable Development Goals (also not mentioned in this policy)? And is feminism really such a repugnant, edgy concept that it finds no place in a gender equality policy?  Sweden, Canada, and Mexico have already embraced feminism, placing it at the center of their foreign relations.

Doesn’t feminism warrant some consideration by USAID? Or is that ask simply too “soft”?

One reality that isn’t soft is the abuse, humiliation, disrespect, and violence that is so frequently directed at women and girls (and to some boys and men too). Gender based violence (GBV) receives considerable mention in this new (draft) policy – as well it should. GBV is a central fact of life for far too many women and girls, limiting them in nearly every dimension of achieving decent lives of meaning, quality, respect, and dignity. Yes, the new (draft) policy states that it will “strive to eliminate gender based violence, and mitigate its harmful effects”. How it will do so isn’t very clear, although (thankfully) there is some mention of a commitment to engage men and boys for “their own well-being, to become better family and community members, and to improve development outcomes”.

In the egregious context of GBV, that limited scope of male engagement rings hollow. When will we respect women and girls enough to demand that men and boys – as the perpetrators of nearly all gender based violence – own the moral accountability for this reality, and commit to working with women and girls to stop it? When will USAID commit itself to helping all genders in all developing societies to unpack and reconsider the pernicious, misogynistic values that drive GBV and victimize vulnerable people from generation to generation? When will the equality of human dignity – not just of and between men and boys but also of women, girls, marginalized persons, and all human beings become an actual USAID development priority? In short, when will the challenge of genuine gender equality (and equity) cease to be a “women’s issue”, and instead command the best thinking, innovation, commitment, and implementation efforts of all of us. Yes, all of us. We need to do far more than merely “strive”.

The new (draft) policy asserts its intention to “pursue an inclusive approach”. That would have been much more meaningful had it actually done so, given the multitude of intersectionalities that attach themselves to any authentic pursuit of gender equality. To be convinced, we would have needed to have seen the words that would call attention to all of the categories of the marginalized – in which women and girls consistently fare the worst. That list includes persons with disabilities and their caregivers, the elderly, gender and sexual minorities, at-risk youth, religious minorities, ethnic and indigenous minorities, migrants and refugees…it is a list that can become inconveniently lengthy. In the new (draft) policy, it isn’t there at all. 

Dignity does earn a place in this new (draft) policy, alongside the new (and politically charged) semantics of “unalienable” human rights. Yes, universal human dignity would be an appropriately lofty goal to motivate a fundamental change of paradigms in gender equality, but that’s not where we find it in this policy. That would be asking too much, in that it would be a direct challenge to the core tenants of patriarchy – itself a notion too entrenched for USAID to question, or even to mention the “p” word. Patriarchy, and the very unequal, skewed values that it espouses, remains the Elephant in the Room. This new (draft) policy won’t go there. 

This is a new (draft) policy. My repetitive reference in this essay to (draft) was intentional, calling attention that the policy remains “draft” for but an instant. Public comment has been limited to just one week, even though this policy arguably ought to be among USAID’s most central priorities. This is an insincere invitation to a discourse; the authors of this new (draft) policy seek to contain public input as much as they possibly can.

Otherwise, we might just ask about the Elephant in the Room. We might even decide that it’s time for us to ask him to leave.

One Comment

  • Hi Chloe, very important points here. I can well imagine a stronger policy was put forward and that some up the chain have heavily edited and watered this down. You know that this doesn’t reflect the hard work and ideals of many in the Agency. You know that many good people have left the Agency in the last four years and those that have remained are likely very vocal (internally) and also very frustrated. I don’t think they can put forward the version that they or we would like to see at this time. I wonder why now, though. Why not wait until next year? Is the timing, like so much else, political?

    Assuming this does go forward, I think it would be useful and helpful if someone like you with your knowledge of the Agency and the issues, were to draft a shadow or parallel policy. What would the policy look like if it were truly inclusive and was transformative? Perhaps then you could invite USAID to comment on it. Or if and when the elephant leaves the room, this policy can be updated and amended and the parallel policy could be a basis for drafting a real one.


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