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Ivanka Trump's flagship policy program slammed by government auditors

POLITICO logo POLITICO 4/1/2021 By Ryan Heath
a person standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: 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 bi-partisan Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act of 2018. © AP Photo/Andrew Harnik 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 bi-partisan Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act of 2018.

The Government Accountability Office has issued a damning report about the implementation of legislation supporting Ivanka Trump’s signature women’s empowerment initiative, from her time as an adviser to her father, President Donald Trump.

As Ivanka Trump traveled the world talking up the whole-of-government Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative, deep problems were developing in roll out of the bipartisan Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act of 2018 at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

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.

Launched weeks after President Trump signed the WEEE Act in early 2019, supporters of W-GDP saw it as a groundbreaking whole-of-government approach to female empowerment. Critics of W-GDP derided the work as too limited to make a real difference.

W-GDP aimed to 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 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 to allocate $265 million a year for support to micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises under the WEEE Act. 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.

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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.

A senior Trump administration official who worked on W-GDP said they inherited a tangled mess of women’s policy programs in 2017. “Everything was scattered with no real clear goal or purpose. That is not a good use of taxpayer dollars and doesn’t help people anywhere,” the former official said. Ivanka Trump and her team spent two years developing the broader W-GDP program, which they say helped 12.6 million people in 2019 alone.

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 focused 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.

Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.) and former Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the co-authors of the WEEE Act, did not immediately respond to POLITICO’s request for comment.

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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