Elise Fiber Smith

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Women’s rights advocates gave a rare round of applause to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives last week when it passed a mammoth foreign aid initiative that will take women’s unique experiences into account before spending funds.

“This is a victory for women everywhere,” said Ritu Sharma, executive director of D.C.-based Women’s EDGE, a group that lobbies for more equitable trade policies. “Development strategies cannot be effective without targeting[women] and drawing on their input, talent and hard work.”

The House voted on July 16 in favor of legislation proposed by President Bush that would make a sizable opening deposit in the proposed Millennium Challenge Account, a global assistance fund that would donate $10 billion in foreign aid over the next three years.

The legislation would certainly provide a tremendous boon to women across the globe, as they comprise the vast majority of the world’s poor. But the legislation would also require those who would spend and receive the money to demonstrate a thorough understanding of gender roles in countries that receive aid and to incorporate women into the overall vision and structure of aid proposals–a critical achievement in the eyes of those frustrated by well-intended but misdirected aid.

The legislative language contained in the bill would require government officials in countries seeking grants to consult with local women’s organizations while developing their plans. They would also be required to delineate the impact proposed investments would have on both their male and female populations. For their part, the decision makers–an as yet unidentified board chaired by a chief executive officer who would be charged with allocating the federal dollars
–would be required to analyze the impact of the financial intervention on both men and women in an annual report to Congress.

Millennium Challenge Account documents authored by administration officials promise that the U.S. government will be “sensitive to the status of women” as the new program is implemented and ensure that countries that fail to advance women’s human rights will not meet the criteria to receive the federal aid.

The emphasis on women’s rights and women’s experiences in developing countries marks a departure from the past, when foreign aid programs of this size and scope did not distinguish between men and women in the initial versions of the proposals.

Women’s EDGE co-founder Elise Fiber Smith said in a statement that she was “thrilled” with this new approach to foreign aid grants. “Through lessons we have learned over the last 30 years in international aid, we knew the account could be at risk of being another foreign aid failure if women were not included in the bill,” she said.

Under attack by progressive groups for waging a “war against women,” the administration makes special note that poor women stand to benefit if the program is enacted. “The Administration is confident that the account’s emphasis on good governance and human rights for all, sustainable economic growth and free enterprise, health and education for all, anti-corruption efforts and inclusive processes will be extremely beneficial for women,” an administration paper on the subject says.

President Bush unveiled the Millennium Challenge Account in March of 2002 and introduced it to Congress earlier this year, describing it as a means of creating more genuine partnerships with developing countries by conditioning increased foreign aid grants on effective government policies.

Countries Must Meet Benchmarks to Get Funds

Procedures governing the allocation of funds under the Millennium Challenge Account would differ from traditional aid. Under the proposal, eligible countries would request a grant, sign a contract with the U.S. government and submit progress reports using evaluative benchmarks. Grants are expected to be awarded to about 10 or 20 countries that have not yet been selected, according to administration documents.

Bush reportedly hopes the results-oriented approach will encourage low-income countries to improve good governance practices, increase investments in its citizens and implement policies that encourage economic freedom. More specifically, he hopes to prompt governments in developing nations to take greater steps to root out corruption and protect human rights and political freedoms, increase investments in education and health care, and push for freer markets and private enterprise.

“The Millennium Challenge Account represents a new approach to providing and delivering development assistance,” Bush said on the day he introduced his bill to Congress. “This new compact for development breaks with the past by tying increased assistance to performance and creating new accountability for all nations.”

If fully implemented, Bush’s plan would increase core assistance to qualified developing countries by 50 percent–a $5 billion annual increase over current levels by the end of fiscal year 2006. That would mark one of the largest increases in foreign aid spending in the last half century, according to a report issued by the Congressional Research Service. Only the Marshall Plan after World War II and the Latin America-focused Alliance for Progress in the 1960s would surpass it in size and scope.

The House agreed to provide for Bush’s request when it passed the amendment attached as a rider to the bill that authorizes funding for the State Department through fiscal year 2004. Sponsored by Reps. Henry Hyde, a Republican from Illinois, and Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California, the top-ranking Republican and Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, the amendment earmarks $1.3 billion for the coming fiscal year, $3 billion in fiscal year 2005, and $5 billion for fiscal year 2006.

Earlier this year the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved its version of the bill, which was called to the Senate floor on July 10. But the bill was never voted on and it is unclear when it will come to the floor again.

Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington, D.C.

For more information:

Millennium Challenge Account:

Congressional Research Service–
The Millennium Challenge Account: Congressional Consideration of a New ForeignAid Initiative:

Women’s EDGE :