The support Ivanka Trump wants for women entrepreneurs already exists—and her dad is destroying it

Helping women?
Helping women?
Image: REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke
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In her latest bid to position herself as a supporter of women’s empowerment, first daughter and assistant to the US president Ivanka Trump told reporters this week in Berlin that she plans to start a “massive” fund to provide capital to women-owned small and mid-sized businesses around the globe. The proposed fund would unleash the “enormous untapped resource” of women and girls in developed and developing countries, she said.

The World Bank clarified Wednesday that the fund would not be managed by Ivanka personally, saying in a statement it would be “working with partners on the details around creating a facility for women’s economic empowerment,” and adding that “typically, the governance of facilities we manage is decided among donors, and the secretariat sits within and is administered by the World Bank Group.”

The World Bank did, however, thank Ivanka for her “leadership” on the “important issue.” The fund already has commitments from Canada, Germany, and a few Middle Eastern countries and corporations, according to Axios, which first reported the plan. The White House didn’t respond to questions on Ivanka’s role. 

Governments and companies backing women-owned businesses is a good idea. Such a good idea, in fact, that US and global agencies have already been doing it for many years through programs in the State Department, USAID, and the United Nations. These efforts are now in peril, however, because president Donald Trump plans to drastically slash the US agencies’ budgets, as well as US funding for third parties.

Decimating USAID

Trump’s proposed budget would decimate the US Agency for International Development, known as USAID, the 55-year-old foreign aid agency created by president John F. Kennedy that funds everything from clean electricity to women’s health programs in 222 countries. The agency, which currently employs nearly 4,000 US people and as least as many foreign ones, could be reduced so much it would be folded into the State Department, Foreign Policy reported this week. Economic aid to dozens of countries would be completely eliminated, according to a State Department budget document provided by Foreign Policy.

“They are damaging the institution that would run the programs that Ivanka wants to make a hallmark” of her participation in the White House, said Andrew S. Natsios, a professor at the George H. W. Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, and the administrator for USAID under president George W. Bush.

Among the countries where funding would be completely eliminated is Sri Lanka, where a long-standing program to increase women’s economic participation has trained women entrepreneurs who started a fish processing plant, and others who sell  handmade palm bags and baskets.

Sri Lankan woman with a hand-woven palm basket, 2015.
Sri Lankan woman with a hand-woven palm basket, 2015.
Image: US AID/Wendy van Leeuwen

The funding for female entrepreneurs selling solar lamps in India would be also be entirely eliminated, and funding would be cut nearly 50% in Tajikistan, where USAID helps women fighting to keep their land.

The idea of bringing in private money to invest in women alongside  government aid also nothing new. One program that the Trump budget would wipe out completely at USAID is the “global development alliance,” which was started in 2001 to handle  private, corporate, and outside NGO money, and has grown into the world’s largest public-private partnership. It has worked with Microsoft, Exxon Mobile, and others, to fund $19 billion worth of projects, including women-backed businesses. Three-quarters of that money comes from private sources.

While the proposed Trump budget isn’t expected to pass exactly as is, USAID staffers are already gearing up for serious trims. The top position at the agency hasn’t been filled by the Trump administration, meaning the agency has no one to advocate for it at the White House or in Congress as the budget is considered.

State, the UN, and the SBA

USAID is not the only agency helping women that Trump has targeted so far. Trump also plans to completely eliminate the State Department’s 22-year-old Office of Global Women’s Issues, which focuses on gender equality and women’s economic empowerment, cutting its $8 million budget to zero.

Trump has already slashed $32.5 million in US donations to the United Nations Population Fund, about half of what the US donated last year. The fund focuses on preventing unwanted pregnancies and maternal health in 150 countries, two of the biggest determinants of whether women can work outside the home and contribute to their local economies. A 2012 study found that access to oral contraception was responsible for 1/3 of women’s wage gains since the 1960s.

At home, the Trump budget proposes cutting $42 billion from the Small Business Administration. While that’s only a 5% reduction, the cuts would trim “micro-lending” programs by 20%. The SBA micro-lending program specifically targets (pdf) women, low-income borrowers, veterans, and minorities, providing them with loans of up to $50,000 to start their own businesses.

And Trump also signed a law this month that would allow US states to withhold funding from Planned Parenthood, which provides birth control and health care services to five million patients a year. Birth control helps women advance their careers and their education, numerous polls in the US found.

Clinton Foundation comparisons

Ivanka’s potential involvement in a global fund for women has also raised questions about conflicts of interest. Raising money for the fund from corporations and foreign governments, while working as a White House employee, could be problematic, ethics experts said.

Her possible involvement bears some similarities to one mission of the Clinton Foundation. The foundation raised money from public and private sources to “empower girls and women to participate more fully in the social and economic life of their communities by expanding access to education and training, supporting women farmers and entrepreneurs, promoting economic opportunity and job creation, and improving health outcomes.” Hillary Clinton resigned from the Clinton Foundation when she was named Secretary of State, to avoid conflicts of interest.