The U.S. gives foreign aid to women's rights abusers despite earmarking funds to help women

Money should be conditioned on countries' cleaning up their acts, just as domestic grant recipients are barred from discriminating on the basis of gender.
Image: A demonstrator chants during a march for International Women's Day in Madrid on March 8, 2018.
A demonstrator chants during a march for International Women's Day in Madrid on March 8, 2018.Pablo Cuadra / Getty Images file
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By Zoe Zorka Blechen

World leaders gathered for the opening of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week, making it a good time to think critically about the billions of dollars that the U.S. government doles out to the rest of the world — and whether it’s using this money wisely.

In particular, it’s an opportune moment to address the double standard in how carefully the United States monitors taxpayer dollars spent on domestic projects and how carelessly they’re shelled out to countries that often don’t share our values or allegiances.

The U.S. gives out massive sums of aid to countries that rank among the worst in their treatment of women and girls.

The disconnect is no starker than in the arena of gender equity. The U.S. gives out massive sums of aid to countries that rank among the worst in their treatment of women and girls and disregard for their rights. It’s time that foreign aid was conditioned on these places cleaning up their acts, just as federal dollars are only given to institutions that adhere to standards prohibiting discrimination.

As one of the wealthiest countries in the world, our government doles out approximately $49.87 billion in economic and military assistance to countries around the world in any given fiscal year. Much of this money is earmarked for improving the economic, educational and health conditions of women in these (largely developing) countries, yet it often remains in the hands of corrupt dictators or equally corrupt nongovernmental organizations.

While politicians hoarding and mismanaging funding is a universal problem, many of the recipient countries are not just committing financial atrocities — they are also committing atrocities against their own women.

Since 2001, the U.S. government has given billions of dollars in aid to countries that are repeat historical offenders for serious women’s rights violations. Among them are Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen — nations that have recently received at least $1 billion in U.S. aid while scoring less than 0.6 on the World Bank’s Global Gender Gap Index. (A score of 1 means a country has total parity between men and women on 14 different indicators.)

Afghanistan, Iraq, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mali are not included in the Gender Gap Index because they refuse to supply the World Bank with the necessary data. But the abuses in these countries, which also receive more than $1 billion from the U.S., are well documented elsewhere.

For example, the U.S. committed $837 million in aid to Pakistan in 2017, yet the U.S. has done little to nothing to hold the country accountable for the offenses committed against its women. Human Rights Watch, an independent watchdog group, notes that “violence against women and girls — including rape, so-called honor killings, acid attacks, domestic violence and forced marriage — remains a serious problem.”

Honor killings, jailings and similar punishments regularly occur in other recipient countries, specifically those in the Middle East and North Africa. Yet, American administration after administration, Republican and Democrat, have continued to open their wallets for these countries.

While the U.S. has additional interests at play in giving money to Pakistan and other aid recipients — often out of concern for regional security and preventing local wars — this still doesn’t justify giving aid without careful requirements for recipients. And an in-depth academic study by the University of Utah found numerous examples of the misuse of military aid, which prevents the U.S. from achieving its security objectives in any case.

This doesn’t mean the U.S. should cease to provide assistance. When used correctly, foreign aid can be a crucial component in helping economically developing countries become self-sufficient by fostering stability, promoting economic growth and reducing poverty, not to mention boosting America’s influence and image.

One of the most well-known success stories is the assistance the U.S. gave to Japan following World War II. Less familiar is the fact that “promoting greater rights and privileges for women” was one of the key tenets of Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur’s rehabilitation plan. Having recovered from the devastation of that conflict, today Japan boasts a steadily improving World Bank gender gap ranking, as well as one of the highest female literacy rates and life expectancies in the world.

In addition to using success stories as blueprints for real change, Washington need look no further for a road map on providing this aid effectively than its own law prohibiting sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal assistance. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination based on sex in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance, so all federal agencies that provide grants or assistance are required to adhere to this standard. Title IX funding stipulations have been a vital part of improving women’s rights domestically. The same requirements should be applied to the funding intended to benefit women abroad.

There are also international models for holding people accountable, as Jennifer Bradshaw, program officer for Women PeaceMakers at the University of San Diego, points out. “There’s some powerful existing platforms, institutions, laws, mandates, policies that are in place that the U.S. can nod to. It doesn’t even mean creating it from scratch,” she says, adding that one example is the U.N. Security Council resolution addressing the special impact of war on women, which could be used as benchmarks for measurable improvements.

Washington need look no further for a road map on providing this aid effectively than its own law prohibiting sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal assistance.

Indeed, the U.S. (and the U.N.) have tried to develop plans to advance women’s initiatives abroad. It’s just that few if any conditions for aid are explicitly laid out in official documentation, particularly when it comes to the treatment of women, and thus its leverage is greatly reduced. And other, commendable efforts to improve conditions for women, such as 2011’s unveiling of the first U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security — a governmentwide effort to use diplomatic, defense and development resources for the benefit of women worldwide, suffer from a similar lack of conditions or benchmarks that contribute to uneven results and accountability.

With the right policies, though, real change is possible, as evidenced in the example of post-war Japan. But change is not easy. Improving Japan’s values and treatment of women took more than writing a check, and in fact is still a work in progress. It was a concerted effort involving numerous agencies and policymakers who crafted lasting policies that held Japan accountable. That same dedication is still needed.

The opening of the U.N. General Assembly is the perfect time for the U.S. to start making real change to its foreign assistance policies to improve women’s lives around the world.