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Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama hosted a White House Summit on Global Development to map the future of U.S. development efforts. The meeting took place just as the United Nations has begun to measure progress toward the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, an ambitious set of goals to eradicate poverty adopted by the United States and 192 other nations last year. As development leaders assess how to meet these goals and improve U.S. foreign assistance, they ought to elevate a priority that has long been marginalized: advancement for women and girls, which is chronically underfunded and lags far behind when compared with other development objectives.
The gender gap in development assistance persists despite a substantial body of evidence confirming that investment in women yields high returns on poverty eradication and economic growth. Research demonstrates, for example, that reducing barriers to women’s economic participation decreases poverty and increases GDP. Promoting gender equality also enhances food security: a study by the Food and Agriculture Organization shows that equalizing women’s access to productive resources increases agricultural output and could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 150 million. In addition, improving women’s health has demonstrable economic effects: access to family planning, for instance, helps fuel economic growth, and increased female educational attainment not only raises household income but also lowers national health expenses and rates of infant and child mortality.
Despite the significant link between investment in women and girls and sustainable development, official development assistance to support gender equality efforts has been remarkably low. Under the UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG) framework that preceded the 2030 agenda, funding from major donor countries to advance gender equality was largely confined to the areas of maternal health and primary education. Left out were other priorities such as women’s legal rights, economic empowerment, family planning, and domestic violence prevention. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimated that investment in gender equality by member nations composed only five percent of aid flows in 2012 and 2013—dramatically lower than was funding for other development sectors. And in some areas, such as preventing violence against women, funding actually declined between 1995 and 2011.
Unsurprisingly, over the past two decades, measurable progress for women globally has been confined to areas supported by development funding, such as health and education. Between 1995 and 2015, maternal mortality rates fell by nearly half, and the gender gap in primary education virtually closed on a global level, demonstrating that rapid advancement for women is possible with sufficient investment. However, in areas in which funding levels remained stagnant or decreased—including women’s economic participation, leadership, and freedom from violence—the status of women remained largely unchanged. In fact, evidence suggests that overall progress toward poverty reduction masked setbacks for women in some areas: in Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, the ratio of women to men living in poverty increased from 1997 to 2012, despite declining net poverty rates for the region.
Failure to address persistent gender inequality causes economic inefficiency and perpetuates poverty and instability.In contrast, for the past 20 years, many other critical development priorities—such as health, education, and sanitation—have benefited from substantial donor investment, often in the form of dedicated pooled financing mechanisms, which allow donors to combine and coordinate aid resources. These multilateral tools provide considerable capital to support country-led program design, reduce bureaucracy and reporting requirements, accelerate knowledge transfer, increase transparency, mobilize private finance, and improve predictable allocation of aid to countries most in need.
In many instances, U.S. leadership has been instrumental. For example, Washington provided the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria—which raises nearly $4 billion for health programs each year and is credited with lowering rates of malaria deaths in Africa for the first time in a generation—with its founding contribution. The United States has been the program’s single largest donor. The United States has also served as a top government donor to Gavi, the successful global vaccine alliance, since its inception in 2000, providing approximately 10 percent of its funding to date.
Data suggest that pooled funds can accelerate progress toward development targets—and these mechanisms constitute an increasingly significant share of the development financing landscape. The proportion of bilateral aid for health, for example, dropped from 85 percent in 1990 to 45 percent today, with pooled financing mechanisms filling much of the gap. Given such trends, development goals that lack a dedicated funding entity—such as Sustainable Development Goal 5, which is focused on achieving gender equality—could be left behind.
As long as advancing gender equality is considered ancillary to poverty reduction, efforts at sustainable development will be hampered. To help close the gender gap in development financing and further U.S. interests in economic growth, the U.S. government should spearhead a new international fund to advance the status of women and girls. A pooled financing mechanism would receive contributions from multiple financial partners—including other governments, multilateral organizations, and the private and philanthropic sectors—to consolidate funds and ensure adequate investment in promising approaches.
Critics may allege that this strategy is too costly or that donors have grown tired of traditional multilateral funding mechanisms, some of which struggle to raise money in the current economic climate. To be sure, establishing a new development fund will require initial investment, but employing an innovative financing structure will increase the availability of resources and the diversity and number of potential partners. The costs of inaction are also significant: failure to address persistent gender inequality causes economic inefficiency and perpetuates poverty and instability. Because closing the gender gap in development financing will advance U.S. interests, the United States should lead the world to increase international financing for gender equality. Moreover, doing so would also send a powerful signal to the world that we cannot solve our most pressing challenges by leaving half the world’s population behind.