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US Development Policy


The Trump administration’s Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative (W-GDP) is just over a year old. Its anniversary presents an opportunity to take stock of progress to date and reflect on how W-GDP can be strengthened going forward. If adequately resourced and evidence-based in its implementation, W-GDP could meaningfully improve the lives of women in low- and middle-income countries by expanding their economic opportunities. But at present, W-GDP runs the risk of becoming too narrow in scope to realize impact at scale. The new W-GDP Index and recently introduced authorizing legislation appear to be further proof of a diminished agenda—but there’s an opportunity to turn this trend around. To start, W-GDP and the legislation authorizing it should adopt a more evidence-based, comprehensive approach to examining the diverse constraints preventing women’s equal economic participation.

Starting with a worthy goal

Promoting women’s economic empowerment in low- and middle-income countries is a laudatory objective. Though we’ve seen significant improvements in women and girls’ health and education since the launch of the Millennium Development Goals back in 2000, women’s economic opportunities have been much slower to improve. Big gaps remain in labor force participation, entrepreneurship, pay, and advancement within the workforce, and addressing these gaps offers opportunities for big payoffs—for women themselves, their families, their communities, and their countries. All of this to say: I am supportive of W-GDP’s focus on women’s economic empowerment. It’s an issue that rigorous evidence suggests global development actors must prioritize, and one with bipartisan support in the US Congress, reflected in the passage of the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act in 2019.

Of course, a focus on women’s economic empowerment should not, as it has under the Trump administration, come at the expense of complementary—and in fact essential—investments that support women’s health, sexual and reproductive rights, and broader gender equality. As my colleagues Grant Miller, Charles Kenny, and others have noted, the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to the overall foreign aid budget run the risk of undermining W-GDP’s effectiveness, not to mention risking the lives of people in US aid recipient countries around the world.

An increasingly funneled approach

Even within the lane of women’s economic empowerment, there is growing cause for concern surrounding W-GDP. In the months since women’s economic empowerment was articulated as the focus of the initiative, the goals of the initiative have been increasingly narrowly defined. At its outset, W-GDP was designed around three pillars: (1) women prospering in the workforce, (2) women succeeding as entrepreneurs, and (3) women enabled in the economy. The initial broad framing of Pillar 3, also reflected in the December 2019 Presidential Memorandum on Addressing Legal and Societal Barriers to Women’s Global Development and Prosperity, emphasizes addressing “factors that affect women’s ability to reach their economic potential, including applicable laws, regulations, policies, practices, and social and cultural norms,” including “disproportionate burdens of unpaid care, gender-based violence and abuse, [and] underinvestment in education.” But the new W-GDP Index—as well as recently introduced authorizing legislation—appear confined to tackling a limited subset of legal provisions that discriminate against women.

The index, released at the initiative’s one-year anniversary, ranks countries on five subsets of indicators drawn from the World Bank’s Women, Business, and the Law database: those on accessing institutions (e.g., courts), building credit, owning and managing property, traveling freely, and removing restrictions on employment. These same categories of laws are reflected in the Senate version of the Women’s Global Empowerment, Development, and Prosperity Act. But both the index and the legislation exclude other legal restrictions compiled by Women, Business, and the Law, including those on equal pay, legal rights in marriage and parenthood, and pensions. There is no explicit discussion of why some indicators are prioritized over others, and why some are ignored altogether.

Why emphasize only certain legal rights?

The five areas prioritized by the index are where the US itself is performing well. The United States has a perfect score of 100 on the W-GDP index, whereas its overall Women, Business, and the Law score is 91.3, placing it below 34 other countries in the rankings due to its lower scores on equal pay, parental support, and pensions.

Prioritizing legal rights the US already affords women and men equally could be defensible if it was also supported by evidence. Are the categories W-GDP prioritizes more predictive of at least some dimensions of women’s economic empowerment than other indicators? For instance, do restrictions on women’s ability to equally obtain a passport or access jobs in certain sectors cause (or at least correlate with) improved economic outcomes more so than access to parental or pension benefits? Statistical analyses that inform other gender equality-focused indices (e.g., the OECD’s Social Institutions and Gender Index) allow for this type of discussion. But this statistical analysis is lacking from the materials describing the W-GDP index’s underlying methodology.

Let's say that over the next several years, countries remove the legal restrictions the index focuses on, and every country achieves the perfect score of 100 that the United States—and 46 other countries—currently have. This wouldn’t mean that gender discrimination has been eliminated under the law for all countries, or even that the most harmful kinds of legal restrictions have been abolished. The index is providing just a snapshot of some laws—and a seemingly arbitrary set.

So then how useful is the tool?

My colleague Mayra Buvinic and Data2X’s Eleanor Carey have written about what’s needed to make a good index. Here’s my take on how the W-GDP index stacks up:

Criteria W-GDP Index
Grounded in a solid conceptual framework No
Simplicity of design + ease of interpretation Yes
Underlying data is readily available Yes
Uses sound methodology and sound judgment No
Has a clear purpose Yes
Offers new insights No

The positives

First, with its singular focus on legal discrimination against women across five areas, the index’s design is simple, and its results are easily interpreted. Countries either have laws on the books that discriminate in the ways the index highlights, or they don’t. There’s little risk of misinterpreting the index’s design.

Second, the underlying data for the W-GDP index is readily available. As mentioned, every indicator included in the index is drawn from the World Bank’s Women, Business, and the Law data, which has collected data on gender discrimination under the law for the past decade.

Finally, the index has a clear purpose—and an important one. Tied to the W-GDP initiative, the index is unlikely to sit on a shelf. Instead, it will likely be put to use informing US policy dialogues with countries whose scores can be improved and identifying areas of legal reform that should be prioritized.

The negatives

But there are two sides of the coin on each of the criteria referenced above. Because the index just pulls from Women, Business, and the Law, it doesn’t have much additional insight to offer in reflecting where legal restrictions on women exist and where to place the greatest emphasis. Its conceptual framework and methodology also fall short because the index lacks an underlying rationale for why its selected areas of legal discrimination are included while others are not. Because the W-GDP index will likely be used to inform important policy conversations, it is all the more important that the index prioritizes key binding constraints holding back women’s economic empowerment—the ones governments should concentrate on addressing, and the United States, in turn, should prioritize in policy dialogues with foreign governments.

What’s been left out?

Research suggests the additional categories encompassed by the Women, Business, and the Law but left out of the W-GDP index are important. We see evidence of the “motherhood penalty”—the fact that women, when they have children, are more likely to face obstacles in advancing within the workforce and earning equal pay, in large part because social norms and surrounding policies push women to bear disproportionate care work responsibilities. There’s also evidence of gender gaps not just in pay, but in overall wealth. Promoting women’s economic empowerment, if done in an evidence-based and comprehensive way, will need to consider support for older women, including (but not exclusively) through pensions, in light of gender gaps in wealth.

Notably, neither of these constraints just come down to laws on the books. Especially in low- and middle-income countries, mandated parental leave benefits, for example, are inapplicable to the vast majority of working parents, many of whom work informally, as subsistence farmers and micro entrepreneurs. But more can be done from a policy perspective, and in partnership with the private sector, to extend childcare support to working parents, and in turn allow for them to balance caregiving responsibilities and paid work.

How can the W-GDP index—and the whole initiative—improve?

The introduction of legislation authorizing W-GDP, led by Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC)—and that of a House counterpart supported by Representatives Michael McCaul (R-TX), Ann Wagner (R-MO), Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA), and Lois Frankel (D-FL)—presents an opportunity to ensure the initiative's ambitious mandate of benefiting 50 million women is met with the tools needed for its achievement: rigorous evidence and a more comprehensive understanding of the obstacles women encounter preventing their economic participation and advancement. To do so, the current draft bill will need to (1) strengthen the rationale behind the legal restrictions it prioritizes and (2) do a better job of acknowledging and addressing the array of constraints women face in the workplace and broader society.

The Millennium Challenge Corporation offers a strong model for how this can be done. My colleague Sarah Rose and I previously discussed MCC’s efforts to measure its impact as it leans on potential partner governments to reform discriminatory laws—and offered some lessons for how their approach can inform W-GDP. Now MCC is going another step farther. With W-GDP positioning women’s economic empowerment as a core policy priority, MCC has been encouraged to further integrate the issue into its own operations. In partnership with researchers at Brookings, MCC recently took a look at its constraints to growth analysis, a prerequisite for any of its compacts, to determine how it can better reflect gender inequality as a constraint to economic growth, and thus a priority for MCC’s investments. The paper asks questions about how a range of gender inequalities—from gaps in secondary schooling to access to finance to unpaid care burdens—relate to women’s economic empowerment and to growth more broadly.  

Previous W-GDP investments also serve as a strong starting point to be built upon. In South Africa, W-GDP is supporting the establishments of 1,000 women-owned childcare centers, simultaneously creating jobs and reducing unpaid care work burdens. In Ghana, USAID and the Alaffia Alliance are taking Pillar 1’s “workforce development” focus past skills training to the creation of jobs and market linkages, both critical to ensure investments translate into improved economic outcomes for women.

Future W-GDP investments, and the legislation authorizing it, should model these examples of a more comprehensive approach, one that starts by examining the full range of constraints women face preventing their equal economic participation, productivity, and well-being. Priority-setting from there should rely on rigorous research identifying the most binding constraints women face and policies and interventions proven to address them.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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