WASHINGTON - Experts calling for changes in the U.S. foreign aid system got a sharp reminder Tuesday on Capitol Hill from representatives of half the world's population: put women at the center of efforts to improve lives in developing countries.
A growing consensus around the need to put a new face on Washington's 40-year-old Foreign Assistance Act -- including the creation of a cabinet-level post for Global and Human Development -- has drawn the attention of organizations dedicated to improving the lot of women around the world.
Yolanda Richardson, president of the Center for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA), told Hill staffers and others that implementing policies that recognize the vital role women play in poor communities is the best way to "improve the quality and effectiveness of our global development assistance."
The briefing was co-sponsored by CEDPA and seven Congresswomen, and highlighted the work of women activists in Angola, Egypt, and Nigeria who described how their efforts have changed women's lives and, in so doing, improved the conditions of entire communities.
The three women described a variety of health, conflict resolution, and job training projects in their countries, aimed largely at empowering women in regions of the world where they have traditionally been powerless, both in their homes and in the larger society.
In Nigeria, said Nsekpong Udoh of Community Partners for Development, "until women are empowered economically they can't afford to become involved in politics; they remain invisible. So we provide a lot of microcredit."
In Angola, the focus is on peace-building and conflict resolution following the country's 30-year civil war. Cesaltina Nunda of the group Angola 2000 said women played an instrumental role in finding and handing over weapons after the war.
"Even though the war is over and we have collected many weapons and helped local communities resolve many conflicts, we cannot stop now," Nunda said. "Talking about violence is a process, and it can't be resolved in a year or two."
Humanitarian groups argue that economic and social development, too, is a lengthy process, but the U.S. government's aid efforts have become increasingly intertwined with political and military agendas and timeframes that focus too much on results sought by Washington and too little on the needs of those who receive development aid.
"Development doesn't work that way," said Sam Worthington, president of InterAction. "You have to sit down with people and see what they need. You need time and flexibility" to do the job right. InterAction is an association representing 168 U.S. nonprofit groups focused on the world's poor and most vulnerable people.
CEDPA's Richardson agrees with those calling for a new approach to foreign aid, but is convinced that unless new policies and strategies place a special focus on women, they will fail to address the very basic issue of poverty reduction in developing countries.
When development projects strengthen women's ability to improve their lives, she stressed, they also have a positive impact on children, families, and communities. This is what makes aid effective and sustainable, two of its most important goals.
The work being done by the three organizations represented at the briefing, which all work in partnership with external providers of foreign aid, is a model Richardson would like to see followed.
The issues addressed in each country reflect urgent national and community needs -- for employment opportunities in Egypt, health in Nigeria, and peace-building in Angola -- and in each case women are trained to become decision makers and actors in the development process.
© 2008 One World