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Nandini Oomman

Nandini Oomman

Posted: August 20, 2009 02:48 PM

Obama, Clinton: Elevating Women's Issues but Not Global Development?

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President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton deserve high marks for their efforts to promote enhanced rights and opportunities for women in developing countries. Clinton's persistent focus on raising women's issues in every African country she visited last week add oomph to early and commendable policy steps by the White House and the State Department (here, here, here). But something important is missing: a clear, strong, overarching American agenda for global economic growth and development.

This is the opposite of what the development community might have expected from reading Obama campaign position papers. Indeed, thoughtful advocates for the centrality of gender in development had expressed concern about the seeming neglect of women's issues (see here & here), rightly urging that these should be a key element of U.S. foreign assistance. Now, with the election dust long settled, the administration is providing plenty of rhetoric about female empowerment but has yet to take meaningful steps to offer a coordinated global development strategy -- or to put in place the necessary apparatus to implement one (see the increasingly bizarre failure to name an administrator to head USAID).

Although individual foreign aid programs, such as the MCC and PEPFAR may have good gender policies, at least in the case of PEPFAR practice often falls short. A CGD study and policy brief that I co-authored show much more needs to be done at PEPFAR to translate good policy into action and real returns on the ground. This is true not only for improved conditions for women, but also for broad-based economic growth and poverty reduction.

Meanwhile, the administration appears to be tackling the development in a piecemeal fashion; through separate pronouncements on global health, food security and women's rights. While all three initiatives are commendable and necessary, its not yet clear how the administration would fit these together into a coordinated global development strategy.

Secretary Clinton noted in her address on foreign policy last month "Our development agenda will also focus on women as drivers of economic growth and social stability." I have devoted my career to improved conditions for women, mainly because I am convinced that they are central to successful development. I'm also strongly in favor of investing in global health and food security. But I worry that by raising these single issue causes in the absence of a coherent development agenda they won't amount to much and will come tumbling down.