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Ritu Sharma Headshot

Time To Make U.S. Foreign Assistance Work -- for Women and Men

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A year into the new Administration, there are hopeful signs that Washington is serious about elevating global development to be the third pillar of U.S. foreign policy, alongside diplomacy and defense. A year after being elected on the promise of elevating global development efforts and doubling foreign assistance, the Obama Administration is in the midst of overhauling these non-military aspects of U.S. global engagement to meet 21st century challenges. We now finally have a real shot at getting U.S. foreign assistance programs to work more effectively, and to benefit both women and men.

This is crucial for women like Betilde, whom I met in rural Nicaragua. Providing simple meals for her family is usually a struggle. Rising at 5am, she feeds her husband and five children, does laundry by hand, and tends to the family's livestock all before leaving for work. For income, Betilde farms tomatoes and other produce on a plot of land that she rents with other women in her community. Despite so much hard work, Betilde remains one of the billion people in the world struggling to survive on less than a dollar a day. The majority of the bottom billion -- about 829 million -- are women.

New global challenges such as climate change, rising food and energy costs, and HIV/AIDS all undermine efforts to combat poverty in developing countries and must be better addressed. But for this to happen, our outdated foreign assistance system must be reformed to meet the needs of a changing world. The investments we make through our international programs more than pay for themselves, not only in enabling women like Betilde and her family lift themselves out of poverty, but in earning our nation enormous global goodwill and enabling Americans to partner with others to solve common global problems.

Just as importantly, reform must enable U.S. foreign assistance to better address the unique barriers women like Betilde face. Integrating gender across all assistance programs means designing them so that they reach both men and women - which does not happen most of the time. Investing in women goes well beyond the individual, as women reinvest in their children, families and communities. Programs simply will not do as well as they could without ensuring that women as well as men benefit. Rajiv Shah, the new head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) committed to addressing this, making the point during his recent Senate confirmation hearing that "... effective gender integration is often the difference between success and failure of a broad variety of development investments."

The White House is currently working on a Presidential Study Directive on development, a whole-of-government review of how our development programs work, so that the work of reform can begin. Both Houses of Congress have pending legislation to start the process of updating and overhauling all of U.S. foreign assistance. There's more momentum than there has been in a generation to elevate development and overhaul U.S. assistance so it can do more of what it does well: send girls to school, help eradicate infectious diseases and provide clean drinking water to far-flung communities. Reform is also essential to eliminate waste and duplication at this time of economic distress. But our government has many, many pressing priorities both at home and abroad, and the needs of the world's poorest often slip below the radar.

To ensure that the voices of the millions of Betildes around the world are not forgotten, the entire international development community, coordinated by the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN), is asking thousands of Americans to sign on to a petition to our government asking for the U.S. to give development a strong voice in U.S. foreign policy decisions and to reform our assistance to alleviate global poverty and disease. The petition will be delivered to the White House and show our elected representatives that even as we escalate our military involvement in Afghanistan, Americans care about investments that help people living in poverty worldwide.

Take a minute to sign it here. It is vital to the future of the millions of women and girls that one of those petition signatures is yours.

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