By Catarina Santos
Visitors to Afghanistan today might see a visible sign of the nation’s progress toward gender equality – women walking to university. While women were not allowed to attend university under the Taliban, today around 26,000 women participate in higher education. However, despite significant improvements in the past decade, critical challenges still impact Afghan women’s ability to fully participate in society. Lack of female empowerment is still a barrier to sustainable development in Afghan society, economy, and governance.
An upcoming opportunity to discuss further developments will be the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan, which will be co-hosted by the Afghan government and the European Union in October. This conference will be a chance for the Afghan government to share their vision, establish plans for the future, and discuss how the international community can help. To achieve the goal of equal access for women, Afghan leadership will need to first understand the status quo of women in Afghanistan and consider two key hindrances to gender equality. First, female government officials are figureheads instead of agents of change. Second, there is an empowerment gap between those women sitting in governmental offices and the majority that is still constrained by traditional conservatism. After looking at these challenges, stakeholders must decide what opportunities lie ahead? What else can be done to advance women’s integration and recognition?
By Helen Moser
The assumption of many Microfinance Institutions (MFIs) is that providing microfinance to women is not only a social imperative – it is also one that may yield higher returns to capital, as women are typically more credit-constrained than men due to their limited access to formal financial services. Women in developing countries are 20 percent less likely than men to have access to formal credit. Additionally, women tend to be poorer than men on average and have less collateral to offer.
MFIs rose in popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and many MFIs like the Grameen Bank began strategies of lending primarily to women that continue today. Over 80 percent of the poorest MFI clients worldwide (those who live on less than $1.25/day) are women. MFIs and their supporters often claim women make better use of loaned or granted funds than men do. But in actuality, microfinance may not be an effective solution to raise women’s business profits from microenterprise, nor their incomes. Continue reading
By Ariel Gandolfo & Miguel Eusse
The United States’ multi-billion dollar War on Drugs in Afghanistan and Colombia has failed. Afghanistan supplies 80 percent of the world’s opium, which is derived from poppies and used to make heroin, while Colombia is home to around 43 percent of the global coca supply. Despite continued efforts to crack down on the production of heroin and cocaine in these countries, poppy cultivation in Afghanistan rose 36 percent between 2012 and 2013, to record levels. In Colombia, approximately 2.6 million acres of coca were sprayed with toxins between 2000 and 2007, yet cocaine production rose during the same period, and more recently increased by 44 percent between 2013 and 2014.
In Colombia and Afghanistan, farmers grow coca and poppies because they are profitable, but also because there are no viable alternatives to earn a living. Governments are now realizing that criminalization and eradication programs are not enough, and they are changing strategies to foster alternative opportunities to drug cultivation. These new approaches are supported by multilateral and bilateral organizations such as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and USAID. Continue reading
By Elizabeth Melampy
A recent USAID study points out that 80 percent of employers in Southeast Asia want to hire more workers, but only 15 percent think education systems are adequately preparing the workforce for available jobs. This difference between employers’ needs and the workforce’s skills is known as a ‘skills gap,’ and workforce training programs are one of the best ways to minimize this gap. Donors and host country governments have leaned on STEM-AT (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, accounting, and tourism) training initiatives to meet these needs, to meet private sector demand, and to create more competitive economies.
In 2014, USAID established the ‘Connecting the Mekong through Education and Training’ (COMET) program to help meet these needs and help create a more competitive workforce in Southeast Asia. The five-year initiative works closely with the private sector to train students in 12 universities and 90 vocational centers across Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia in STEM-oriented programs to help secure employment in the region. USAID has organized workforce training in the past, but in the last five years has renewed efforts to build a workforce to meet the specific demands of the markets in developing regions. In addition, the initiative builds on the Obama administration’s ‘Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative’ (YSEALI) and the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) to enable job-ready graduates with practical education.
Students at Saigon International University in Vietnam.
For much of the 20th century U.S. foreign policy aimed, in the words of George Kennan, “to protect the security of the nation, by which is meant the continued ability of this country to pursue the development of its internal life without serious interference, or threat of interference, from foreign powers.” This approach continues to evolve as globalization increasingly ties the fate of the United States to the fates of other nations, and particularly those in the developing world. Engagement beyond our borders is now more critical than ever. The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 aimed to solidify the idea that the impetus behind foreign assistance, beyond any duty to help fellow human beings, is that a fairer and more prosperous world is in the interest of the U.S. and its citizens. Over a half century later, the Foreign Assistance Act is unwieldy, out of touch with many of today’s realities, and badly in need of an update.
President John F Kennedy signing the Foreign Assistance Act with Senators and Congressman looking on
Despite broad recognition that foreign assistance serves as a valuable and strategic foreign policy tool, its budget allocation remains small and disjointed. Resources are divided among many agencies operating independently in the international development sphere and there is a lack of data-driven analysis on how assistance dollars can best be spent. There have been a number of efforts to update the Foreign Assistance Act, including a high profile bill introduced by Representative Howard Berman in 2012. Unfortunately, these attempts have been unsuccessful, and core U.S. foreign assistance policy is still badly in need of a top to bottom review. Continue reading