Statement by Representative Betty McCollum at USAID’s Celebration of International Women's Day

Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Women - A Driving Force for Economic Recovery

Good morning. It is an honor to be here to celebrate International Women's Day with a group of professionals whose work I respect and admire.

To the women and men of the U.S. Agency for International Development - thank you for all you do to promote the interests of our country while working to build a better world. You have my continued commitment to work in Congress to advance and invest in your mission and your success.

I want to thank Acting Administrator Alonzo Fulgham for the very warm welcome.

And, let me also acknowledge Katherine Blakeslee, the Director of the Office of Women in Development who is sponsoring today's event.

This is an exciting time in Washington. There is no lack of work to be done as we all know. As a country we face enormous challenges. And, as we work to meet the needs of the American people, we know the world is looking to our country for continued leadership.

This is why USAID's mission is so important. This agency does something unique, something our military and our diplomats are not well equipped to do - you execute a foreign assistance strategy that is rooted in an understanding of cultures, the complexities of local conditions, and the needs and hopes of families who lives are directly impacted and improved because of your work.

Today, women around the world are the beneficiaries of your work and the generous spirit of the American people. Mothers are alive, girls are in school, women's groups are giving micro-loans, grandmothers are able to support AIDS orphans, and women are campaigning for political office because of a shared vision to improve the lives of women.

As we celebrate International Women's Day let me re-introduce myself.

My name is Betty. I am a daughter. I am a sister. I am a mother. I am a friend and a neighbor, a teacher, an activist. I am also a congresswoman.

It is through the eyes of a woman and all my various roles that I see the world.

And, like all the women in this room, and in this world, we are the sum of our experiences from childhood through adolescences and adulthood. We carry with us our achievements and dreams.

We also remember the obstacles we have faced, not because of our skills, intellect or character, but because of our gender.

It is the obstacles we experience, whether subtle or systemic, that are difficult to forget … in part because we continue to encounter them - even in the United States. And, even as a congresswoman.

Fighting for gender equality is an important and continuous struggle. That is why in January the first piece of legislation Congress sent to President Obama was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to ensure equal pay for women in the workplace right here in America.

Working to ensure gender equality is important everywhere. And, today we celebrate "International Women's Day," but also re-commit ourselves to ensuring women and girls achieve their full potential and contribute their full power.

But unfortunately, gender inequality, discrimination, and exploitation and their destructive consequences on girls, women, families, and societies continue to exist across the globe. This reality not only harms individuals it retards development, perpetuates poverty, and too frequently excludes the talents of female citizens whose participation and contributions are essential to the success of every community and country.

This must change.

And while today is important, a one day celebration is not enough. Everyday needs to be recognized as a day in which the lives, rights, and well-being of women and girls are respected, promoted, and defended.

Men in places of authority and power must recognize that achieving social, economic and political development is only possible if women and girls are full and active participants in making decisions, accessing resources, and benefiting from the fruits of their own labor.

It is the power of women and their work that must be made a priority of the United States in not only in speeches and congressional resolutions, but our policies and the dollars we put behind those policies.

This is my ninth year in Congress and I have frequently met with many foreign ambassadors, some heads of state, and a fair number of ministers. Unfortunately, I cannot remember a single instance in which the focus of a meeting was about women and girls. Not a single meeting about improving their lives or investing more resources in their capacity - nothing. I've had lots of requests for more U.S. military assistance or funds promised under an MCC compact for infrastructure, but not women and girls.

Do you know why they don't ask for help?

Because improving the status of women and girls has not been a top policy or resource priority of the United States. Until our sisters around the world are made a priority, our foreign policy goals of fighting poverty, disease, and hunger, and promoting democracy, economic opportunity, and human rights will not be achieved.

Maximizing the enormous potential of women and girls to transform societies and economies will, I hope, become a top priority for the Obama Administration.

From the White House to the State Department to USAID to Congress - we need to be sending the message to leaders in the developing world that gender isn't just a project indicator or a niche development activity.

We need to do more than promote the role of women in development. We need to completely reframe the discussion because WOMEN ARE DEVELOPMENT. A commitment to ensuring the survival, safety, success, and full contributions of women and girls must re-shape our bilateral relationships and re-define our foreign assistance investments.

Here at home our citizens are struggling in the midst of this severe economic crisis.

I see it and hear it in Minnesota. Families are hurting and we need to get our economy turned around. In these difficult times promoting an increased investment in foreign assistance is not popular.

But it is what we need to do because our Nation's security is at risk. The national and economic security of the United States is directly linked to our ability to promote stability, end injustice, and expand economic opportunity across the globe.

The Director of National Intelligence has told Congress that instability due to the economic crisis has impacted 25% of the world's countries and this is the primary security threat for the United States in the near term.

The World Bank is estimating that this year the global economy will shrink for the first time since World War II and Bank President Robert Zoellick is calling for action by donor countries to "avoid social and political unrest" in poor countries.

To keep America secure, action is needed. President Obama recognizes this.

The President also recognizes that as the world's superpower we also need to be a "super partner" and I will work to support his agenda of expanded engagement and his efforts to increase the foreign assistance budget.

But additional resources will do little if steps are not taken to modernize foreign assistance both structurally and strategically. We need to be smarter about our investments and elevate the status of development to be equal with defense and diplomacy in practice, not just rhetoric.

Secretary Clinton and Secretary Gates are tremendous leaders. I look forward to the day when they have a counterpart seated at the cabinet table leading our Nation's international development strategy. As a nation, we need to invest in a development strategy that focuses on sustained commitments, measurable results, and greater yields in quality of life for every dollar of aid invested.

The global food security and economic crises are two disasters - man made and … both made primarily by men. The U.S. must share in the responsibility for these two crises since we as a nation are in large part responsible for designing and leading these global systems. Now we must play a significant role in finding solutions and leading the world back towards stability.

As you all know only too well, the global food crisis and economic crisis are exacerbating the pain and misery of a billion women, men, and children who already live in extreme poverty. For most of the world's poorest, hunger, illness, and deprivation constituted a daily crisis long before the food security or economic crisis stories appeared in the New York Times.

It is estimated that before the global food crisis 7 out of 10 of the world's hungry were already women and girls. It is worse now. Tens of millions more who have struggled to climb out of the rank of the poorest of the poor are falling backwards. Now with the added burden of the economic crisis everyday life for the poor is only more tenuous, harsh, and deadly.

So what should be done?

How about a long-term strategy, a generational strategy? Let us focus on girls from birth to 20 years and women between 20 to 40 years old. Let's dedicate a continuum of investments which can yield success for individuals, families, communities, and entire countries.

Let us start with investments in successful birth outcomes for moms and newborns and keep going by focusing on nutrition, water and sanitation, education, and delayed childbearing.

As girls transition to adulthood there must be an economic foundation for them to use their education, earn income, and stay healthy and productive - an adult continuum.

Whether it is through agriculture, microenterprise activities, or the labor market, by supporting women in their economic life we will ensure healthier children, stronger communities, and a measurable return on investment.

To unleash the full potential and power women have to contribute greater efforts are needed to promote violence free homes, to expand access to reproductive healthcare, and to increase participation in political decision making.

This concept of generational change is not far fetched. USAID is already making these types of investments and data shows success.

  • When we invest as a Nation in maternal survival we save mother's lives.
  • When we invest in girls' education we reduce poverty, improve health, and strengthen communities.
  • When we invest in women in agriculture we improve production, household nutrition, increase family income, and empower women as leaders.
  • When credit is available to women entrepreneurs they create wealth, create jobs and pay back their loans.
  • When we invest in training and educating women leaders we hear the voices of a new generation dedicated to the success of women, children and communities.

While the economic crisis is creating uncertainty worldwide, what is certain is that women in the world's poorest countries are positioned to be a driving force for development and economic transformation … if we make them a priority.

Let me give you an example.

A few years ago I spent a week in Tanzania - just me and Pam White, the USAID country director - visiting projects with a focus on women and children. Everywhere I went I saw incomes improving, children's health and educational status improving, and women leading because of the investments of the American people and the work of USAID. Project after project was impressive and successful.

The challenge in Tanzania and the challenge everywhere USAID works is to sustain the investment and make long-term change, generational change.

USAID and our development partners know what works. Now it is time to take projects to scale. We need big impacts and big results - transformational change. We have the strategies - we only need the political will and the commitment to dedicate the resources to women and girls.

Let me give you an example of where commitment and resources can make a big impact - agricultural development. Agricultural development has been divested and allowed to wither over the past twenty years. The failure to invest is an underlying cause of the global food crisis.

In Africa, women are the majority of farmers. Women produce more than men, yet they receive less than 10 percent of small farm credit and own just 1% of the land.

Some experts believe that household agricultural output in sub-Saharan Africa could increase between 10 to 20 percent if women had access to the same inputs currently allocated to men.

Women in Africa can be the key to reducing rural poverty, increasing nutritional status, and growing family income.

Let us align our priorities. If we invest in women and agricultural development we will help countries grow their own food and sell more food within regional markets. Incomes will increase as production increases.

We should be supporting expansion of extension activities, ag research, crop and livestock diversification, new technologies for grain storage, irrigation and soil improvement, and innovative financing mechanisms that benefit small holders and cooperatives.

And, we should make women farmers and producers an equal beneficiary with no less than 50% of our agricultural assistance targeted to them.

It is estimated that rural women produce half of the world's food and as much as 80% of the food in developing countries. Whether it is cows in Malawi, or cocoa replacing coca in Peru, or pomegranates in Afghanistan, women in agriculture are improving life for themselves, their children and their communities, and we need to increase our support for them.

Let me conclude by talking briefly about an issue that I care deeply about - keeping mothers healthy and their children.

Today I am excited to be introducing legislation to strengthen the U.S. commitment to child survival and maternal health. The Newborn, Child and Maternal Survival Act of 2009 has more than 30 bipartisan co-sponsors and authorizes a strategy, goals and activities to keep moms and their babies healthy.

I know making motherhood safe and keeping child alive is a global health priority for USAID, and I want to make it a priority for this Congress and the Obama Administration.

A few weeks ago I was in Peru. There I visited a maternal waiting house and watched as a women giving birth in a vertical delivery to a healthy baby - her fourth. She had a safe delivery because of the support of her family, her community, a great local health center, and international donors that responded to alarming maternal mortality rates by designing, funding, and implementing a coordinated, community-based strategy to keep moms and babies alive.

That new little Peruvian I saw being born, Daniel, enters a world filled with enormous challenges. To survive and thrive he needs his mom to be healthy and productive.

To meet the development challenges of the 21st Century we need Daniel's mom and every woman to be healthy and productive.

Whether it is in Peru, Pakistan or Paraguay - families, farms, factories, and the future are dependent upon the contributions and success of women.

The power of women is the world's greatest under-utilized resource and that has to change. That change needs to start right here at USAID. Let us send a message to the world that women are development and that everyday must be women's day for our international sisters.

Thank you for inviting me to join you this morning.

And, again, thank you for your important work.

Ronald Reagan Building, Washington, DC