International Women's Health and Soft Power

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For the 2017 fiscal year, the U.S. State Department requested approximately $42.4 billion in international aid and assistance, with $8.6 billion reserved for global health organizations.  It’s certainly a significant number and plays a noteworthy role in how the U.S. crafts their position as a global leader.  This figure often invites criticism from fiscal conservatives and those who believe that the U.S. should not be so generous with its finances; however, the portion spent on global aid is actually only about 1% of the national budget.

The U.S. takes advantage of its seemingly altruistic global health programs to promote their “soft power” internationally. Soft power, a term originated by Joseph Nye, refers to the process of influencing other people to achieve a desired outcome. Soft power involves attracting people to a country’s beliefs and values, which will then make said people friendlier towards the country’s goals and actions globally.  This understandably plays a critical role in how foreign policy is shaped, as conventional hard power strategies, like economic and military might, are costlier and less effective. With international aid to women’s health organizations, the U.S. promotes its agenda and values, which, at its best, can include greater gender equality and respect for women’s rights.

Communities in Sub-Saharan Africa have been a large recipient of female health-focused aid. These programs are reported to address gender barriers, which in turn, can lead to the improvement of overall development outcomes. UNAIDS, which pioneered AIDS prevention programs across Africa, signified a major step in international health policy and resulted in quality of life improvement for women and children. In Latin America, U.S. global health aid has funded family planning programs, resulting in a 70% decline in infant mortality rates, as well as a 41% reduction in maternal mortality. In Haiti, U.S. assistance funds programs to prevent gender-based violence and promote gender equality. Such development programs work to situate the U.S. as a key ally in the development of a nation.

The current U.S. Presidential administration plans to cut U.S. international aid by 28%, which will not only devastate those on the receiving end of aid, particularly women, but will also cripple U.S. soft power.

U.S. global health aid attempts to project soft power in order to increase the U.S.’s positive image abroad, therefore enhancing the U.S.’s stability without the use of force - though it is important to note that the use of force is still a reality. Women’s health is a cornerstone of this soft power policy. According to USAID, “when women are educated and can earn and control income, infant mortality declines, child health and nutrition improve, population growth slows, economies expand, and cycles of poverty are broken." Such benevolent outcomes are simultaneously shadowed by an ulterior agenda, as these programs are also reported to create U.S. influenced “inclusive political institutions [which] foster system stability and encourage long-term development." From a security perspective, greater U.S. activity in a state will also increase cooperation from the local population and the national leader, critical to the process of countering violent extremism.  While there are clear benefits to health aid, it is likewise important to note that often policies enacted in the name of gender equality are co-opted to preserve the U.S.’s dominating reach.

Moving forward, policymakers need to examine the broader goals of women’s health aid when implementing policy and assigning budgetary goals. The current U.S. Presidential administration plans to cut U.S. international aid by 28%, which will not only devastate those on the receiving end of aid, particularly women, but will also cripple U.S. soft power. By viewing such assistance through the narrow lens of fiscal conservatism, policymakers lose sight of the influential role and underlying benefits to such aid.  In a haphazard attempt to reestablish the U.S.’s global power by enhancing the military budget and cutting the aid budget, the reality is that the very opposite will occur.  International women’s health aid needs to continue to be part of this strategy not only to increase women’s rights, strengthen economies, and enhance stability (all important objectives), but also as a tool to maintain U.S. strength globally.


Erica DeKranes is the Assistant Director of the Coalition for Peace Action in Princeton, NJ.  Follow her on Twitter: @ericadekranes