Bretton Woods Project - Critical voices on the World Bank and IMF

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Gender and the IFIs

This topic area covers the ways and extent to which the international financial institutions address the differentiated impacts of their activities on women and men, boys and girls, in developing countries.  It includes official commitments and strategies, and internal and independent evaluations.

Gender and development

It is widely recognised that gender must be consistently taken into account in order for development and economic policies and practices to be equitable and effective.  A large majority of the world’s poor are women, because they face systematic discrimination in education and healthcare, employment and control of assets, and decision-making.  Gender equality is both a human right and a powerful force against poverty.  A 2010 report by the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) found that “in roughly 75 per cent of Bank operations, women … will participate less and benefit relatively less from project activities if the design does not mitigate such an impact.”

The Bretton Woods Project is committed to mainstreaming a rights-based approach to gender throughout its work. 

World Bank and gender

The World Bank adopted a gender mainstreaming strategy in 2001, which committed to conducting Country Gender Assessments in all borrower countries, and to integrating gender into Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP) and Joint Staff Assessments.  In 2007, A World Bank Group Action Plan: gender equality as smart economics was launched – a four-year plan regarding women’s access to land, agriculture, labour, infrastructure and financial services. Then Bank president Robert Zoellick announced a further six commitments in 2008, which aimed to improve gender mainstreaming across the Bank and in the private sector. 

However, the Bank’s approach and progress have been subject to criticism.  In 2010 an IEG report found that gender was not systematically integrated into high-level decision-making or across the Bank’s work, whilst US NGO Gender Action has argued that economic reforms promoted by the Bank, such as public sector downsizing, actually undermine gender equity. In 2003, for example, World Bank and IMF loans to Tanzania required partial privatisation of its water utility. According to a 2006 report by Gender Action, the resultant irregular service and price increases forced women and girls to walk longer distances to gather water or pay high prices to water vendors,. Gender Action advocates a rights-based approach to replace the Bank’s market-oriented perspective. 

In 2011 gender took centre stage at the Bank for the first time with the release of the 2012-13 World Development Report (WDR) dedicated to gender. The report’s more progressive elements include recognition of the need for national and global policy action to address gender inequality through legal reforms and increased investment in basic infrastructure and public services. Nonetheless, critics such as University of Kent gender expert, Kate Bedford (see Update 79), have identified a number of shortcomings in the WDR including a gendered definition of skill which devalues women’s work and a failure to problematise assumptions about the nature of households. Furthermore, the lack of reference to the Bank itself in the WDR reflects what Shahra Razavi of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) calls “historical amnesia” about the Bank’s inconsistent role in the struggle for gender equality (see Update 79), and suggests that the WDR may not have a significant impact on Bank policy.

IMF and gender

In 1999, both the Bank and IMF adopted a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper approach to concessional lending to heavily indebted countries. This approach includes a commitment to support the Millennium Development Goals, which specify gender equality as a major objective. . However, Christine Ahn and Kavita Ramdas, writing in Foreign Policy in Focus, have argued that “instead of reducing poverty, the trillion dollars of loans issued by the IMF have deepened poverty, especially for women who make up 70 per cent of the world’s poor”, whilst international NGO, ActionAid, has blamed IMF-imposed caps on public sector spending for adversely affecting public spending on girls’ education in developing countries.

The IMF tends to see women’s empowerment in terms of its instrumental value for other development priorities. In a speech on the IMF’s contribution to gender equality in 2003, Peter S. Heller, then deputy director of the IMF’s fiscal affairs department, explained that “improving the education, health, and income status of women is key to reducing the fertility rate, increasing labour productivity, and raising human capital. Women who have been deprived of basic education are also more likely to have difficulties in rearing healthy and productive children.” A March 2012 IMF paper on gender, Empowering women is smart economics returned to this theme, suggesting that gender equality can contribute to broader development goals in three ways: firstly, by increasing the productive capacity of women’s labour; secondly, by augmenting women’s power over household resources leading to greater investment in children; and finally, by giving women economic, political and social voice which they may use to demand public goods, such as water and sanitation.

However, the IMF’s ‘smart economics’ theory has had a limited impact on its policy making. Gender Action’s IFI Watcher Toolkit expresses concern that in the present global financial crisis “whilst low-income countries desperately need an influx of cash to cover significant financing shortfalls, history demonstrates that new IMF debt will deepen the feminisation of poverty and undermine gender equality”. For example, Gender Action predicts that the IMF will “force indebted governments to privatise public services, like health care and education, to help service debt”, which will increase the care burden of women in poor households.

Published: Tuesday 17th July 2012

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