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World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development - An Opportunity Both Welcome and Missed

7 Oct 2011

That the World Bank has devoted its 2012 flagship publication to the topic of gender equality is a welcome opportunity for widening the intellectual space. However, it is also a missed opportunity. By failing to engage seriously with the gender biases of macroeconomic policy agendas that define contemporary globalization, and by reducing social policy to a narrow focus on conditional cash transfers, the report is unable to provide a credible and even-handed analysis of the challenges that confront gender equality in the 21st century and appropriate policy responses for creating more equal societies.

This is the first time the World Bank has devoted its annual flagship publication to the topic of gender equality. Given the stature of the World Development Report and its influence on development debates, the 2012 edition is likely to attract the attention of numerous actors, both governmental and non-governmental. So what are we to make of the analysis and the messages that emerge from this report? Does it provide useful policy insights that can further the cause of gender justice, especially the interests of those women who find themselves on the lower rungs of our increasingly unequal and polarized societies?

To start with, a number of significant messages emerge from the report—significant because they are coming from the World Bank, and more specifically from the organization’s annual flagship publication, rather than being novel or cutting-edge in a more general sense.

First, those who have heard the World Bank always make the instrumental argument for gender equality will be pleased to know that this report underlines the intrinsic value of gender equality (without forgetting that it is also “smart economics”). Second, the attention to the intrinsic value of gender equality seems also to have triggered some interest in gender equality as a political project. Third, and importantly, going against the “growth is good for gender equality”–type of argument put forward by World Bank economists in the past, the report acknowledges that gender equality will not occur automatically as countries get richer. Fourth, attention is paid to the unequal division of unpaid domestic and care work between women and men.

Despite these positive features, which take the World Bank’s work on gender equality forward in important ways, there are a number of major gaps and problematic policy implications that require critical scrutiny.

First, despite the welcome attention to labour markets, employment issues and persistent gender-based segregation (chapter 5), the analysis of these timely issues falls short in several important respects.

Informality. Although WDR 2012 makes occasional reference to “the important challenges [that] remain for those outside formal employment” (p.267), there seems to be little recognition of the tremendous changes that have swept labour markets throughout the world, adversely affecting the security of workers. As research by the ILO and others has shown, informal employment tends to be a greater source of employment for women than for men in most developing regions, with women often concentrated in the most casual and exploitative segments. As women have increased their participation in the labour force—which WDR 2012 celebrates—the structure of the labour market has also changed, making informal/unprotected types of work the norm.

Gender wage gaps. Women’s disproportionate care responsibility, as the report points out, is one of the factors that limits and shapes their access to paid work. The failure of labour markets to acknowledge the contribution of unpaid reproductive work to the functioning of any economy is not, however, seen by the Bank as a reflection of the fact that labour markets, as social and political institutions, are “bearers of gender”. Labour markets are gendered institutions also by operating on the basis of formal rules and informal practices that value male and female labour differently, regardless of the levels of “human capital” they embody. WDR 2012 acknowledges that with the closing of the education gap it is difficult to explain the observed gap between women’s and men’s wages in terms of educational attainments (p.203), but then cautions that the remaining gender wage gap may reflect “additional unobserved or unmeasured differences in worker and job characteristics between women and men” (p.205). The problem with this reasoning—as with the human capital “explanation”—is that differences between female and male workers are themselves very often the outcome of structural and discriminatory forces, such as fewer years of labour market experience due to care-related reasons, and gendered definitions of skill that are saturated with sexual bias.

Moreover, the report provides a rosy assessment of employment generation for women in the export-oriented sectors. There is no mention of employer strategies in these sectors to manage risk by creating a dual labour market, consisting of a “nucleus” of largely male, skilled, permanent workers and a periphery of “flexible” relatively “unskilled” female workers. Nor is there any mention of the health hazards of being exposed to pesticides and other harmful substances (in the horticultural sector, for example), or the intense “burnout” suffered by workers in garments and electronic manufacturing, who are predominantly women. There is also complete silence about job losses in the context of trade liberalization (i.e., trade liberalization is a two-way process: cheap imports displace local manufacturing employment).

The report’s policy recommendations in the area of employment more broadly—facilitating “part-time work” for women (despite its well-known disadvantages in terms of earnings and social benefits) and “labour activation policies” to better connect labour supply and demand—are very weak. How such steps are going to tackle the problem of structural unemployment and underemployment that grips the global economy is far from obvious. Nor is there mention of the deleterious affects of the “deflationary bias” of macroeconomic policy on employment generation. As far as WDR 2012 is concerned, employment remains an issue for micro policies, completely detached from macroeconomic policy.

Second, moving to the analysis of unpaid work, the recommendations about the critical importance of public investment in infrastructure, especially the provision of clean water and sanitation, are perhaps among the more strategic elements emerging from the report. Yet the fiscal constraints that are likely to shape such investments and the policies that are needed for mobilizing or safeguarding revenues, especially in the current climate of fiscal austerity, are either not examined at all, or given short shrift. When it comes to the provision of services, for health and child care, the analysis is equally vague and problematic. Maternal mortality, a major concern of the report, can be reduced by providing skilled birth attendants (p.293). This can be through either public or private providers, the private option deemed to be “a cost-effective [cost-effective for whom?] alternative to the public provision of maternal health services” (p.293), or by providing “poor women with cash transfers conditional on their seeking health-care services known to reduce maternal mortality” (p.294). One would have thought that this would be the place for a much stronger emphasis on the critical importance of accessible public health services. A missed opportunity indeed!

On childcare services, likewise, while some reference is made to the advantages of subsidized care services and the exclusionary effects of high prices (p.222) based on evidence from developed countries, the main policy recommendation of the report for meeting care needs in developing countries is to make part-time work possible for mothers (p. 223) so they can meet their children’s care needs, or to provide affordable “community-based” child care. But many low-income women who work informally are already making adjustments to their paid work (in terms of its duration and location) in order to meet the care needs of their children, and being penalized for it by lower earnings. Moreover, there is no mention of the concerns that have been raised about the quality of “community care provision” which very often means less professionalized and cheaper services with lower staff/child ratios, and fewer facilities and materials, targeted to poor children. Nor is there any mention of the fact that those running these “community” services are “voluntary” and informal workers, which very often means unpaid or poorly paid women.

Third, another missed opportunity is with respect to social policy (now widely termed social protection), and its gendered character. Throughout the report there are repeated references to conditional cash transfers (CCTs). There is no discussion of social insurance programmes and the gender-specific barriers they present to women; there is only a passing reference to the importance of pensions for women’s old age security (p.154), but no discussion of the gender biases in pension privatization so eagerly promoted by the World Bank in the 1990s. Moreover, in the frequent references to CCTs, there is no mention of the concerns that have been raised by feminists about the added work burdens that conditionalities very often impose on mothers, nor is there any acknowledgement of the evidence that shows that the same results (in terms of children’s school attendance or nutritional status) can be obtained without the conditionalities.

Fourth, there is no attempt to explore the relations between gender equality and macroeconomic policy, despite the burgeoning literature on this topic. The reasons for this major oversight may be partly conceptual: the report’s framework is grounded in neoclassical microeconomics. While this microeconomic framing may have blinded the report to macroeconomic policy, there is probably more to this oversight than conceptual/methodological consistency. There is a vague mention of “the recent food, fuel and financial crises” (p.255), but no acknowledgement (despite all the concern expressed about women’s heavy unpaid work burden) that the current and previous economic crises and post-crisis fiscal retrenchments may have contributed to the intensification of the time women and girls devote to the unpaid reproduction of their households. One cannot help but conclude that macroeconomic policy is seen as a risky terrain for the World Bank’s gender analysts to venture into.

Finally, a couple of additional issues emerge prominently from the report: one being the need to strengthen women’s access to land and their ownership of property, including land. The report notes the ways in which both land and credit markets often work to women’s disadvantage. While it would be a welcome move for formal credit institutions, agricultural extension services and marketing outlets to be more responsive to the needs of women farmers, as the report recommends, one is left wondering if this would be sufficient to solve the challenges that confront smallholders in many contexts: volatile commodity markets, rising food prices (bearing in mind that most smallholders are net food-buyers) and environmental hazards. Moreover, one wonders what land titles and tenure security for women would mean in practice when the granting of individual titles (or joint titles) is part of a larger programme of individualization and commodification of all collectively held land, as in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. The implication here is that legal reforms have to be judged by multiple criteria: women’s interests are very often best served by simultaneously addressing broader community interests as well as gender discrimination—especially in the context of contemporary large-scale “land grabs” undertaken by both corporate and public interests for agricultural or industrial purposes.

A related theme—family laws—is also given prominence in WDR 2012. This again is a welcome move and addresses one of the areas of feminist activism that has been relatively neglected within mainstream policy debates. However, the report’s discussion of family laws could have thrown some light on the social forces that stand in the way of reforming family laws and realizing reproductive and sexual rights. There is no mention, however, of the worldwide rise of socially conservative religious forces of various stripes that virulently oppose the reform of inegalitarian family laws. Similarly, as far as WDR 2012 is concerned, sexual and reproductive rights are largely about pregnant mothers (as in the MDG focus on maternal mortality), and access to contraception in order to facilitate the welcome drop in fertility rates (population control having been a long-term preoccupation of the World Bank)—avoiding the far more controversial area of access to safe abortion that has been under attack in recent years.

To sum up, WDR 2012 marks a watershed in the World Bank’s thinking on gender equality: by acknowledging the intrinsic value of gender equality, by questioning the “growth is good for gender equality” orthodoxy underpinning the World Bank’s earlier work, by drawing attention to women’s unpaid reproductive work, and by highlighting the persisting gender biases in family laws, intra-household relations, and “segregations” in labour markets. However, in avoiding serious engagement with the gender biases of macroeconomic policy agendas that have defined contemporary globalization, and their adverse outcomes for women’s work, both paid and unpaid, within the context of rising inequalities and extensive labour informalization, WDR 2012 fails to provide a credible and even-handed analysis of the challenges that confront gender equality in the 21st century. The unfortunate reduction of social policy to a narrow focus on CCTs and the shading out of controversial issues (such as the rise of fundamentalist religious forces) will also reduce the report’s usefulness to the “policy maker”, as well as its staying power for other constituencies who care about the subject.

Razavi’s extended commentary on WDR 2012 is available below.

A revised version of the article, titled "World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development - A Commentary" is published in the Development and Change, Volume 43, Issue 1, Pages 423-437, January 2012.



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.