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Bretton Woods Project article: "World Bank's Gender WDR: Too little, Too late?"

21 Nov 2011


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  • Title: World Bank's Gender WDR: Too little, Too late?
  • Author(S): Bretton Woods Project
  • Date: 18 Nov 2011
The World Bank’s flagship annual publication pushes gender equality up to the Bank’s agenda, but critics express concern about its implementation and unwillingness to consider gender a women’s rights issue.

The World Development Report (WDR) 2012: Gender Equality and Development – the first to focus on this issue – was released in September. It documents progress in narrowing gender gaps in education, health and labour in the past 25 years and maintains the Bank’s past approach to gender as an economic issue, stressing that greater gender equality "can enhance productivity, improve development outcomes for the next generation, and make institutions more representative." This promotion of gender equality as "smart economics", which started with the launch of the Bank’s Gender Action Plan (GAP) in 2007, has been criticised for failing to treat gender under a women’s rights framework (see Update 75, 74). However, the WDR recognises that economic growth does not always lead to gender equality. Female mortality, school enrolment and earnings are some of the areas identified where gender gaps are still most significant.

Rachel Moussié from NGO ActionAid International argues that the WDR falls short in addressing what to do when gender inequality persists despite economic growth: "Rather than simply 'sticky' issues, these are fundamental areas of resistance … which economic growth alone cannot address." The WDR also does not recognise that women are disproportionately represented in the informal economy and that their workload increases during economic crises, contradicting previous research findings that "the impact on women is under-reported because their work in the home remains invisible", according to Moussié. "With so little information available, how can the Bank be sure that women are not unduly affected?"

Shahra Razavi, of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, said in an October paper the WDR was ultimately a "missed opportunity". "By failing to engage seriously with the gender biases of macroeconomic policy agendas" and "reducing social policy to a narrow focus on conditional cash transfers", she argues, "the report is unable to provide a credible and even-handed analysis of the challenges that confront gender equality ... and appropriate policy responses for creating more equal societies."

What implications?

During the the Bank’s September annual meetings, its ministerial level Development Committee endorsed a paper detailing the implications of the WDR for the World Bank Group and said it "look[s] forward to reviewing its implementation in a year". Also, a road show of events to disseminate the WDR around the world kicked off in October and will continue in 2012. However, Elizabeth Arend of US-based NGO Gender Action warned that "historically, WDRs have had virtually no impact on actual Bank investments and policies."

The implications paper says the WDR "provides a framework that highlights the importance of household responses to the functioning of markets and institutions—formal and informal." It also lays out five directions to capitalise on the WDR: informing country policy dialogue on gender equality; enhancing country-level gender diagnostics; scaling up lending for domestic priorities identified by WDR 2012; increasing the availability of gender-relevant data and evidence; and leveraging partnerships, global and country-level, to help implement priority actions.

But Marina Durano, of the international feminist network Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era, pointed out that it "does not mention whether gender equality considerations will inform a reformulation of Bank assessment tools used to determine lending allocation, such as the Country Policy and Institutional Assessment [CPIA, see Update 43], in order to ensure that Bank policies and their macroeconomic policy advice support the gender equality aspirations set out in the WDR". Moreover, Durano said the implications paper does not explain how the Bank will work alongside other institutions promoting gender equality, such as the United Nations Human Rights Council and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women: "There is a big difference between an approach to development that recognises gender issues as human rights, and the Bank’s approach to a world without poverty that considers gender an economic issue. How can we ensure that the Bank complements these approaches, particularly when it has money to back up its 'advice'?".

A Four-Year Progress Report on GAP published by the Bank in May claims that its "operations have become significantly more gender-informed since the launch of the GAP", while the implications paper states that, in the last five years, the Bank "allocated more than $65 billion … to improve girls’ education, women’s and mothers’ health, and women’s access to credit, land, agricultural extension services, jobs and infrastructure services." But Arend disputed the Bank’s commitments to gender, noting that its "'social development, gender and social inclusion' investments have actually decreased from $1.25 billion in 2007 to $952 million in 2010", or just 1.6 per cent of its $58.8 billion 2010 budget, according to the Bank’s own 2010 annual report. A July report from UN Women also criticised the Bank for dedicating only $7.3 million to gender equality components in public administration, law and justice projects between 2000 and 2010 – just 0.001 per cent of the total $874 billion in grants and loans allocated in the period.

Arend also highlighted the lack of indicators to measure gender impacts in Bank’s project appraisals, which makes it "virtually impossible to determine whether Bank investments actually improve gender equality." A September report by Gender Action and Friends of the Earth International on the Chad-Cameroon Oil Pipeline and the West Africa Gas Pipelines exemplifies the severe gender impacts that Bank investments can have in practice (see Update 72). Partially funded by the World Bank, the pipelines did not have "pervasive gender inequalities [taken] into account in project design." The report found that they "increased women’s poverty and dependence on men; caused ecological degradation that destroyed women’s livelihoods; discriminated against women in employment and compensation; excluded women in consultation processes; and led to increased prostitution."


This article is from the online version of the Bretton Woods Project, 18 November 2011