Needed: A True World Bank Development Report on Gender Equality « Climate Equity

Needed: A True World Bank Development Report on Gender Equality

17. March 2011,

The World Bank’s series of World Development Reports (WDR)is special: conceived as the “flagship publication” of the international development bank, whose self-declared primary mission is poverty reduction, WDRs are meant to showcase the most advanced thinking from within the World Bank, detailing — and suggesting ways to overcome – major political, social and economic obstacles to global development targeted at development policy makers and practitioners. Given this premise, and the world’s acknowledgement of gender equality as critical for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), one might wonder why it has taken the World Bank research staff that long to zoom in on gender equality (the Bank has published 32 WDRs so far since 1978) as the topic for a WDR, with “Gender Equality and Development” now being the official focus of the upcoming WDR 2012 to be released in late 2011.

But if a first 65-page draft outline of the possible several hundred pages long final report is any indication, the World Bank’s staff, despite its stated intention to use the WDR to take a look at the “various dimensions“ of gender equality, will not be able to overcome its own parochial view of women and gender equality.  Missing most prominently: an understanding of development in the context of sustainability, which – in the day and age of persistently high poverty rates, food insecurity, gender inequalities, environmental destruction and climate change globally – should be redefined as low-carbon, climate-resilient, livelihood focused, gender equitable development.  After all, almost 20 years after the Earth Summit, next year a serious reconsideration and refocusing of the concept in the context  of Rio+20 seems unavoidable.

The draft outline of the WDR on Gender and Development does nothing in this respect; instead it approaches the subject by solely attempting to make ‘a business’ case for giving men and women equal opportunities.  Its narrow focus on women as entrepreneurs and economic actors and gender equality as “smart economics” (the descriptive title of  World Bank’s Gender Action Plan as the Bank’s primary effort in the recent past in integrating gender into its operations) allows for an analytical framework for gender equality based on economic costs and efficiency only.  Its sole way to conceive of environmental concerns or the global systemic threat of climate change is as a “risk” or “shock” to economic and particularly income growth.  The dominant growth paradigm with unsustainable production and consumption patterns, which the World Bank continues to subscribe to, is never questioned in this outline. No apparent readjustment is made in World Bank thinking to the kind of development that would be needed to allow for the equitable (across gender and generations) and sustainable use of the world’s natural resources, which acknowledges both the human rights of individuals as well as collective, common rights.  

Incidentally, the WDR outline very carefully avoids framing gender equality in terms of a basic human right, probably mostly since the World Bank itself has been reluctant to acknowledge a human rights framework as normative for its own operations.  And it is thus not very surprising that even a clear violation of fundamental human rights, for example the right to political participation denied many women, is seen primarily as “political market failure”, resulting from  insufficient information (namely, that women do make pretty good, or at least not worse political leaders than men). Remove the market barrier, seems to be the implied message, and you remedy women’s inequality – irrespective of the fact that for example political participation, or the lack thereof, is a matter of existing societal and gender power relationships and resulting human rights violations, not of unrealized market opportunities.

While the WDRs are not meant to be an introspective exercise for the World Bank’s own work, it would not hurt the topic of gender equality if it were.  The resource-wasting growth paradigm the World Bank perpetuates with its investment decisions even today, is itself a main contributor to persisting global gender inequality, thereby actively violating women’s human rights.  This, by the way, is contrary to international obligations of most World Bank member countries under the gender anti discrimination convention CEDAW.  Of the hundreds of millions of people living in poverty, the majority (some estimates claim 70%) are women – a proof that trickle-down does not work and the interests of those excluded from public participation and political power because of gender and social norms remain the last to be considered. Climate change, caused to a large extent by the externalization of environmental costs by dominant economic approaches, likewise affects women in the poorest developing countries disproportionally worse than men.  That nearly 1 billion people globally remain food-insecure – a crisis bound to be worsened by rising oil-prices – is at least in part a lasting consequence of structural adjustment policies the World Bank pushed in the poorest developing countries since the 1980s. In the agriculture sector, this included a bias of Bank investments for carbon-intensive agriculture focused on export production at the expense of national food security. Subsistence farmers, their livelihoods and interests, a majority of them women, were neglected (To be fair: the agriculture sector in developing countries was largely neglected by development banks up until just a few years ago, when plans for rapid industrialization didn’t materialize for most developing countries).  It was the same development thinking that state agricultural extension services fell victim to as part of a general private sector investment strategy propagated by the Bank that considered most public service provision to be inefficient.  Among those public services privatized under World Bank mandate over the past decades were many basic and social services, such as provision of water and energy, education or health care, making them often unaffordable for the poorest. Traditionally, women have had to pick up the provision of these care services as part of their family duties and existing gender norms. Where states severely curtail them or don’t provide them at all,  for example in times of an individual developing country’s economic or debt crisis, it is on women’s backs that families and communities cope.  The last global economic crisis, which severely impacted the poorest countries and societal groups within countries, was no exception. 

The unpaid care services women provide as part of their gender roles – and without which states poor and rich would collapse –are not captured in the economic statistics and income growth parameters on the basis of which the World Bank defines development. Essentially, the substantial contribution that women are already making to development – even before they become more active market participants– are not taken into account, mainly because the market has not attached a value to it.  In this way, the Bank continues to treat women’s care provision as another “externality” to the economic process, similarly to ecological concerns, which do likewise not enter internal cost-benefit assessments of certain policies and actions.  This fundamental short-coming persists at the Bank even a decade after the organization has instituted an official gender mainstreaming strategy.  It is accompanied by a systematic failure in form of structural shortcoming and policy implementation weaknesses that a recent report of the World Bank’s internal watch-dog, the Independent Evaluation Group has highlighted with the World Bank’s effort on gender mainstreaming.  Among them (see also a recent Boell analysis):

  • Gender is only selectively integrated, not gender mainstreamed, with unnecessarily narrow entry points through Country Assistance Strategies (CAS) only consider gender implications of policy areas.
  • Only a minority of WB loans are gender-aware. Development policy loans (for structural reforms) are not covered under the World Bank’s existing operational policy on gender.
  • Gender coverage in country loans remains uneven across sectors, going from a high in health and education with more than ¾ of loans being “gender-informed” (although there is no definition of what this entails) to only 9 percent of loans in energy and mining.
  • Gender funding at the bank is not tracked systematically and not funded as a “core business”.  The Gender Action Plan, the main instrument of the World Bank in the past years to achieve gender equality, was funded by a separate contribution of a few World Bank member countries.
  • The staff, management and incentive structure at the Bank remains largely gender-unaware: less than one percent of World Bank staff are gender experts; gender awareness is not made an indicator, and thus seen as a plus, for staff promotions, and there is no existing gender accountability and monitoring framework.

Given this list of shortcomings, the WDR will most likely be a missed opportunity for the Bank.  It is certainly laudable, some would argue overdue, that gender equality gets the serious consideration it deserves in the current international development discourse, and having a WDR exclusively focused on gender equality gives it yet another ‘stamp of approval’ of being an intrinsic development issue. Too bad, that the World Bank is not using this occasion to accompany the academic exercise, whose recipients will be mostly found outside of the World Bank, internally with a serious reflection and reconsideration of the Bank’s own understanding of and approach to gender equality.  This would then really be an action-oriented WBDR (a World Bank Development Report) on gender equality.

Photo: sijeca with Creative Commons License

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1 Comment

  1. Dear Liana Hi,

    I completely agree with what you are saying. The World Bank should publish a true World Bank Development report on Gender Equality. But, to be able to do so, the World bank should change its language about development, it should understand that development is not only economic, it is also and mainly human and environmental. It must remenber that nowadays we are talking about development in the context of sustainability which means , as you have said, low-carbon, climate -resilient, livelihood focused, gender equitable development. A development that respects human being’s rights, without discrimination, a development that allows equitable and sustainable use of the world’s natural resources, which acknowledges both the human rights of individuals as well as collective, common rights. I love the way you summarize it. But this seems to be very hard for the world bank.

    In fact, after contributing to making nearly 1 billion people to remain food-insecure because the structural adjustment policies it pushed in the poorest developing countries since the 1980s, and without the many basic and social services: water, energy, education, health care because of the privatization of public services, after doing all that and many other cruel actions for the sake of business and economic growth, after doing all these terrible things that deny people and mainly women their fundamental rights, the Bank continues, even today where gender equality is seen as very critical for the achievement of the millenium development Goals, to think only business and profit, business and growth, without questioning this type of development it is pursuing and that is resulting in human rights violation. The violation of women’s rights, their discrimination and invisibility of their contribution to the economy because of existing societal and gender power as you have said seems not to be a problem for the World Bank, and that is very very serious. Many things are wrong in this institution and this is a good opportunity for us to help them to realize it and take measures to correct it. The problem is structural and even if there is a political will in the bank to mainstream gender, they are not doing so, as this Independent Evaluation Group had highlighted in their report. It is a shame and we should help the Bank to really mainstream gender at all level, in all its strategic and operational tools, it must trained all its personel and the gender issue should not be the business of anly few persons or the gender action unity.

    Thanks for this ypur very good contribution, Liane. It had open my eyes and taught me a lot. THANKS. I will like to continue this convermuch like to come to your place and meet you.
    sation with you and even meet you to have more discussions. I am planing to travel to the USA in June for almost three months. I would very much
    Lovely night,

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