Gender at the World Bank: an uphill battle

12 September 2003

When women’s rights advocates met in Washington DC in April to discuss ways to promote gender equality at the World Bank, Director of the World Bank Gender Unit Karen Mason told them “if we are climbing the Himalayas then we are now at base camp two”. Indeed the general feeling is that despite some progress in recent years the Bank still has a long way to go (see Update 33).

In October 2001 the Bank’s Operations Evaluation Department (OED) concluded that internal incentives to ‘mainstream’ gender in Bank operations were not in place; inadequate resources had been devoted to gender; no accountability mechanisms were in place to ensure staff integrate these issues; and there was a general lack of capacity. A previous OED study, carried out in 1997, had similar conclusions. Since 2001 the Bank has adopted a ‘gender mainstreaming strategy’ and recently devised a new monitoring and evaluation system to track and evaluate its implementation. Elaine Zuckerman from Gender Action, who are preparing their own assessment, says the strategy should be made mandatory, as until now “non-gender staff – which includes almost everyone – hardly pay any attention”.

A central part of the new strategy is Country Gender Assessments (CGA). The CGA is to feed into the Country Assistance Strategy. It can be prepared in-house, financed by other mulilateral or bilateral agencies, or can be just a poverty assessment with a special focus on gender. However, one of the Bank’s own regional gender coordinators has reportedly said that poverty assessments are so gender illiterate that they couldn’t possibly be used.

If we are climbing the Himalayas then we are now at base camp two.

A recent Advocate’s guide written by Carolyn Long for Women’s Edge also questions whether recent Bank initiatives will result in generalized incorporation of gender-responsive actions into policies and operations. The report also echoes persisting problems perceived by some Southern NGOs’ gender specialists, such as “the Bank’s promotion of gender equality within the prevailing paradigm of economic reform and globalisation”, its support of privatisations with negative impact on women’s labour and well being, or the “emphasis on women as mothers, not as workers”.

As for Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs), a review by Gender Action of 13 PRSPs written in 2002 finds that “PRSPs do not yet thoroughly mainstream gender although they are becoming more gender sensitive”. The majority of Joint Staff Assessments (the assessment of a PRSP by IMF and Bank staff) contain “superficial gender analysis” in the Bank’s own view. In PRSPs studied little use was made of sex-disaggregated data, and few countries had anything near gender equal participation in their consultative processes. No PRSPs address gendered impacts of structural adjustment measures like privatisation and trade liberalisation measures. Another problem is that few PRSPs follow up gender commitments with monitoring indicators, implementation strategies and funding. Monitoring is crucial as often policy commitments to gender equality “evaporate” in planning and implementation processes.

A new report by Ann Whitehead for the UK Gender and Development network and Christian Aid looks at PRSPs in Tanzania, Bolivia, Malawi and Yemen and comes to similar conclusions. Gender issues are not sufficiently addressed in the poverty analysis in these PRSPs and even when they are raised they do not inform policy priorities. The report identifies lack of capacity for gendered poverty analysis and understanding of national economies from a gender perspective, together with lack of political will, as some of the major obstacles to overcome. Recommendations include building capacity of government and IFI officials, as well women’s groups, and more communication and trust-building between women’s organisations and other CSOs that have more access to the PRSP process. This echoes recommendations of the April meeting in Washington that women’s rights advocates and Bank-watchers should do more joint advocacy.