Huge gaps in the World Bank’s Gender Action Plan

31 January 2007 | Guest comment

By Elaine Zuckerman, Gender Action

The World Bank’s new Gender Action Plan (GAP), aptly named Gender equality as smart economics, is tightly framed in the Bank’s economic policy framework. GAP explicitly targets economic sectors where the Bank has a comparative advantage. These include: agriculture, private sector development, finance, infrastructure and water and sanitation. The plan promotes increasing roles for women in the economic sectors that the Bank designates as motors of development. GAP concludes, “The business case for expanding women’s economic opportunities is becoming increasingly evident; this is nothing more than smart economics.”

GAP lacks a human rights approach essential for a development institution with a mission to reduce poverty. The objective to make “markets work for women” is critically important but entirely neglects the most important argument for empowering women: achieving women’s human rights. The main beneficiaries of Bank investment in infrastructure have been transnational corporations, not the poor. Adhering faithfully to the Bank’s decades-old business model, GAP aims to increase women’s participation in land, labour, product and financial markets — while privatising them as much as possible — which benefits corporations the most.

GAP is the first Bank gender guideline to ‘mainstream gender’ into policy operations. However, GAP fails to acknowledge that the Bank’s enforceable operational policy (OP 4.20) on gender and development upon which GAP claims to build, contains a critical footnote excluding programme loans from the requirement to address gender disparities. That the operational policy takes precedence over GAP undermines GAP’s intention to engender policy-based loans. Operational policies are the only Bank policies to which civil society can hold the Bank to account.

the Bank's gender action plan lacks a human rights approach

While GAP claims that its economic approach will contribute to achieving the MDGs, it nowhere acknowledges the contradiction that the standard economic reforms that the Bank imposes on poor countries – low-inflation and tight spending policies – actually sabotage their achievement.

This is the first gender plan, strategy or policy that claims to apply to the entire World Bank Group. Previous Bank gender guidelines excluded the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private-sector lending arm of the Bank, and the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA), the political risk insurance arm. In the case of the IFC, GAP views its role as promoting gender responsiveness in the private sector, without focusing on the poverty impacts and never mentions MIGA.

Promoting “gender mainstreaming” remains the Bank’s key method to achieve gender equality, a noble goal, but one that has not worked in the Bank or elsewhere. Many highly-regarded women’s rights experts have argued that mainstreaming gender has actually seriously retarded the attainment of women’s rights. Initially GAP will concentrate on activities in “a relatively small number of focus countries” to attain measurable impacts. The final selection of focus countries will be made by an internal GAP executive committee.

The plan’s implementers include the Bank, civil society organisations (CSOs), governments and the private sector. CSOs encompass many types of groups but in creating GAP the Bank only consulted with a hand-picked seven-member external gender consultative group. Looking forward, GAP identifies only one CSO partner, Washington-based International Center for Research on Women, to design and conduct GAP evaluations.