The IMF and Gender Equality: Operationalising Change

18 February 2019 | Briefings

A woman carrying her child collecting water, CAR Credit: Pierre Holtz for UNICEF.

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The objective of this briefing is to stimulate debate and raise critical questions on the latest developments in the IMF’s approach to gender, both between civil society communities and within the IMF itself. It sets the IMF’s latest work against the background of long-standing feminist thinking, with the aim of encouraging the Fund to be ambitious in genuinely and meaningfully addressing feminist concerns in its work. A central question running throughout the thinking behind this briefing is, ‘What is the appropriate role of the IMF in creating an enabling macroeconomic environment for women’s rights and gender equality?’, building on BWP’s previous work in its Gender Equality and Macroeconomics Project.

Following from these analyses, this briefing argues that the emphasis of the IMF’s gender work should lay squarely with addressing the ways in which its own ‘bread-and-butter’ macroeconomic policies undermine gender equality and women’s rights, rather than pro-actively pursuing new policy areas. In this context, the development of new IMF guidance on gender to its staff, in particular its paragraph 26, which recognises the IMF’s own policy advice can exacerbate gender inequality, is a welcome development in the Fund’s evolving understanding of the relationship between gender equality and macroeconomic policy.

Yet, the new guidance and latest IMF gender work do leave many questions unanswered and raise some new concerns:

  • Macro-criticality for gender and economic inequalities remains an unclear standard, leaving the Fund’s approach ad-hoc and unsystematic.
  • The econometric model developed by the IMF to measure gendered impacts of its conventional policy advice as applied to Argentina offers only a very narrow glimpse of the incredibly complex question on measuring adverse gendered impacts of macroeconomic policies. The guidance remains unclear as to which components of the economy it should analyse, which policies it should be applied to and raises myriad concerns about its scaled-up, sustained application in practice.
  • The guidance also remains unclear as to what types of alternative policies IMF staff should consider to avoid exacerbating gender inequality, while early indications point to a very constrained menu of options. Further guidance on what may constitute mitigating measures also remains lacking, although standard policy prescriptions to mitigate negative gendered impacts by further targeting social protection schemes are clearly inadequate.

More broadly, if determining harm is not done in a comprehensive way, and alternatives are defined in only the very narrowest sense, the IMF risks its gender work being perceived as merely another exercise in ‘co-option’, whereby the language of women’s economic empowerment is deployed as just another branding strategy to disguise regressive policies as progressive ones. The guidance’s recognition that the Fund’s own policies can indeed exacerbate gender inequality, which it concedes can be critical to the fulfillment of its mandate, marks a point of no return and must be the start of a significant and meaningful policy shift. It will be up to women’s rights organisations and civil society more broadly to hold the IMF accountable to this new standard.

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This briefing and this graphic have been produced as part of the Gender Equality and Macroeconomics project, a joint project of the Bretton Woods Project and the Gender and Development Network.