Civil society left unconvinced as World Bank promotes PPPs as tool for gender equality

30 July 2019

The World Bank has launched a new primer on Gender Equality, Infrastructure and PPPs (public-private partnerships) in May, which it describes as an “important first step toward gender equality in PPP projects.”

This includes instructions on the incorporation of gender equality considerations into the delivery and design of PPPs, such as holding gender-sensitive stakeholder consultations and conducting ex-ante gender impact assessments. The primer also focuses on managing the harmful risks of projects, like gender-based violence (GBV), following the sexual exploitation of women and girls by construction workers in the Bank’s 2014 Uganda Transport Sector Development Project and the subsequent launch of the Bank’s GBV Action Plan (see Observer Spring 2018).

This comes as the G20, emphasised links between infrastructure and gender for the first time in its June communiqué, highlighting the importance of “women’s economic empowerment” in “maximizing the positive impact of infrastructure.” However, others, like the Germany-based think tank Heinrich Boll Foundation have highlighted concerns with the G20’s promotion of infrastructure as an asset class and the associated risks for sustainable development.

Moreover, civil society groups like Belgium-based Eurodad have pointed to the broader harmful social impacts of PPPs in recent years. This has been particularly damaging for women, as the Gender and Development Network demonstrated in its joint briefing in March with Eurodad and Femnet, Can public-private partnerships deliver gender equality? The briefing highlighted that PPPs are often more expensive and carry more risk than public service provision, which has a disproportionate impact on women, and argued that private providers are not suitable for promoting social goals such as gender equality, as they are ultimately accountable to shareholders, not citizens. This runs counter to the World Bank’s assertion in its primer that PPPs have a positive impact on gender equality, which includes advice to ensure that the private partner bears the risks associated with any of the project’s gender equality-related goals.

The Bretton Woods Project’s Gender-Just Macroeconomics: the World Bank’s privatisation push highlights that the Bank’s overarching Maximising Finance for Development (MFD) approach deepens existing gender inequalities, arguing that the Bank should shift towards a human rights based approach to gender equality.