Creating a Caring Economy: The role of IFIs and the CEDAW framework in transformative change

23 March 2021 | Minutes

International Women's Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific

Sponsors: International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific, Third World Network, International Domestic Workers Federation, Bretton Woods Project, Shirakat – Partnership for Development, Womankind Worldwide, Global Alliance for Tax Justice. A video recording of the event can be found here.

  • Constanza Pauchulo (CP), Program Officer, Transforming Economics and Development through a Feminist Approach, International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (Moderator)
  • Marion Bethel (MB), CEDAW Committee Member, UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
  • Roula Seghaier (RS), Strategic Program Coordinator, International Domestic Workers Federation
  • Bhumika Muchhala (BM), Senior Policy Analyst on Development Economics, Global Governance, and International Political Economy, Third World Network
  • Emma Bürgisser (EB), Gender Project Manager, Bretton Woods Project

CP: Good morning everyone, good afternoon, good evening to what promises to be a very engaging discussion and a warm thank you to our speakers and co-organisers. My name is Constanza Pauchulo I am a programme officer at International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific, a global south-led feminist International Women’s organisation based in Malaysia.

We’re thrilled to have four fantastic speakers with us here to talk about the need for a global reorientation towards a structural feminist caring economy, or as has been described by many other feminists economists and activists, an economy that prioritises care for one another and the planet and transforms the structures that reproduce inequalities, particularly in the Global South. We’ll be talking about what this means, what kind of policy and structural transformations are needed at the IFI level and beyond, and the relationship between these transformations and the international human rights obligations of international financial institutions, focusing on the IMF in particular.

The bias towards fiscal austerity measures in order to stay in the good books of international capital markets and credit rating agencies is an immense invisible elephant at the centre of our global economy.Bhumika Muchhala, Third World Network

BM: So I just want to start with laying out some contours of feminist fiscal justice with gender equitable fiscal policy in the Covid context and to put the centrality of the care economy and public systems and services front and centre.

The pandemic has revealed the depth and indispensability of care work around the world, among many other things, it has also revealed the consequences of the systematic underfunding of public services that support or provide care work, largely as a result of a systemic bias toward budget austerity, as well as through historical privatisation and deregulation. So when we talk about feminist macro policy, we’re putting the care economy at its centre, for example through fiscal policy that scales up public services supporting women and children. Gender equitable fiscal policy affirms care principles and addresses the international constraints that govern fiscal policy space for the public and care domains.

The care economy involves the work of provisioning caregiving and interaction that produces and maintains social bonds in our society. It is both paid and unpaid, when it is unpaid it is unbound by work hours or regulations. It includes everything from pregnancy, giving birth, breastfeeding, child raising, schooling, housework, shopping, cooking, caring for the elderly, household accounting, but in much of the global south that also includes hard labour, such as fetching water and collecting fuel fodder. When it is paid, it is low wage and lacks decent working conditions or bargaining power.

The care economy by and large is carried out by women. In 2016, the UN Secretary General’s high-level panel on gender equity said women do three times as much care work as men. By one estimate, importantly, care workers is also predominantly performed by women at the intersections of marginalisation through race, class and migration. The care economy sustains, replenishes and upholds a so-called ‘productive sector’, and is in fact its greatest historical subsidy. So what feminist analysis wants to do is to reconstruct the economy and redefine production to integrate caring labour at the core of the economy, rather than as an invisible and neglected secondary condition of production.

In essence, gender equity questions the rigidity of boundaries that segregate work of production from the work of care. At its core, gender justice entails a shift from viewing woman as mere individuals to gender as a system that structures power relations. Gender equitable and inclusive macro policy aims towards the progressive realisation of economic and social rights, with priority given to the most disadvantaged groups. That is not limited to female identifying persons, but to all of our disadvantage from the intersectional inequalities of race, caste, disability, age, and sexual orientation, among other markers.

A gender equitable recovery that centres a caring economy cannot be achieved by focusing only on reducing gender gaps and overlooking power imbalances between capital and labour, it requires a deeper rethinking of fiscal policy models that determines public expenditure relative to revenue rather than imposing a fiscal rulebook to reduce deficits, debt and inflation. Fiscal tools for gender equitable pandemic recovery need to be redirected to eliminating gender inequities, from gender wage gaps to supporting disproportionate care work, while at the same time redistributing the looming divide between capital and labour, including through the income shares and decent work opportunities of high- middle- and low-skilled labour.

I will focus on policy priorities for a gender equitable pandemic recovery that intentionally centres the caring economy. First is avoiding fiscal consolidation, both premature and eventual, and second is investing in the unpaid, and paid care economy through public systems and services. One of the most fundamental constraints to gender equity is a decade’s long trend towards fiscal consolidation, which involves austerity measures in the IMF Covid-19 response loans and emergency financing. Its recommendation is for pandemic related fiscal measures to be targeted, temporary and reversed upon cessation of the pandemic. According to research conducted by various civil society organisations, as well as academic researchers, fiscal consolidation measures appear in a vast majority of loan agreements. As early as 2021, significant public budget cuts are to be implemented.

A wide range of institutions and advocates have stressed that the consequences of this approach are grave. IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva mentioned that many developing countries are in danger of facing a lost decade. Pathways to achieving the SDGs and Paris agreement on climate change targets are effectively derailed by fiscal austerity, which includes cuts and caps on the public wage bill. This is important, and at the centre of public systems resilience, as a majority of health and education workers in developing countries are funded by the public wage bill. Many developing countries today face serious shortages of public sector workers for a just recovery. It also includes regressive consumption taxes and rationalising and targeting social safety nets, and in particular social protection systems.

Gender equity impacts of budget cuts occur through three dominant channels: 1) diminished access to essential services, 2) loss of livelihood, and 3) increased work on paid work and time poverty.

Budget cuts by the state reduce or eliminate the very programmes and services that primarily benefit women, such as health, education, social protection systems and social transfers. Social protection programmes are often the first to be reduced. These are critical sources of financial resources for low-income women do you in large part to the enduring gender pay gap, and other factors that concentrate women in low wage sectors. These consequences result in women acting as the economic shock absorbers of austerity buffering families and communities from its harmful effects.

Feminist economics literature on the care economy shows that when women’s work compensates for the loss of livelihoods among males, it is often girl children who are taken out of school across the global south who support or substitute their mother’s unpaid care activities. So the adverse impacts of austerity on gender equity begs the question of whether budget cuts are carried out on the unstated assumption that women in marginalised communities will carry the burden of the cuts, as well as expand their labour time and well-being to compensate for the loss of public services.

Now, investing in the unpaid care economy means investing in public systems and services such as universal social protection floors and universal access to health care in this pandemic recovery. These investments can create decent jobs with quality working conditions, wages and representation, particularly for women.

Public expenditure and social sectors are often mistakenly categorised as consumption, and therefore discretionary spending. Doing so fails to take into account the feedback effects of labour productivity and economic and social development, not to mention the achievement of economic and social rights by strengthening public systems and services, tax revenues and aggregate demand expansions, and this in turn can help finance the very deficit created in the public expenditure. Under current fiscal discipline rules, the degree of fiscal space is circumscribed by limits placed on the country’s public debt relative to GDP. The current approach to establishing expenditure ceilings defines fiscal sustainability for the short term, an approach that ignores the regenerative interaction between fiscal policy and economic and social development over the longer term.

Current guidelines for assessing fiscal space and sustainability ignore what exactly the fiscal space is used for most. Budgets classify current and capital budgets separately, but this distinction is not made when evaluating fiscal deficits. The result is restricted fiscal targets, enforcing budget cuts, which has led to the chronic deprivation of public investment or public systems, and Covid-19 has revealed these devastating consequences.

Over 15 years ago, in 2005 the World Bank growth commission did recognise the impacts of this consolidation, it stated, “it is clear that there is more demand for economic stability than a superficial reading of the size of the fiscal deficit.” The report noted that the goal of achieving macroeconomic stability does not imply a need to minimise fiscal deficits at all times, particularly during crises and recessions. Since then, various pieces of analysis from within the IMF, particularly the 2016 paper titled ‘Neoliberalism Oversold?’, as well as by the IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office on the policy response to the 2008 global financial crisis, acknowledged that fiscal consolidation has not delivered as expected.

In the midst of a pandemic where the World Bank estimates a quarter billion people will fall into extreme poverty, and where north and south are divided, even deeper by the denial of developing country access to vaccines through a patent-based waiver being hotly contested in the WTO, the IMF and in particular G8 countries need to take heed.

I conclude with just three key policy recommendations.

  • An expansionary fiscal policy toolkit has to be at the centre of a pandemic recovery and should be embraced by the IMF. This means establishing universal social protection for scaling up financing for public health, education and care work systems and sectors, extending coverage of Social Security, establishing universal progressive taxation and other relevant measures. The historical role of counter-cyclical macro policies where public investment expands in times of economic downturns, has to be recalled.
  • Second, debt sustainability assessments must use human rights and development impact assessments, not just economic indicators. This means including SDGs, climate goals, human rights, and gender equality commitments.
  • And third, progressive tax measures, such as raising tax rates of the wealthy large firms and banks, as well as digital ecommerce, can raise critical financial resources to address the economic fallout of the pandemic. At the centre of these recommendations is also the need to establish a debt workout mechanism, one that is transparent, binding, and multilateral under UN auspices, that addresses unsustainable and illegitimate debt and provides systemic, timely and fair restructuring of sovereign debt.

IMF Managing Directors Rajiv has said that premature fiscal consolidation will spell the difference between a lost decade and rapid recovery. But the real test is at IMF country-level programmes and operational policy.

As civil society, we are calling on the IMF and its key member states that hold the majority of voting power to refrain from repeating the mistakes made during every crisis and recessions of the past several decades, and to enact fiscal justice for a truly equitable and rights-based feminist recovery from the pandemic. Thank you.

CP: Thank you so much for that really powerful start to the session, and for helping us to define the content of what feminist fiscal policy and feminist fiscal justice, really looks like and what it means. And particularly, identifying gender as a system, and clearly articulating the policies that need to be put in place so that the care economy stops being, as you called it, ‘the greatest historical subsidy to the productive economy’.

RS: Thank you. So, with a pandemic in terms of migrant domestic labour, we have seen quite a lot of changes, specifically in regards to more discriminatory policy. Discriminatory policy in this regard states that social protections are entitlements of citizens or nationals within a given context, concentrating governmental protections on the citizenship binary that would discriminate against migrant workers, especially low-wage workers within a given context.

I would like to go over a few effects of what international financial institutions could be doing in order to alleviate these impacts of conventional macroeconomic policies on the marginalised sector of care labour, especially when it comes to the global care chain.

As Bhumika has stated, care work is often not included or accounted for in macroeconomic policies as a prudent activity. It is not calculated within GDP. But the women who engage in it are not just survivors of horrific economic conditions that have displaced them within the macro economy globally and put them in places that lacks social protection, they are also active agents that benefit the economies of their countries and the economies of both their home country and country of deployment.

So we need to contemplate what role the IFIs can play with. They can exacerbate or alleviate the impacts on care production in the labour sector, but also impact the labour sector more broadly.

Since the women constituting the population engaging in the sector are racialised, coming from the global south, they represent a lot of intersections of vulnerable groups.

Within the World Bank discourse in particular, the usual problems of under-development are itemised and located frequently within the natural, rather than the political sphere, meaning that the state is understood frequently as a-political, and that external pressures alone are held responsible for governmental failures or indifference towards pursuing economic reform.

The IFI policies are often designed in ways that decrease public services for care. And this is something that we would need to actively work on changing within the reforms that are being made. Because otherwise, it encourages states to see domestic workers as a band-aid solution to assist in the balance of payments.

These policies are also often pared with political rhetoric on democratisation, where we are told an open market will provide more opportunities, but it does not play out in that manner on the ground, where we just see more displacement of the poor and their economic interests not being safeguarded. In this open marketplace, we find the economic interests that are based on capital accumulation are safeguarded instead.

So, the usual suspects of identifying these problematic interventions in local and national economies would include things such as the devaluation of local currency controls, freezing recruitment and salaries in the state sector, and the privatisation of some state enterprises. The increase in the costs of health education and other care services, reduced subsidies, and the removal of protectionist trade restrictions. These are changes we see within a given economy, instead of those that we aspire to and as Bhumika has spoken about. They go directly against the measures of the kind that labour movements have been calling for when it comes to the care economy in general and migration broadly as well.

For example, instead of investment in decent work in countries of origin, we see unemployment being exacerbated because of reduced or removed subsidies, which also worsens inequality and poverty by raising household expenditure, especially in terms of transportation cooking, heating, increasing the production costs of many items, especially food. And since domestic work is the work upon which all other work is made possible, this hinders the entire economy. And it also has a disproportionate effect on lo- income groups, especially women in poorer households.

When it comes to foreign domestic workers, the sponsorship system that governs the lives, employment, entry, exit and livelihoods of domestic workers in Gulf countries, the privatisation of health care services deepens their bondage instead of abolishing the system that is a direct inheritance from slavery.

Depreciation-induced inflation not only increases women’s unpaid workload, but it has an impact on their reproductive and sexual rights and health. The currency devaluation increases the cost of imported goods and products such as contraceptives and sanitary pads, and when migrant domestic workers already have to navigate the hostile environment of population control, when the country where they work claims that they are the source of budget deficits, or that they are stealing somebody else’s job with the rise of xenophobic discourse, they are already operating under a very restricted system to their sexual and reproductive health and rights, and it’s barely accessible to them. With the alleviation of subsidies and depreciation of the currencies, it becomes almost impossible to attend to those needs.

Instead of the coverage in line with the CEDAW and ILO provisions that would involve redress mechanisms backed up by certification and accreditation, we see how privatisation restricts the oversight and protection that could be made available for migrant domestic workers through, for example, inspection mechanisms that the state would have to invest in. Instead of combating xenophobia and installing regularisation programmes, we see deportation and imprisonment of migrant workers is becoming more rampant.

Right now, in context of migrant domestic workers, we see that racism is becoming more structural in the shrinkage of spaces and access to goods and services for migrant domestic workers. I can give an example from a grocery store next door that happened last week. I am based in Lebanon, and Lebanon is currently alleviating substances. The supermarket had some last packages of subsidised rice left, and the security forces operating through the state policing apparatus decided who should receive this rice, based on IDs that confirm the Lebanese citizenship of the customers. So they will ask for an ID in order to decide whether they sell that rice or not sell that rice. And if you can believe it, a woman, pregnant domestic worker was standing there in the grocery store, being completely ignored and knowing that she will probably starve first.

When these subsidies are alleviated and these provisions are understood as something that is protecting the general interests or the national interest, it becomes very difficult to counter the policies of the IFIs and the imposition of certain structural adjustment programmes or certain economic reforms. IFIs need to be more responsible towards how its policies affect the care economy sector. As we have experienced a global financial meltdown in 2008 and we are currently experiencing another one, arguably more acute, we need to see the size of the failure of conventional economic policy. Arguably, it is possibly an opening to cross over from the collapse of capitalist imaginations towards an equitable feminist economy that values what has been historically feminised, racialised and divided among class lines.

International financial institutions need to put investing in fair work, the importance of combating gender inequality, and designing gender responsive mechanisms processes and solution back on the map in their policies and practice.

What we need to do is make this recognition actionable, because so far what we have achieved is this being recognised through rhetoric, but we would need to move forward with is what that means as actionable steps.

In historical and recent experiences, in Jordan we witnessed some reforms to IMF-supported policies themselves in terms of recognising these inequalities, including within division of country teams. Yet, the policies that IFIs support on the ground continue to systematically exacerbate gender inequalities. Therefore, IFIs will need to reverse this approach and need to have a core participatory definition of what macroeconomics ought to be, which must be be shaped by the experiences and knowledge of those who are most dispossessed, mostly women from the global south and then domestic workers, informal workers of informal sectors, everybody who is struggling under the devaluation of care work, both individual and institutional.

The definition of what is productive or not productive is not arbitrary. The world or the status quo tells us that we are only valuable to the extent we are able to produce value in the conventional sense and that only then can we receive production and resources. This same status quo relies on this uncompensated substance: the labour of care workers. It is made sure that this labour is not recognised by not including in it the calculation of the GDP. So macro economists need to do a lot of unlearning around care work, and for the grassroots communities that have been working on these issues in order to redefine what it means.

The slogan of IDWF is to care for those who care for you. Without these care workers none of our lives, or livelihoods would have been possible. I will end here. Thank you.

CP: Thank you so much for another impactful presentation. And, again for really demonstrating the need for an intersectional approach to understanding gender discrimination and making very real and concrete links to the way that conventional macroeconomic policy impacts the human rights of women, which I think is a great place to turn over to our next speaker, Marion Bethel. Marion Bethel is a member of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, currently serving her second term. She has more than 30 years of experience as legal counsel in both public and private sectors and has served as an Independent Expert on, among others, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and as a delegate of the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action, Development Alternatives for Women for a New Era, and the United Nations Conference on Human Rights. She is an advocate for women’s human rights leadership, non-discrimination and economic empowerment and has served as a member of the Federation of International Women’s lawyers. We are so pleased to have you here with us to speak on the obligations and standards under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, also known as CEDAW, and to help us connect the work of IFIs, macroeconomic policy, and the care economy to international human rights frameworks.

MB: I just want to say thank you to IWRAW-AP for organising this event, and it’s really a pleasure to be here with my colleagues to discuss this issue of a caring economy and the role of IFI advice and CEDAW to create more transformational change. I will be addressing the obligations under CEDAW and how the Committee has dealt with policy issues relating to a caring economy and connections with the work of international financial institutions.

Central to the caring economy are the enforceable state obligations under CEDAW, the principal obligation being to eliminate all forms of discrimination and to achieve substantive gender equality. Further, under CEDAW the state party is obligated to establish tribunals and other public institutions to ensure the effective protection of women against discrimination, and to ensure the elimination of all acts of discrimination against women by persons, organisations or enterprises, and perhaps the IMF fits into that category.

The rights of substantive equality and non-discrimination are the backbone of the convention, guiding the overarching object and purpose and informing each of the obligations enumerated in the CEDAW. The purpose of eliminating discrimination is complemented by the aim of ensuring that women are able to exercise all of their rights, and thereby have access to all opportunities, benefits and resources available within the state. Substantive equality must also take into account the lived experiences of women in regard to intersecting forms of discrimination based on class, race, caste, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, migrant status etc. States parties also agreed to take all appropriate measures including legislation, policies, programmes and temporary special measures so that women can enjoy all their human rights and fundamental freedoms.

International norms and standards of substantive equality in regard to the care economy mean assessing the distributed and redistributed outcomes and results of state parties’ macroeconomic policies to establish that these policies eliminate, in fact, direct, indirect and structural discrimination, redress the historical and structural social and economic disadvantages of women and see transformation of the power relations between women and men, and the social institutions and economic structures that perpetuate inequalities.

The CEDAW Committee argues for de facto substantive equality, which means addressing the root cause of a given policy, embedded in society, including gender stereotyping norms and attitudes that perpetuate discrimination against women. The committee urges states parties to address the underlying causes and structures of gender inequality as a means of transformation, and to achieve equality of results for women. The ways the Committee addresses this issue of the care economy and the interconnections between discrimination against women, substantive equality and unpaid care work has evolved over time in regard to its constructive dialogues, concluding observations and general recommendations, and I’d like to go through several of the recommendations in which you can see this evolution.

General recommendation number 16 of 1991 on article 11 on labour issues recognises the high percentage of women in state parties who work without payment, social security and social benefits in enterprises owned are usually by a male member of the family, and calls for states parties to take the necessary steps to guarantee payment.

General recommendation number 31 of 1994 on Article 16 on equality in marriage and family relations refers to several issues regarding women and men, sharing responsibilities for care protection and maintenance of their children, and the rights of women to decide the number and spacing of their children. Responsibility to bear and raise children may affect enjoyment of other rights such as education, public participation, and access to health services.

In general recommendation 28 of 2008, the social recognition of care work is introduced in regard to migrant workers. Here the Committee calls upon the state’s obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of women throughout the migration cycle. Furthermore, these obligations must be undertaken in recognition of the social and economic contributions of women migrant workers to their own countries and countries of destination, including through caregiving and domestic work.

General Recommendation number 29 in 2013 on Article 16 on the economic consequences of marriage and family relations gives economic value to care and domestic work during the marriage and calls on state parties to consider the economic contribution of care work as regards to access to property rights.

After the dissolution of marriage, general recommendation number 33 in 2013 on women’s access to justice recommends state parties to take into account unremunerated work and caregiving activities of women in determining appropriate compensation for harm in all civil, criminal administrative or other proceedings.

General recommendation 34, which is perhaps the most comprehensive, in 2016 on Article 14 refers to the state’s party’s obligation to eliminate discrimination against rural women with specific references to unpaid work and the role women have in accessing non-contributory social protection. In this general recommendation, there is a deeper recognition of rural women’s unpaid care work in terms of their economic contribution to their rural and national economies, food production, and to the well-being of the family and communities. This general recommendation recognises rural women’s and girls’ unpaid care work, such as cooking, childcare, farm work, fetching water, firewood and the barriers this represents for rural girls in regard to education. The committee calls upon the state’s obligations to put in place programmes reducing the engagement of girls in unpaid care work. The committee acknowledges the barriers for women and rural women in accessing paid jobs because of childcare responsibilities, and therefore calls for the provision of childcare services for women. This general recommendation also highlights the interrelation of rural women’s human rights with an acknowledgement of the indivisibility of human rights. In this general recommendation, the Committee provides a more coherent gender analysis of the impact that unpaid care work has in rural women’s political participation, access to paid jobs, health, and girls’ attendance at school.

In the Committee the understanding of care is evolving further in tandem with the global discourse, with an emphasis on care work as work generating wellbeing for society at large, including the benefits to those who receive care, and the social and economic value of care, calling for an acknowledgement for the urgent demand to redistribute the burden of care between stakeholders. The measurement and value of care work remains important in order to inform policy development and the focus should be on a redistributive agenda that highlights the role of caregivers’ contributions to well-being and the costs of caregiving.

Even in relation to marking the significance of the care economy at this time on its own, perhaps a new general recommendation would be in order that should robustly challenge stereotypes and stigma associated with women’s unpaid care work, and strengthens women’s recognition of care as work which produces well-being and perhaps create a pathway to women’s social and economic development.

Under the heading women and poverty, the Beijing platform included direct calls to the IMF and World Bank to mobilise financial resources that maximise their availability for poverty eradication and targeting women in poverty, to strengthen gender perspectives and integrate them into the design and implementation of lending programmes, including economic recovery programmes to develop solutions to external debt problems including cancellation, other relief measures, and to create an enabling environment that allows you to build and maintain sustainable livelihoods.

In a recent constructive dialogue with Pakistan, a member of the CEDAW Committee argued that progressive taxation measures and the rising cost of services resulting from IMF mandated fiscal consolidation targets have had devastating impacts on household costs, and by extension the quality of care, and that pushed many women back into informal labour and poverty. The government has asked whether the impacts of the programme have been assessed from a gender perspective, and where the measures have been taken to reduce harmful impacts on women’s rights, other than the further targeting and existing social protection programmes.

The Committee has expressed grave concern about the financial and economic crisis and the IMF’s continued austerity measures adopted by state parties. In an effort to stabilise public finances, we see measures impact on women in all spheres of life, owing to cuts in public services, mostly used by women for themselves and for persons under their care such as children and older persons. The Committee reminds the state party that even in a time of fiscal constraint and economic crisis, special efforts must be made to respect women’s rights to slowly expand social investment and social protection and employ a gender-sensitive approach, avoiding retrogressive measures. While it is clear that states parties have primary responsibility for their obligations under CEDAW and international human rights law, they are also members of the institutions such as the IMF and have voice and agency, and cannot abandon their observations based on that membership. It is also clear that the IMF is obligated to enable and not undermine, through its members’ obligations, to protect, respect, and fulfil the human rights of women. Thank you.

CP: Thank you again for another engaging and impactful presentation. Again, we’re hearing the issues of debt, fiscal consolidation, regressive taxation and cuts to public services and investment, including social protection, all coming up as crucial to a reorientation towards a caring economy and the need for structural transformation, which as we’ve seen, is tied specifically to the human rights obligations of member states and their requirement to address underlying causes of discrimination against women. And, of course, the member states within IFIs have those obligations and carry them with them into the role.

With that I will turn it over to our final speaker, Emma Burgisser with the Bretton Woods Project.

EB: It’s a real pleasure to be here, thanks so much for the invitation. It’s a hard act to follow after those three great presentations, but I thought I would take you through some of the IMF’s historical approach to human rights issues and perhaps some opening in current policy debates in this regard. I work for the Bretton Woods project, which is a London based watchdog for the IMF and World Bank, so I’ve been paying particularly close attention to the Funds gender work of the last five years.

To start off with the Fund’s official or actually non-official approach to human rights so far, I think it’s important to lay out there for everyone that the IMF has actually never really adopted an official legal opinion in relation to human rights. So when you ask the Fund about their positioning, they tend to refer you to a 2002 academic paper, but it’s not an official IMF paper and was never endorsed by the board. The paper outlines that the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is not applicable to the Fund, because it claims it has not attained conventional international law status, but that the IMF does promote economic and social rights indirectly by contributing to conducive economic conditions. Probably most importantly, the paper maintains that the Fund cannot promote human rights directly without contravening its Articles of Agreement.

And so, unsurprisingly, these positions are very hotly contested and widely criticised by human rights scholars and experts. We’ve heard some of that from Ms. Bethel already. Human rights advocates in this space tend to emphasise the extraterritorial obligations of the members that make up the IMF, arguing that being a member of the IMF should not allow members to escape their human rights obligations by acting through the board of the IMF. That goes particularly to the major shareholders of the Fund who have disproportionate voting powers on the board, that they are still required not to undermine the ability of other countries to fulfil their human rights obligations. In the context of the IMF in particular and the long-standing fiscal consolidation concerns some of the other speakers members, we are particularly talking about the concern of the IMF undermining government’s obligations to invest the maximum available resources in human rights, and women’s rights in particular, as a principle of international human rights law.

Most legal scholars also maintain that the IMF is also directly bound by customary international law as an international organisation and as a specialised agency of the UN, which includes certain human rights principles.

At a very, very minimum, we argue that the Fund should take measures to ensure at least, that its own policies ‘do no harm’ as established in international law. But even that, the Fund has not really taken that position publicly, they have not explictly adopted a ‘do no harm’ approach. There is currently no system inside the IMF to do any sort of due diligence on making sure its own policy advice and its policy conditions in loan programmes do not undermine human rights and do not exacerbate gender inequality or discrimination against women. That doesn’t exist as a system inside the IMF at the moment.

In 2018, the now former UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty Philip Alston wrote a report to the UN General Assembly on some of these topics, and one of his main findings was that he found that the consistent practice of the IMF has been to sidestep human rights and assume that they’re simply not relevant to macroeconomic policy. He pointed to this artificial separation in the IMF universe between matters that are either economic or political to be at the very core of the problem.

In that same report, Alston described the Fund’s recent work on gender that some of the previous panellists also mentioned as a potential precedent for change, as an area where maybe the IMF can begin to better understand these connections between the economic, political and social spheres that, so far, it has kept so fiercely separated. Even the IMF itself have said that their own gender work that they’ve been doing indirectly contributes to human rights as well. So we’re very interested in looking at that work and seeing where those connections can be made.

While I don’t have time to take you through all of this work because I just have five minutes left, this outline on the screen gives you a sense of the different phases of that of how that work has evolved at the Fund.

I would very much recommend for you to read Alston’s report that discusses some of these issues as well, which came out in 2018. I think the really important thing to know is what has happened with the IMF’s gender work since that report came out. The IMF produced a ‘how to’ note to staff on how to operationalise gender issues at country level. In general, that note is a summary of what the Fund has done so far and continues to advocate that Fund staff should engage on gender issues.

Given my earlier comments it should be clear that the way the IMF has approached this work has not been as human rights issue, but as an issue that is relevant to the macroeconomy and therefore relevant to its own mandate.

There is one paragraph in that guidance note that I think is particularly relevant from a human rights perspective and anyone that knows me will already know this paragraph, but I’ll share it here as well. This is paragraph 26 in that guidance note, which acknowledges that some policies that are recommended by IMF staff to support growth and stability may have differential gendered impacts that could exacerbate gender inequality. It goes on to say that in these instances, staff may consider an alternative policy mix. I think that’s very important from a human rights perspective because it might, maybe not quite open a door, but it might open a crack of a window to a ‘Do No Harm’ approach. I say that because this, as far as we can tell, is the first time that the IMF publicly and on paper, acknowledges that its own policies can actually do harm, which we haven’t really seen so far, and it goes further than that. It actually directs staff to avoid doing that. We therefore think this type of language and this this paragraph could potentially be transformative, but it needs to be actually put into practice and so far we haven’t really seen this happen.

We wrote an entire briefing just unpacking this paragraph and the questions it raises. For example, how is the IMF determining which of their policies exacerbate gender inequality? Some of that the IMF is starting to answer through some new modelling work that it’s doing measuring the gendered impacts of some macroeconomic policy reforms, which doesn’t necessarily need to be a million miles away I think of what’s happening in the human rights community around human rights impact assessments of macroeconomic reforms. But at the moment, those two are very separated by language and the insular attitude of the Fund and the typical artificial separation between these two spaces right in the global architecture.

Having discussed this policy framework, just to say a few words then on the more institutional constructs, particularly how the IMF could or can connect to the CEDAW committee in particular. Historically the IMF has long been criticised by people inside and outside the Fund for being relatively insular, not working well together with other organisations. Recently, there have been some efforts to strengthen collaboration, especially on some of this new work that the Fund has been doing on inequality, gender and climate change.

A number of civil society organisations have therefore recently come together and proposed a framework for IMF engagement in country level surveillance on these three macrostructural issues, inequality, gender and climate change and it proposes a broad, overall framework for how the IMF should be approaching these issues in a way that is essentially more in line with international standards and frameworks.

It outlines when the IMF should engage on these issues and when not to, that’s how it starts. It emphasises this Do No Harm approach that I was just talking about in terms of policy, but institutionally, it asks the IMF to consider the mandates of other international organisations and bodies more. It proposes that when the IMF identifies that an issue might be macro critical or macro relevant, but the related policy levers aren’t necessarily macroeconomic, instead of giving in depth policy advice on issues itself, which we feel lie outside its mandate, we are asking the Fund to play a signalling role instead. Meaning, we would like them to use their power as the IMF to signal to finance ministries that gender equality issues are indeed really important, but then refer them to other expert bodies on these issues, such as CEDAW’s general recommendations or country recommendations. We feel that there have been a few cases already where the Fund is slightly overstepping its mandate and where we feel it would be much more efficient for the IMF to simply look more towards CEDAW committee recommendations, who are the experts on discrimination against women and gender equality, and refer authorities to their country recommendations.

Then the framework lays out that in these more tricky areas where we are actually talking about macroeconomic policy reforms, like a VAT reform for example, as Miss Bethel was saying, we are suggesting that at least part of how the IMF conceptualises its objective for surveillance is that it tries to support its members in developing an enabling macroeconomic environment to meet its international commitments and obligations in these areas it has identified as being macro-relevant.

Only one member of the IMF has not ratified CEDAW. All the other members of the IMF have obligations under this convention they have signed up and we think the IMF has a role there to help create an enabling macroeconomic environment for countries to meet their CEDAW obligations. The Framework therefore outlines that when the IMF does engage, that should be the starting principle. And then secondarily, they should work more with other international organisations, as the IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office just also recommended in their latest evaluation, for the IMF to seek and agree concrete frameworks collaboration. Perhaps we can see that happen in future with the CEDAW Committee.

In short, there are a lot of opportunities for the Fund to engage in these issues, if they choose to do so. I’ll stop there, but I will say that in these in-depth policy debates, it can get easy to get lost in some of these specifics about what macro criticality means for instance, but ultimately in the environment that Bhumika was outlining before, we see these issues as being incredibly urgent and the Fund, effectively, not moving fast enough. It must work with the information that its already has from women’s rights organisations and labour movements to at least stop doing some of the worst harms that we see every day at country level coming out in Article IVs and lending programmes. We therefore urge them to move much, much faster on these issues. Thank you so much.

CP: Thank you so much for really laying out concretely, the connections in relationship between the IMF and the international human rights system and concrete steps that can be taken now too, as you say stop the worst harms that are happening by the conventional approach. And what I’ve also been hearing a lot is this need to put into practice commitments to achieving or contributing to intersectional, substantive gender equality and I think one of the messages that is coming out is that the structural intersectional feminist analysis that we heard at the beginning can and should really inform the content of the international human rights standards that are found in conventions and other instruments, and equally international human rights instruments can serve as a tool to advance feminist fiscal policy and other economic justice demands.


CP: Right now, we’re in the second week of the global days of action for tax justice for women’s rights, which is organised by the Global Alliance for Tax Justice. One of the things that they really look at is the impact of tax policies and abuse and the damage they cause to fiscal space and women’s rights, which has been so well exposed by the pandemic. So thinking about how tax justice can help us advance towards gender equality and a more caring economy and about the specific campaign demand for multilateral institutions and governments to ensure tax and fiscal policies, recognise, represent, reduce, and redistribute unpaid care work and reward paid care, including by developing national policies on care work, I know we’ve heard a bit about about the role of tax across the presentations, but if there’s anything any of the speakers would like to add, especially now, having heard from each other on the role of tax and in particular how tax minimisation strategies like illicit financial flows and tax abuse can damage fiscal space and impact women’s human rights.

MB: Yes, countries under IMF structural adjustment policies are expected to simplify their tax structures, and often institute Value Added Tax on consumer goods and services. This definitely affects women and women in poverty particularly who spend a higher share of their income on basic goods, such as food, clothes, medicine, as part of taking care of themselves and taking care of their families, which is part of the care economy. These are regressive taxes that disproportionately affect women and this is something that really needs to be looked at. We address this often our constructive dialogues because there are progressive tax regimes that be used to mobilise the maximum available resources to tackle discrimination against women and provide high quality public services. Countries obviously have choices to make, they can resist the more regressive taxation that impacts women disproportionately.

BM: Yes, just to briefly emphasise that regressive taxation, especially on consumption taxes, so, value added taxes, general sales taxes, these indirect forms of taxation have historically been the most regressive, and it stands in sharp contrast to the need today for progressive income and asset taxation. We are in a pandemic moment right now. We’re actually seeing that specific sectors of the economy are making inordinate and historic levels of profit. We’re not just talking about a history of of regressive taxation measures, but we’re talking about those that were supported in IMF emergency financing loan programmes responding to Covid-19 and ongoing surveillance advice in the Article IV reports. It is imperative that regressive taxation is not used as a domestic resource mobilisation tool. It is absolutely an inappropriate tool to be using right now, and directly violates economic and social rights, particularly of the most marginalised, as we know that these indirect taxation affects the most marginalised in the greatest way. It affects, for example, household goods, basic everyday supplies you buy at small shops and grocery stores. This sort of indirect consumption tax should not be used right now.

In fact, we need progressive income taxation among other types of progressive taxes. One of the greatest examples we actually see in our recent modern economic history of the last 60 to 70 years is post-World War Two in the War Revenue Acts of the US that included direct caps on prices and particularly higher marginal income tax rates on manufacturers that were at that time making excessive profits due to manufacturing arms for example. A similar comparison can be made today to pandemic profiteering and the ways in which particularly corporate pharmaceutical and digital technology companies are making historic levels of profits as well. That’s just a little flashback into history that can provide an inspiring point of reference. Thanks.

Elain Zuckerman (GenderAction): Great to see my old friends on the panel. I would like to bring into the discussion the issue of debt. There’s a lot of discussion about debt restructuring and postponement which I feel is completely inadequate. We’re talking now about COVID recovery loans and I feel that they reduce fiscal space, they cause cutbacks in social spending, at least historically they always have, and I believe they will going forward, despite IFI promises to the contrary. I know some of the folks on the panel have long thought about this issue and I would like to bring it into the mix and get their comments on that.

EB: Thanks so much, Elaine, also just to go back to the tax question and then move to the debt issue. So  on tax, we have to be fair that we have seen some positive movement from the Fund coming out with language that is more geared toward progressive taxes, especially coming from HQ and some of the flagship reports that they’ve been putting out. We saw the Fiscal Monitor last year, one of the flagship reports of the IMF, talk about the need for taxing wealth and taxing more progressively, and in a very small handful of countries we are seeing that come through at country level. However, if you look at the bulk of the IMF’s tax policy advice at country level in surveillance and in lending agreements, it’s not there. It is still overwhelmingly focused on VAT and different types of consumption taxes and so we’re asking, and have been asking for a very long time, for the Fund to move much faster on that, especially now with the urgency of the pandemic that makes this question more urgent now than ever.

More specifically in terms of the gendered impacts of tax reforms, so far, we have seen the IMF, as far as I’m aware, do only one in-depth impact assessment of a conventional tax reform, looking at the impacts of a tax reform on certain gender gaps, specifically female labour force participation and the gender wage gap. That was really good step. That was in 2017 in Argentina in the Article IV. At the time, that was a really good step for the IMF to demonstrate understanding that something like a conventional tax reform has gendered impacts, but we want to see those type of impact assessments happen much more regularly for much more policies, so that you can see that there are these harmful impacts to move away from and put this paragraph 26 into practice.

On debt, I mean I can’t agree more with you Elaine, of course, that the really restrained fiscal environment is what is causing some of these really difficult decisions that policymakers are facing right now. Part of that is because the Covid-19 financing that has been made available has mostly in terms of loans and not grants. The IMF has offered some debt cancellation through their CCRT, but if you look at the big picture, as you said it’s nowhere near enough. It’s part of why a lot of feminists are asking for a major SDR allocation and have been asking that since last year, which could help relieve a lot of these fiscal constraints. In the lead up now to Spring Meetings, we are expecting some movement on the SDR decision, but at the same time we are not hopeful at all that the allocation will be anywhere near large enough because of political constraints. So, I couldn’t agree with you more that there is a reason why we’re facing these fiscal constraints and that those are very much the results of decisions by policymakers, mostly the major shareholders of the IMF and World Bank.

CP: Thank you so much, both for that those comments and interventions. We also had a comment in the chat box that the IMF should review their standards and conditions especially to global south countries.

Emilia Reyes (Equidad, Women’s Working Group on FFD): Thank you so much, I just wanted to congratulate all of the panellists and the organisers of this event. I was just saying that it is quite clear that the IMF seems to be irrelevant or inadequate, at this stage in time because feminists have been evaluating the impacts of macroeconomic policy on human rights and gender equality and also how it’s deepening poverty, with those continued IMF recommendations it just seems to not to catch up. It’s not actually just inadequacy, what the IMF is doing is really deepening inequalities and human rights violations and that is really concerning.

So my question specifically was how to move forward the process of linking the IMF and actually the World Bank, as well, with human rights binding bodies. I recall hearing from the World Bank as well that they cannot engage with human rights because human rights are political while they are a technical body. That is laughable because human rights also have a technical dimension, precisely applied to either norms or for policies. So that is my question how to move forward with this amazing conversation, we just started here. Thank you.

MB: I can very quickly comment on the measures that the IMF takes during interventions within a given context, for example, when structural adjustment is happening and certain subsidies are being alleviated. Nowadays, these measures are usually paired with certain measures which are supposedly aimed at supporting the most vulnerable, such as the creation of safety nets. The trouble with that, aside from the fact that the actionability of the item is not direct, the identification of who these vulnerable groups are is not very feasible materially and how this vulnerability is to be alleviated economically on an individual basis rather than on a grander scale where the economy is reformed also remains unclear. Focusing on those safety nets therefore fails many communities in practice. But beyond that, in terms of the framework, that is not a framing that is rooted in a human rights approach, rather it grants minimalistic support, almost like a humanitarian assistance type of approach, and we would need to attend to that as we attend to grander reforms.

CP: Thank you so much. I do see another comment and great suggestion in the chat box, that feminists have been having this conversation for some time. It would be great to hear from the Fund and Bank representatives on these issues, and your thoughts and what you’ve heard so far. I see there are some in the room. Please feel free to turn on your microphone or raise your hand.


CP: If there are no interventions from our colleagues at the IMF and World Bank, I will go to final comments. We had invited some IMF representatives to join our panel but unfortunately they had conflicting commitments. We hope to be able to continue these conversations and move this forward and make those connections between macroeconomic policies and international human rights obligations.

RS: I think that states have a really heavy responsibility to uphold their human rights obligations under the CEDAW convention. As member states of the IMF, they have a voice and agency and they need to use that within the IMF and the World Bank to ensure that that they uphold their side of the bargain. At the end of the day I see state parties as being very responsible for IMF policies, they thus have capacity to do something about this and I think state parties really have a very onerous obligation that they must live up to in both respects.

Finally I want to speak to this issue of illicit financial flows, which I think is a very important because illicit financial flows undercut tax revenues within countries. There must be interventions by state parties and IMF policies to speak to this issue of tax evasion by high-net-worth individuals and tax avoidance and to see how this can also enable a more progressive kind of taxation that has public revenue outcomes that are beneficial to women’s human rights and public services. Thank you.

BM: When we are talking about fiscal justice and the Fund’s impacts on human rights, economic and social rights, gender equality and the pandemic recovery, it is important to situate the IMF within a larger transnational global constellation of actors and forces and contingent relationships.

I am talking about the imperative to look at the way international capital markets function and the need for most developing countries to access external financing and borrowing from international capital markets, as well as the powerful role that credit rating agencies playing we see that today.

Even many low-income countries that can access debt relief from the G20’s quite inadequate scheme, oftentimes don’t due to the fear and the anxiety of a negative credit rating from credit rating agencies, which increases their terms of borrowing and exacerbates difficulties in accessing capital markets and external borrowing.

I’d also like to highlight the role of capital account management, also known as capital controls, and the fact that there is a normative economic environment that does not allow for the implementation of capital controls. This plays a huge role in the Fund’s ‘signalling power’ to the opposite effect that Emma mentioned earlier, the Fund using its signalling power to send messages to international capital and financial markets, credit rating agencies, that prohibit many developing countries over the years from implementing fiscal policies that serve the public sector, that serve the human and economic and social rights of its people, especially its most marginalised.

These dependencies and contingencies in the international financial architecture must be considered at the centre of it because what we have seen, especially in the past four decades, is a slow but steady normalisation and internalisation of fiscal consolidation.

The bias towards fiscal austerity measures in order to stay in the good books of international capital markets and credit rating agencies is an immense invisible elephant at the centre of our global economy.

To close with saying that economics is not a perfect science. It is not an objective, rational, or true science in the real world, it is deeply implicated with sociology, anthropology, history and politics. One of my favourite quotes of all time is that economics is just politics and technical drag. We must remember that economics has real world impacts and the academic predisposition to look at it as a science is at the root of this separation we see between economics, macro policy and human rights impacts. Thank you.

CP: Thank you so much for that powerful summary and flagging that issue that had not been raised yet about credit agencies. I know there was recently a special rapporteur report specifically on the connection between credit agencies and human rights. That’s a very important element that we should be considering as well.

Chantal Umuhoza (SPECTRA – Young Feminists Activism, Rwanda): Thank you so much this discussion, its really important. I’m speaking to you from Rwanda. I think the point that Emma shared that the IMF does not adopt or implement human rights instruments or framework brings into question how do we then hold them accountable? If they are not able to adopt and implement these human rights instruments, we can hold our states accountable, but then we are left holding ourselves accountable for impacts that are caused by these macroeconomic policies that are sometimes, directly or indirectly, imposed by international financial institutions.

If I can give an example. In most countries, more recently in particular but it has always been an issue, I am developing recommendations on passing minimum wage policies, but there is hesitancy to adopt these because these policies are seen as potentially discouraging investment. Discouraging investment is seen as something that cannot be trusted, in part because of the role of these international financial institutions. So, we can hold our states accountable to things that they do not implement, but indirectly or directly actually, this is a result of the impact of the IMF.

I think in the end, like on the media-side for instance, we have to go further and question why these international financial institutions are not held accountable for human rights? Is it a matter of their mandates or statutes? Why is it not possible that they can be held accountable? Can you please tell us that? We have to go further to question ourselves on these issues.

In terms of these institutions really impacting countries, that is no longer a debate, that is not something that is new. It is just fact. The question now is what do we do about it? What is the relevance of these institutions, if what they do is continuing to cause inequalities and gender inequalities to be more specific? I’m not providing any solutions, but just more questioning about the why and what we do about that. Thank you.

CP: Thank you so much. I think the issue of accountability is a really great place to end the session, thinking about what accountability ability means, how we achieve it and the role that human rights mechanisms can have in moving towards accountability. More importantly, as the speakers have all raised in different ways, justice for women around the world and particularly in the Global South, and a redressing of the historical roles and underlying causes of discrimination.

With that, I think that we can close for today. We’re hoping that this will be the first of many conversations that we will have with the Bank, with the Fund, and most importantly directly with civil society and women’s human rights organisations. Thank you again. Have a wonderful evening, day, afternoon.