The IMF gender strategy: Will it lead to real change for women’s rights?

6 April 2022

The socio-economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic has reversed women’s rights gains by several decades, as reported by the UN, civil society and media, while the World Economic Forum stated that “another generation of women will have to wait for gender parity” as closing the global gender gap has moved another 35 years away. Meanwhile, a new wave of IMF-supported austerity policies threatens to unravel progress further, as the Fund’s power and influence have surged in the crisis.

Against this backdrop, the IMF is developing its first ever gender strategy, under the leadership of recently appointed Senior Gender Advisor Ratna Sahay (see Observer Summer 2021), with the ambition of integrating a gender lens across the IMF’s core lending, surveillance and technical assistance operations. A 23 March joint statement from civil society and women’s rights organisations set out key policy demands for the strategy, calling for the Fund to critically assess the gendered impact of its conventional fiscal, monetary, structural and labour market policy advice and to revisit its macro-economic paradigm.

Gender equality is good for the economy – but is the opposite also true?

Following an open letter signed by nearly 100 civil society organisations (CSOs) calling on the IMF’s executive board to support meaningful consultation on the strategy’s development, the Fund opened an online public consultation on 10 February, and published a concept note summarising its aspirations. The note reflected some past civil society demands, although critical gaps remained. For example, the impacts of fiscal austerity, regressive taxation and labour flexibilisation on the feminisation of poverty have been highlighted by the women’s rights movement and feminist economists for decades, with many calling for systematic gender impact assessments of IMF-promoted macroeconomic reforms, in line with the 2019 UN Guiding Principles (see Observer Spring 2019) and countries’ human rights obligations. The IMF started considering gender as a macro-critical issue a decade ago, concentrating its research and policy pilots on the economic gains from gender equity, while refusing a human rights mandate.

The implicit assumption of gender-blind austerity policies is that women will absorb the shock of fiscal cuts.Bhumika Muchhala, Third World Network

The concept note acknowledges that, “the IMF is a late comer to the field of gender,” emphasising the urgent need for the IMF to consistently address gender disparities and assess “how macroeconomic and financial shocks and policies affect men and women differently.” Analytical models – previously lacking complexity – to predict the gender-specific effects of macroeconomic reforms are to be refined, and collaboration with experts, including academia and civil society, expanded, aligning with recommendations from the IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office. Most importantly, the concept note echoes a 2018 IMF staff guidance note on operationalising gender, which stressed that “at the very least, IMF policy advice should not exacerbate gender disparities” (see Observer Summer 2021; Briefing, The IMF and Gender Equality: Operationalising Change).

Despite these assertions, little light was shed on the effects of Fund-endorsed macroeconomic policies on gender inequality, women’s poverty rates, care burdens and ability to access decent work, nor on the IMF’s intentions to measure and address them. Without this analysis, the Fund risks undermining even its own narrow goals to promote growth through women’s economic empowerment, as reforms meant to bolster women’s productivity may be offset by other gender-blind policies.

Instead, the note asserted the IMF’s ambition to scale up its country-level policy advice and loan conditionalities pushing members to close gender gaps deemed to affect the macro environment. This could mean the Fund assuming a new role as a global expert body on gender issues in macroeconomic policy – a highly problematic development without a much more serious examination of gendered effects of other policies promoted by the Fund, such as its continued focus on fiscal consolidation, export-led growth, liberalised capital flows, central bank independence, and financial deepening. Austerity will impact 6.6 billion people in 154 countries in 2022 (see Observer Autumn 2020), while “the implicit assumption of these gender-blind policies is that women will absorb the shock of fiscal cuts,” according to Bhumika Muchhala of Malaysia-based CSO Third World Network. A 2 March letter by four UN Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts on debt, development, and human rights stressed that, “Adding a gender strategy to a host of other strategies and an operating system which are gender-blind will not help address the needs of women and girls and end the systemic drivers of their disadvantage and exploitation.”

What a commitment to ‘do no harm’ means in practice

The statements by both UN experts and civil society called on the IMF to lay out an institutional framework committed to pursuing an “alternative policy mix” that upholds women’s economic and social rights from the outset. Professor Diane Elson of the University of Essex stressed that “it should be mandatory for all loan conditions to be subject to an ex-ante gender impact assessment. Where this reveals a likely adverse impact on gender equality, the loan conditions should be revised.” Ultimately, this should result in a more fundamental revision of the Fund’s policy framework to systematically promote alternative policies that maintain the enabling conditions and fiscal space required to address structural inequality. “Public expenditure should not be viewed as ‘consumption’ but ‘investment’ in the public goods required for women’s human rights, such as health, education, and social protection,” explained Muchhala.

The continued lack of committed resources in the IMF’s operational budget to meaningfully scale up its intersectional gender analysis and required staff capacity remains a key bottleneck. Gender was clearly deprioritised in the most recent IMF work programme, the 2022-2024 mid-term budget and the 2021 Comprehensive Surveillance Review (see Observer Summer 2021).

Given these constraints, meaningful and proactive engagement with the vast body of existing expertise and lived experience held by women’s rights groups, civil society and feminist economist scholarship will be crucial. “Since the IMF is coming ‘late to the game’ by their own admission, it’s even more critical that they get up to speed on the extensive analyses of feminist economists who have already done the work,” emphasised Pryanthi Fernando, executive director of International Women’s Rights Action Watch (IWRAW) Asia Pacific. Partnerships with other expert organisations should be formalised, documenting shared objectives and the delineation of mandates, and the IMF should participatively develop a civil society engagement policy.

While the strategy is set to be published in spring 2022, civil society will closely monitor its implementation, and continue to hold the IMF accountable on women’s rights.