Social services


World Bank’s new gender strategy: Concerns about approach to social protection and gender-blind macroeconomic reforms remain

21 July 2022

Families wait to see a nurse to vaccinate their children at the Howard Karagheusian primary health care center, in Beirut, Lebanon. Credit: Dominic Chavez/World Bank

With the World Bank’s current gender strategy set to expire next year, hints of the focus of the new strategy are keenly anticipated. While the Bank has confirmed that development of the strategy is yet to begin, a focus on care and social protection has emerged in its gender work. One challenge for the Bank will be to stop undermining the targeted work of the gender team with fiscal consolidation and regressive tax-focused loan conditions in its Development Policy Financing. The Bank’s current gender strategy, for fiscal years (FY) 2016-23, focuses heavily on themes such as improving human endowments, removing constraints for more and better jobs and removing barriers to women’s ownership and control over assets. Civil society have criticised the strategy’s instrumentalist approach to women’s empowerment, the lack of a system of accountability, and the absence of a macroeconomic lens (see Observer Winter 2016).

IDA20 replenishment provides insights into direction of travel of Bank’s gender work

Possible insights into what may lie ahead can be gained from the 20th replenishment of the International Development Association (IDA), the Bank’s low-income country arm, in December 2021, where a range of gender policy commitments were made. The Gender and Development special theme contains a commitment to support “at least 15 IDA countries to expand access to quality affordable childcare, especially for low-income parents,” which has resulted in the creation of a Childcare Incentive Fund.

A briefing note for the Childcare Incentive Fund makes clear that it will seek to both expand public provision of childcare, as well as support for ‘non-state’ actors, including ‘chains of private providers’. However, recent negative outcomes of the Bank’s support for for-profit education providers (see Observer Summer 2022) and privatised healthcare (see Observer Summer 2022), raise serious concerns that the fund will serve as a vehicle for further Bank-promoted privatisation of vital social services. Fiana Arbab of Oxfam International commented, “It is deeply concerning to see expectations of the ‘nonstate sector to expand provision’ including for-profit enterprises, and ‘chains of private providers’ in the Bank’s current draft concept note on the Fund knowing there is significant evidence from for-profit models in the K-12 education sector that demonstrate when there are fees, no matter how low, certain income groups are excluded. For-profit models should therefore be avoided altogether due to the gender and economic inequality and quality of provision impacts.”

For-profit models should therefore be avoided altogether due to the gender and economic inequality and quality of provision impacts.Fiana Arbab, Oxfam International

Bank must ensure its macroeconomic policy does not undermine gender equality

The Bank also risks overriding more targeted gender efforts if its macroeconomic policies remain gender blind. The Bank continues to support austerity policies through prior actions in its development policy finance instrument (DPF; see Inside the Institutions, What is World Bank Development Policy Financing?; Briefing, Learning lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic: The World Bank’s macroeconomic policies and women’s rights), which have a particularly negative impact on women and girls, as the burden of stretched household income and reduced public services is felt mostly by them. The continued adherence to fiscal consolidation and touting of for-profit “alternatives” in the midst of severe crises contradicts the Bank’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals and risks undermining its own gender targets.

Elsewhere, civil society has critiqued the implementation of current Bank social protection policies. In a June 2020 report, UK-based consulting firm Development Pathways highlighted the contradiction between the World Bank’s stated focus on ‘universal social protection’ and evidence of its continued promotion of a targeted approach to it. The Bank has a history of advocating for the implementation of targeted, means-tested protection systems, which can lead to significant targeting errors, often not reaching those who need support the most (see Observer Spring 2018).

On the World Bank’s work going forward, Mareen Buschmann of Care International UK noted, “Covid-19 has rolled back progress on gender equality by a generation, and for instance increased the time that women and girls spend on unpaid care and domestic work by a further 30-40 per cent… We’d encourage the Bank to go beyond childcare, expand the country portfolio to 25-30 IDA countries accelerating action, invest in creating decent care jobs, and integrate a gender lens across recovery from crisis, be it from Covid, conflict or the climate emergency.”