- Âurea Mouzinho, Global Policy Advocacy and Campaigns Coordinator, Global Alliance for Tax Justice (GATJ)
- Ratna Sahay, Senior Advisor on Gender in the Office of the Managing Director, IMF
- Jennifer Porcari, Union Organiser, American Federation of Teachers (member of Public Services International)
- Roos Saalbrink, Policy Adviser on Economic Justice and Gender-Responsive Public Services, ActionAid International
- Jessica Mandanda, Gender and Communications Specialist, Feminist Macro Alliance Malawi (FEAM)
Aurea Mouzinho (moderator):
Our first speaker is Ms. Ratna Sahay. Ms Sahay is Senior Advisor on Gender in the Office of the Managing Director at the International Monetary Fund. She is responsible for mainstreaming gender in the Fund’s core activities-surveillance, programs, and capacity development.
Ms. Sahay, thank you for joining us. To start, I’d like to ask you to give us a brief overview of the IMF Gender Strategy. What issues pertaining to gender inequality does the strategy seek to address? Could you also comment on the extent to which the strategy takes into account the substantive evidence produced by feminist economists and gender activists on the adverse impacts of IMF fiscal consolidation policy advise on gendered inequalities?
Gender strategy was published in July, with concept note and consultation before. Thank you so much for your contributions to that, including a joint position paper. In that joint position you had 3 key asks: 1. Macro-economic paradigm shift rooted in do no harm; 2. Resources committed to scaling up gender expertise; 3. External collaboration. To varying degree, this input was incorporated. Starts with vision that reducing inequality goes hand in hand with greater growth, stability, resilience, lower poverty. This recognition based on ample evidence produced by our own staff and externally allows us to put this topic in the Fund’s mandate. At the same time, we recognize that economic policies can narrow or exacerbate inequalities. Incorporated your main point in our vision, which is very ambitious: integrate gender in all Fund’s work, identify gender impacts of IMF policy advice. Also making synergies to digitization, climate, fragility.
Our board enhanced our resources last year, but because they are still limited, implementation will be gradual. Also because we want to get it right, countries should have data & analytical tools to assess the impacts of shocks & policies, and receive training.
Last message on meaningful external engagement we incorporated fully, drawing on experience of other expert organizations. Have created a separate pillar in the strategy on this that wasn’t there before. We now have 4 pillars: 1. Data hub. 2. Internal governance framework to ensure even-handed approach & steady progress. 3. Strengthen collaboration with external partners for knowledge-sharing, peer-learning, and maximize impact on the ground. This is where your insight is most helpful for us. I have received many papers form you, we have been reading them very intently. 4. Allocate resources efficiently through central unit. They will build tools & models, brainstorm & review the work of teams that work on gender, serve as secretariat of internal structure to make sure we make steady progress.
Progress we already made: have the central unit not just for gender but inclusion in the SPR department. Stefania Fabrizio is the unit chief. Statistics department launched a data hub for IMF staff, will continue enhancing it. Looking to enhance gender indicators in financial access survey. Institute of Capacity Building did workshops with mission chiefs & staff, launched internal and external courses on gender and macro. Many other departments like FAD, Legal, MCM, also strengthening their work. We set up a Gender Working Group representing different departments, and a senior inclusion abd gender advisory group with top management & department heads to discuss work plans every 6 months. Started internal gender talks series. Will launch external advisory panel with feminist economists, based on recommendations from civil society. In talks with UN Women on which countries to focus on.
We are in times of crisis – Fund must focus on macro stability & fostering growth, that’s our main job. It’s for this reason that WEE gains macro relevance. Climate, war, food price shocks are widening gender gaps, disproportionately impacting women. Also know that investing in women is good for growth, employment and equality. Now more than ever it is critical to remove barriers in education, health, female labour force participation, care, legal rights, access to finance, low leadership representation in political and private sphere. Not only will women benefit, but less effort needed by authorities to reduce fiscal deficit and set in motion positive spiral. Risk of recession lower. Reducing gender gaps is key to rebuilding & restoring strong growth that will benefit everybody.
Our second speaker is Jennifer Porcari, a union organizer and Director of the Public Employees division at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). AFT is a member of Public Services International (PSI) and Jennifer has worked for the AFT since 1997. She currently organizes, mobilizes, trains and assists with the more than 125 government employee locals in the AFT.
Jennifer, can you tell us how austerity-related tax policies have impacted workers in the US, particularly through the relation between worker’s welfare and public services? What have been the implications on the care burden faced by women, particularly in most disadvantaged socio-economic groups?
First want to tell you about PSI – we are a global union federation, representing 20 million public workers. Austerity measures that have cut our public infrastructure and social safety nets around the world have negatively impacted all citizens but most disproportionately women and girls. Our federation recognizes that women are the building blocks of the care society, both in the formal workforce and informal work. For strong societies, we must have a strong care system supported by public services.
PSI has focused a lot of work on re-building this care sector. 5 Rs: must recognize the value, reward formal and informal care works are rewarded through good work & unionization, reduce the burden on women – can’t participate in formal work if they also do double duty with child care, elder are, nursing, education, redistribute work – this is not women’s work, this is human work. Must reclaim & restore public nature of this work. Around the globe post-pandemic, women are dropping out of the formal labour force at great numbers. Exacerbated by informal work of taking care of families & societies. Public employees take care of the common good of all of us in society.
Even in the US, care system is in dire need. Even now, conservative capitalists understand that if we don’t have a child care system that works, we won’t have workers to work. In the past years, 16000 childcare programs have closed in the US. 85000 childcare workers have lost their jobs of left work in last 2 years. Median wage for childcare workers is 13$/hours, only 1/5 have healthcare, 1/10 retirement. Government now investing but it will take years to build this sector up.
Trade movement understand that current care structure is unbalanced and unsustainable. No private employer can flourish without re-examining the formal & informal care needs, to build societies can’t continue to ignore care needs and have women shoulder the burden. Must be able to make realistic changes to support them.
We now move to our third speaker, Jessica Mandanda, who is a Gender and Communications Specialist and works with the Feminist Macro Alliance Malawi (FEAM).
Jessica, Malawi has a protracted history of engagement with the IMF. Since 1979, the country and the Fund have made 16 arrangements and negotiations for a new extended credit facility arrangement to support balance of payment challenges are currently underway. How have macroeconomic structuring policies resulting from IMF programmes and technical advice impacted women’s lives and livelihoods in Malawi? What, in your view, are the prospects for change that the new IMF gender strategy offers?
I’d like to start answering by outlining the current situation as it is in Malawi in light of the ongoing economic crises, whereas of last week, the situation has become quite detrimental to point that women are dying as a result of no power supply for the provision of quality maternal healthcare. For context, Electricity supply has been limited for many years and has been worsening especially in the last 3-5 years; largely as a result of damaged or inadequate equipment to generate power, and the subsequent lack of resources to repair the damaged equipment or the purchase of any new equipment, and so we have been “making do”.
But there is money coming into the country with IMF & WB loans – but they come with certain austerity measures including wage bill cuts, employment freezes on doctors, teachers, which then means someone has to fill the gaps, which happens to be women.
Like rest of the world, Malawi has not been exempt from crisis impacts. Already before Covid, climate, Russia war struggling, now exacerbated. Malawi has atrocious amount of debt, we cannot repay it. Majority of the debt is unjust, can’t retrace the origin. Every year money goes to repaying debt, reducing money available for public services, energy, water, health, education, has led to what we’re going through right now. Women now have to clean up the mess the IMF has caused. There is no funding for public services that are supposed to be provided by government, which they can’t do because of austerity. Women are now the healthcare providers, service workers, default teachers, not being paid for this. Security issues, gender-based violence, less public funding going to that. Health, because of austerity no public funding going to improve provisions, now doctors, women have to take care of the children, elderly, sick. When it comes to what this looks like is without women, that gap would not be filled.
What are the prospects for change the IMF gender strategy offers – it’s a nice effort, but questionable in terms of what exactly it’s supposed to do. If you read it carefully, what is the point of having a strategy that doesn’t take into account the impact of the IMF’s position in countries. It does not directly address impact of austerity measures and how this has impacted women. If we want to make this strategy functional, need to include this impact of austerity measures on women in the past years, and need transparency and accountability to the people. Have honesty on how we have found ourselves in a position where we owe so much money to institutions that have in turn worsened the economy itself. Need to take into account what feminist economists have been talking about in terms of the impacts of these measures on women in our countries.
Our final intervention will be from Roos Saalbrink, a feminist and economic justice advocate currently working at ActionAid International as Policy Adviser, supporting ActionAid’s work on economic justice with a particular focus on fiscal policy (tax, debt and austerity) and their impact on the financing of gender-responsive public services and social protection environmental policies.
Roos, PSI and ActionAid International has just launched The Care Contradiction: IMF, Gender and Austerity, a report that builds on a wealth of evidence that Action Aid has been producing on impacts of austerity policies on gender justice and women’s unpaid care burden. The report also provides a comment on the new IMF Gender Strategy. Can you briefly share with us some of the key insights from the study related to how austerity policies, in particular public sector wage bill cuts, turn women into ‘involuntary shock absorbers’ and ‘de facto care providers?
First, want to reflect on who is in the room and who isn’t, and the power differentials and what some of us had to do to be in this space and others who can’t.
The current economic policy responses to multiple crises on top of 40 years of public budget shrinking are reinforcing intersecting gender inequalities. The cost of these crises is being passed onto those who are least able to pay. Crises impact women, non-binary and marginalised groups from the Global South hardest through the enormous subsidy of unpaid care and domestic work. Unsurprisingly, we are seeing a stark regression of gender equality and women’s rights. I had the honour of talking to ActionAid International Board chair Hellen Grace Akwii Wangusa this week and she was telling me about her work in the 80s challenging the World Bank structural adjustment programmes in Africa and its harmful impact on women – as part the African women’s economic policy network – AWEPON – Now, I cannot speak for her. But my heart sank to my shoes, here we are 4 decades later talking about the impact on women – of economic policies made often without us.
With the IMF’s new strategy, important to stress the impact of these austere policies on women, including regressive taxation, labour flexibilization, privatization, public budget cuts, freezes to public sector wage bills, pension and social security reform, regressive consumption tax increases, along with lowering progressive taxes, reducing or eliminating subsidies; and the privatisation of public assets – with the express aim of decreasing public deficits and debts. Women are the shock absorbers. There is a triple disadvantage: lose access to services, decent work, unpaid care burden. Research by ActionAid, Public Services International and Education International found that IMF austerity cuts in just 15 countries in 2016 to 2021 the equivalent of blocked the recruitment of over 3 million nurses, teachers and other essential public sector workers. In just those 15 countries, the recommended IMF cuts add up to nearly US$ 10 billion.
This is undermining health and education outcomes, especially in the global South. Cuts to wages and restricted staff numbers often requires changes to how services are provided, what services are provided and who is eligible to use them. Ultimately, cuts reduce the availability, accessibility and quality of public services. Cuts exacerbate the barriers women often face in accessing quality public services, and cuts are often made directly to services that primarily benefit women: such as childcare, education, sexual and reproductive health and rights and maternal health.
For example, Nepal would need to hire 67.000 teachers to meet government education targets, while 40.000 teachers are on temporary contracts. Nepal has been under pressure to cut and freeze public wage bill, women paid 30% less than men and in temporary contracts. In Bangladesh, the health system is dominated by women, where more than 94 per cent of nurses, and more than 90 per cent of community health workers are women. These constraints compound the gender wage gap and wider economic inequality that plays out across women’s lives, including in relation to pension contributions and economic insecurity in later life.
Ghana undergoing debt distress, 17th IMF program, health spending already in sharp decline, share of public sector wage bill declining, debt servicing eroding the public budget. 41,000 unemployed nurses, over 47,000 vacancies in health sector. When cuts are made to public services such as health, elder, palliative and child care, the need for care does not disappear, the responsibility is simply transferred from public to private – through entrenched social norms: to women. A study by Muchhala and Guillem on Ecuador found that in 2021, 7 out of 10 women are time poor, 48% reported unpaid care work as their main activity. Unpaid care work not only subsidizes the economy but also state provision of public goods, state owes a debt for the labour of these women. Facilitating a regression of women’s rights and wellbeing, the accumulative impact of these austerity measures especially devastating.
The IMF should be doing more to grapple honestly with the contradictions between austerity and care: how public wage bill cuts undermine investments in public services – and the multiple impacts this has on women. In conclusion, the IMF needs to work towards truly recognising and accounting for women’s disproportionate unpaid care and domestic work, and acknowledge and commit to address how IMF bread and butter policy advice increases this burden, and thereby increases gender inequality, when public services and social protection are cut. At the very least, the IMF and ministries of finance should commit to ensure they do not harm women and do not undermine gender equality through any of their interventions. Systematic Gender human rights impact analysis of economic policies are key for this.
Questions & Answers
Mayeso Mazengera, Feminist Macro-Economic Alliance Malawi: You are commoditizing labour, women, as an input to growth, without speaking to the nuances of “why?” What is the wider impact? Care work is human work – let’s imagine we remove barriers, redistribute care work, it then means men also carry it and have less time to work. If we share the burden, we are still where we are which is people carrying the government’s burden.
Emilia Reyes, Equidad de Genero: I want to say: “Not in our name”. 13 organisations got together to reject the IMF gender strategy, have 60 endorsements so far. Reject the strategy and call on IMF to address the manifold harms through decades of fiscal consolidation, need to make change to IMF’s own austerity bias. We denounce the lack of comprehensive consultation with relevant actors, esp. women’s rights groups in developing countries. So-called consultations were tokenistic exercises without real interest in critical voices, these voices should have been centred. Also reject IMF’s colonial pretence expanding their presence in countries and undermining existing gender equality mechanisms and local expertise. Demand revision of IMF’s own governance. We reject this pinkwashing of the gender agenda to expand IMF’s presence.
Patricia Miranda, Latindadd: Instrumentalization of women for economic growth. We are concerned this is a one-way relationship. In LatAm have some of best decades in economic growth, there was no benefit for women in terms of reducing inequalities. Seeing the same now in recovery. How is the IMF going to address this relationship? Second question about debt and gender, not financial inclusion, because getting women indebted has huge risks. Our countries are prioritizing debt service at the expense of the vulnerable, where women are overrepresented. In what way are you considering a DSA with gender approach?
Rick Rowden, American University: Roos, can you talk a bit more about alternative fiscal and monetary policies you would like to see?
Ratna: Let me talk first to Emilia. I really believe you misunderstand the gender strategy. We did a wide, open consultation, we were ready to talk then and are now. It seems to me that there is a lot of rhetoric from the past. We are making a very genuine attempt to apply a gender lens to all our policies and activities, this is a big deal. I personally object to the consultation being tokenistic, read every comment, take you very seriously – we know you work on the ground, have a lot of information. Really think we need to have a dialogue, please reach out to us and we discuss. I feel you are not listening to us, invite you to have a dialogue bilaterally.
Mayeso – the goal is not making women a commodity. When we link empowering women to the goals that IMF care about which is growth, resilience, stability, we believe the direction is as follows: message we want to send is that the authorities need to remove barriers to economic opportunity. Many are linked to human rights – we may not call it that, but they are linked: labour, health, education, legal. Violence against women, you raised it, we went back and produced a paper to say it falls within our mandate explicitly. We think VAW of course is inhuman, but there is also an economic case. We should not get caught in this jargon of economic or human rights, but see where we have common goals – I see a lot of common goals.
Roos made a very powerful statement, austerity turning women into shock absorbers. I think that’s absolutely true. But we need to step back and look at why are there austerity measures, why do countries get there. It has to do with macro mismanagement that precedes them – if we are not there advising them on how to get their macro right, they won’t get funding. So if the economy has been mismanaged, involuntarily there will be fiscal consolidation in a very haphazard way. It’s better to do in a structured way. Over time increasingly a key message to all member countries is we want you to protect social spending on the most vulnerable. But we also want these countries to stop the mismanagement.
This question that you raised Patricia on debt service – the point that we want people to understand is empowering women will reduce your debt because it contributes to growth. We have to make the link, telling authorities that work on macro, that empowering women is the solution.
Roos: It’s not women’s role to solve the debt crisis. Ghana is in its 17th IMF program. It is not the case that the IMF is the innocent bystander that comes in now, the IMF has been there and giving that advice in loan programs but also Article IV surveillance. Growth focus has been pointed out by colleagues – role of GDP in these assessments is enormous, doesn’t take into account cost to the planet and women’s unpaid care work. Need a debt workout mechanism, need progressive tax measures – they are in IMF research. VAT harms women disproportionately. We want to see progressive taxes, especially seeing the wealth grab happening by these massive companies during the pandemic. Not on the fiscal side, investing in universal social protection and not the targeted approach mentioned in the strategy, because of women’s different ability to accrue pensions and their extra care work leading to old age poverty. Investing in gender responsive public services.
Mauricio Soto, IMF Fiscal Affairs Department: Let me start to say this is very important for us, we are a learning institution. When we talk about fiscal adjustment, we should step back and remember that IMF has been strong voice that fiscal should reduce inequality and strengthen social safety nets. Have to think about where universal vs. targeted is appropriate, how systems cover the population. Past years have been very difficult, covid, food, energy, war. IMF has been playing very critical role providing support: over 250bn in financial support, precautionary lines, have stepped up to this challenge. It is critical that women countries incur unsustainable debts, need medium term fiscal frameworks to tackle these self-inflicted wounds. Social spending strategy some years ago, compared countries with IMF programs and without. Education & health spending came down more in other countries. It is not true that the IMF is imposing these cuts, if you look at recent programs they include a lot of protections.
Roos, we agree with many points you make, that women make up a large share in public sector which tends to pay better because there is less wage discrimination – pays an equalizing role. But having a sustainable wage bill is important – you don’t want them to hire many more workers than they can afford. Glad ActionAid also thinks about revenue raising. Important to look at VAT as a package. Ghana, 20 years ago the expansion of the health care system, driving force was VAT. We also have lots of suggestions on increasing income taxation progressively. It is hard and we feel that countries really struggle, but the total collection of revenue is under 15% of GDP, there is very little countries can do and then have to rely on external financing. We have done some work costing how much countries have to spend to achieve SDGs: you would need 14-15% additional spending. Need to collectively think how do we close these loops.
Last thing in Malawi, a really difficult situation, in 2020 git close to 200 million without condition, now will receive additional funding from food shock window. Our team is regularly meeting with CSOs, recognizing you have lots of knowledge on the ground.
Two Egyptian graduate students: How were power relations with men considered in the strategy. What does “do no harm” mean? How can IMF commit to this in practice?
Bhumika Muchhala, Third World Network: Paragraph 18 in the strategy is on IMF will develop general equilibrium models for country advice. It’s really unclear the extent to which metrics and indicators beyond employment & growth will be considered. Clear emphasis on labour market participation, we know that Fund has long history of recommending labour market flexibilization, little consideration of informal economy and unpaid care. How does this modelling reflect any semblance of the implication of gender equality vis-à-vis the very significant effect of public services? Do they reflect the macro drivers of these gender gaps?
Emilia Reyes: This is an institutional dialogue, not personal. Find it really insulting that you are saying 13 organizations don’t know how to read. We have major questions on the fundamental premises of the gender strategy. Before IMF goes to fix the world outside, first should fix what it does internally. Gender equality is a human right, given democratic deficit of the IMF it has no standing, mandate, or knowledge to engage on gender.
Ratna: IMF’s presence on the ground is very limited. Have to rely on our external partners, that’s why collaboration is really important. So this community-based approach is what we rely on, also on feedback that we get from people like yourselves on what will be most impactful. On do no harm, we don’t use that phrase, but say something even more: our goals are quite ambitious. By applying gender lens are getting to do no harm, but also are there macro policies that can narrow these gaps.
On modelling, we are just starting out. The way we studied economics did not include this, it is a lot of effort, we are reaching out to universities for help, asking to do more work in this area. Already running into problems because of lack of data, many countries don’t have it, especially those with large gaps. We really want to get this right. The fact is that we were gender blind, so there have been unintended consequences. I want us to look forward, not to the past.
Emilia, I understand it’s not personal, I think we have misunderstandings, but we won’t know until we have a dialogue. Us making statements about you and vice versa feels is not helpful. If you are interested in a constructive dialogue we are there, please reach out. If you just want to make statements, that’s ok then we don’t engage.
Jessica: To come to a space to have open dialogue, cannot forgot and erase the past. The past has greatly influenced where we are today, we need to discuss that past to understand the true impacts and form constructive solutions.
Jennifer: When we talk about care it should be society determining this, need a public care network for countries, take pressure off informal care women provide so they can enter the economy.
Roos: Great to hear IMF is in favour of progressive taxation, let’s make sure it’s reflected in programs & advice. On looking at the past, it’s important that women’s movement have pointed out since SAPs that we need accountable financial architecture. Need a bigger vision for a feminist alternative for societies and economies for people and planet, for fiscal & tax justice, full recognition of unpaid care work, to make sure we have international institutions that can shape a fairer economy.