The World Bank Group’s (WBG) current approach to gender mainstreaming places importance on two motivating factors to address gender inequality: Reaching perceived untapped economic gains from getting women to participate formally in the market economy, and to realise related development goals on health, education, and livelihoods, as well as on food insecurity, climate change, and conflict and fragility. The Bank considers mainstreaming gender issues to be a “shared commitment across the institution.” However, a private sector led approach pervades much of the Bank’s gender work, risking friction between its commitments and its wider impact on gender inequality.
In 2012, the World Bank published its first World Development Report (WDR) focusing on gender equality and development. The main message was that “Gender equality is a core development objective in its own right. It is also smart economics.” While this annual flagship report has previously been hailed for its inclusion of self-critical reflections as a “watershed moment” (see Observer Spring 2012), more recent iterations have been subject to criticism from civil society for lacking scrutiny.
In the decade since the release of the WDR, gender work has expanded significantly at the Bank. The Bank houses a labyrinth of gender-related operations. The Umbrella Facility for Gender Equality (UFGE) is a multi-donor trust fund established in 2012 which claims to “leverage expertise across the Bank and International Finance Corporation (IFC) [the Bank’s private sector arm] to generate diagnostics, inferential research, pilot programs, innovative interventions, and impact evaluations,” and “emphasise close collaboration with governments and the private sector.” It funds Gender Innovation Labs which produce nationally and regionally specific research and impact evaluations. The IFC also has a dedicated gender unit, which conducts research on the ‘business case for gender equality’ and provides investment and advice to companies on diversity and inclusion. The Bank’s ‘Women, Business and the Law’ (WBL) project has been collecting national data on laws and regulations affecting women’s economic opportunity for the past eight years to build a global index, published in annual reports.
The Bank’s current gender strategy, Gender Equality, Poverty Reduction, and Inclusive Growth has been guiding its gender work for the fiscal years 2016-23. The strategy focused on four pillars of work: Closing gender gaps in human endowments, jobs, asset ownership and control, and voice and agency. Civil society groups have voiced concerns regarding 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).
Civil society criticises misalignment between private-sector-first approach and women’s rights
Despite the significant expansion of the WBG’s gender work over the past decade, civil society critics argue that the disconnect from the Bank’s macroeconomic policy work and the Bank’s private-sector-first approach continue to exacerbate gender inequality. Having asserted in 2012 that “gender equality is smart economics”, the WBG continues to maintain that, “Gender equality is a longer-term driver of competitiveness and equity that is even more important in an increasingly globalized world,” and has put its force behind partnerships such as Ivanka Trump’s financial intermediary fund, Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi), which offers loans to target so-called “high-growth women”(see Observer Summer 2019) that were highly contested by civil society.
The Bank’s Maximizing Finance for Development (MFD) approach, and its more recent iteration, the Green, Resilience and Inclusive Development (GRID) framework, have focused on crowding-in private investment into development finance, limiting the role of the state to facilitating private investment through ‘de-risking’, essentially transferring risks away from the private sector and onto the state and public finance (see Observer Summer 2021, Summer 2017). However, private sector actors do not share states’ obligations to maximise investment in human rights and gender equality under the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In focusing primarily on creating an “enabling environment” for greater private investment through country programmes, the Bank chooses market-based solutions over other approaches to development that put the fulfilment of women’s human rights first. Civil society groups have voiced concerns about the current 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).
Furthermore, the Bank continues to support austerity policies and fiscal consolidation, including through prior actions in its development policy finance (DPF) instrument, which lacks adequate Poverty and Social Impact Assessments to avoid these policies having negative gendered impacts (see Briefing, The World Bank and gender equality: Development Policy Financing). When states implement austerity measures such as cutting the public sector wage bill, public service provision in areas such as health, care, housing, transport, and universal social protection systems, women shoulder a disproportionate level of the burden through loss of jobs, access to basic services, and increased unpaid care work (see Briefing, Learning lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic: The World Bank’s macroeconomic policies and women’s rights). Civil society has provided extensive evidence to highlight the gendered impact of these reforms, such as Belgium-based CSO Eurodad’s 2019 report, Flawed conditions: the impact of the World Bank’s conditionality on developing countries.
However, the Bank often fails to account for the potential negative gendered impacts of macroeconomic reforms, undermining its own gender equality goals, as demonstrated in case studies of Ecuador, Kenya, Ethiopia, Jamaica and Gabon (see Briefing, Learning Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic).
Looking forward, time for self-reflection
As the current World Bank gender strategy period nears its end, the Bank is now initiating a consultation period to update it. The strategy review will take place against the backdrop of a period of hardship for women, girls, and gender minorities, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the rising cost of living globally and the shrinking of public services through new waves of austerity, pointing to the need for new and transformative approaches to gender inequality.
However, the Bank has expressed satisfaction with the trajectory of the existing strategy’s four pillars, stating that they “remain relevant and are especially important in light of COVID-19 setbacks and the severe overlapping crises of climate change, fragility, and food security.” The upcoming review of the strategy will therefore be officially known as a ’Strategy Update’. A webinar series run throughout 2022 called ‘Accelerate Equality’ showcased Bank achievements over the past decade and hinted at the direction of the 2023 Strategy Update, yet providing little space for critical input from civil society. While the Bank is expected to focus on topical issues such as food insecurity, gender-based violence and the importance of intersectionality in contemporary gender discussions, what many really want to see is the recognition of structural gender inequality reified by the Bank’s neoliberal macroeconomic policy prescriptions and its private sector-led approach (see Observer Summer 2022), as the first step toward reforms that would lead to a more ‘fit-for-purpose’ approach to gender mainstreaming.