Lagging behind: World Bank and IMF rank poorly against other IFIs as their approach to macro is still gender-blind despite reform promises

5 April 2023

World Bank Group President David Malpass and IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva at the Annual Meetings 2022, Washington DC. Credit: World Bank photo collection

A newly released report by civil society organisations (CSOs) Gender Action, Friends of the Earth and Urgewald shines a light on the inadequacy of the World Bank and IMF’s gender and climate policies. The January report scores the robustness of International Financial Institutions’ (IFIs) gender policies and Environmental and Social Frameworks (ESF) in their ability to substantially advance gender equality, as well as gender-sensitive climate policies, with the IMF and World Bank coming last.

The paper ranks 13 major IFIs based on the strength of their gender policy goals, mandate, staffing, operations, monitoring and integration of multiple aspects of gender inequality, such as care work and gender-based violence, into their operations. On safeguarding frameworks, it investigates the inclusion of gender as a cross-cutting topic of analysis in social risk assessments, debt and accountability. The report stressed that “while strong implemented gender- and climate-sensitive policies are essential to prevent harm to men, women, and sexual and gender minorities affected by IFI loans, the IFI paradigm promoting austerity and privatization of public services, from infrastructure, to energy, water, education and more, and debt incurred by IFI loans, stymie IFIs from living up to their ‘development institution’ label.”

Both the IMF and World Bank scored poorly, especially the Bank’s “nearly gender-blind” 2018 ESF. Civil society has long criticised the fact that the Bank’s ESF (see Observer Winter 2018), which sets out environmental and social safeguards of Bank-financed projects, does not apply to its loan operations through Development Policy Financing (DPF) (see Observer Summer 2020). Therefore, DPF loans without targeted gender goals lack systematic assessments of their gendered social impacts, making a large share of the Bank’s lending operations effectively gender-blind (see Briefing, The World Bank and Gender Equality: Development Policy Financing).

"The World Bank and IMF’s approaches are mired in an instrumentalist economic growth framework that benefits corporations over livelihoods and basic needs, especially women’s”Elaine Zuckerman, Gender Action

Co-author Elaine Zuckerman of US-based Gender Action stated that BWIs’ approaches are “mired in an instrumentalist economic growth framework that benefits corporations over livelihoods and basic needs, especially women’s,” with gender and climate strategies that “neglect the Bretton Woods Institutions’s persistent overarching neoliberal policy requirements that indebt borrower countries, and austerity mania that shrinks and privatises public sectors and services.”

World Bank’s wider ‘evolution’ agenda largely gender blind

The new research comes as all eyes are on the World Bank to make a transformative effort on gender equality and climate in line with recent promises of reform. With the early resignation of current President David Malpass, diverse voices are calling for a feminist president and an end to the regressive ‘gentleman’s agreement’ (see Observer Spring 2023; Background, What is the ‘gentleman’s agreement’?). Instead, the US has chosen another male American citizen and investment banker, Ajay Banga, and letters criticising and even rejecting outright the anointed frontrunner have come thick and fast.

Meanwhile, the Bank’s Evolution Roadmap, launched as a response to requests from shareholders to explore reforms, lacks a focus on gender and safeguards. This furthers concerns that the upcoming World Bank Gender Strategy Update will see the Bank continue its outdated ‘Smart Economics’ approach to addressing gender inequality (see Inside the Institutions, The World Bank’s approach to gender mainstreaming) instead of acknowledging and addressing the demonstrably harmful gendered effects of its macroeconomic policy (see Briefing, Learning lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic: The World Bank’s macroeconomic policies and women’s rights). This was also highlighted in an open letter signed by over 50 CSOs in December 2022.

As the World Bank’s promised reforms take centre stage at the Spring Meetings in Washington DC in April, the IMF prepares to implement its own controversial gender strategy – which women’s rights groups recently rejected as “pinkwashing” and illegitimate “mission creep” (see Observer Winter 2022, Spring 2022) – and the world celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this year, the BWIs must commit to taking a more critical approach to their existing gender and climate promises, and adopt some of the plethora of solutions provided by civil society.