Gender progress at risk as new World Bank president enters pushing private-sector focus

19 July 2023

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt meets World Bank Candidate Ajay Banga. Credit: Rory Arnold / No 10 Downing Street

In the lead up to the appointment of Ajay Banga as the new president of the World Bank, it was no secret that many Bank watchers were highly critical of the choice of candidate (see Observer Spring 2023). His lack of experience in international development, his veteran status in the corporate finance world and his expressed preference for public-private partnerships (PPPs; see Observer Autumn 2022) rang alarm bells for many, particularly those concerned with gender equality.

The recent global pandemic laid bare the essential role of public services, including healthcare, social care and education, and the importance of maintaining universal protection schemes, most notably for women (see Briefing, Learning lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic: The World Bank’s macroeconomic policies and women’s rights). This, and a steady flow of evidence highlighting the necessity of publicly-funded essential services as well as the gendered effects of austerity measures, was not enough to stop the Bretton Woods Institutions (BWIs) from returning to business as usual, and to recommend policy prescriptions that encouraged damaging and avoidable austerity for ‘client countries’.

A new report by ActionAid UK, launched in May, with evidence from Ghana, Kenya, Malawi and South Africa, highlights the critical importance of public services that are gender responsive. Noting the role of the World Bank in the ongoing privatisation of services and cuts to public spending in these countries, the illustrated guide sets out how women’s and girls’ rights are impacted when public services are of poor quality, privatised or cut, particularly in situations such as the current intersecting crises – inequality, climate, health, education, conflict and debt – alongside the Covid-19 pandemic. The report stresses that we must “keep public services public by resisting pressure to privatise.”

Privatisation cause for concern

The World Bank, through its private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), has been repeatedly criticised, including by UN human rights experts, for the harms caused by its investments in for-profit social services, including healthcare and education (see Observer Summer 2022). For instance, the IFC’s support for Bridge International Academies, for-profit K-12 schools, was found by the Bank’s own Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) and others to have resulted in poor quality education, accusations of sexual abuse and abuse of power, lack of transparency and inadequate conditions for both pupils and teachers. A June report from Oxfam exposed the harms of World Bank investment in for-profit healthcare models, particularly for women, noting “Profit maximization objectives in healthcare bring inherent risks to public health and patient rights”, highlighting evidence that, “in countries across the world, the higher the share of private financing for health, the higher the rate of women’s deaths.”

The post-pandemic economic forecast remains bleak and global leaders and social movements have increasingly joined calls for reform of the international financial architecture (see Dispatch Springs 2023). New World Bank President Ajay Banga believes the answer lies in mobilising more private finance, despite the wealth of evidence underscoring that this approach has not generated the promised trillions or resulted in inclusive development outcomes (see Observer Spring 2020).

As the formal consultation process for the Bank’s new gender strategy finally begins in July following multiple delays, women’s rights organisations are concerned about the Bank doubling down on privatised solutions to social services provision under Banga’s leadership. They fear its consequences for the decades-long civil society fight to see the Bank recognise the gendered harms its macroeconomic policies and focus on privatisation have caused (see Briefing, Gender Just Macroeconomics, the World Bank’s Privatisation Push). Chikumbutso Ngosi, of ActionAid Malawi, stressed how important it is for women to “understand the unequal ways in which macro economic policies operate [and] how this connects with their rights to access gender responsive public services.”