IFI governance


Transformative policy pathways: Lessons from feminist economics programming for the IMF

10 October 2023 | Minutes



  • Wangari Kinoti (ActionAid)


  • Bhumika Muchhala (Third World Network / The New School)
  • Monique Newiak (IMF)
  • Jessica Mandanda (Feminist Macroeconomic Alliance Malawi)
  • Riska Koopman (Global Alliance for Tax Justice)


Wangari Kinoti: Despite widespread calls by feminist networks and their allies in wider civil society for a feminist just transition, the rhetoric of ‘building back better’ deployed by many governments and international financial institutions after the devastation of Covid-19 has so far rung hollow.

Rather, the reversals to gender equality gains caused by the pandemic – as women lost livelihoods, took on increased unpaid care burdens, endured intensified levels of gender-based violence, among others – are being exacerbated by surges in food and energy costs, devastating impacts of climate change, and a debt and austerity crisis.

These impacts reverberate along intersecting lines of gender, race, class, caste, geographical location, migrant status and other dimensions of structural oppression, with black and brown women from the Majority World impacted most.

Such a state of affairs underscores the woeful shortcomings of mainstream macroeconomic institutions and approaches for redistributing resources, including GDP metrics and growth-based indicators? and enabling governments to meet their commitments to human rights and gender equality.

Within this challenging context, feminist networks and scholars continue to urgently demand a shift to economies that prioritise care, human rights and wellbeing of people and the environment, over the blind pursuit of GDP and economic growth.  As well as recognising, valuing and reorganising the fundamental role of social reproduction, such a shift would mean redressing the systems of oppression embedded in our economic structures, systems and institutions. Feminist economic alternatives, decent work, transformative care-responsive policies, tax justice and climate justice are also key decolonial feminist demands within this agenda.

To discuss different policy pathways and experiences from programmes for a feminist just transition, this roundtable convenes speakers from academia, civil society organisations and the feminist economic justice movement. Through examples of research, strategies, and alternative policy pathways for transitioning towards feminist economies at national, regional and global level, this space will facilitate mutual learning on shifting towards feminist economic alternatives in contexts of entrenched power.

Monique Newiak: We provide debt analysis, but in terms of where we don’t have expertise like in childcare etc, we don’t focus on this. Getting gender disaggregated data, on the new Action Aid report on SDRs. It’s going from policy advice but also to analytics.

Wangari: Some initial reflections, let’s begin with Jessica. What is your perspective from Malawi?

Jessica Mandanda: I’ve realized the need to define the terms that are thrown around, particularly ‘gender mainstreaming’. There is a UN framework on this. First and foremost, the IMF should assess impact of their own policies on gender. A gender assessment would understand Fund’s role within the UN human rights framework. IMF was founded as a specialized agency of the UN, needs to abide by international law incl. human rights law. Should have guidelines to follow, including on economic, social and cultural rights. If the Fund had properly done this assessment, would have understood that austerity have greatly undermined these rights.

Because of fiscal adjustment, governments have not been able to achieve their SDGs or guarantee those rights, finance public services, rights to health, education, need a functional public service system. Gender inequality has been greatly affected by IMF advice to cut spending to public services, esp. The public wage bill, for countries like Malawi very heavy negative impact, women are dying, spike in maternal mortality, we are going backwards.

If we have a conversation around gender strategy, IMF needs to start defining what mainstreaming is, the current strategy is not that, it is a pinkwashed version. In civil society gender mainstreaming means something completely different than what is in the strategy.

Wangari: Bhumika, your work is really anchored in feminist economics as a knowledge system. Please reflect on what previous speakers have said.

Bhumika Muchhala: What I want to highlight is that we acknowledge that the IMF gender stategy does engage with gender impacts of macro policy, great to hear there will be more on monetary policy, gender data and GRD are some of the highlighted in the strategy. Why gender budgeting is not sufficient and structural, and advances instrumentalization of women and not wellbeing / rights based economy: it is a public financial management tool that allocates the existing budget, doesn’t imply increasing the pie, it’s not expanding public expenditure or increasing fiscal resilience. Or changing IMF’s strict rules of low inflation, debt to GDP ratio targets.

Decolonizing neoclassical economics discipline that has reigned hegemony over past 40 years. Structural flaws in the macro models, metrics, assumptions. Neoclassical model completely excludes social reproduction, gendered labour to reproduce, mainstain and invest in human society.

Second, embedded short termism in all IMF’s approaches, instead of medium to long term. It obstructs creation of fiscal space, because it requires a long term framework. Vast array of empirical evidence that investing in long term public financing of health, education, generates long term equity impacts and wellbeing, decent work, higher family incomes, future tax revenues. But these gains come in the long term.

Women’s labour force participation, IMF doesn’t account that average aggregate demand problem – increased employment is not the same as gendered wellbeing if women continue to carry the load of unpaid labour and if the conditions of labour are poor. Positive links between employment and wellbeing / women’s economic rights are not given, because a key factor of women’s labour force participation is labour exploitation. This needs to be unpacked. It’s about access to universal social protection, social services, access to resources etc.

Singularity of GDP as primarily indicator of progress, fails to examine what is produced, how, and who it benefits. It’s time that we confront the fact that GDP completely discounts the care economy, quantified at 11 trillion, 76% of which is undertaken by women. From a feminist economics perspective, the physical, emotional labour of women is uncounted, it is a subsidy to the formal market economy and reinforces structural patriarchal inequality.

Wangari: As we start to talk about transformative policy pathways, need to take into account social reproduction, short termism, GDP as a measure, limits of gender budgeting.

Riska Koopman: Challenges with IMF gender strategy, want to detail the failures in recognizing women’s unpaid care and reproductive work. In 2010 the World Bank approved 3.7bn loan to South Africa’s Eskom coal fire station. The influx of (male) workers led to rise in HIV numbers. Health care afforded to the community was restricted to mine / construction workers, not locals, local clinic system was not prepared. Negative impacts on air quality. One of the loan conditions was using cleaner technology for the coal production, but never really happened, South Africa never reported on it, WB never asked. The public asked. Whilst this project failed, more IFIs have given the same project more money, Chinese Dev Bank, NDB.

Bhumika: It’s well established that the quid pro quo of fiscal consolidation is the key issue. The palliative measures of mainstreaming gender through data provision and budgeting approaches os not sufficient. Fiscal consolidation across the developing world is a reality, high debt distress, extremely destructive deficit targets. In Sri Lanka the EFF includes primary deficit target to be reduced from 3.8% in 2022 to 0.7 in 2023 and tax revenue of 10% o GDP. These are extreme targets that require deep public expenditure cuts, in the context of debt distress, increasingly regressive tax system, 80% through VAT / indirect tax, VAT was raised from 8 to 15%. The context of gendered austerity is a key concern. Fund needs to address that systematic human rights impact assessments need to be taken & published. Need strong commitment to do no harm, concrete operational guidance, safeguard, recourse mechanisms, instead of advising countries and doing gendered conditionality. Need inward looking reflection of bread and butter IMF policy and accountability. Connects to lack of voice of developing countries in IMF governance, systemic issues in the world such as capital account liberalization is the norm in the world. Capital flows can travel so easily that most dev countries have to comply to restrictive inflation & deficit targeting because of the omnipresent threat of capital outflows that cause crises.

Might not be in the remit of the gender strategy to address these systemic issues, but need to make clear that IMF working on gender requires a deeper look on how the macro framework is designed overall. Increasing fiscal space: can do progressive taxation, long term public investment. Need to do deficit financing, counter cyclical, even in the context of debt.

Jessica: For Malawi, neoliberalism was adopted in 1980s, 20 years after independence, from being colonized to being under economic colonialism. Have implemented several programs since then, SAP led to Malawi experiencing one of the worst periods of hunger. The economic model imposed by the IMF & World Bank simply has not worked. 4 main areas of impact: 1. Austerity, 2. Public sector wage bill, 3. Regressive taxation, 4. Unjust debt. To give a clear example, Malawi one of the poorest countries in the world, women very present in public sector. Because public employment has been capped, gov not allowed to pay women a living wage or hire more.

Malawi is one of the countries in debt distress, prioritize debt service over health & education system, debt service highest share of public budget. Re-emergence of polio, cholera. Have been decreasing public budget allocated to health sector, during covid unable to bring more people into health sector to respond, Malawi is one of the countries that received the leftovers of the vaccine. Somebody has to close the gap. Neoliberalism banks on the existing patriarchal dynamics, gender norms and neoliberalism formed this toxic relationship, when government makes IMF agreement the first thing they cut is public services and social protection, because people who need these most are women and marginalized people, the burden of that falls onto women.

If we look at alternatives: moving towards more progressive taxation. Go back to colonialism, looking at IMF board, global south underrepresented. Voting power ridiculously low given the impact. How can we have any power to hold our governments accountable. Power dynamics embedded in that, go back on the taxation system to push to tax the rich, and redistributing that wealth.

Riska: Global financial architecture is skewed towards the global north.

Wangari: Monique, from your experience as a country representative and in other IMF offices in Africa, and your newer role. What does this sound like to you? What would feminist economic approaches for you? Are there opportunities for this at the IMF? How can you ensure that the policies do not continue to undermine women’s rights and gender equality?

Monique: Thank you so much, we should talk more often. We have more overlaps than contradictions. Want to pick up some of the points you made.

First, I agree 100% it is not about employment and pulling everybody in the labour market. It should be about a level playing field, whether labour market or not is secondary – we started with this issue because it is the most closely tied to the mandate. But behind that are the many other issues, care burden etc., labour market is a means not an end. The goal is to have a country specific approach to see what is the main constraint and then focus on that, for many it is not labour force participation, but e.g. in CAR it was on peace building, GBV.

On financing, have worked in the region 11 years, we have always argued for grant & concessional financing, but global context is very tight. If there is more debt, countries pay more on debt, you want to avoid a spiral between more financing, more debt, interest rates, crowding out rest of budget. In Sierra Leone and others, always argued for grant financing, CCRT to relief LICs from their payments to us, SDR allocation, trying to channel some of these funds into projects that can help address some of these development challenges.

On the gender front, you are right we need to understand more what the implications of our policies are, we are working on that. I am asking you to help us, give us time, please keep sending us your reports. We are expanding our research, e.g. on fuel subsidy and tax reform, want to roll that out more broadly. Analytics not just on fiscal front, vision is to have a gender lens on all reforms, to understand the gendered implications including of fiscal consolidation. It’s still a new work stream, but this is where want to go.

Completely agree on progressive taxation, not only on gender but distributional consequences in general, also other tools to collect data and develop tools, and then moving. Specifically at country level, let’s talk to country teams, not just during mission but also before that.


Questions and Answers

Jennifer Lipenga (Akina Mama Wa Afrika): Civil society sent a rejection letter of the IMF gender strategy last year, we are back here a year later raising the same concerns. Are there specific commitments at the IMF to address some of these? We want to know specifically what actions are being put forth?

Buky Williams (Akina Mama Wa Afrika): Question for the panelists: This topic is really important, but the linkages with health & education spaces is not really connecting with the work you are doing, e.g. on SRHR. Do you have examples of how to connect economic justice space to other feminist advocacy spaces?

Celeste (Action Aid): If you look across countries, every one is trying to increase domestic revenue, see high incidence of taxation on women in rural communities. When we advocate for more taxes how can we make sure it does not negatively impact women and rural communities. Proliferation of different taxes.

Lebohang Liepollo Pheko: What would it mean to decolonize the global economy away from white supremacy capitalism. Secondly tax mobilization, tackle tax dodging. Reinstating state protections, pivoting from export led economies, re-institute state protections and market guarantees we had for farmers, artisans, women after independence. Wellbeing, gender responsive budgeting, rethinking towards a feminist wellbeing budget.

In terms of reparations, what would the prospects be not just for climate but also labour that women have given to the economy over centuries, such as compensation for unpaid work, reproductive work, nursing, teaching, as well as for gender pay gap.


Monique: Thank you Jennifer, we took the letter very seriously. One part was go further than labour force participation, we already look at many other topics like education, financial access, GBV. We are drafting an interim guidance note hopefully released this year, with indicators etc.

Impact of our own policies: it’s work in progress, Monetary Policy Paper, fuel subsidies & taxation paper will be made publicly available, Middle East training center will present toolkits, the goal it to publish them.

Because the mandate is on macro, it’s really hard to get away from the fiscal discipline, working on this now to look at social protection, social spending in programs, coming out in 2024. When you look into country reports, you see a lot of issues already covered.

Progressive taxation: it’s actually always the first advice, a lot of background work is done through technical capacity building, the question is always is it implemented. Often done in capacity development but not much ends up being implemented by authorities. Role of international institutions, everybody think they have the best advice, but when countries do a national development plan, they put in their own interests. In one country, did a mapping on which development partners are involved in which area, 20 partners in each area, sometimes contradictory – it’s too much for the government, they can’t talk to everyone, so they end up choosing to listen to a few. These collaborations always work better when it comes from the countries’ initiative, not when it’s driven by development partners.

What I don’t want you to forget is that we care, please continue to criticize and let’s talk about solutions within the constraints we are facing. Our team deeply care about this issue, we want to make it work, and we want to work with you to make it work.

Jessica: My quick response to Buky is that all states are under the obligation to make sure that all health services, including reproductive rights, to ensure accessibility and affordability of these services. Conditionalities undermine states’ abilities to guarantee these. The core impact of the neoliberal agenda is women’s bodies. That is where the solutions must start from. My closing statement is the only way to do this is to push forward the feminist wellbeing economy and remedy these impacts.

Riska: Yes, countries are trying to increase their domestic resources, easiest way to do this is progressive taxes: corporate, wealth, capital gains. Draw back on regressive taxes, consumption taxes. Increase domestic resources: resolving global tax rules, tax havens and IFFs, race to the bottom on regulations, e.g. special economic zones.

Closing remark: The more things never seem to change, it’s gotten worse, we are still doing out job, acting as a watchdog and pushing for a better tomorrow.

Bhumika: To address Lebohang’s question. When we talk about feminist fiscal justice, addressing the systemic organization of neoliberal financial capitalism through Power. Power is structural and knowledge. Structural: rich countries have drained 152 trillion from Global South since 1960, not even talking about colonialism. Imperialism never ended, just changed form. Interest rates shaped based on risk premium, precisely because our regions have faced economic struggled from colonialism, we are penalized in higher interest rates. These legacies require redressing that structural power. Nothing better defines that than the power of creditors, more than 25% of public budget in developing countries goes to them, they are some of the richest individuals and institutions on the planet. Financial subordination was a huge point of focus furing GFC, currency hegemony of USD, regulating exchange rates, investment-friendly deregulation that is now driving force of climate finance. This sort of embedding is happening right now, increased by debt and climate crisis, they are used for further entrenchment.

When we talk about colonial legacy, talk about how the narratives, knowledge systems, have been distorted to construct the global south as investment destinations, as sites of extraction. My one sentence: there is no amount of evidence and facts that can disconfirm the vested power of finance.

Wangari: Thank you also to the 11+ organizations involved in this panel and the work you are doing.