WBG gender strategy risks undermining new human rights language with continued private sector bias

4 October 2023

Cover artwork showing World Bank blue globe cartoon painting itself in pink

After months of delay, the World Bank has finally launched the consultation process for its new gender strategy. However, civil society organisations (CSOs) remain concerned that the plan falls short of offering a much-needed rethink of how the Bank’s neoliberal policy orthodoxy has negatively affected women and girls. Bank-watchers worry the institution’s focus on gender will wane as attention turns to the Evolution Roadmap, the Bank’s response to the polycrisis and the fresh agenda of  new Bank President, Ajay Banga (see Observer Summer 2023, Spring 2023).

While the draft strategy includes some promising new human rights language, overall, it remains rooted in the logic of a private sector-led approach to development. The strategy builds on three objectives: (1) to end gender-based violence (GBV) and elevate human capital; (2) expand and enable economic opportunities; and (3) engage women as leaders. Much of the language feels like a rewording of the four pillars of the existing gender strategy and is likely a reflection of the Bank’s initial plan to merely ‘update’ the previous strategy, instead of drafting a new one following pressure from civil society in recent months.

Civil society has long criticised the Bank’s instrumentalist approach to women’s empowerment, the lack of accountability in assessing gender impacts across all operations, and the absence of a macroeconomic perspective on gender (see Observer Winter 2016). The strategy draft references the Maximising Finance for Development (MFD) approach throughout, mirroring its deepening in the Evolution Roadmap despite its poor track record (see Observer Summer 2023). Just as with the Roadmap draft, the Bank seems unwilling to root its strategic processes in a genuine analysis of evidence, demonstrated by a 10-year retrospective report launched in June, which primarily discusses the worsening of women’s rights and poverty as the result of external events, thus absolving the Bank of any responsibility for the crisis. Instead, the strategy’s use of private-sector logic remains prevalent, describing women in terms of ‘human capital’ – language that centres profit-driven motives as the Bank’s primary justification for investing in gender issues. Nowhere in the document is the public sector or public spending mentioned without reference to the private sector, an approach unlikely to change under new President Ajay Banga’s private finance push (see Observer Summer 2023).

The World Bank's draft gender strategy claims progress while entrenched in neoliberalism, neglecting its role in perpetuating gender inequality. Real change requires introspection, recognizing women as empowered individuals whose rights must be prioritized, not mere assets serving private sector interestsGrace Namugambe, SEATINI-UGANDA

Macro and real structural analysis still missing

Unlike the existing strategy, the new draft discusses gender in terms of “power dynamics” and “structural limitations”. Yet, it refers only to the fiscal affairs of “client countries”, failing to extend this analysis to the Bank’s own role in promoting neoliberal policy conditionality. Civil society critics continue to argue that the Bank will undermine its targeted gender efforts if its macroeconomic policies remain gender blind and unaccountable. Grace Namugambe of Uganda-based civil society organisation SEATINI commented, “The World Bank’s draft gender strategy claims progress while entrenched in neoliberalism, neglecting its role in perpetuating gender inequality. Real change requires introspection, recognizing women as empowered individuals whose rights must be prioritized, not mere assets serving private sector interests.”

Despite research showing that 85 per cent of the world’s population will live under austerity measures in 2023, often on explicit advice of the Bank and Fund, fiscal consolidation impacts are not mentioned once in the strategy. This will undoubtedly spark concern for many, given that the strategy claims to “respond to the global context.” Such conditions will erode key social protection systems, cut or cap the wages and number of teachers and public healthcare workers, eliminate vital subsidies, privatise public services, and reduce workers’ rights as countries aim to “B-ready” for a ‘business enabling environment’ (see Observer Summer 2023). Women will once again be the shock absorbers of such policies. The Bank continues to support austerity through prior actions in its development policy finance instrument, which have a particularly negative impact on women and girls, as evidenced in a January report by US-based organisation Gender Action (see Inside the Institutions, What is World Bank Development Policy Financing?).

The strategy’s continued focus on “advancing women’s participation, decision-making and leadership” risks promoting the neoliberal idea that women are responsible for their own circumstances, while ignoring structural conditions that are often at the core of gender inequality. The strategy seems determined that equality of opportunity to participate in economic activity is the solution to gender inequality. Yet, it is well documented that ‘meritocracy’ does not account for intersections of class, race, age and gender, a concern given the new strategy’s focus on intersectionality.

Moreover, the assumption that women are not already working is inaccurate, and the focus on economic growth as a macroeconomic solution to gender inequality is misguided. This has been demonstrated by recent evidence highlighting that gross domestic product (GDP) is a blunt instrument for measuring whether an economy delivers positive net benefits for women and girls. An August report by Oxfam found that 65 per cent of women’s weekly working hours globally are unpaid and excluded from GDP calculations. Anam Parvez Butt, lead author of the report, commented: “The report highlights how feminist and decolonial alternatives to GDP that capture all economic activity (paid, unpaid, formal and informal), inequality (within and between countries) and socio-ecological wellbeing need to guide policy making rather than a flawed metric that invisiblises care and nature. Additionally, the strategy should challenge rather than reinforce narratives around the market economy representing the entire economy which it currently does through highlighting the underrepresentation of women in the labour force and framing GDP growth as universally positive.”

Bank should seize opportunity of Marrakech for structural challenges of 21st century

Evidence that the Bank’s gender team responded to some civil society calls is visible in the draft strategy. On the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), gender equality is acknowledged as a human right “at the core of development”. The draft notes that gender equality and women’s empowerment are enshrined in Sustainable Development Goal 5 and in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The extensive focus on tackling GBV throughout is framed through human rights language, which some will see as a direct response to recent calls from CSOs to swap references to women as “human capital” with a rights-based approach to discussing gender equality (see Observer Summer 2023).

October’s World Bank and IMF Annual Meetings in Marrakech, Morocco, offer a space for the Bank to expand its commitment to gender further. The Bank should commit to gender impact assessments of its macroeconomic approach, learning lessons from research that demonstrates the trade-offs, inequality impacts and historical failures of the Bank’s market-led policy paradigm. This should include analysis of the gendered impacts of public-private partnerships and blended finance as a financing mechanism for public services (see Briefing, Learning lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic: The World Bank’s macroeconomic policies and women’s rights). The Bank must complete an impact assessment of the gendered effects of its macroeconomic policies over the past decades, utilising resources beyond those of the limited gender team. After all, it considers mainstreaming gender issues to be a “shared commitment across the institution.”