IMF’s Interim Guidance Note on Mainstreaming Gender fails to address negative gendered impacts of IMF austerity

3 July 2024

Anti-austerity protest In Dublin (Ireland), 24 November 2012. Credit: William Murphy.

The International Monetary Fund’s Interim Guidance Note on Mainstreaming Gender is the latest step in the institution’s stated commitment to mainstream a gender lens across its operations. Following years of advocacy by civil society organisations (CSOs), feminists and activists, particularly those from the Global South, exposing the negative impacts of IMF policy advice and conditionality on women and girls, the IMF released its first gender strategy in 2022, almost a decade after it extended its remit to cover gender (see Observer Spring 2022).

The IMF’s ‘gender mainstreaming’ occurs against a backdrop in which progress towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality (SDG5) has been reversed, and according to the guidance note, “medium-term global growth prospects are at their lowest levels in decades.” The Note’s instrumentalising of gender policies as “new engines of economic growth” assumes a positive correlation between growth and gender equality and, as Farah Galal from MENA Fem Movement for Economic, Development and Ecological Justice argues, “frames gender equality purely as a means for economic growth which cannot be the sole metric for gender justice.”

Decades of IMF-promoted austerity policies have had a demonstrably negative impact on human rights and have failed to improve debt-to-GDP ratios – engendering worse outcomes for low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Crisis ridden middle-income countries who heavily rely on IMF borrowing are in addition forced to allocate a greater percentage of GDP towards debt repayments in the form of surcharges (see Inside the Institutions, What are IMF Surcharges?). This cycle of debt and crisis has led to further fiscal consolidation measures being demanded by the IMF, including shrinking the public sector, lowering public wage bills and increasing regressive taxation, which, in turn, have a negative impact on gender equality. Galal argues that by not recognising this, “the document fails to address how the IMF’s austerity-based economic reform programmes and debt burdens disproportionately affect women in the Global South. These policies frequently result in cuts to social safety nets, healthcare, and education – areas that are critical for women’s well-being and empowerment.”

Civil society critiques of the IMF’s 2022 gender strategy and the 2018 ‘How to’ gender note to staff focused on three main elements of the IMF’s work on gender: lack of a uniform methodology in identifying gender ‘macrocriticality’ (i.e. issues the IMF considers key to growth and macro-financial stability); the robustness and transparency of data collection; and absence of engagement with feminist economists, civil society and agencies with gender expertise (see Observer Spring 2022). Core recommendations are that the IMF should refrain from entering policy areas that are not within its field of expertise, and should cease demanding a neo-colonial gender conditionality which infringes upon the autonomy of countries in the Global South. Instead, it should abide by a principle of ‘do no harm’ across its work, and consider alternative policy approaches including counter-cyclical policy advice that departs from austerity measures (see Briefing, The IMF and Gender Equality: A Compendium of Feminist Macroeconomic Critiques).

Making women work for the economy, or the economy work for women?

The guidance note is stage two of three of the IMF’s gender mainstreaming process. It attempts to establish models for the kinds of issues staff will incorporate into a gender analysis, which will serve as the basis for stage three’s full guidance note to be published in 2026. Its guidance to staff is not mandatory, and staff are advised to incorporate policy advice into the IMF’s three areas of work: bilateral surveillance (Article IV reports), loan conditionality and capacity building. The fact that incorporating gender is not mandatory and the choice between conducting ‘light touch’ or ‘deep dive’ gender analysis lies with IMF country missions raises questions about evenhandedness – uniformity of treatment among countries (see Observer Autumn 2013).

The note provides examples of gender ‘gaps’, which demonstrate engagement with areas of feminist economics, including informal labour and unpaid care work, although as Galal argues, it fails to “acknowledge the intersectional nature of gender with other signifiers like race, class, and geography.” Other issues covered, such as social and cultural “norms” and legal status, do not fall under the IMF’s expertise, raising questions about the robustness of its approach to what constitutes macrocriticality, which risks instrumentalising rights-based issues such as gender equal access to social, political and legal structures.

Although progress has been made on the recognition of some gender issues, the examples of ‘light touch’ and ‘deep dive’ policy advice comprise a narrow field of policy approaches. Private finance, public-private partnerships (PPPs) and financial inclusion are uncritically put forward as policy solutions without mention of the demonstrable harmful impacts that typically accompany them (see Observer Winter 2023), and where there is reference to the negative gendered outcomes of broader macroeconomic approaches, the focus is on mitigation measures such as cash transfers, which have been proven to be limited in their effectiveness, rather than alternatives.

Finally, the note states that fostering external collaboration is “a critical pillar of the gender strategy”, yet lacks concrete requirements for staff to consult with civil society, feminist economists or the UN human rights system. Galal argues that the document “positions the IMF as the sole arbiter of what constitutes ’good practices’ for gender integration. This disregards the expertise and lived experiences of feminist activists and local civil society organisations in the Global South, reaffirming the optional nature of the choice to consult with them.”

For the IMF’s gender strategy to meet its stated aims, genuine heterodox or feminist economic policy measures need to be adopted. Such measures, in addition to meaningful consultation and transparency in data collection are crucial for progress to be made towards SDG5 and in poverty reduction, inequality, and climate and gender justice.