World Bank’s New Gender Equality Strategy: Concerns About Gender-Neutral Approach to Social Protection and Macroeconomic Reforms Remain

With the World Bank’s current gender equality strategy set to expire next year, hints about the direction of the new strategy are eagerly awaited. While the Bank confirmed that the development of the strategy has not yet started, a focus on care and social protection has emerged in its work on gender. One of the challenges for the Bank will be to stop undermining the targeted work of the gender team with fiscal consolidation and regressive tax-focused lending conditions in its development policy financing. The Bank’s current gender equality strategy, for the 2016-23 financial years, has a strong focus on themes such as improving human endowments, removing constraints for more and better jobs and removing barriers to women’s ownership and control of assets. Civil society criticized the strategy’s instrumentalist approach to women’s empowerment, the absence of an accountability system and the absence of a macroeconomic lens (see Observer Winter 2016).

IDA20 replenishment provides insight into the direction of the Bank’s work on gender equality

Possible glimpses of what lies ahead can be drawn from the 20e replenishment of the International Development Association (IDA), the Bank’s arm for low-income countries, in December 2021, where a series of gender policy commitments were made. The Gender and Development Special Theme contains a commitment to support “at least 15 IDA countries to expand access to affordable, quality childcare, especially for low-income parents,” which resulted in the creation of a Childcare Incentive Fund.

A briefing note for the Childcare Incentive Fund makes it clear that it will seek both to expand public childcare provision, as well as support ‘non-state’ actors, including ‘provider chains’ private”. However, the recent negative results of the Bank’s support to for-profit education providers (see Observer summer 2022) and privatized health care (see Observer summer 2022), raise serious concerns that the fund will serve as a vehicle for further privatization of vital social services promoted by the Bank. Fiana Arbab of Oxfam International commented: “It is deeply concerning to see the expectations of the ‘non-state sector to expand supply’, including for-profit companies and ‘private provider chains’ in the draft note the Bank’s current conceptual approach to the Fund, knowing that there is significant evidence of for-profit models in the K-12 education sector that demonstrate that when there are fees, no matter how low however, certain income groups are excluded. For-profit models should therefore be completely avoided due to the impact of gender and economic inequalities and the quality of supply.

For-profit models should therefore be completely avoided due to the impact of gender and economic inequalities and the quality of supply.Fiana Arbab, Oxfam International

The Bank must ensure that its macroeconomic policy does not undermine gender equality

The Bank also risks bypassing more targeted gender efforts if its macroeconomic policies remain gender blind. The Bank continues to support austerity policies through prior actions in its Development Policy Financing Instrument (DPF; see Inside the Institutions, What is World Bank Development Policy Financing? ; Report, Learning lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic: World Bank macroeconomic policies and women’s rights), which have a particularly negative impact on women and girls, as the burden of stretched household incomes and reduced public services is felt primarily by them. Continued adherence to fiscal consolidation and promotion of for-profit “alternatives” amid severe crises contradicts the Bank’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals and risks undermining its own equality targets genders.

Elsewhere, civil society has criticized the implementation of current Bank social protection policies. In a June 2020 report, UK-based consultancy Development Pathways highlighted the contradiction between the World Bank’s stated emphasis on “universal social protection” and evidence of its continued promotion of a targeted approach. in this regard. The Bank has long advocated for the implementation of targeted and means-tested protection systems, which can lead to significant targeting errors, often not reaching those most in need (see Observer spring 2018).

Regarding the World Bank’s future work, Mareen Buschmann of Care International UK noted: “Covid-19 has set back progress on gender equality by a generation and, for example, increased the time women and girls spend an additional 30-40% on unpaid care and domestic work… We encourage the Bank to go beyond childcare, to expand the country portfolio to 25-30 IDA countries by accelerating action, investing in the creation of decent care jobs and integrating a gender perspective into the recovery from crisis, whether from Covid, conflict or the climate emergency.

Joel C. Hicks