1 week ago

A gender lens must be at the heart of World Bank Group reform

The authors of this position document, a group of civil society activists, women’s rights defenders and feminist economists, are issuing an urgent call to the World Bank’s board and gender team. The World Bank Group and its incoming president must expand the current gender strategy ‘update’ to a broader review and reform of the Bank’s approach to gender. This must involve including gender as a central tenet of the ‘Evolution Roadmap’ and engage the Gender Team in the process.  

As the Bank embarks on an ambitious reform path towards becoming fit for purpose in the next decades crucial to tackling climate change and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, and as the patriarchal Gentleman’s Agreement maintains its grip on the presidential selection process, gender is quickly falling to the wayside. While the gender team, headed by Hana Brixi, is investing time and effort into the strategy ‘update’ in parallel, this process must be integrated and closely aligned with the wider reform process. Currently, they are separate. The word ‘gender’ is mentioned only once in the Evolution Roadmap draft, and the Bank’s recently published Paris Alignment methodology is equally lacking a synergetic approach to deliver gender justice, economic justice and climate justice. There may be commitment to transforming and deepening the Bank’s mission to address poverty and to move with the times on the climate crisis, but without integrating a gender and inequality lens, real transformation will remain elusive. 

At this crucial moment, when the Bank’s strategy to address gender inequality for the next six years hangs in the balance, we are seeing delays to the Gender team’s consultation process and no clear justification of why the four pillars of the existing gender strategy remain the priority in today’s global context of intersecting and worsening crises.  

Research from members of the End Austerity Campaign has shown that 85% of the world will live under austerity measures in 2023 and beyond.1 This will scale down key social protection systems, cut or cap the wages and number of teachers and healthcare workers, eliminate vital subsidies, privatize public services, and reduce workers’ rights as countries aim to achieve the ideal ‘business enabling environment’. Women will once again be the shock absorbers of such policies. Relying on private sector investment in care services and focusing Bank programmatic efforts on micro-level ‘economic empowerment’ and ‘labor force participation’ will not achieve gender equality if the public systems and services essential for women to be free of precarious work, address uneven care responsibilities, and access quality health and education are weakened under fiscal consolidation.  

The Bank, from board to department level, must collaborate with the gender team to review the harmful gendered effects of the World Bank’s macroeconomic policy. It must learn from and adopt the plethora of critical analyses and policy alternatives to existing macroeconomic policy that are offered by Southern feminists, grassroots and country-level organizations, heterodox feminist economists and women’s rights champions.  

Recently published research by civil society organizations Gender Action, Friends of the Earth and Urgewald ranked 13 major International Financial Institutions based on the strength of their gender policy goals and safeguarding frameworks, including mandate, staffing, operations, monitoring and integration of multiple aspects of gender inequality, such as care work and gender-based violence, into their operations.2 The World Bank scored near the bottom on almost every indicator. 

Previous research from the Bretton Woods Project highlighted that, because the environmental and social safeguard framework does not apply to World Bank lending through Development Policy Financing, the bulk of the Bank’s lending and associated ‘prior actions’ are effectively ‘gender blind’, as gendered social impacts are not monitored3. To avoid undermining even its own micro-level gender goals with gender blind macro-level policies, the Bank needs to apply a structural gender lens both as part of its ‘Evolution’, and as part of the gender strategy update.   

There is a fine line between seeking to redistribute power and capacity to give people agency and putting the onus on individuals to determine the quality of their own life. The Bank’s primary focus on ‘voice and agency’ and ‘challenging gender norms’ without seeing this complemented by a strong focus on making macroeconomic structures more equitable risks perpetuating a neoliberal idea of individualism and idealizing that hard work equals success. This isolates and atomises women’s struggle without the power of collective action in the context of intersectional, systemic and structural inequality that requires structural solutions, not another fund for women entrepreneurs. 

It is encouraging to see the gender team welcome civil society feedback over the past months, particularly in relation to seeing increased investment to “walk the talk internally”, and in exploring the possibility of a macroeconomic assessment of wider Bank work as one of the proposed thematic policy notes. Bank leadership must get behind the gender team to achieve more, and commit to an ambitious gender agenda to effectively close key gender gaps and not exacerbate harms to women and girls.  


Asks for Gender Strategy Update 

  • The World Bank Group and its incoming president must commit to including gender as a central tenet of the ‘Evolution Roadmap’ and engage the Gender Team in the process.  
  • Similarly, the gender team should align the gender strategy update process with wider Bank reform and ‘meet the moment’. The development of the new gender strategy should be ambitious, challenging the Bank to rethink its neoliberal approaches and seek synergies in its transformation to deliver real strategies for “ending poverty” and promoting “shared prosperity” in the 21st century. 
  • All existing thematic pillars’ relevance must be empirically assessed, their success and challenges investigated, and trade-offs between different strategic priorities evaluated. Thus far, evidence to support chosen new themes for the gender strategy update has been lacking – e.g., it is unclear what research has confirmed that “challenging gender norms” is the best use of Bank time, resources and expertise.  
  • To address structural barriers to gender inequality, the Bank should complete an assessment on the gendered effects of its macroeconomic policies over the past decades and provide a thematic policy note, which will inform the creation of an additional strategy pillar. 
  • A more thorough strategy review requires inward-looking gender impact assessments of the Bank’s macroeconomic approaches, and learning lessons from research that demonstrates the trade-offs, inequality impacts and historical failures of the Bank’s ‘Maximizing Finance for Development’ approach. 
  • Make sure that the next gender strategy includes follow-up mechanisms and action plans.  A robust and multi-dimensional results framework that also addresses macro-economic policies should be in place. Further, commissioning both outcome-focused and impact evaluations at country and global level is warranted, following recommendations from the IEG gender strategy mid-term review.


List of References 

  • Akina Mama wa Afrika and WEMOS, ‘The Africa Medical Equipment Facility (AMEF): Does this new blended finance facility contribute to equitable access to healthcare services?’ 2022. 
  • Bretton Woods Project, Briefing: ‘The World Bank and gender equality: Development Policy Financing,’ 2019.  
  • Gender Action, ‘IFIs’ Rhetorical Gender and Climate Promises’, 2023.
  • Ortiz and Cummins, ‘End Austerity: A Global Report on Budget on Cuts and Harmful Social Reforms 2022-25′, (London, UK), 2022.    
[Position paper developed with the Gender and International Financial Institutions (IFIs) working group. It was shared during the World Bank and IMF Springs meetings in Washington DC].

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