Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Incompatible objectives: Gender and the World Bank

The film Bamako puts international finance institutions on trial for crimes against humanity. Set in a family courtyard in Mali, it provides a forum for African voices to be heard. They bear testimony against the World Bank’s simplistic understanding of the causes of poverty – and the disastrous effects of its programmes on African society.

But is the World Bank truly evil or merely incompetent?

Let’s explore this through the bank’s new action plan entitled ‘gender equality as smart economics’ which was presented at the Commission for the Status of Women (CSW) at the beginning of March.

Prior to this, as part of the same initiative, the German Ministry for Development Co-operation hosted a World Bank seminar on women’s economic empowerment in Berlin (22nd-23rd February) at the same time as Bamako was being premiered in London. The event, one of Germany’s
programme of meetings in the run-up to the G8 summit, profiled female politicians, public servants and private entrepreneurs from north and south.

On the surface this looks like a promising development. However, for over two decades, feminist economists like Diane Elson have criticised the bank’s approach to economic development, in particular the specific adverse impacts on women. ‘Capitalism, imperialism and patriarchy are interlinked. Markets are not abstract cash nexuses - they are inevitably social institutions in which buying and selling is structured assymetrically to the advantage of some participants rather than others.’ (Male bias in the development process, 1990)
'An estimated 70% of the one billion people living in extreme poverty are women’ Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, Germany’s Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development)

And women’s organisations are not impressed with the new plan. Christa Wichterich of WIDE (Network Women in Development Europe)
suggests that the WB plan is not concerned with gender equality at all but with continuing to exploit female human resources to avoid market failure and distortion of competition. ‘What impresses most about the action plan is the one-dimensional thinking which places markets at the centre and not human beings - or the economic rights and potentials of women.’ Things, she says, haven’t changed in the last thirty years.

A historical perspective

To go back to basics, the WB is the largest and most powerful agency in the UN family, disposing of a programme of $20 billion a year. G8 countries are the largest contributors and size of contribution is related to voting power on the board. The bank gives loans not assistance, and the shareholders naturally expect to get their money back.

In comparison, other UN agencies such as UNDP have an annual budget of $4 billion or less and are increasingly chasing corporations for ‘public-private partnerships’ to support their work.

The World Bank’s gender action plan has a budget of US$25 million. To the ordinary woman on the street in Bamako, or even Birmingham, it may sound initially like a generous amount. But you don’t need to be a development specialist to see that on a global scale – over four years – this barely amounts to pocket money

Budgets: World Bank $20 billion; United Nations Development Programme $4.4. billion; UNICEF $2 billion; UNESCO $600 million; UNIFEM $50 million

The bank is not in fact a development agency but - because it ties the purse strings - it has a stranglehold on development policy.

From the 1980s, in an attempt to stimulate economic growth and enable developing countries to repay outstanding debts from the 60s, the WB introduced the so-called ‘hard loans’. These loans were dependent on countries in the south adopting structural adjustment programmes (SAPs): notably cutting public expenditure in education and health and privatisation of essential services. These particularly impact on women because of their primary responsibility for the entire household.

‘The concept of structural adjustment is based on women’s capacity to cope, to continue in increasingly adverse conditions and to deny their own needs and interests for the survival of their families and communities. In other words, structural adjustment relies on women providing those service previously provided by the State.’ (NAWO, Women’s strategies to deal with SAPs, 1990)

Opening up foreign investment opportunities and establishing free trade zones to attract external companies provided employment for women in the form of low-paid, insecure jobs with poor working conditions and without labour rights. (Angela Hale, Trade myths and gender reality, 1994)

In particular the slashing of education budgets impacted on succeeding generations of women, since girls’ schooling always takes second place in times of hardship. As Benedicta Egbo points out, women’s economic activity is closely linked with literacy (and numeracy) since, as well as increasing confidence, this facilitates access to information, financial credit, training and opportunities for further support.

In other words, it can be argued that the current lack of economic empowerment for so many women in the south is a direct result of previous World Bank programmes.

Nevertheless, SAPs had the opposite effect to that intended: countries were still not able to repay debts (by now incrementally higher). Therefore, at the World Summit on Social Development at Copenhagen in 1995, the World Bank economists pushed for a new approach – ‘soft loans’ related to multi-year national development plans – and so the current era of poverty reduction strategy papers (PRSPs) began.

Each PRSP is developed ‘in agreement’ between government and donors, who ‘align’ themselves and ‘harmonise’ with each other behind the national plan, following the Monterrey conference in 2002 (OECD) ). In fact, PRSPs tend to be donor-driven - even though individual donor representatives on the ground in different countries around the world have privately expressed serious reservations about the one-size-fits-all solution.

In order to qualify for PRSP related loans or any other grants and financing, the IMF must approve a country’s economic programme – and may also apply ‘conditionalities’ (unsurprisingly, more cutting of public expenditure…). As a result of the current system, 40% of the national budget of African countries like Mali is still being used to repay old debts - compared with 6% for social services.

As the authors demonstrate in the recent Gender Action report on the IFIs, this ‘new’ model not only continues in the same direction as the ‘old’ one but imposes even more conditions than before.

Their report, based on analysis of PRSPs in eleven countries, identifies the following conditions as having the greatest impact on women’s livelihoods:

Cuts in government spending
Trade and labour reforms
Financial sector reforms

In summary:
‘Standard World Bank and IMF policy-based loans that require public health expenditure cutbacks increase women’s home care for sick family members and reduce their time available for paid work; public sector and enterprise restructuring eliminates many jobs and benefits—women are often the first to lose jobs and last to be rehired because they are assumed to be secondary breadwinners; developing country tariff reductions threaten the livelihood of manufacturing and agricultural workers, the majority of whom are women in the poorest countries; financial sector reforms decrease women’s access to financial services while increasing their risk of financial crisis.’

Some concrete examples

One of the aspects under discussion by the WB and its partners in Berlin was the need to facilitate women’s access to infrastructure (transport) water and electricity.

Clearly no-one is going to argue with access to basic services for either women or men. The provision of piped water and electric power immeasurably lightens the load of women’s daily chores, freeing up their time and energy for other activities. So why isn’t that already a reality?

Could it have something to do with the fact that the privatisation of water, electricity, transport, is a normal requirement in the poverty reduction strategies papers? Privatisation benefits the north rather than the south since it is multinational companies that pick up the contracts, the most infamous being the British-German-Tanzanian company City Water that was eventually kicked out of Tanzania. But there are many more…

In the meantime, the poorest citizens of the south, most of them women, find it difficult to pay for basic services even when they are available. This is one of the key issues around which the social movements rallied at the World Social Forum in Nairobi. They see that their own governments, in collaboration with multinationals, continue to deprive them of a basic human right.

In the film one woman witness claims: ‘ A country which does not control its own basic services can barely be said to be a sovereign state.’


Another aspect on the WB’s gender agenda is supporting women’s economic activity through finance and private sector development, in particular increasing women’s agricultural productivity and their contribution to rural development.

But fluctuating prices on the world market have an adverse effect on the prices women can get for their own produce and what they can afford to buy. Women and men both work in the cotton industry in Mali, which has been developed as the foremost in West Africa. Cotton farmers and their families are currently living in penury because cotton prices have been pushed right down by US subsidies to their own farmers - subsidies which amount to $4 billion a year. Meanwhile, China is flooding African countries with cheap cotton products. And, while the WB is still promoting the micro-credit model for women, banking sector reforms have decreased access to loans especially for small-scale women farmers in rural areas.

In Mali, Kané Nana Sanou, president of the coalition for women’s human rights organisations (Groupe Pivot Droit et Citoyenneté des Femmes) has expressed concern to me about the number of women victims of a vicious cycle of debt due to similar schemes, with many having recourse to loan sharks to get more money to repay original loans: an unfortunately neat microcosm of the WB scenario at macro level.

And in the field, I have spoken to women’s associations who have gone through the process of constitutionalisation - in order to become eligible for funding - only to find that there is no financial support available.

The women’s collective at Bandiagara told me they had spent several seasons growing and selling green beans together so they could afford the legal expenses involved in the drawing up of the constitution (in a language they don’t read well). Now they are ready to start up in business, I asked them why they don’t arrange a bank loan. Their answer was simply ‘we are reluctant to start off already in debt.’ For women and families who do not have a reliable regular income, this seems to be a responsible viewpoint.

Even the WB’s own research has indicated that the poorest of the poor prefer to rely on informal credit and social capital rather than formal loans. There’s no lack of enterprise among women, it’s real money that’s missing! Why not give each association $200 and let them show what they are capable of?

Market women in Ghana are grateful for World Bank loans, despite the fact they are paying an unbelievable 36% interest rate.

Such examples are an attempt to engage with the WB on its own terms. But one of the worst impacts as described by Aminata Traoré in Bamako (there are real Malians giving testimony) is the effect of the WB top-down approach on the self-image of Africans. ‘The WB holds up a mirror showing us as poverty-stricken, conflict-ridden, lacking in capacity and needing direction.’

In contrast, the reality is that, like other countries in Africa, Mali has untold wealth – her traditional social capital now being eroded; her music; her gold mines (controlled by Anglo Gold); her beautiful women of all ages who always find some work to get by, her eloquence whatever language is used, her traditional skills such as hand-dyeing of cotton cloth with the richest colours and patterns under the sun… the film reflects these better than I can.

Incompatible objectives

As regards the effectiveness of gender equality policies, independent evaluations of the very same institutions involved in the Berlin conference (Norad, OECD, DFID, SIDA, the EC and the World Bank itself) raise serious questions. A survey of these evaluations emphasises one of the main causes for lack of progress: ‘insufficient resources have been provided to implement strategies at operational (field) level’.

But the problem is clearly more fundamental than that. The World Bank drives the development agenda and the promotion of gender equality is in direct contradiction to the bank’s approach.

The bank in fact works in opposition to other UN agencies. In South Africa UNDP and UNIFEM concerns have led them to develop a checklist for carrying out detailed gender analysis of PRSPs. In addition, UNDP’s latest human development report highlights the fact that inequality in general is increasing within and between countries because of IFI conditions. And UNRISD is now developing research on the additional impact on policy and social development of the new relationships between governments and trans-national companies.

As well as now driving forward MDG3 ‘gender equality’, the WB has also been given the lead for MDG2 ‘universal primary education’ which is of utmost importance for the future generation of women’s empowerment. My research on this in 2005 highlighted similar contradictions.

For example in the case of Burkina Faso the WB economists calculated that if all children were in school, there wouldn’t be enough money to pay the teaching force required. The solution was to reduce teachers’ salaries, bring in temporary staff (who could be laid off at short notice) and recruit volunteers. This didn’t go down well with the teaching union and education plans were put on hold until this could be resolved.

This scenario was explained to me by a couple of very charming and completely straight-faced World Bank economists as an example of ‘incompatible objectives.’ I understand this to mean setting an international target for developing countries while at the same time requiring them to operate in a way which makes it impossible to actually achieve the target. I think that about sums up their approach.

When one woman testifying in Bamako claims she can read a balance sheet, the WB’s defence counsel calls her an ‘upstart’. Women across the world are experienced in managing the household budget and, whether using a computer or counting out cups of rice, we all know when things don’t add up

In summary, the WB is clearly guilty. But the witnesses in Bamako plead only for the bank to respect its original mandate, which should be to support national development ‘in a spirit of humanity’. Instead of which it has simply become the worst kind of debt collector on behalf of the G8 - whose hypocrisy and cynicism in promoting women’s economic empowerment within the current system cannot adequately be described.

The solution, according to feminist economists and activists in both south and north is for the WB and other donors to put an end to policy-based lending and provide space for governments to address gender equality and social justice in more appropriate, locally-driven ways.

So, World Bank, $25 million for gender equality is not smart economics – when no-one seems to be benefiting from the rest of the $20 billion budget except multinational companies, corrupt officials and, of course, G8 countries.

Readers who wish to raise their own voice against World Bank iniquity and incompetence can sign the online petition organised by Christian Aid, to put pressure on the UK government’s position in the upcoming WB and IMF spring meetings.

Patricia Daniel
March 2007


Svaha said...

Liberated Advertising? The Exploitation of Women in the West
The irony of women's liberation in western societies is a deeply imbedded form of mental slavery that is hostage to sexist advertising, a hugely profitable cosmetic (from gels to surgery and wire-bras to stilletos) industry, and the widely held notion of progress by "comparison" with the sorry state of women in the third world.
Women are meek, servile, wretched, abused, housemaids....in the other/Eastern societies. In the West, they speak in a masculine tongue/harsh/gravel voice, they are "equal" to men, they work outside the home, they smoke, drink, take drugs, shave their legs and armpits in ritual fashion/fashion ritual, wear make-up their entire lives, wear restrictive underwear, and are made to sell everything from cars to razor blades through their physical nakedness. Now in the globalizing convergence of progress the mysterious separateness of men and women that constituted the most beautiful aspect of humanity is being diluted by Body Shop, an obligingly carbon-neutral guilt free removal of layers of difference and a plastering of organic make-up that will enslave all women as made-up gloss at the altar of those asexual objects, the Gods (Godesses?) of Equality.

Again said...

In the West, they speak in a masculine tongue/harsh/gravel voice, they are "equal" to men, they work outside the home, they smoke...
the mysterious separateness of men and women that constituted the most beautiful aspect of humanity is being diluted

sorry - as German, i really have problems with those words

reminds me too much of

"Looking back over the past years of Germany's decline, we come to the frightening, nearly terrifying, conclusion that the less German men were willing to act as men in public life, the more women succumbed to the temptation to fill the role of the man. The feminization of men always leads to the masculinization of women...
German women have been transformed in recent years. They are beginning to see that they are not happier as a result of being given more rights but fewer duties. They now realize that the right to be elected to public office at the expense of the right to life, motherhood, and her daily bread is not a good trade."

German Women by Joseph Goebbels, 1934