Is the World Bank getting more serious about gender inequality?

“The mission of the [World] Bank depends on moving towards gender equality.’- Jim Kim, Head of the World Bank, launch of Voice and Agency, Washington DC

Recently, the World Bank launched a major new report, Voice and Agency: Empowering women and girls for shared prosperity with much fanfare. Starting with the World Development Report (WDR) in 2012, the World Bank has used the strength of its data machine to deliver high profile gender research. The Bank may also be taking gender more seriously in their work: including through the 17th replenishment of its lending arm, the IDA, as a cross-cutting solution area in the new structure of the World Bank Group and as a new ‘frontier’ area on violence against women.

This new report builds from the ‘cogs’ framework first introduced in the WDR, which suggested that gender equality can be determined by three inter-related factors: jobs and social protection (economic opportunities), education (endowments) and agency. This report works with definitions for the agency component:

  • individual agency: ‘the ability to make decisions about one’s own life and act on them to achieve a desired outcome, free of violence, retribution, or fear ‘[empowerment]’)
  • ‘group and collective action’.

How are these forms of agency achieved? The report prescribes a mix of public actions that enhance women’s capacity to challenge limiting gender norms and change women and men, boys and girls behavior. It uses both quantitative and qualitative data on attitudes, beliefs and social norms on what happens when women are deprived of these forms of agency, and what works to strengthen them.

The report also usefully summarizes the latest global data on violence against women, sexual and reproductive rights and control of land and housing, and summarizes best practice in these areas. There are many good things to say about the report, and it is well worth a read. But here I will focus on a couple of areas that seemed too light in identifying strategies for change.

Amplifying voices

The report does a good job of presenting the growing body of evidence on women’s movements; namely that they have played the most vital role in building momentum for progressive policy and legal reform. The discussion on the complexities around women’s participation, self-help groups and inclusiveness is great. However, there is very little offered by way of what development actors and the Bank should do to support women’s collective action. The assertion that such processes should happen ‘organically’ rather than in a ‘top down’ fashion is hard to argue with, but feels like a cop out. Were women’s groups, networks or movements consulted in this assessment?

I immediately think of AWID’s findings that less than 10% of funds intended for women goes to women’s organizations, and half of these organizations have never received core funding and wonder if they have some answers. Why does the Bank not have a strategy for strengthening women’s collective action?

Closing gaps in data and evidence

One of the World Bank’s strengths in the area of gender and development is its capacity to collect and analyze large swaths of gender-related data. However, after reading the report, skimming its latest Gender at Work report, and attending a couple of Bank discussions, I am beginning to wonder why they seem so averse to using its influence to secure improved gender-disaggregated data collection and analysis (as compared to other ways it exerts its influence politically with governments).

For instance, why does unpaid care work continue to receive so little attention? Major institutions, from the OECD to the World Bank itself have recognized that women’s responsibilities for childcare, elderly care, cooking and cleaning (for instance) create a major time crunch for women. It impacts on their health, enjoyment of rights, including ability to exercise their voice and agency and economic empowerment. Given the World Bank’s commitment to gender equality, why does there seem to be no strategy on confronting governments on gender data on this area?

And in general, how do they coordinate with, for instance, UN Women, governments and civil society organizations to fill the most important (not just easiest to fill) gaps? This is an important discussion in the lead up to the Post 2015 development framework, especially with new initiatives coming on line – such as the Clinton Initiative’s likely influential “No Ceilings” data project.

What difference will the report make?

‘Development works, but only if it is based on rights’– Phumzele Mlambo-Ngcuka, Head of UN Women, launch of the Voice and Agency report

Having read a very interesting report, I was most disappointed at the end, where the Bank’s own Corporate Score Card, lending systems and indicators are discussed. There is little indication of what the report findings mean for its own agenda, and yet there seem to be many ways (from an outsider’s view) they are uniquely placed to apply them within a rights-based framework, for example by:

  • influencing governments to fill data gaps on key gender and women’s rights indicators, including on the vastly under-reported areas of unpaid care work and violence against women;
  • revising the Bank’s Corporate Scorecard standards for lending so that its definition of “gender informed” is a more meaningful indicator of quality of impact on gender inequality;
  • strengthening women’s voice and agency and the elimination of VAW in their lending operations and country strategies including as part of programs to expand economic opportunities;
  • encouraging scale up of what works to prevent and end VAW rather than investing in more pilot ‘innovations’ for impact; and
  • improving consultations with civil society, women’s rights organizations and feminist scholars who have done already extensive research on gender equality.

In the lead up to Post 2015 and beyond, it would be good to know that the Bank will support a transformative agenda on gender equality and women’s rights. The fact that this report has chosen to focus on some of the ‘sticky’ issues - namely that gender differences are rooted in deeply entrenched gender roles and social norms that marginalize women – is commendable. This comes with expectations that the Bank’s practice will reflect their findings.

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