World Bank and women's rights

Issue 

By Michel Chossudovsky The World Bank, it seems, has become the defender of women's rights urging national governments to "invest more in women in order to reduce gender inequality and boost economic development". Two WB reports were presented at the UN Fourth Conference on Women in Beijing entitled "Toward Gender Equality: The Role of Public Policy" and "Advanced Gender Equality: From Concept to Action". Through its Women In Development Program (WID), the WB dictates the ground rules on gender policy throughout the developing world. It prescribes a "market oriented" approach to gender with a monetary value attached to gender equality. Women's programs are thereby framed in relation to the "opportunity cost" and "efficiency" of women's rights. While recognising the possibility of "market failure" (and consequently the need for State intervention), the WB contends that "free markets" broadly support the "empowerment of women" and the achievement of gender equality. Through the WID program the WB acts as custodian. It determines the concepts, methodological categories and data used to analyse gender issues. The "donor community" controls the institutional framework (at the country level) including the Women's Bureau and the Ministry of Women's Affairs. Because the WB constitutes the main source of funding, national women's organisations associated with the seat of political power will often endorse the WB gender perspective. This is despite the fact that the main objective of the bank is to demobilise the women's movement. Under the trusteeship of the International Financial Institutions, this "empowerment of women" is to be achieved through the usual macro-economic recipes — devaluation, budget austerity, the application of user fees in health and education, the phasing out of State supported credit, trade liberalisation, the elimination of minimum wage legislation, and so on. In other words, WID project funding is conditional on the prior undermining of women's rights through "satisfactory compliance" with IMF-WB conditions. For instance, the implementation of token credit schemes ear-marked for rural women under the WB's micro-level credit programs invariably requires the prior deregulation of financial institutions, dramatic hikes in interest rates and the phasing out of rural credit cooperatives. The same applies to the "anti-poverty programs" geared towards so-called "vulnerable groups" — disadvantaged women, indigenous women, female heads of households, refugees and migrant women and women with disabilities. This funding is conditional on the prior adoption of macro-economic measures which in reality generate mass poverty. Another area of WB intervention has been the implementation of scholarships and/or subsidies to girls ("Letting Girls Learn") to finance the costs of primary and secondary school tuition. Support in this area however is conditional upon the prior laying off of teachers, a major curtailment of the educational budget and the adoption of double-shift and multigrade teaching. The WB Education Sector loan agreements specifically require Ministries of Education to lay off teachers and increase the student-teacher ratio. The implementation of "book rental fees" and tuition fees, also under WB guidance, has been conducive to a dramatic decline in both female and male school enrolment. The WB focus is to implement cost-effective "targeted programs" for girls while prescribing that the State withdraw from primary education financing. Cost recovery and the application of user-fees in health (also under WB supervision) also undermine women's rights to reproductive health. WB designed structural adjustment programs have been conducive to the phasing out of maternal-child health programs. There has been a concurrent resurgence in maternal and infant mortality. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the tendency is towards the "de-professionalisation" of health services, ultimately leading to the collapse of primary health care. Village Health Volunteers (VHV) and traditional healers have replaced the Community Health Nurses with the savings used to service the country's external debt. According to the WB, "informal health care" is not only "cost effective", it is more "democratic" because it "empowers" local communities in the running of village-based health centres. Ironically, the de-professionalisation of primary health care has also led, in many countries, to illiterate VHVs being responsible for health data collection with the consequent effect (and convenience) of lowering the rates of infant mortality recorded by governments and international organisations. The United Nations system tacitly upholds the IMF-WB agenda including its perspective on gender. For instance, no overall critique of the bank's neo-liberal policy framework was put forward in the Platform for Action at the recent Beijing conference. As in the 1995 Social Summit in Copenhagen, many of the bracketed items in the official document (which addressed some of the more critical issues) have been eliminated from the final document. And as in previous conferences, the UN organisers maintained a structure of "physical apartheid" between the "official" conference and the NGO Forum so that the organisations of civil society — women's organisations from around the world — were held at arms length from the official process. The WB perspective on gender is contained in various sections of the Beijing Platform for Action. The platform proposed the creation of "an enabling environment that allows women to build and maintain sustainable livelihoods". It calls for the review of "the impact of structural adjustment programs on social development by means of gender-sensitive social impact assessments and other relevant methods, in order to develop policies to reduce their negative effects and improve their positive impact, ensuring that women do not bear a disproportionate burden of transition costs; complement adjustment lending with enhanced, targeted social development lending" (paragraph 61). This in fact describes the practice of WB lending activity. Taken as a whole the Platform for Action tacitly legitimates the WB agenda, remaining silent on the question of the validity of the bank's structural adjustment programs. Moreover, the Platform for Action views "violence against women" and "the exclusion of women from institutions of power and governance" as the main causes of gender inequality, requiring "a radical transformation of the relationship between men and women" (para. 19). It thereby distorts the focus of social conflict. Under the WB gender framework, the social status of women largely hinges on the relationship of men and women (as individuals) within the household. In a framework which portrays a "free" market society composed of individuals of both sexes, women are identified as belonging to a separate social category distinct from men, as if men and women belonged to different social classes. The confrontation between men and women is presented as the main source of social conflict. The concentration of power and corporate wealth is not acknowledged in this analysis of gender. On the contrary, modernity and "the empowerment of women" through the market process are seen as the means to achieving gender equality. The system of global trade and finance is never examined or questioned, and the role of global institutions (including the World Trade Organisation and the Bretton Woods institutions) and their project of macro-economic reform are not presented as matters for serious debate. Yet this global economic system, based on "cheap labour" and the private accumulation of wealth, ultimately constitutes one of the main barriers to the achievement of gender equality. The neo-liberal gender perspective (under the trusteeship of the "donors") is largely intent on creating divisions within national societies and demobilising the struggle of women and men against the macro-economic model and all its attendant inequalities.
[Copyright by M. Chossudovsky, Ottawa, 1995. Reprinted with author's permission.]

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