WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–After working inside the World Bank as an economist earlier in her career, Elaine Zuckerman is now on the outside glaring in.
During three days last month timed to the anti-globalization protests surrounding the annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Washington, Zuckerman’s advocacy group, Gender Action, staged a series of workshops accusing international financial institutions of discriminatory lending.
Her thrust: that the World Bank–which makes loans to developing countries–and the International Monetary Fund–which monitors global finance and extends credits to stabilize economies–both undermine women’s rights by exacerbating poverty, gender-based violence and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV-AIDS.
“Each year, these international financial institutions make tens of thousands of investments in developing countries that claim to empower women but in fact often harm them,” Zuckerman told an audience at Georgetown University Law School last month.
In 2003, for example, Tanzania accepted loans from the World Bank and the IMF that required privatization of parts of its water utility. That led to irregular service and price increases, making water less affordable and forcing women and girls–responsible for providing water for their families–to walk longer distances to gather water or pay huge markups to water vendors, according to a 2006 report by Gender Action.
Founded in 1945, the World Bank has grown from a single organization designed to make reconstruction loans after World War II to a group of five development banks that make million- and billion-dollar loans ostensibly aimed at reducing global poverty. The International Development Association–the World Bank arm that focuses on the world’s poorest countries–offers longer-term and lower-priced loans than can be found on the free market.
The IMF also came into existence in 1945 and has a macroeconomic mission: to promote global economic stability to prevent a repeat of the 1930s-era worldwide depression. The IMF does that mainly with initiatives to keep national currencies stable and promoting cross-border trade, but it also makes its own loans to help countries pay off debt.
World Bank membership is restricted to countries that belong to the IMF.
Countering Claims of Harm
World Bank and IMF officials took strong exception to Zuckerman’s claim that the financial bodies’ actions hurt rather then help women and girls.
Spokesperson Amy Stilwell said the World Bank–now headed by Robert Zoellick, who in July succeeded Paul Wolfowitz, the former deputy secretary of defense for the Bush administration that resigned amid a storm of controversy–is paying more attention to women’s issues and has made great inroads on fronts such as primary education for girls and maternal and infant health.
In 2006, the World Bank unveiled a four-year, $25 million plan for gender-specific projects relating to infrastructure, agriculture, private-sector development and finance. The budget has since increased to $30 million over four years.
Last month, the World Bank pledged to heighten its focus on the farm economy in sub-Saharan Africa, which is managed largely by women and girls. The promise came after an October critique from the bank’s internal assessors, who charged the bank with neglecting sub-Saharan agriculture.
For its part, the IMF takes gender equality and women’s rights issues into consideration when giving advice to poorer countries on how to improve their economies, said spokesperson Conny Lotze.
“We look at the potential effects of our advice on poverty, including whether women and girls may be disproportionately harmed by cuts in social spending and layoffs in government or public enterprises. Improving health, education and gender equality plays a central role in developing a stable economy and achieving sustainable growth.”
Putting Women and Girls in Context
But Zuckerman says the institutions fail to fully consider the implications of their actions on women and girls.
The IMF lacks any specific policy on gender and none of its 2,633 employees are gender experts, according to Gender Action. Of the 15,000 employees at the World Bank only 115 are experts in gender issues, she says.
Malcolm Ehrenpreis, a World Bank gender expert, said that data give a distorted view because all paid employees, such as receptionists and administrative staff, are included. He said the bank is not adding gender specialists because it is working instead to make women’s rights a mainstream concern.
At the same time, he said, bringing about gender equality is an ongoing mission, and noted that women trail men in formal labor force participation, access to credit, entrepreneurship rates, income levels, and inheritance and ownership rights.
“This is unfair, it hampers poverty reduction and it is bad economics,” he said.
Zuckerman says the World Bank, the IMF and other international financial institutions have not rectified systemic problems–such as policy-based loans–that discriminate against women.
Conditions for Receiving Loans
With a policy-based loan, a development bank negotiator might, for example, tie strings to a loan offer that require changes in national policy considered good for the nation’s economy’s solvency. Such changes have often included privatizing state-owned businesses, cutting labor protections and public-sector wages, liberalizing trade laws and eliminating corporate taxes.
Gender Action Programs Coordinator Suzanna Dennis said such changes often lead to price increases, public-sector downsizing and social displacements that hurt women.
Bangladesh, for example, agreed in 2005 to liberalize its trade laws. The deal exposed the country’s garment industry to fiercer competition with China and India and led to job losses in an industry dominated by women, according to Gender Action.
Some loan terms have led governments to cut spending on public schools and hospitals and impose user fees. This can hurt girls disproportionately because they are more likely to be taken out of school if it becomes costly. As caregivers, girls and women often leave school and jobs to provide health care when it becomes too expensive, Dennis added.
Ehrenpreis, at the World Bank, said the bank supports countries that seek to abolish fees for primary school or basic health care.
And he said foreign aid has contributed to “steady improvement” for women and girls, especially in health care and education. The bank is combating HIV-AIDS with programs designed to strengthen women’s rights, he added.
“It doesn’t happen overnight,” World Bank AIDS expert Elizabeth Lule said in a statement about curbing HIV-AIDS. “I think we have laid a good foundation. But much more needs to be done.”
Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.
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