Ritu Sharma

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Armed with studies showing that equality between men and women improves the economic viability of poor countries, reduces poverty and encourages good governance, the World Bank has decided that all of its projects will be evaluated for their effects on women and girls. The policy, which also calls for the bank to prioritize programs that would equalize opportunities for women in impoverished countries, marks a shift from past approaches, which limited such considerations to specific projects.

In the past, gender-equality efforts fell under the rubric of the bank’s social-reform programs, with a strong focus on health, child care and education as uniquely women’s issues. Economic development, investment and public policy programs were not evaluated for their potential roles in fostering broader opportunities for women–or for whether they prevented such advancement.

The policy change, announced in January, extends the bank’s consideration of gender to its support of foreign direct investment and infrastructure projects.

According to the bank’s own research, even seemingly gender-neutral investment decisions can have a disproportionate impact on women. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the bank found that women and girls in remote villages spend up to two-thirds of their day walking in search of clean drinking water and fuel for the family. If the bank’s financial division prioritized projects that extended water and power lines to within easy reach of villages and made utilities affordable, women would have more time for jobs that earned money for the family and girls could stay in school, the bank’s researchers found. The result: improved quality of life for the entire village, not just the women.

At a practical level, the policy also means that bank officials will examine how countries attract investment and will ensure that labor standards and human rights are taken into consideration as the nation develops and implements its programs. If it’s successful, the new strategy will institutionalize the need to insure that working conditions are satisfactory and that workers are not exploited.

U.N. Development Conference Highlights Importance of Bank’s New Policy

The shift comes amid heightened criticism that the bank’s poverty-reduction efforts have not succeeded, even as the world’s industrialized nations pledged more money to fight poverty as a means to reduce the threat of terrorism. At last month’s international development conference in Monterrey, Mexico, President George W. Bush, among other leaders of the developed world, committed millions of additional dollars in aid to the World Bank, which lends more than $17 billion annually to 100 developing nations. In addition to seeking greater sums, participants called for increased accountability and selectivity as the bank determines where and how to distribute its cash.

As part of the new focus, the bank’s field officers will conduct a “country gender analysis” in every country where the bank operates. The idea behind the analyses is to highlight gender-related barriers to poverty reduction and economic development, such as property ownership, access to financing, civic involvement and educational opportunities. The bank will then factor in these obstacles as it plans future projects in individual countries.

“While the development of a strategy paper does not in any way guarantee the implementation of the strategy, it is an important step forward,” said Carolyn Hannan, director of the United Nations’ division for the advancement of women. “It is a well thought-out document.”

The gender-mainstreaming strategy follows the release last year of a landmark World Bank study that quantified the connection between a nation’s poverty and the status of its women and determined that barriers prohibiting women from equal access to jobs, education and public resources significantly inhibited a nation’s economic viability.

The study’s authors established a strong positive correlation between low levels of female involvement in public life and high levels of government corruption. “Whether this means that women are inherently more moral beings than men, I don’t know,” said Andrew Mason, co-author of the study and a senior economist at the World Bank.

More likely, he said, is that a higher level of women’s participation signifies a country that is more open in general, with more transparent government and a more democratic approach. The study’s findings coincided with the bank’s acknowledgment that its work will not succeed where governments are characterized by poor oversight, lack of adherence to the rule of law and rampant corruption.

“We know that in countries with good governance and strong policies, aid can make an enormous difference. Yet we know too that corruption, bad policies and weak governance will make financial aid ineffective and even counterproductive,” World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn told participants at the Monterrey gathering, according to the Washington Post.

Critics Allege ‘Disconnect’ Between Bank’s Lending and Reform Programs

The Monterrey conference’s spotlight on governmental reform as key to poverty alleviation could increase the chances for success of the so-called “gender-mainstreaming” strategy.

“There is a growing interest in good governance,” Mason said. “It is not coincidental that people are taking our findings from the study seriously now. The fact that we and others have found strong correlation between female participation and good governance provides an entry point for the bank to promote female participation.”

Endorsement at the highest levels of the bank, starting with Wolfensohn, will help, Hannan added. “Even if this is not new, the fact that at the strategic level, the bank is saying gender equality is good for economic growth, lots more people will listen,” Hannan said. “It’s not just the women’s groups who are now sending this message.”

Still, women’s advocates remain concerned about what they say is a disconnect between bank investment policies and its work in the social reform arena.

“I love that the bank has calculated the economic costs of shutting out women and I support the argument that a country should help women because it helps the economy, but I’m not very hopeful about the implementation,” said Ritu Sharma, co-founder and executive director of Women’s EDGE, the Coalition for Women’s Economic Development and Global Equality.

While social scientists and economists at the bank have produced statistics and studies that Women’s EDGE, among other groups, uses frequently, the bank’s own lending policies have not taken into account the work of the social development side, she said.

“The strategy is good. It’s wonderful, but if it is not made to apply to the bulk of what the bank does–lending–then it won’t do much,” Sharma said.

Bank Promotes Business Advantages of Equality for Women

She also worries that the bank’s client governments won’t embrace the importance of gender equality. “This does not take into account the response from client governments, who will say, ‘Yes we know that lack of women’s participation costs our country economic growth. So what? Our culture does not support this,'” Sharma said.

Mason acknowledged the criticism.

“If this were an easy thing to fix we would have fixed it already,” he said. Instead of asserting that certain cultural preferences are better, which Mason believes would be counter-productive, the bank’s approach focuses on reminding the countries to see the business advantages to the new strategy.

“We are saying to nations with significant gender stratification, ‘If you allow gender disparities to persist, it comes at a cost,'” Mason said. “‘If you ignore this, you ignore economically significant costs to your country.'”

Even so, the strategy still may not work, he said.

“I can appreciate that some feminists won’t like this approach, but we are working toward building a policy dialogue at the highest levels of government,” incorporating women’s groups in countries with the most repressive attitudes toward women, such as Bangladesh and Afghanistan, Mason said.

Ann Moline is a freelance writer in Alexandria, Va.

For more information:

Women’s EDGE:

World Bank GenderNet:

United Nations WomenWatch: