As the devastating impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on gender inequality became evident, governments and international financial institutions put a large public emphasis on “building back better” for a “resilient and inclusive recovery”. The year 2022 was big for gender at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, the world’s primary wardens of what is considered “sound” development and economic policy. The Bank celebrated the tenth anniversary of its first World Development Report dedicated to gender with a flurry of webinars and started gearing up for an update to its gender strategy in 2023. Meanwhile, the IMF published its own very first gender mainstreaming strategy, together with a glossy new webpage, making a public commitment to tackling gender as a (macro-)critical issue and recognizing that economic and financial policies can exacerbate gender inequality. The World Bank has included commitments on gender-based violence (GBV) in its latest two IDA replenishments processes, the funding programs targeted at the world’s poorest countries, and even the IMF has started discussing the economic consequences of GBV, showing that where domestic violence is higher, economic activity drops.
Unfortunately, neither of these strategies investigates or challenges how the World Bank’s and IMF’s own economic policies and programs have deepened gender inequality and advanced a neoliberal economic model that entrenches women’s unequal value and power in the economy further. Both institutions look to close gender gaps and get women into the labor force on the one hand, while neglecting the myriad impacts that their own macro-economic policy advice – routinely aimed at slashing public spending, dismantling the welfare state, and promoting privatization and deregulation – has on women’s mental and physical wellbeing. Cuts to education, health care, food subsidies, labor regulations, social protection and progressive taxes – in short, austerity measures – directly impact the mortality, life expectancy, income losses, time burden, physical safety and ability of the most vulnerable communities to access decent work. From the UK to Brazil, this austerity has also meant that state institutions promoting gender equality were dismantled and shelters and other GBV response services shut down, taking away the often only escape women have from abusive situations.
While inequality has soared and women shouldered the burden of the pandemic – as they represent the majority of healthcare and frontline workers, educators, and paid and unpaid caregivers – evidence is mounting that by next year, 85 per cent of the world will live in the grip of such austerity measures. A brilliant and shattering new paper from Oxfam and the NAWI Collective makes clear: Austerity is a sexist and racist form of gender-based violence. The most insidious aspect of this violence is its “everydayness” – there is no specific violent event to decry, no individual perpetrator to prosecute. Instead, the effects of policymakers’ deliberate choices towards austerity permeate women’s daily lives from work to transportation to safety to care for their families, eroding their autonomy and well-being.
Both World Bank and IMF have in recent years emphasized that even when they push for spending cuts, they maintain “social spending floors” and “social safety nets” for the most vulnerable. However, the pandemic has made drastically clear that targeted safety net approaches just are not enough. They might keep a small share of the very poorest from literal destitution, but do not stop the wide-spread erosion of women’s economic and social rights. Instead, the institutions’ gender strategies should make a strong commitment to pursuing alternatives to austerity wherever possible: For instance, by throwing their full weight behind taxes on wealth, windfall profits and other progressive measures that redistribute some of the obscene wealth accumulated by a tiny group of super-rich during the pandemic towards urgently needed public social and climate investments. Rhetoric from the top of the IMF and a recent paper on gendered taxes made some of these suggestions – time to turn these into widespread action. The World Bank’s recently released Social Protection and Jobs Compass, on the other hand, talks of ‘universal’ social protection, but the reality is that the Bank appears to favor a definition of universality that deviates from internationally agreed commitments and definitions and continues to prioritize contentious targeted approaches. While the Bank is considered a leading global institution in development on gender inequality, its approach remains tightly wed to the belief that gender inequality should be addressed because it is “smart development policy and business practice”, rather than from a starting point that women, girls and other gender minorities deserve to have their fundamental human rights met
As civil society’s #EndAusterity campaign ramps up, the World Bank reviews its gender strategy, and the IMF starts implementing its own gender work, next year will be a key moment to fight back against the overwhelming dominance of austerity as the “common sense” economic paradigm. We must push both institutions to fully commit to recognizing and rectifying the harm their macro-economic policy advice still does to women, and to prioritize the knowledge and expertise of Global South women’s voices in shaping their new strategies. To signal a transformative and fundamental shift in the Bank and Fund’s commitment to gender equality, their language and action must reflect the violent nature of austerity, and a serious effort to pursue the policies needed for a truly inclusive and just recovery.