The World Bank derogates women's rights
The World Bank presented two reports at the Beijing Women's Conference in September 1995. But what is the real impact of the Bank's policies on women's rights in the light of its claim that "free markets" support the empowerment of women?
by Michel Chossudovsky
THE World Bank (WB) 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 United Nations Fourth Conference on Women in Beijing entitled 'Toward Gender Equality: The Role of Public Policy' and 'Advanced Gender Equality: From Concept to Action:' [T]he Bank is to promote gender equality as a matter of social justice and enhance women's participation in economic development.' (World Bank, The Gender Issue as Key to Development, Washington, HCO,95/01 p. 1).
Through its Women In Development Programme (WID) adopted throughout the developing world, the WB dictates the ground rules on gender policy. A 'market-oriented' approach to gender is prescribed, a monetary value is attached to gender equality: women's programmes are to be 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: 'It is critical that governments take the lead where markets fail to capture the full benefits to society of investment in women... Investments in women are vital in achieving economic efficiency and growth.'
The WB acts as a custodian, it determines the concepts, methodological categories and data base 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. The main objective of the latter is to demobilise the women's movement while narrowly supporting the interests of international creditors.
Under the trusteeship of the international financial institutions, the '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 deregulation of grain markets, the elimination of minimum wage legislation, and so on. In other words, donor support to Women's programmes (via WID-funded projects) is conditional upon the prior derogation of women's rights through 'satisfactory compliance' with IMF-WB conditionalities.
For instance, the implementation of token credit schemes earmarked for rural women under the WB's micro-level credit programmes invariably requires the prior deregulation of financial institutions, dramatic hikes in interest rates and the phasing out of the rural credit cooperatives. The same applies to the 'anti-poverty programmes'. The latter are conditional upon the prior adoption of macro-economic measures which generate mass poverty. The 'anti-poverty programmes' implemented under the 'social safety net' are geared towards so-called 'vulnerable groups': 'disadvantaged women, indigenous women, female heads of households, refugees and migrant women and women with disabilities'. The structural causes of poverty and the role of macro-economic reform are denied.
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 including books and school materials. WB 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 the Ministry 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 programmes' for girls while at the same time prescribing the withdrawal of the State from the financing of primary education.
Cost recovery and the application of user fees in health (also under WB supervision) also derogate women's rights to Reproductive Health. The structural adjustment programmes have been conducive to the phasing out of maternal-child health programmes (MCH). The evidence confirms a resurgence of maternal and infant mortality. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the tendency is towards the 'de-profession-alisation' of health services, ultimately leading to the collapse of primary health care. The village health volunteers (VHV) and traditional healers have replaced the Community health nurses. The savings to the Treasury are applied to servicing the country's external debt. According to the World Bank, '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 to the concurrent breakdown of data collection on mortality and morbidity. In many countries, illiterate village health volunteers are now responsible for the collection of health data 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. No overall critique of the neo-liberal policy framework was put forth in Beijing in the Platform for Action (PFA). The latter is largely concerned with a statement of broad principles. As in Copenhagen at the 1995 Social Summit, many of the bracketed items in the official document (which addressed some of the more critical issues) were eliminated. As in previous conferences, the UN organisers maintained a structure of 'physical apartheid' between the 'official' conference and the NGO Forum. The organisations of civil society, namely women's organisations from around the world, were held at arm's length from the official process.
The WB perspective on gender is contained in various sections of the PFA. The latter proposed the creation of 'an enabling environment that allows women to build and maintain sustainable livelihoods' calling for the review of 'the impact of structural adjustment programmes 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.' (para. 61). The foregoing in fact describes the practice of WB lending activity. The PA tacitly provides legitimacy to the WB agenda, the overall validity of the structural adjustment programme is not questioned.
Moreover, the PA 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). The focus of social conflict is distorted: under the WB gender framework, the social status of women largely hinges upon the relationship of men and women (as individuals) within the household.
The WB framework portrays a 'free' market society composed of individuals of both sexes. In this context, women are identified as belonging to a separate social category distinct from men (as if men and women belonged to different social classes). In other words, the confrontation between men and women (ie. as individuals) is viewed as the main source of social conflict. The concentration of power and corporate wealth has no bearing on the analysis of gender.
Modernity and 'the empowerment of women' through the market process are the means to achieving gender equality. The system of global trade and finance is never in doubt, the role of global institutions (including the World Trade Organisation and the Bretton Woods institutions) is not a matter 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. In turn, the neo-liberal gender perspective (under the trusteeship of the 'donors') is largely intent upon creating divisions within national societies and demobilising the struggle of women and men against the macro-economic model. (Third World Resurgence No. 61/62, Sept/Oct 1995)
Michel Chossudovsky is a Professor of Economics, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ottawa, Canada.