Gender Equality and Development: What will (and won’t) be in the 2012 World Development Report?

65 page outline (dread to think how long the final version will be) of the 2012 World women in developmentDevelopment Report on ‘Gender Equality and Development’. Kudos to the Bank, as ever, for putting such documents online as part of the report writing process – how many NGOs ever consider doing that? (see here for a rather successful example of us trying to do this). As always with these World Bank flagships, it’s fascinating both for what’s in there and for what’s missing. The report will emphasize four main messages: 1. During the last quarter century, sustained growth in many countries has been particularly effective in reducing disparities on some dimensions of gender equality (e.g. girls’ education and fertility decline – though that’s not entirely an issue of gender equality….). And, the pace of change in these outcomes has been much faster in today’s developing countries than it has historically been in high-income countries. women teachers2. However, economic growth—even at a pace more rapid and sustained—will not by itself be enough to bring about improvements across all dimensions of gender equality. Growth alone won’t close the remaining gender gaps; poor women are missing out on the benefits of growth and constraints other than income (access to land, social norms, political voice) will continue to generate inequality even in high income societies 3. The costs to countries of maintaining gender inequality are likely to have become even larger in the globalized world of the 21st Century. At the same time, globalization offers opportunities for more rapid changes in norms and beliefs concerning gender equality. The Bank sees a ‘growign global consensus on the importance of gender equality’. 4. There is an important role for policies targeted towards reducing the most costly gender disparities that are not responsive to growth, and closing the most egregious gender gaps has become more urgent now than it was two or three decades ago. Nothing too earth shattering in that, but it does matter (a lot) that the Bank is devoting such a high profile publication to the issue – previous WDRs such as the 2008 one on agriculture have played a big part in shifting the wider development debate (though others have sunk without trace), and it is to be hoped that this one has similar impact. So what’s good, bad and/or missing? Good: as always, the Bank has assembled a colossal literature review – dozens of great killer facts and examples that we will all be mining in the years ahead. However, the outline does little to address the weakness of some of the really big ‘stylised facts’, some of them highly questionable or just plain wrong like the ‘70% of the world’s poor are women’ stat. An alarming number of the big stats on land use, access to services etc that are routinely trotted out come from studies that are 20 years old or more. Let’s hope the final version updates these or gives us some new ones. The report also avoids the trap of equating ‘gender’ with ‘women’, acknowledging that men lag women on an increasing number of issues like tertiary education, health (obesity, alcoholism) or life expectancy. Bad/Missing: Although the draft’s conceptual framework breaks up the drivers of change into formal institutions such women protestingas governments, informal institutions (such as social norms and network) and markets, its implicit change model is based on the interaction between governments, policies, academic evidence and individual voters. The institutions bit is pretty impoverished, with precious little signs of any collective actors located between households and the state, such as churches, media, civil society or even the women’s movement. The draft has a telling sentence where it defines society as ‘the sum of individuals and households’. Oh dear. Perhaps predictably, given who the report is trying to influence, gender equality (and development more broadly) is understood, discussed, calculated etc. largely in terms of economic growth and economic calculations (whether of household, their members and other institutions). Because of this privileging of the economic, the critical role in society of reproduction –  still so undervalued – and the reality that women continue to play the primary reproductive role, gets lost or downplayed.  If we go down the road of the narrow contribution to ‘production’ in the ‘economy’, we are likely to further undervalue the major contribution of women in reproduction. We also further the pressure on women to have to contribute in the recognised ‘production’ part of the ‘economy’ (if they are to have recognition and respect) while they also have to continue playing the primary role in reproduction – more stress for women, less value of their role = problem. This argument of course should not undermine the absolute right of women to have the same opportunities for participation in production when they choose to. The outline is far too dismissive of ‘wellbeing’ and other new economics – even a perfunctory trawl of the gender issues in major Bank exercises like Voices of the Poor would have identified issues of shame, humiliation and fear as just as important to women’s lived experience of poverty as income measures. It appears blind to the gendered impact of technologies, whether old and new. Some of these holes can still be filled with decent case studies, so if you are engaged on these issues, make sure to send them over to the WDR team. [Thanks to Ines Smyth and other Oxfam gender gurus for their input to this post] ]]>

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One Response to “Gender Equality and Development: What will (and won’t) be in the 2012 World Development Report?”
  1. Duncan and colleagues at Oxfam:
    Thank you for sharing your reactions to the WDR 2012 outline. We appreciate Oxfam’s frank opinions and are grateful to all of you for pointing out some of the areas that need more attention as we move forward in drafting the report. We also greatly appreciate your call to researchers/development colleagues to send us any materials that may help us address these gaps (we need these!).
    Some of the gaps in the outline that you note in your blog are issues that we have been grappling with as we flesh out the Report. Specifically, we are trying to emphasize more the implications of the role that women play in reproduction and care, and we are also looking into the gendered impacts of technology as part of our discussion of the implications of a changing world. We are also aware of the importance of bringing in the role of collective action as an engine of institutional and policy change, and are hoping to bring that in more clearly in the policy chapters, including through the country case studies we have commissioned. Your call for updating some of the old ‘stylized facts’ on gender that have been floating around on the basis of old studies for too long (such as the one you cite that 70% of the world’s poor are women) is also well taken and one we hope to address in the report. And, finally, we appreciate the point you make on the need to expand our views of well being.
    In sum, we agree with you that all these are important dimensions to bring into the Report and will try our best to do them justice. However, given our tight timelines and the need to focus the report in line with our institutional comparative advantage, it may not always be feasible to be as comprehensive as we would like.
    One thing we wanted to call to your attention to (as perhaps our outline did not give sufficient mention to it) is the qualitative study of economic empowerment and agency of women and men in urban and rural communities that we are carrying out in over 20 countries (500 communities), using an approach similar to that used in the Voices of the Poor exercise that underpinned the 2000 WDR on Attacking Poverty. Through our locally-based teams, this work is allowing us to talk to over 4000 men and women, of different ages and backgrounds to hear their views on how power relations and norms, and other social and contextual factors come into play in affecting women’s and men’s aspirations and decisions. The insights from this work may also help counterbalance what you refer to as our “predictable” (but we would argue reasonable, given our institution’s comparative advantage) focus on the economics of gender equality and development.
    The WD2012 website will go live tomorrow, March 8 at 10am. Please look for us at and share with us your thoughts and reactions to the materials posted there. We will also be holding several rounds of consultations in a number of developing countries during March-May 2011, and we look forward to interacting with you and your Oxfam colleagues in those events and in other fora.
    Ana Revenga and Sudhir Shetty (Co-Directors, WDR 2012)