Will the new World Development Report transform our thinking on gender and inequality?

wdr PICSome editions of the World Bank’s annual flagship World Development Report come to be seen as intellectual milestones – the WDRs on poverty (1990, 2000); equity (2005) or agriculture (2008). Others sink without trace – who remembers ‘reshaping economic geography’ (2009)? So let’s hope that the publication today of the 2012 WDR, Gender Equality and Development, marks a new seriousness in tackling the gender divides that plague so many aspects of development. Will it change the weather or disappear? I’m hopeful, based on the 40 page overview, (so you should take these comments as initial and tentative, until someone reads the full tome). Here’s a summary of the content, and a few reactions. First, what kind of inequality is it talking about? ‘This Report focuses on three key dimensions of gender equality: the accumulation of endowments (education, health, and physical assets); the use of those endowments to take up economic opportunities and generate incomes; and the application of those endowments to take actions, or agency, affecting individual and household well-being.’ What’s the approach? ‘This Report focuses on the economics of gender equality and development. It uses economic theory to understand what drives differences in key aspects of welfare between men and women.  [But it] does not limit itself to economic outcomes—indeed, it devotes roughly equal attention to human endowments, economic opportunities, and women’s agency.’ [nb my colleagues tell me that the economics used is distinctly mainstream – precious few feminist economists in the bibliography.] Next, what does it say? First the good news: ‘Women have made unprecedented gains in rights, in education and health, and in access to jobs and livelihoods. 136 countries now have explicit guarantees for the equality of all citizens and nondiscrimination between men and women in their constitutions. Progress has not come easily. And it has not come evenly to all countries or to all women—or across all dimensions of gender equality.’ Then the nuance: ‘[In some] aspects of gender equality there has been most progress worldwide (education, fertility, life expectancy, labor force participation, and the extension of legal rights), [while in others] there has been little or very slow change (excess female mortality, segregation in economic activity, gaps in earnings, responsibility for house and care work, asset ownership, and women’s agency in private and public spheres).’ In the areas of progress, such as life expectancy or falling fertility rates, ‘The changes were much faster than when today’s rich countries fertility fall rates WDR 2012were poorer. It took more than 100 years for the number of children born to a woman in the United States to decline from 6 to 3; the same decline took just over 35 years in India and less than 20 in Iran (figure 2).’ [Are you listening, population controllers?] The record on education is extraordinary: ‘Two-thirds of all countries have reached gender parity in primary education enrollments, while in over one-third, girls significantly outnumber boys in secondary education. And in a striking reversal of historical patterns, more women than men now attend universities, with women’s tertiary enrollment across the globe having risen more than sevenfold since 1970.’ The WDR has a go at explaining the structural origins of success v failure: ‘The main lesson: when market signals, formal institutions, and income growth all come together to support investments in women, gender equality can and does improve very quickly. And these improvements can occur even when informal institutions, such as social norms about what is “appropriate” for girls and boys or women and men, may themselves take time to adapt.’ In the areas of slow progress: ‘Gender disparities persist in these “sticky” domains for three main reasons. First, there may only be a single institutional or policy “fix,” which can be difficult and easily blocked. Second, disparities persist when multiple reinforcing constraints combine to block progress. Third, gender differences are particularly persistent when rooted in deeply entrenched gender roles and social norms—such as those about who is responsible for care and housework in the home, and what is “acceptable” for women and men to study, do, and aspire to….. Perhaps the “stickiest” aspect of gender outcomes is the way patterns of gender inequality are reproduced over time.’ And progress is particularly hard ‘where poverty combines with other factors of exclusion—such as ethnicity, caste, remoteness, race, disability, or sexual orientation.’ So much for the diagnosis – what about the cure? The WDR proposes three criteria for selecting what issues require public action: ‘“First, which gender gaps are most significant for enhancing welfare and sustaining development? Second, which of these gaps persist even as countries get richer? Third, for which of these priority areas has there been insufficient or misplaced attention? “ From these, it arrives at four priority areas for action at both national and global levels: “Reducing gender gaps in human capital endowments (addressing excess female mortality and eliminating pockets of gender disadvantage in education where they persist) Closing earnings and productivity gaps between women and men Shrinking gender differences in voice Limiting the reproduction of gender inequality over time, whether it is through endowments, economic opportunities, or agency” It then applies these ideas to some specific areas, such as reducing excess female mortality. Its recommendations are pleasingly holistic, stressing the importance of water and sanitation or the need to release women’s time through improved childcare provision, as well as more specific policies such as affirmative action in labour markets and political representation.  Thankfully, the depth and detail of the ‘so what’ section goes far beyond the usual ‘general denunciation + demand for gender disaggregated data’ school. OK, that’s my attempt at a summary. Here’s some of the aspects I like: • The symbolic importance of the World Bank devoting its flagship report to this topic. • While focussing on economic evidence and argument, is very far from being ‘economistic’, covering topics such as endowments, agency, social and political institutions, time poverty, domestic violence  and gender norms that are central to a full understanding of gender and development. • The usual World Bank collection of excellent Killer Facts, which we will all be lifting for our own reports for years to come. • A good discussion of the role of shocks in triggering changes in gender relations. What am I uneasy about? There are only a few obvious gaps (see below) – the real issue is the relative weight given to different topics and approaches. Although the WDR ticks the right boxes (e.g. on the intrinsic importance of women’s rights, rather than just the instrumental benefits for social progress or the economy), the weight of analysis and policy recommendations is solidly in the more orthodox sphere. As my colleague Ines Smyth puts it, there is much more on ‘what women can do for development’, than there is on ‘what development can do for women’. There are nods to the importance of women’s organizations, but the treatment is rather cursory, compared to issues like labour market policies. Then there are some pretty startling gaps. In a report that stresses the importance of gender norms and values, how can there be not a single mention of religion or faith-based organizations? In a report on ‘gender’ (and not just ‘women’) there is very little attention to the construction of masculinity(ies), which seems to be rising up the genderagenda fast right now. Finally, it also seems largely oblivious to events of the last five years – a word search finds no uses of ‘food prices’ or ‘climate change’ or ‘financial crisis’. This is just an initial reading, and I’m sure further concerns and disagreements will surface as people read and debate the report (which is of course part of its contribution and purpose). So I may come back for another go on this, depending on comments and other reviews. End of inevitable NGO whinge. The report is excellent, and let’s hope everyone in the Bank, DFID, national governments and elsewhere in the development jungle spends time properly digesting (and disputing) its analysis and recommendations. And here’s a nice World Bank launch video – when did multilateral institutions get this funky? ]]>

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5 Responses to “Will the new World Development Report transform our thinking on gender and inequality?”
  1. Thanks for this, Duncan — very interesting. I’m not seeing anything (here or after a quick glance at the Main Messages section on the WDR 2012 page) about sexual-and-gender-based violence, is there anything? Does it not intersect with gender-and development-issues, and vice-versa?

  2. Alice Evans

    The WDR is absolutely brilliant for women, in one way at least: it’s recognition of the importance of ‘active labour market policies’, including affirmative action, so as to create role models and thereby transform people’s predispositions to underestimate women’s capacities. There is a lengthy discussion of the importance of ‘demonstration effects’ and successful policies. ‘Exposure to female role models whose positions of leadership or power contradict stereotypes of women’s roles can reduce the intergenerational transmission of gender norms’ (p.317). This is hugely significant. An important radical feminist proposal now championed by the mainstream: terrific!
    WDR also extends its support for paternal leave, subsidised childcare (at times contradicting itself on this point though), and rails against employer liability for maternity leave! ‘if maternal leave is paid by the employer than if it is financed through general taxes because she will be perceived by the prospective employer as potentially more expensive to hire than an equivalent male’ (p231). Brilliant!
    There is a section, in Chapter 2, that recognises reversals and the effects of economic crisis. But this is long forgotten by Chapter 6 on globalisation, which highlights the related benefits for gender equality. There is no recognition here of the women’s and men’s vulnerability in a globalised world, where minimal capital controls can be disastrous – as illustrated by an earlier issue of Oxfam’s ‘Gender & Development’ journal. Just because the World Bank is now writing a WDR on gender does not mean it will rethink its macroeconomic dogma. But this is hugely important. Active labour market policies are only effective when there are jobs to be shared.
    Furthermore, it’s not just the issue of the policies recommended but also the apparent limited engagement with feminist economics and gender studies more broadly – as revealed when you look at the team behind this Report.
    Given WDR’s support for women’s organising and power, it’s also a little disappointing that this isn’t supported at the level of international institutions. The WDR doesn’t mention UN-WOMEN’s report or its recommendations (though I have yet to do a comprehensive bibliography check on this). While the WDR should be recognised for its support of mandatory joint titling (p.304), what about the progress mentioned by UN-WOMEN, such as Nepal’s recent tax reforms – 10% tax exemption for land registered in women’s names have lead to a three fold increase in women’s property ownership.
    Another missing issue is the quality of education. While the WDR stresses the importance of enhancing educational access for socially disadvantaged groups, there is no attention to quality. This is slightly odd because the WDR does recognise the importance of developing life skills, as mentioned in its discussion of job training programmes. But good quality education is of fundamental importance to girls’ development of self-confidence , and broadly recognised. There is one sentence on school governance (p.363), but nothing on teachers’ salaries or other ways to improve quality. Very disappointing.
    So a mixed bag really.

  3. Duncan, many thanks for your thoughts. We agree that there are many other areas that we could have covered but we had to make some hard choices on the scope of the Report so as not to sacrifice depth of treatment. We are happy that you like many aspects of the report and think it may have some staying power. There are a few key messages of the Report that we do want to stress. First, gender equality is intrinsically important and it is also economically “smart”. Second, to understand gender outcomes, one needs to look at the ways in which social norms interact with markets and societal institutions to shape aspirations, beliefs, opportunities and outcomes for women and men throughout their lives. And this understanding of what drives outcomes needs to be brought to bear on the design of programs and policies so that these address the root causes of persistent inequality and “get it right”. Third, public action needs to be based on solid evidence and rigorous evaluation of what works and what doesn’t work. Too many out of date or not well documented facts and evidence are used for advocacy purposes that end up undermining our credibility on this critical issue. Working together, governments, civil society organizations (including faith-based organizations), and development agencies can make an enormous difference to the lives of many girls and women around the world. If the WDR 2012 helps arm all of us with well-documented “killer facts” and solid analytics and credible evaluations (which reflect country context and experience) then this Report can indeed be useful.
    Couple of responses to some of the issues raised by other commenting: we do look at quality of education and point out that there is a big problem in getting kids to learn. Children in low and middle income countries are learning less than in rich countries and this can hamper their future opportunities to get good jobs and earn decent incomes. But there is no gender gap there: it is a problem for both boys and girls. We also note the ways in which the education system replicates and transmits gender roles and stereotypes. On globalization we see as “glass half full”: good potential to help close gender gaps but not an automatic, unless policies tackle the structural causes of persistent gender inequalities.
    Duncan: Thanks for taking the trouble to respond in what must have been a crazy week, Ana!

  4. Thanks for the helpful overview Duncan and for highlighting such a crucial report.
    A couple of comments:
    1. I agree with you that there is very little on the critical role Faith Based Organisations play in shaping and re-shaping gender norms. As the Programme Development Advisor for Gender at Tearfund, a Christian based organisation, talking about gender rapidly turns to what the scriptures do or don’t say about roles of men and women. I have found it essential to talk through some of these, often misunderstandings, of scriptures, to help bring different perspectives and ultimately transformation in thinking. To ignore the faith of an individual in attempting to bring transformation in social constructs on gender is a huge omission. It is also very difficult to do and we need the support and encouragement of the sector to carry on. It feels a very lonely path at times! So omitting this area is a missed opportunity for the World Bank.
    2. Inclusion of men is essential if you are to bring about a sustained, violence free, change in the gender dynamics within households and communities. In my experience in this area it is often the men who hold and keep a tight grip on the power & control within the household level. This can extend to roles outside the home too. Tearfund takes a relationship based entry approach to the work on gender always trying to gain an answer to the question,’How is what we are doing affecting relationships?’. Is it bringing true transformation for all? Restoring a balance of power and control within the household in the context of a healthy relationship is a starting point. [It is only an entry point for further work but one we have found works within the faith context]
    3. Faith Based Organisations around the world make significant contributions to sustainable development & ending violence against women. For Tearfund this means working with and through the local church where feasible and possible. I have just returned from DRC and Burundi where we launched the ‘Silent No More’ report with the Archbishops and Bishops, resulting in action plans for the church to end sexual violence. We have a lot to learn from those already doing fabulous work in this area. The report noted that many women gain much comfort and support from their local church. We need to make that better, help more and prevent sexual violence from happening in the first place. The Church can, and already has in some areas, played a significant role in bringing about behaviour change.
    More could have been done on faith, inclusion of men and on gender based violence. However, I am pleased that the World Bank has had this significant focus that will hopefully lead to more research, funding and focus on this critical issue for development & women & men.
    Mandy Marshall, Gender Advisor, Tearfund & Co-Diretor, Restored

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