IFIs’ impact on gender transformative changes


The international financial institutions (IFIs) contribution to promote international economic cooperation and stability in developing countries is well celebrated. However, can they play a role in achieving gender equality?

Financial institution and gender

Gender inclusion is one of the important mandates of the major international financial institutions (IFIs) that support developing economies in addressing socio-economic development and stability. The IFIs are reportedly emphasising on gender equality in fragility, conflict, and violence (FCV), tailoring interventions and services to gender-diverse impacts and needs, improving the evidence regarding gender dimensions, and promoting women's empowerment and leadership. In order to prepare women for careers in the formal sector, development banks invest in education. IFIs argue that formal employment will also liberate women from the male-dominated patriarchal society in which they live, as well as from the violence they suffer. There are, however, doubts expressed by gender advocates from the Global South about the effectiveness of these financial supports in addressing nuanced forms of gender inequality.

The World Bank itself invested more than US $4billion in India in the fiscal year 2022. In the view of feminist researchers, IFI-funded development projects like the National Rural Economic Transformation Project (NRETP) or health system reform programmes, at best, adopt a formal equality model with the assumption that all women, regardless of their social and geographical backgrounds, will benefit from the particular project equally. IFI's planning documents often fail to recognise gendered realities and the various obstacles and disadvantages that women face in achieving equality. In order to bridge gender gaps, policy makers and IFI-funded infrastructure projects like highway development should make sure that women have equal access to economic and social opportunities, information about the project, and full participation in all aspects.

How well paid are women?

Despite IFIs’ desire to increase women's participation in the labour force, one must ask: Is paid work decent?

IFIs believe that internationalisation is the key to eradicating poverty in developing countries. In order to boost the economy and create jobs, it is necessary to invest in economic production and trade zones, as well as transportation, energy, and infrastructure. The large investments made by IFIs may, on the other hand, have severe unintended consequences for the local economy and women. The neo-liberal policies of the past few decades and subsequent industrialisation for the production of cheaper goods for global markets have exacerbated exploitative working conditions and underpaying in the Global South. The garment industry in South Asian countries is one such example of indecent working conditions and meagre wages for women. An IFI in such a situation may ensure that the interventions do not perpetuate gender inequality.

As a result of the years of research and lobbying by progressive stakeholders and feminist organisations on the global stage, IFIs are beginning to realise that externally promoted GDP-based growth can also have downsides, particularly in terms of women's empowerment at the project implementation level. Today, large agricultural farms are not serving as food sources for local people, but rather as products for the national and international markets. It is also important to acknowledge here that national governments and policies play a vital role in ensuring climate-resilient gender-transformative processes and structures. To ensure transparency and to mitigate undue harm to people and the environment during the development process, robust monitoring frameworks and national safeguard policies and guidelines are essential.

As an important tool for creating ownership among local populations, the World Bank's environmental and social framework provides a platform for stakeholder engagement in project design. It strengthens the protection of people and the environment and makes significant progress in areas such as labour, inclusion and non-discrimination, gender, climate change, biodiversity, community health and safety, and stakeholder engagement, thus supporting green, resilient, and inclusive development. Historically, civil society groups used these safeguards to hold national governments accountable. While the revised safeguard policies of 2018 may permit the World Bank borrower countries to monitor projects in accordance with national laws and regulations, it may also limit the space available for civil society organisations.

Disproportionate unpaid work

Labouring bodies combine productive and reproductive functions to keep market forces in motion. A market system cannot separate surplus labour from the work of parenting, running a household, and providing emotional support. These varying forms of labour are interconnected and enhance each other to keep the neoliberal capitalist order intact.

In order to maintain global economic harmony, IFIs provide loans to countries during times of crisis. As a result, they are in a position of power to offer financial advice and guidance for a country's development. Governments, especially those in low-income countries, tend to follow their recommendations. It can have a profound and disproportionate impact on the citizens of a country how their government responds to them. In a deeply hetero-patriarchal society, the economic policies affect men and women differently. Women undertake a disproportionate amount of unpaid care and domestic work, including looking after children, the sick, and the elderly, fetching water and preparing meals. It should be noted that the word 'reproductive body' includes 'the maternal body', which defines the reproductive roles and functions associated with reproduction and, once again, includes the labour of love, emotional care, or unpaid labour. In contrast, men are seen as responsible for paid work outside the home. Women are often employed in the informal economy, where worker's rights are not protected and jobs are low-paying and insecure.

As a result of the government's recommendations for hegemonic economic growth, the burden is primarily placed on women. It is these policies that govern the decision-making process regarding public concerns such as the amount of taxes to be charged, the individuals who will be required to pay them, the types of public services that will be funded by the taxes, and the types of social protection policies needed. This patriarchal society has a prevailing gender inequality that marginalises unemployed and pregnant people, as well as women and girls. For instance, child-rearing is primarily seen as the responsibility of women. The privatisation of childcare centres or the absence of childcare as a public service obstructs women's employment opportunities. This clearly deprives women of their economic independence and participation.

In recent years, IFIs have increasingly engaged with India through their COVID-19 support funds. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have experienced a global humanitarian crisis that impacts not just economies but also public healthcare systems. The pattern exposes the associated conditions and their impacts on national policies. In addition to pulling girls out of school, the pandemic increased their financial vulnerability and caretaking responsibilities. More often than not, women are discriminated against based on their age, sexuality, caste, or class. Increasing marginalisation makes it harder to affirm marginalised women's experiences, make them understand who to hold accountable, and create advocacy structures that empower them. Here is where feminist organisations can help women join together and be part of processes aimed at streamlining and consolidating collective concerns.

Safeguarding women’s rights

The IFIs often perpetuate inequalities between men and women by denying women's rights to development, access, and control.

The 26th Gender and Economic Policy Discussion Forum organised on 3 August 2018 discussed gender mainstreaming in IFIs both at policy and project level. As a way to alleviate inequality, the IFIs must seriously consider strategies and procedures for strategising and implementing gender policy at a variety of levels, from planning to implementation. A deeper consultation with southern feminists is recommended to rearticulate women's access to resources and economic empowerment in light of the problems associated with integrating and institutionalising gender.

Many argue that interest payments to the IMF and other IFIs will eat up a growing share of government spending, leaving less money for public services and investment in infrastructure and education. It will become increasingly difficult to service debt. Public spending cuts can disproportionately affect women from marginalised communities. Public services that are affordable and of good quality are often even harder to access for these groups. This is especially true for women who face multiple layers of discrimination because of their ethnicity, caste, age, disability, etc.

Since policy advice and loan conditionalities by IFIs can undermine commitments made by countries to achieve gender equality, women's rights organisations and groups worldwide pressure these institutions to recognise how their policies often make lives harder for women and girls. Gender inequality as well as how it affects economic stability must be researched and analysed by IFIs. The IFIs strongly recommend that women participate equally in the labour force, but in a country like India, it must also be equally important that women have decent, well-paying jobs and that the money circulating in the national economy and global economy is used to support women and communities in living in dignity and fulfilling their human rights.


Link to 26th Gender and Economic Policy Discussion Forum


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