The trouble with gender economics
19 May 2011
London: Family planning is notoriously one of the most politicised and divisive issues in development debates, and gender equality one of the most neglected. But over the past few years, advocates for both have emerged from across the political spectrum and from some of the most unlikely sources - including the World Bank. This week, a diverse group of parliamentarians from around the world gathered at the French Assemblée Nationale before next week's G8 summit, calling for a special focus on the 600 million girls and young women in developing countries around the world.
Organised by the European parliamentary forum on population and development (EPF), the summit brought together parliamentarians from across the political spectrum, including the UK Liberal Democrat Jenny Tonge, French Socialist Philippe Tourtelier, and George Tsereteli, a centre-right MP from Georgia. EPF secretary Neil Datta argues that "each political party has a value base that can be supportive of reproductive health", and that the trick is to mobilise support without politicising debate. Above all, it's the economic case for supporting girls - popularised by the social media-savvy "Girl Effect" campaign and promoted by the World Bank - that is bringing unexpected allies to the table.
According to Gill Greer, director-general of the International planned parenthood federation, every year a girl spends in secondary school pushes her future wages up by 15-20%, and women generally re-invest 90% of their earnings in their communities. The World Bank agrees, and has thus decided to back programmes focusing conditional cash transfers on women, and providing vouchers to employers who hire women. For the bank's expert on gender, Mayra Buvinic, investing in girls is simply "smart economics." For Greer, the argument that investment in the rights and health of girls can spur economic growth provides a powerful tool for advocates seeking consensus on politically sensitive issues such as reproductive health. And according to Datta, arguments about the economic benefits of gender equality, reproductive health, and family planning have helped to garner cross-party support in donor countries including Ireland, Spain, and the Netherlands.
But making women work for the market is not the same thing as making markets work for women, and the economic argument for investing in girls is not without its critics. Earlier this year, a debate about the Girl Effect campaign rippled across the development blogosphere, sparked in part by a provocative critique on Aid Watch. Guest blogger Anna Carella argued that the Girl Effect plays into stereotypes of women as natural caregivers and reinforces perceptions of "women's work" and "men's work". It further neglects crucial macroeconomic issues and prioritises the wellbeing of the economy over the wellbeing of women, she said. "While this campaign seems like a godsend for those who have been working to improve the lives of women, it may actually be damaging to women."
Meanwhile, Elaine Zuckerman, a former World Bank economist, has taken aim at the bank's gender action plan and policy, criticising its dismissal of human rights and arguing that the "business case for gender equality" only perpetuates the bank's neo-liberal agenda. And for Datta, the risk is that programmes favouring quick fixes will win over long-term strategies to tackle deep-rooted power relations that require generations to surmount.
All of this leaves global gender advocates in a tricky position. They have an argument that has garnered unprecedented support for traditionally neglected issues and divisive debates. Linking gender equality with economic growth offers a convincing argument at a time when budget cuts and austerity talk put NGOs and aid agencies under enormous pressure to provide innovative approaches to entrenched development issues.
And it's an agenda that shows no sign of losing steam. Next year, the World Bank will dedicate its flagship World Development Report to gender equality. And the bank's International Development Association (IDA) fund, which provides soft loans and grants to the poorest countries, has made gender equality one if its four priority themes. But to benefit from this unprecedented focus without seeing stickier issues slip off the agenda - such as the hard-to-measure but crucial issues of women's rights, empowerment, and long-term generational change - is no small task. Without a doubt, this is a debate to watch.
This article was amended on 20 May 2011. We had referred to Elaine Zuckerman as an economist from the World Bank's independent evaluation group. This has been corrected.
* By Claire Provost
Keywords: gender, health, donor aid, World Bank, civil society