Some 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 were 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?