The Bank’s Ambitious Gender Strategy

BY FRANK VOGL*

February 1, 2024

The World Bank is on the cusp of finalizing a 2024-2030 gender development strategy. It draws on the experiences of the last decade where, for example, the number of Bank projects that included actions to counter gender-based violence (GBV) rose more than 10-fold, from 38 in 2012 to 390 in 2022. The draft of the strategy, that was released publicly, boldly declares that a key aim is to “eliminate” GBV.

This is likely to be the Bank’s most ambitious gender strategy and, if successful, it could yield enormous benefits for the social and human rights of women – and for economic development more broadly.

I recall Bank President Bob McNamara in the 1970s fervently stressing the need for the bank to do all it could to ensure the education of girls in many countries. Then, I accompanied then Bank President Barber Conable to the first joint Bank-World Health Organization-UNFPA “Safe Motherhood” conference in February, 1987. It led Conable to call for a major increase in the Bank’s projects for maternal health – the unanimous conclusion of the meeting, according to its final report, was: “The tragedy of maternal mortality and ill health has been largely neglected in the development programs of Third World countries and priorities of donor agencies.”

The Bank has come a long way down the decades in its work on gender development. Under the leadership of Hana Brixi, Global Director for Gender, an impressive team has been assembled to finalize the strategy and then secure its implementation. But will it be effective?

In 2007, I heard Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, then on the Bank’s staff and now head of the World Trade Organization, describe how a young girl in Nigeria was forced to provide sexual favors to her university professor in order to continue her higher education. I have learned since then that sextortion is not just widespread across university campuses in Nigeria, but across the developing world. Surveys and reports by Transparency International and its national chapters highlight the pervasiveness of this form of GBV.

Recently, I joined with over 90 civil society and academic leaders from over 50 countries in signing a letter to the Bank to improve its planned gender strategy. Our focus is on the facts that the draft strategy makes no mention of corruption and sextortion, and scant mention of the vital roles that civil society must play if Bank projects are to be sustained.

Under its Articles the IBRD can only lend (or in the case of IDA make grants) to governments or their agencies. In few areas is this requirement more odious than in the quest to “eliminate” GBV. Across the world, men dominate governments and their administration, control the institutions of justice, and fail each and every day to put in place laws and systems that protect women from violence. And, more generally, men constantly prevent women to meet their full potential in contributing to the development of their communities and their countries.

Corruption is rampant in many countries in public social delivery services, where women, in particular, are constantly extorted for payments for health, education, and other services that governments officially provide for free. Yet, it is precisely those government ministries responsible for these services that so often are the Bank’s partners in gender-related projects.

Success in securing reforms and, crucially, sustaining them, calls on the Bank to forge deeper long-term relationships with in-country civil society organizations (CSOs) on an unprecedented scale. CSOs often have the capacity to serve as watchdogs – monitoring the implementation of public policies, reporting on the enforcement of laws, and highlighting corruption and human rights abuses.

“Eliminating” GBV, as the Bank intends, is a very long-term endeavor that demands far-reaching changes in many countries in traditions and cultures. Sustaining reforms calls for actions over far longer periods of time than the Bank’s project supervisory timeframes.

The Bank’s managers need to fully use the substantial resources in Bank-administered trust funds to support long-term partnerships with CSOs to secure gender development. No issue is more challenging on this stage than that of seeking to end sextortion. In an increasing number of developing countries, CSOs are building networks to support women who face demands for sexual favors from powerful men. From Rajasthan to Lagos, CSOs are building systems to educate women about their rights, to secure justice, while protecting women from potential sexual violence.

The Bank needs to learn from these examples and include the lessons that are being learned in its new gender strategy. The failure to fully engage CSOs and to directly confront corruption in its gender development strategy could place the Bank’s worthy ambitions at risk. I gather that the final version of the new strategy will include references to corruption, but I remain concerned that Bank staff are insufficiently trained in issues related to curbing sextortion, in particular.

The Bank’s gender strategy in coming years is both vital for economic development and for human rights. By placing the goal of eliminating GBV as its lead priority in this strategy, the Bank is signaling to all multilateral and bilateral donor agencies that it is fully embracing the values of the #MeToo movement.

*Frank Vogl served as the Bank’s Director of Information & Public Affairs from 1981-1990. He is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and the co-founder of the Partnership for Transparency Fund and Transparency International. He can be reached at frankvogl@gmail.com

Disclaimer

Member’s blog posts reflect the views of the author(s), drawing on prior research or personal experience. Freedom of expression is an essential part of the 1818 Society’s culture. The 1818 Society® is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.


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