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World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development - An Opportunity Both Welcome and Missed

World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development - An Opportunity Both Welcome and Missed

Author(s): Shahra Razavi
That the World Bank has devoted its 2012 flagship publication to the topic of gender equality is a welcome opportunity for widening the intellectual space. However, it is also a missed opportunity. By failing to engage seriously with the gender biases of macroeconomic policy agendas that define contemporary globalization, and by reducing social policy to a narrow focus on conditional cash transfers, the report is unable to provide a credible and even-handed analysis of the challenges that confront gender equality in the 21st century and appropriate policy responses for creating more equal societies. This is the first time the World Bank has devoted its annual flagship publication to the topic of gender equality. Given the stature of the World Development Report and its influence on development debates, the 2012 edition is likely to attract the attention of numerous actors, both governmental and non-governmental. So what are we to make of the analysis and the messages that emerge from this report? Does it provide useful policy insights that can further the cause of gender justice, especially the interests of those women who find themselves on the lower rungs of our increasingly unequal and polarized societies?

To start with, a number of significant messages emerge from the report—significant because they are coming from the World Bank, and more specifically from the organization’s annual flagship publication, rather than being novel or cutting-edge in a more general sense.

First, those who have heard the World Bank always make the instrumental argument for gender equality will be pleased to know that this report underlines the intrinsic value of gender equality (without forgetting that it is also “smart economics”). Second, the attention to the intrinsic value of gender equality seems also to have triggered some interest in gender equality as a political project. Third, and importantly, going against the “growth is good for gender equality”–type of argument put forward by World Bank economists in the past, the report acknowledges that gender equality will not occur automatically as countries get richer. Fourth, attention is paid to the unequal division of unpaid domestic and care work between women and men.

Despite these positive features, which take the World Bank’s work on gender equality forward in important ways, there are a number of major gaps and problematic policy implications that require critical scrutiny.

First, despite the welcome attention to labour markets, employment issues and persistent gender-based segregation (chapter 5), the analysis of these timely issues falls short in several important respects.

Informality. Although WDR 2012 makes occasional reference to “the important challenges [that] remain for those outside formal employment” (p.267), there seems to be little recognition of the tremendous changes that have swept labour markets throughout the world, adversely affecting the security of workers. As research by the ILO and others has shown, informal employment tends to be a greater source of employment for women than for men in most developing regions, with women often concentrated in the most casual and exploitative segments. As women have increased their participation in the labour force—which WDR 2012 celebrates—the structure of the labour market has also changed, making informal/unprotected types of work the norm.

Gender wage gaps. Women’s disproportionate care responsibility, as the report points out, is one of the factors that limits and shapes their access to paid work. The failure of labour markets to acknowledge the contribution of unpaid reproductive work to the functioning of any economy is not, however, seen by the Bank as a reflection of the fact that labour markets, as social and political institutions, are “bearers of gender”. Labour markets are gendered institutions also by operating on the basis of formal rules and informal practices that value male and female labour differently, regardless of the levels of “human capital” they embody. WDR 2012 acknowledges that with the closing of the education gap it is difficult to explain the observed gap between women’s and men’s wages in terms of educational attainments (p.203), but then cautions that the remaining gender wage gap may reflect “additional unobserved or unmeasured differences in worker and job characteristics between women and men” (p.205). The problem with this reasoning—as with the human capital “explanation”—is that differences between female and male workers are themselves very often the outcome of structural and discriminatory forces, such as fewer years of labour market experience due to care-related reasons, and gendered definitions of skill that are saturated with sexual bias.

Moreover, the report provides a rosy assessment of employment generation for women in the export-oriented sectors. There is no mention of employer strategies in these sectors to manage risk by creating a dual labour market, consisting of a “nucleus” of largely male, skilled, permanent workers and a periphery of “flexible” relatively “unskilled” female workers. Nor is there any mention of the health hazards of being exposed to pesticides and other harmful substances (in the horticultural sector, for example), or the intense “burnout” suffered by workers in garments and electronic manufacturing, who are predominantly women. There is also complete silence about job losses in the context of trade liberalization (i.e., trade liberalization is a two-way process: cheap imports displace local manufacturing employment).

The report’s policy recommendations in the area of employment more broadly—facilitating “part-time work” for women (despite its well-known disadvantages in terms of earnings and social benefits) and “labour activation policies” to better connect labour supply and demand—are very weak. How such steps are going to tackle the problem of structural unemployment and underemployment that grips the global economy is far from obvious. Nor is there mention of the deleterious affects of the “deflationary bias” of macroeconomic policy on employment generation. As far as WDR 2012 is concerned, employment remains an issue for micro policies, completely detached from macroeconomic policy.

Second, moving to the analysis of unpaid work, the recommendations about the critical importance of public investment in infrastructure, especially the provision of clean water and sanitation, are perhaps among the more strategic elements emerging from the report. Yet the fiscal constraints that are likely to shape such investments and the policies that are needed for mobilizing or safeguarding revenues, especially in the current climate of fiscal austerity, are either not examined at all, or given short shrift. When it comes to the provision of services, for health and child care, the analysis is equally vague and problematic. Maternal mortality, a major concern of the report, can be reduced by providing skilled birth attendants (p.293). This can be through either public or private providers, the private option deemed to be “a cost-effective [cost-effective for whom?] alternative to the public provision of maternal health services” (p.293), or by providing “poor women with cash transfers conditional on their seeking health-care services known to reduce maternal mortality” (p.294). One would have thought that this would be the place for a much stronger emphasis on the critical importance of accessible public health services. A missed opportunity indeed!

Click on the URL to finish reading as well as for Razavi's full critique.
http://www.unrisd.org/80256B3C005BE6B5/%28httpNews%29/7F6321E556FA0364C1...

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