Development Banks Marginalize Women Across the Globe, Says New Report

Projects financed by development banks, or international financial institutions (IFIs), frequently harm women’s livelihoods, health and well-being.

New Report Reveals Development Banks Marginalize Women Across the Globe
A 2018 protest in Manipur, India against the creation of the Mapithel Hydorelectric dam, after local indigenous communities were displaced to make room for the project without any compensation. (Water Alternatives Photo / Flickr)

Taxpayer-supported development banks—such as the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank and newer Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank—are supposed to be guided by their missions to eradicate poverty, share prosperity and accelerate social progress. The reality is different.

Projects financed by development banks, or international financial institutions (IFIs), frequently harm women’s livelihoods, health and well-being, according to a recent report from IFI watchdog Gender Action, “Unmet Gender Promises: making IFI projects and policies deliver on gender-equal rights.” And they can impact almost every aspect of women’s lives, including energy (the World Bank still spends more on fossil fuels than renewables); infrastructure, such as hydropower dams and transportation; and social sectors, like health and education.

Decades of IFI “neoliberal” policies have led to public spending cutbacks and privatized health, education, industrial, agricultural and other services in developing countries. Poor women, lacking the ability to pay, get squeezed out and excluded from social services. 

Gender Action’s report assesses about a dozen IFI gender policies and studies the gender-sensitivity of IFIs’ environmental and social frameworks (ESFs). Beyond just the policies, the report also evaluates their implementation, using field work cases in Bangladesh, Haiti, India, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Senegal and Uganda. It found that when projects broke IFI gender policies, women and girls’ lives were severely and directly impacted.

Women farmers lost homes, land, livestock, water and fisheries when they were forcibly evicted for project construction. Then, unequal labor practices robbed women of the opportunity to earn a livable wage. In an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) rural road project in Gujarat, India, men workers much less qualified than women workers received superior jobs with better pay.

Additionally, women’s health suffered and their unpaid work multiplied as a result of fossil-fuel powered plants. The pollution triggered respiratory diseases, which expanded women’s unpaid work caring for sickened household members, and also exacerbated climate change.

Occasionally, women have attempted to fight back. Community complaints caused an African Development Bank-financed coal power plant in Senegal to close in 2019. However, women fishers and farmers who lost livelihoods and whose health was damaged by coal plant emissions have not been compensated.

IFIs often failed to publicize project information and consult with local women—despite their commitments to transparently disclose information and conduct gender-sensitive consultations. Ignoring women’s concerns resulted in gender-insensitive outputs. For example, in the AIIB-financed rural roads project, women and children who walk to school and markets on project roads became accident victims on roads built without sidewalks serving vehicles overwhelmingly driven by men.

International Financial Institution (IFI) Projects and Gender-Based Violence

Tragically, IFI projects often led to unchecked sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and increased rapes of women and girls. A World Bank-financed road project in Uganda has become synonymous with SGBV. After construction workers raped and impregnated over 30 schoolgirls who had to drop out of school, community members complained to the World Bank accountability mechanism. Faced with a complaint and negative publicity, the World Bank finally canceled part of the road project and assisted the girl-mothers. 

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In another World Bank project that promised to improve slums in Lagos Nigeria, the slums were bulldozed without warning, resulting in rapes of newly homeless women and girls as young as eight years old. Some women who lost businesses after the bulldozing turned to sex work to survive. Today, seven years after the bulldozing, evicted slum residents remain homeless despite the project promise to provide improved housing. 

In the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB)-financed Caracol Industrial Park project, farmers were evicted from scarce fertile land in Haiti. Exposed women suffered sexual harassment, and the promised homes and compensation never materialized. Years later, in response to a community complaint to the IDB accountability mechanism, some financial support is finally being provided.

New Report Reveals Development Banks Marginalize Women Across the Globe
A 2008 protest criticizing the G20 economic summit. (Ben Schumin / Flickr)

How Can International Financial Institutions

Based on these violations of gender policies, the report concludes that IFIs must:

  • Create and implement mandatory gender policies and gender-sensitive ESFs that apply to all IFI projects.

  • Address gender, environment and climate impacts intersectionally. Women often have major roles in protecting the environment and managing natural resources. In addition, the effects of climate change disproportionately impact women’s livelihoods and health.

  • Disclose full information and consult women in all projects. Some IFIs require gender-sensitive consultations but in practice fail to listen to women. Consultations are often held too late for affected women to refuse projects, leading to SGBV and other harmful resettlement impacts. 

  • Prevent SGBV. Although IFIs have focused on SGBV following the Uganda road project scandal, case studies demonstrate recurring SGBV in IFI projects.

  • Ensure gender equal rights (GERs) complement women’s economic empowerment. Most IFIs rely on an economic argument to promote women’s employment, without actually pushing for GERs.

  • Recognize and reward unpaid care work. Some IFI policies recognize women’s unpaid care work and support technologies to alleviate it, but none promote monetizing and valuing its economic contributions.

  • Prevent discrimination of sexual and gender minorities (SGMs). All IFIs must train staff to prevent project discrimination against and ensure benefits for LGBTQ+ people.

  • Collect and publish gender-disaggregated monitoring and evaluation (M&E) data so that problems can be identified and addressed.

  • End privatization of public services and infrastructure to ensure access to all.

  • Use grants, not loans, to end debt repayment that undermines spending on public health and other basic human needs.

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Elaine Zuckerman is President of Gender Action. After she joined the World Bank in 1980 as an economist, she went on to create the Bank's first program to globally mitigate Structural Adjustment Loans' harmful impacts on the poor, especially on women, and work in the gender unit. In the 1990s, she was also Coordinator of the Social Agenda Policy Group at the Inter-American Development Bank.