Will women always be a bit on the side for the World Bank?

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At the London launch of the World Bank’s latest report on gender today, one of its contributors praised the report as being a departure from previous “just add women and stir” approaches to gender in development policy and practice.

 There is much to be welcomed in the new report, in particular recognising the importance of the economic empowerment of women and tackling the barriers in formal, informal, economic and social institutions that can prevent it.

But the report is short on action – a challenge that needs to be picked up by Bank staff, member countries and civil society to make sure that the good analysis gets put into practice.

As the title of this blog suggests, this doesn’t mean just doing a few extra things to help women, but instead truly shifting thinking, policy, practice and the incentives, measurements and targets that guide policies and reforms.

A good example of a case for reform are the Doing Business rankings of the World Bank. Back in 2008, these were criticized as being gender-blind. A lack of data and methodological limitations of constructing the rankings have meant that three years on, they remain that way – although we now have a side report on business women and the law. It doesn’t receive a fraction of the marketing support, media attention or policy influence that the main rankings do. Despite making up a significant majority of small-scale entrepreneurs in poor countries, women remain a bit on the side.

Does it matter if we are doing both sets of things – the ones for women and the ones for the “mainstream” business community? The answer lies in opportunity costs, an issue raised by one of the commentators at today’s launch.

This year’s gender report lays out a raft of things that should be done to help women become more successful in their economic life – they are only marginally touched upon by the Doing Business rankings. If the profile of these essential reforms is sidelined by gender-blind, conventional economic policy tools like the doing business rankings, governments simply cannot do their best – either for women or the economy at large – with the limited financial and human resources at their disposal.

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