World Development Report 2012

Article excerpt

Gender Equality and Development - An Opportunity Both Welcome and Missed

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 cuttingedge 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. …