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Grassroots Women Urge Rights-Based Development Path

WASHINGTON, Sep 23 2011 (IPS) - The streets around the headquarters of the world’s leading financial institutions – the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – have been transformed into a canvas over the last three days.

Emblazoned with this year’s signature slogan of the Bretton Woods Institutions, “Think Equal”, the sidewalks in DC are now home to the campaign of the world’s biggest bank that has, for the first time this year, placed the issue of gender at the centre of the development debate.

“We’ve just released a World Development Report on gender that proves that ‘getting to equal’ for women is not just the right thing to do. It’s also smart economics,” World Bank Group president Robert Zoellick told a press conference here Thursday.

“Women are the next big emerging market – how can the world reach its full growth potential if it fails to advance the prospects, energies, and contributions of half the world’s population – women and girls?” he asked.

“Nearly four million girls and women in developing countries ‘go missing’ each year,” Zoellick stressed. “That’s like losing a Los Angeles, a Johannesburg, a Yokohama.”

Solutions Lost in the Neoliberal Paradigm

"It would be a very good idea for the Bank to organise social audits of its reports on the ground, not at the national level but much deeper, much lower, to find out what people at the [grassroots] think about these reports," Roy said at the Bank's headquarters Wednesday, echoing calls from civil society groups to implement much more stringent measures for heeding local voices before implementing development projects.

Tuck-Primdahl told IPS that the Bank does plan to implement such audits.

"To ensure good reach in the developing world, starting early October and continuing over the next months the WDR team jointly with each Regional Vice presidency as well as with country coordinators working on gender issues, will be presenting the findings of the report in over 40 countries," she said.

"The events will consider all stakeholders including civil society and grassroots organisations."

While this is positive, experts who have gone even further in their critiques, attacking not the Bank but the economic system within which it operates, believe Bank efforts to reach their "beneficiaries" will not change the overall patterns of inequality in the world.

"The Bretton Woods Institutions have a lot of money and power," Hester Eisenstein, professor of sociology at Queens College and author of the recent book "Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women's Labour and Ideas to Exploit the World", told IPS.

"Its campaign for neo- liberalism, decades of campaigning to delegitimise Keynesian economic policies, making a mockery of the welfare state and insisting that the only way forward is to follow the neoliberal prescriptions of the World Bank have all been very effective in blocking out all other alternative economic systems," she added.

"Countries like Cuba, which have universal health care and extremely low infant mortality, and Venezuela, which has made fantastic inroads into women's health and development are constantly demonised; but we need to remember that feminists and indigenous people in these places have fought to secure their health and rights in alternative ways. We must remember that alternatives are possible," she concluded.

But while the WDR has been applauded for its efforts, many experts in the field, particularly those who have toiled in the grassroots against the impacts of neoliberal development, have concluded that the report offers much too little, much too late.

For instance, “Why does the Bank only encourage us to ‘think equal’? Why not call for us to ‘act equal’ as well?” Bunker Roy, founder of Barefoot College, asked the Bank’s gender and development director Jeni Klugmen at a round-table discussion on Wednesday.

The WDR and reproductive rights

As organisations like the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) have consistently pointed out, full reproductive agency is a prerequisite to women’s equality in the 21st century.

“The WDR 2012 highlights women’s health during their reproductive years as a key priority,” Merrell Tuck-Primdahl, senior communications officer for development economics at the Bank, told IPS.

“This vital issue is covered as part of the main causes for excess female mortality in regions such as Sub Saharan Africa and as related to women’s voices within the household and ability to control and decide the number and spacing of children they will have in their lifetime,” she added.

“Institutionally, the World Bank is a global leader in reproductive health, and we launched a new Reproductive Health Action Plan (RHAP) in 2010,” Tuck-Primdahl said. “We are currently implementing the five-year plan to help countries improve their reproductive health outcomes,” she concluded.

But some experts believe that the Bank’s failure to take a “rights- based” approach to reproductive health limits its scope.

“The Bank does not see sexual and reproductive health as a human right, but instead as a necessity to maximise women’s economic activity,” Elizabeth Arend, programmes coordinator for the Washington-based Gender Action, told IPS.

“As long as women are healthy, they are better able to be economically productive – this is the motivation behind the Bank’s ‘women’s health’ focus,” she said.

According to Arend, this means focusing on only three issues: women’s fertility through contraception promotion, maternal morbidity from malaria and HIV, and maternal mortality.

“Women around the world also suffer the psychological consequences of sexual violence, which is given outrageously little attention or funding. In fact, the Bank has only four active projects in the entire world to address gender-based violence, totaling only 12.5 million dollars. This is 0.02 percent of the Bank’s FY2010 58.8- billion-dollar budget,” she added.

“This track record suggests that the WDR is highly unlikely to have any impact on the Bank’s gender policies or investments since its investments in ‘gender and social inclusion’ have actually decreased in recent years, from six percent of the budget in FY2006 to two percent in 2010,” Arend told IPS.

Development rhetoric vs. Bank investments

Other civil society representatives are using the opportunity to identify the increasingly bitter conflict of interest between the Bank’s research and its investments.

Speaking at a panel on the destructive impacts of the World Bank- financed Chad-Cameroon pipeline on women in the region, Betty Abah from Friends of the Earth Nigeria said, “The World Bank and its investors often pander to the patriarchal tendencies of certain communities where their projects – especially resource-extraction projects – are implemented.”

“Too often the Bank fails to consult local women, thus robbing women of their voice and allowing for terrible imbalances in the community,” she added.

Jointly owned by Exxon/Mobil, Petronas Malaysia and Chevron, the 6.7- billion-dollar, 650-mile pipeline, which carries crude from the oilfields of land-locked Chad to a shipping facility off Cameroon’s coast, was made possible by World Bank loans amounting to 337.6 million dollars – justified by the promise that the project would boost the local economy and “lift thousands of Chadians out of poverty”.

But according to a comprehensive report slated to be released early next week, authored by Gender Action together with Friends of the Earth International, the pipeline has not only failed to develop a job market, it has actually wreaked havoc on women in both countries.

Extensive research found that women were systematically alienated from consultation and compensation processes and were forced into the informal sector as their lands and traditional livelihoods were swallowed up by the construction project.

Transport corridors for the crude became breeding grounds for HIV/AIDS. A huge demand for prostitution, coupled with job loss in the community, pushed scores of women into vulnerable and disempowered social positions, the report says.

Oil-poisoned waters forced fisherwomen out of work and led to rapid increases in still-births, infertility and respiratory disease. Oil spills and noise pollution devastated the local ecology, creating a dangerous and precarious dynamic in the community, it says.

In short, the report said the project exacerbated scores of the most deadly problems facing women, the very problems outlined in the WDR “blueprint for equality”.

The Bank itself issued a report stating that less developed countries’ reliance on primary commodity exports was one of the “leading causes of violent, armed conflict” – but that report was embargoed until after the approval of the pipeline.

Tuck-Primdahl told IPS that the “phenomenon” of women’s exclusion from the project was “most unfortunate and the Bank Group is strongly in favour of consulting with women and communities to ensure better design of extractive industry projects and programmes.”

But these assurances have done little for advocates who have fought a long battle against the Bank’s policies.

“I have very little faith in this year’s WDR to change policy,” Elaine Zuckerman, president of Gender Action, told IPS. “After all, the Bank’s investments speak louder than its rhetoric.”

*With additional reporting by Rosemary D’Amour

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