Feminists Reject International Monetary Fund’s Strategy Toward Mainstreaming Gender #NotInOurName

Kristalina Georgieva, IMF Managing Director,
Gita Gopinath, IMF’s First Deputy Managing Director,
Ratna Sahay, IMF’s Senior Advisor on Gender in the Office of the Managing Director,

Dear Ms. Georgieva, Ms. Gopinath, Ms. Sahay,

We write to you on behalf of the undersigned feminist organizations, networks and individuals, with key concerns about the new IMF Strategy Toward Mainstreaming Gender. The concerns lie both in its content as well as in its stated plans of implementation. These are linked to wider structural macroeconomic concerns about the IMF’s mandate, history of fiscal consolidation and structural adjustment, as well as its influence over developing country governments and larger influences in the Global Financial Architecture. These concerns are the reasons why we reject this gender strategy in very strong terms.

First, the IMF has a historical record of refusing to abide by the human rights framework enshrined in the UN Charter and international human rights law, despite its member states being legally bound by these obligations. The IMF itself was founded under the auspices of the UN at the United Nations Bretton Woods Conference in 1944, and - as a specialized agency of the UN - it has legal responsibility to act in conformity with the UN Charter and international law, including human rights law. Several UN Human Rights Rapporteurs highlighted the problematic nature of an IMF’s gender strategy that does not acknowledge the interrelatedness and indivisibility of all human rights. Rather, the strategy promotes a liberal interpretation of the concept of gender to impose a commodification of the gender equality agenda and the financialization of the lives of women who live in precarious conditions due to the IMF's policy framework. We, as organisations aligned with feminist principles, say: not in our name.

Second, the IMF’s instrumentalist approach to gender in this strategy is characterized by a narrow focus on women’s labour force participation to the extent that economic growth is served. This fails to recognize the validity and priority of gender equality, regardless of its quantitative impact on economic growth indicators, as measured by GDP indices. Importantly, an instrumental approach to gender for the objective of growth circumvents critical challenges related to the IMF’s fiscal consolidation frameworks contained in IMF loan facilities as well as Article IV surveillance reports. Fiscal, monetary and structural policy recommendations and assessments have a 40-year history of an austerity bias, with empirically documented negative effects on women’s economic and social rights, livelihoods, and well-being. As such, the Fund has an adverse impact on the feminization of poverty and multidimensional inequalities, and strategies for economic development have not benefited women. For example, the ability of national governments to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and fulfill their human rights obligations is systematically undermined through the prioritisation of external debt payment in the interest of international creditors, while marginalised communities and particularly women bear the brunt of the resulting adjustments and austerity measures. The IMF’s emphasis on “economic growth” in itself as the main priority in advising governments has proven to be obsolete, especially in a context of environmental emergencies as a result of the prioritisation of profits over the wellbeing of the people and the planet.

Third, the democratic deficit of the IMF does not recommend it for the role of improving gender equality and women’s human rights in developing countries. The IMF’s governance mechanism through the Executive Board is indisputably skewed toward G7 countries. Regardless of the fact that almost all countries in the world are members, economic power determines the voting power of states, creating an unequal and undemocratic decision-making process where a handful of rich nations control over half of the vote in both the IMF and World Bank, and the US alone has veto power over Board decisions. Developing countries, which together constitute 85 percent of the world’s population, have a minority share. If we look at the voting allocations in per capita terms, the inequalities are revealed to be truly extreme: for every vote that the average person in the global North has, the average person in the Global South has only one-eighth of a vote. This is a racialized inequality and is one of many forms of economic apartheid operating at the heart of international economic governance today. As a result, the countries that became rich during the colonial period now enjoy disproportionate power when it comes to determining the rules of the global economy. Inequality begets inequality. As a result, the institution’s ability to govern for global economic stability and cooperation, and with the mutual trust of the vast majority of its membership, is undermined. A clear example of the negative impacts in the practice is the largely unequal distribution of SDRs based on the quota power. The Fund’s illegitimate governance structure also reinforces its narrow agenda and mandate of macroeconomic stability and growth, which makes it incompatible with the original mission under which it was given a mandate to operate at a global stage.

We note that at the time of IMF’s founding, very few Global South countries had gained independence to represent themselves at the founding event at the UN Bretton Woods Conference - only Ethiopia was invited from the African continent, while India was represented by a nominated representative of the British Empire.  We cannot therefore deny the colonial legacy of the IMF, and how it still shapes and affects the developing world through the channels of the Fund’s mandate, unbalanced board and quota, and policy framework of macroprudential indicators in deficit, inflation and debt which determines the content and implementation of the IMF’s Gender Strategy.

Fourth, human rights obligations based on the UN charter come with a legal obligation, including to use maximum available resources to realise economic, social and cultural rights. Yet, the IMF relentlessly pushes towards indebting developing countries with inadequate attention paid to debt relief efforts and debt cancellation calls, while at the same time enforcing regimes of austerity that have no legitimate acceptance by the people and their representatives at the country level. Furthermore, alternatives for a feminist, just, equal recovery supported by debt relief and debt cancellation, elimination of surcharges, progressive income and capital taxation, countercyclical allocations and no-debt rechannelling of SDRs, and tackling illicit financial flows that deprive capital and taxable revenue from the global South, are not pursued nor consistently supported by the IMF.  Even the IMF’s own research points to the failure of austerity policies, but we do not see this reflected in the IMF’s country-based conditionality. This can be exemplified most recently in the case of Zambia, where conditionality has pushed up value added tax (VAT) that hurts the poorest, and public sector cuts to run a fiscal surplus to repay creditors who are not taking adequate debt relief measures. A similar situation is seen in Sri Lanka, where most of public services are affected by austerity measures and where hunger and poverty has worsened, with inflation by August already rising to 64.3%. Meanwhile, the IMF itself is not supporting a multilateral debt restructuring mechanism where all creditors - public, multilateral, and private - participate, nor meaningful debt relief and cancellation for debt-distressed countries. Debt sustainability should not come before life sustainability, this is why it is clear Debt Sustainability Analysis (DSA) needs to incorporate assessments of public financing required for gender equality, human rights and climate change-related commitments.

Fifth, gender equality impacts of budget cuts in public services and sectors, reductions in the public wage bill as well as regressive taxation and labour market flexibilization are currently taking place across many developing countries through channels such as, for example, diminished access to essential services, loss of livelihoods, and increased unpaid work and time poverty. A new report, End Austerity: A global report on budget cuts and harmful social reforms, shows that 85 percent of the world’s population will live in the grip of austerity measures by 2023. This trend is likely to continue until at least 2025, when 75 percent of the global population (129 countries) could still be living under these conditions. The key fiscal policy tools that have historically supported the largely unpaid care economy across the developing world are precisely sustained, long-term public investments in public systems and services. It is precisely such fiscal tools that the IMF undermines through its persistent emphasis on fiscal adjustment, be it through the registers of loans, surveillance or technical assistance. For example, in Ecuador, where 85% of nurses are women, approximately 3,680 public health employees were dismissed in 2019, amounting to 29% of total public employee dismissals. In spite of empirical evidence of how such dismissals exacerbated Covid’s mortality toll in 2020, dismissals of essential public health employees continued through 2020 and 2021.

Sixth, this gender strategy emerges from a very problematic and dangerous misdiagnosis of the "problem". In the IMF’s view, persistent gender inequality is only tangentially related to macroeconomic policy. Whereas, in fact, the macroeconomic policies pursued and enforced by the IMF are a central cause of these inequalities. As a leading international financial institution, the IMF is culpable of women’s human rights violations across the Global South. The ‘solution’ that the IMF proposes not only fails to include an internal revision of the IMF’s portfolio with a human rights, gender equality and environmental criteria lens, but it proposes to maintain the same policy framework with damaging impacts, and with even more involvement of the IMF in countries’ policy space. It is evident that this is only going to make the problem worse, not better.

Seventh, the content of this new strategy illustrates a pink-washing programme that promotes, without institutional reflection or stocktaking of its empirical record over four decades, an ever-expanding encroachment into the policy space and economic sovereignty of developing countries.  As such, the Gender Strategy represents a problematic ‘mission creep’ of the IMF. We stress that, as an institution, the Fund does not have gender expertise nor the requisite mandate, which is also duly noted in the Strategy document itself. Such lack of understanding, professional training and understanding of feminist economics calls into serious question the legitimacy of the IMF to constructively address women’s human rights and gender equality.

The historical record of the IMF in catering to the interests and priorities of wealthy countries and financial market actors, and its lack of accountability of its own portfolio (which also lacks an alignment to environmental integrity criteria, and therefore is still promoting investments in the destruction of biodiversity and the extraction of fossil fuels), makes us wary of the use of the gender equality agenda without any expertise, but with an explicit intention to expand the imposition of liberal measures at the country level. The IMF Gender Strategy is problematic because it selectively instrumentalizes gender equality agenda as an entry point to construct new fiscal conditionalities for Global South countries, reinforcing the neocolonial and patriarchal dynamics that the IMF has been critiqued on by social movements and progressive academics worldwide over several decades. Furthermore, by actively promoting an expansion of IMF staff at the national level to “advise” on gender goes well beyond the mandate of the IMF on macreconomic stability and international monetary and fiscal policy cooperation. Besides this encroachment of mandate, it also undermines the existing knowledge of institutional mechanisms, legal provisions and long-established processes, for example, CEDAW, the Beijing Platform, the SDGs, dedicated national ministries on women’s rights and gender equality, and  feminist and women’s movements at the local level.

We believe part of our work in monitoring and engaging with the IMF comes the need to call out for meaningful and substantive processes and content, and to reject initiatives that we believe undermine the human rights and well-being of people on the ground. For all of the above we:

  1. Reject the IMF’s Gender Strategy as a means to advance gender equality and women’s rights and call upon the IMF to address the manifold harms exacted on gender equality and women’s economic and social rights by the decades long history of fiscal consolidation, inflation targeting and structural reform conditionalities that is pursued within all loan facilities as well as Article IV surveillance reports. If the IMF is truly concerned with gender, or gender gaps, it is precisely systemic change to the IMF’s own austerity bias that would substantively contribute to gender equality across the developing world, particularly in this moment of multiple and intersecting crises.
  2. Denounce the lack of comprehensive consultation around this strategy with relevant actors, especially with feminist and women and girl’s human rights organisations from developing countries, where the real economy, social and human impacts are acutely experienced. As such, we call out the so-called “consultations” organized by the IMF around this gender strategy, that were tokenistic exercises with a lack of real interest or willingness to address the long-standing concerns voiced by the critical community, which includes the voices and leadership of feminists and women’s movements, as well as feminist economists, especially from developing countries, in this process. Their experiences should have been centered across the process, especially with an intersectional lens.
  3. We particularly reject the IMF’s colonial pretense in expanding its presence at country level in developing countries, undermining the existing expertise of the feminist movement and the institutional mechanisms for the advancement of women that were gained with hard work by the women’s movement for decades.
  4. Demand the IMF initiate a serious assessment of the institution’s inherent bias toward fiscal consolidation, particularly during economic crises and downturns. Such a reassessment would be a far more meaningful indication of the IMF's commitment to women's human rights and gender equality.
  5. Demand the IMF initiate an internal revision of IMF's own governance, mechanisms, and policies to be aligned with the human rights framework and to be consistent with principles of economic, gender, environmental and distributive justice. This sole revision will have a greater impact in developing countries than any other IMF’s thematic strategy.

This statement was originally published here. FES’s Political Feminism project had no role in developing the statement other than translating it to Arabic.


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