The Gender Agenda in IDA21: Less Is Not More

Much has been said, written, and proven about the outsized gains that would flow from full inclusion of women in productive economic activity. Some might conclude that the force of that logic and the size of the potential benefits would have long since induced most countries to choose the path toward policy and financing for gender equality, and we can now safely turn our attention to climate-related investments as the new priority for sustainable growth. They would be wrong, and it is imperative that not be the assumption in the upcoming replenishment cycle of the International Development Association (IDA), the World Bank’s arm that lends on concessional terms to lower-income countries. But based on what we have seen so far, this replenishment cycle, IDA21, risks setting a very unfortunate precedent by sharply reducing the scale and scope of its policy commitments, especially on gender. Shareholders need to seize the moment to ensure that this does not happen.

The costs of gender inequality for the global economy and impacts on livelihoods are not going away

Gender inequality remains a massive deadweight on the global economy. We have seen undeniable gains in certain areas like the gender difference in educational attainment and maternal mortality. But striking gender gaps remain for basic dimensions of equality. Let’s take two: women’s labor force participation and legal rights. The IMF finds that for the median middle-income country, the female labor force participation is 49 percent, 26 percentage points below male participation rates. For the median low-income country, the female labor force participation is 64 percent, 13 percentage points below male rates. (This may overstate women’s participation in poor countries by counting very low-productivity, low-wage work.) The report finds that barriers to female labor force participation equate to as much as a 50 percent tax on women’s employment, though this varies by region.

The latest World Bank “Women, Business and the Law” report pronounces the global gender gap “far wider than previously thought,” finding that “women average about two-thirds of the legal rights afforded to men.” (The previous estimate was 77 percent.) And enforcement is weak: countries average only 40 percent of the systems needed for full enforcement of even these inadequate protections. World Bank Chief Economist Indermit Gill notes that closing the discriminatory gap in laws and practices “could raise global GDP by more than 20 percent,” but “reforms have slowed to a crawl.” And on women’s safety, “…women enjoy barely a third of the needed legal protections against domestic violence, sexual harassment, child marriage, and femicide.”

Other studies also show a worsening situation. The World Economic Forum’s 2024 Global Gender Gap Report bemoans the lack of progress since the last edition, now estimating that it will take 134 years to reach full gender parity, compared to the 131-year estimate in the 2023 volume.

IDA’s critical role in supporting gender equality

This is the context in which donors will make critical decisions on policy priorities for the financing of IDA during the IDA21 replenishment negotiations this year. In addition to mobilizing donor funds, IDA replenishment negotiations establish focus areas and policy commitments which steer allocation of some financing. These constitute critical guidance to World Bank Group (WBG) leadership, managers, and staff as they work with countries on IDA projects and programs.

Policy commitments are typically realized through country-level targets that are embedded in IDA’s Results Measurement System. This ensures that those commitments are measured and monitored, helping to drive progress and accountability. This process is especially critical for issue areas that policy leaders need prodding to embrace, and despite the plethora of evidence showing the enormous potential gains to their economies, gender is one of them. Notably, the Independent Evaluation Group’s (IEG) Midterm Review of the 2016-2023 Gender Strategy found that, “Respondents in both the World Bank and IFC consistently reported that the required measurement of progress on IDA commitments continues to focus the attention of staff and management on gender.”

For the replenishment that funded the current IDA20 cycle, donors agreed on eight policy commitments under the Gender and Development special theme, continuing the trend of greater ambition on gender within IDA over time. (Sets of policy commitments were also established for human capital; climate change; fragility, conflict and violence; jobs and economic transformation; crisis preparedness; and governance and institutions.) But for this replenishment, the plan is to curtail gender policy commitments significantly, with only two under consideration.

Three legs of a stool: the corporate scorecard, the new gender strategy, and the IDA21 replenishment

In addition, a new and simplified approach is being proposed in this replenishment, which has been referred to as SimplifIDA. This includes a plan to replace the IDA Results Measurement System with the WBG’s new corporate scorecard. The new scorecard is a laudable attempt to simplify and distill metrics for WBG corporate performance to those most important for tracking progress in supporting “people, prosperity, the planet, infrastructure, digital services, and cross-cutting themes.” There is a commitment to disaggregate beneficiary data by sex for relevant results indicators, including social safety nets, education, health, WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene), jobs, transport, and climate resilience.

Gender appears as one of four cross-cutting themes, with two metrics in the scorecard: (1) millions of people benefitting from greater gender equality, of which (%) from actions that expand and enable economic opportunities, and (2) millions of people and businesses using financial services, of which (%) are women. The phrase “people benefiting from greater gender equality” is extremely broad and raises the risk that the bar for tagging people with benefits could be set unduly low.

Proposed IDA21 policy commitments are being reduced across all areas, as the corporate scorecard is seen as the primary framework for defining and tracking IDA21 policy priorities. The two gender policy commitments that have been proposed (again, down from eight in IDA20) are on supporting childcare service provision and on reducing gender-based violence. There is a strong case for both. But cutting policy commitments on other important areas for gender equality in past replenishments is hard to understand, especially as IDA is well placed to provide the sustained financing and multisectoral collaboration needed for progress.

Which leads to the more fundamental point: the scorecard itself does not establish targets for WBG outputs. Sex-disaggregating data across indicators is not a substitute for setting specific goals needed to advance gender and development. The scorecard does not attempt to focus IDA programs and financing on interventions that address the principal constraints to the economic inclusion of women. That is the role of policy commitments, and thus far, the proposed streamlined approach equates to a less ambitious IDA21.

How can IDA21 be the most impactful for gender equality?

Despite assertions to the contrary, the simple fact is that IDA21’s modest ambition on gender is a significant setback. Fortunately, it is early days. As the shareholders meet in Nepal, they should press for more—and more fulsome—gender policy commitments in areas like women’s rights, fiscal policy and gender budgeting, intersectional data collection and use, social protection, medium- and high-skilled employment, economic inclusion, and sexual and reproductive health and rights.

IDA21 should also support the implementation of the just-released World Bank’s 2024-2030 Gender Strategy, “Accelerate Gender Equality to End Poverty on a Livable Planet,” by including a gender and climate commitment, a more holistic commitment on care services, and the inclusion of sexual and gender minorities. Finally, IDA21 should supplement sex-disaggregated indicators with specific targets that align with the gender strategy.

We understand that the drive toward simplifying IDA through fewer policy commitments, less micromanagement of activities, and a streamlined framework for reporting and assessing performance should help focus attention and resources. But streamlining must be accompanied with well-evidenced choices on policy priorities that maximize the impact of IDA’s scarce concessional resources. Reducing the number of commitments does not achieve that goal; if anything, it undermines it.

We must remind ourselves that returns on investment for gender equality are among the highest of any development investments, especially in countries stuck in suboptimal, low-growth equilibria, as in the case of many poor countries. The truth is we are not seeing efforts and investments commensurate with that return potential. Forward progress on gender equality must not be taken for granted. It must be explicitly prioritized in the targets and financing commitments established in the IDA21 replenishment.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

Image credit for social media/web: Iam Foulk / World Bank