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What did the WBG Gender Action Plan (2007 - 2010) achieve?

May 25, 2011

Gender Equality as Smart Economics—Making Engineers, Agricultural Specialists, Lawyers and Mainstream Economists Care About Gender Equality

If you have ever worked to promote gender in development, you’ll know that it hasn’t always been easy to gain acceptance from mainstream practitioners. Yet today, the World Bank has a World Development Report in the pipeline that for the first time in the series’ history focuses solely on gender. And in late 2010, IDA Deputies decided to make gender equality a “Special Theme” of the International Development Association’s 16th replenishment, tantamount to a total of US$ 49.3 billion to be committed for development work in the coming three years. So we have come a long way since Danish economist Ester Boserup set the stage for gender as a development theme in her 1970 book, “Woman’s Role in Economic Development.”

But progress has been uneven. In some areas, improvement has outpaced even the most fanciful anticipations in 1970: Today, there are more women than men in university globally, with women’s tertiary enrollment multiplying over the past 40 years, and women now outlive men in every region of the world. At the same time, serious gender disparities remain on important economic indicators and little progress has been made in recent decades. Access to financial services, including credit, and physical capital, including land, remains starkly unequal. Likewise, access to de facto equality before the law is severely restricted for women in many countries, with serious consequences, both for women’s rights and for women’s opportunity to participate in the economy.

Mirroring this real-world pattern, development agencies have, in general, successfully applied a gender lens to their operations in health, education and other social sectors, but have found it harder to do so in infrastructure, agriculture, private sector development and financial sector development. At the World Bank, we identified this pattern and launched an action plan in January 2007 to test a handful of innovative ways to make the more difficult sectors better adopt a gender perspective in their operations.

We called it Gender Equality as Smart Economics.

The Gender Action Plan offered incentives in the form of budget support to well-designed projects in difficult sectors looking to add a gender-lens; it rigorously evaluated the impact of any intervention that sought to improve women’s economic opportunity, to learn what works, what doesn’t and why; it made a business case for investing in women; and, it made funds available through a competitive process. In short, it found ways of attracting operational teams which had never before worked on gender issues to “learn by doing,” and so in a practical way, deepened the pool of gender expertise.

At the close of the plan, by December 31, 2010, around 270 World Bank activities in the economic sectors had received action plan support, and the World Bank’s overall monitoring now shows that the economic sectors are integrating gender issues far better than they used to.

The successful GAP experience and its handful of innovative steps could help other organizations looking to engage people, units and whole sectors which, because of a lack of knowhow, time or resources, don’t normally consider women when designing projects or programs that may have profound impacton their lives.

" I fully support the implementation of the World Bank’s Gender Action Plan, as Germany’s Chancellor, but also in my current capacity as Chair of the G8, and President of the European Union "

Angela Merkel


The Gender Action Plan played some role in helping focus the development community on women’s economic empowerment and in reenergizing the work on gender equality, through the World Development Report, IDA16 and other mechanisms within and outside the World Bank. We had valuable support from our partners. The presidents and prime ministers of the Group of Eight most developed countries endorsed the action plan early on. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel launched the Gender Action Plan in 2007, and a number of supporters, low- and high-ranking, and other agencies rallied to the cause.

Most importantly, there was strong interest and support from partners in developing countries, with many governments actively engaged in promoting the economic opportunity of women in their countries. This booklet conveys some of the action plan’s achievements over its four-year existence. I hope it can help inspire new initiatives to improve women’s social and economic well-being.