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The Canadian Journal of Sociology 30.1 (2005) 95-111

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Note on Society/Réflexion sur la société

In Faint Praise of the World Bank's Gender Development Policy1

1. The Standard Critique of Structural Adjustment Programmes

Outside the field of economics, it is customary among social scientists to deride the World Bank for its neoliberalism. The standard argument is that the structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) favoured by the bank in the 1980s and 1990s sought to impose free market conditions on the less developed countries. However, offering aid in exchange for more international trade, foreign investment, privatization of commerce and industry, the elimination of tariffs and agricultural subsidies, and so forth, did little to stimulate economic growth. World Bank researchers themselves recognize that median per capita income in the less developed countries grew 2.5% in the period 1960-79 (before the advent of SAPs) but languished at 0.0% in the period 1980-98 (in the era of SAPs) (Easterly, 2001). The growing debt burden of less developed countries and falling export commodity prices cancelled out any positive effects the SAPs might have had. Moreover, in many countries, SAPs hurt the poor, which is why in Zambia, for instance, SAP came to stand for satana ali pano, "the devil is among us" (Kufekisa-Akapelwa, 2001), and why some critics thought it ironic that the President of the World Bank, James D. [End Page 95] Wolfensohn, should be awarded the Order of the Golden Fleece by the government of Georgia in 1999.

Critics also underline the double standard maintained by the wealthy countries that finance the World Bank's activities and support its policies. For example, while in a less developed country like Mexico agricultural subsidies amounted to $1,000 per farmer in 2002, the comparable figures for American, European Union, and Japanese farmers were, respectively, $16,000, $17,000, and $27,000: hardly evidence the rich countries are willing to swallow the medicine they prescribe for the poor.3 These disparities are no small matter because the reduction or elimination of farm subsidies by the wealthy countries would greatly stimulate agricultural exports and economic growth in the less developed countries (Saunders, 2003).

Feminist criticism of SAPs takes a different tack. In the 1980s, UNICEF researchers, among others, noted that mothers with young children are especially vulnerable to the negative effects of structural adjustment (Cornia, Jolly, and Stewart, 1987). In less developed countries, such women are typically saddled with reproductive and domestic work, including buying and preparing food, ensuring the good health of their children, and maximizing their children's educational opportunities. Since the privatization of government services sometimes involves the elimination of basic food subsidies and the introduction of user fees for education and health services, the burden of SAPs falls disproportionately on women with young children. UNICEF therefore called for safety nets that would protect mothers with young children from the whip of the market: free basic health services, literacy programmes, and the like.

A more recent and radical feminist critique of SAPs holds that such safety nets reinforce traditional gender roles. From this point of view, young mothers who can take advantage of free basic health services and literacy programmes may be better able to perform their domestic responsibilities, but that only helps to reproduce existing patterns of gender inequality in the household and the larger society.

According to the recent feminist critique, the key to reducing gender inequalities in less developed countries lies in identifying and eliminating the male...


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pp. 95-111
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Archived 2007
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