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Focus on Gender and the World Bank Group: Perspectives from Land and Poverty Conference, and the Spring Meetings 2015

By Everlyne Nairesiae, Oxfam Women’s Land Rights Advisor

I participated in the World Bank Group (WBG) Land and Poverty Conference, and the IMF/World Bank 2015 Spring Meetings in Washington D.C. for the first time this year. After more than a decade working on land and women’s rights issues, I was finally in my new role as Women’s Land Rights Advisor with Oxfam and getting access to such spaces where important discussions take place and decisions are made. Decisions that affect the grassroots women I had worked with for over a decade, but who are rarely represented. I was interested to learn more about WBG work and see the extent to which it did, or sometimes didn’t promote gender equality and women’s land rights.

WBG Land and Poverty Conference

The Annual World Bank Land and Poverty Conference is a key global event where participants including leaders and professionals from across governments, civil society, academia and the private sector interact and discuss experiences and sometimes innovative approaches to improving land governance- I found participation in this conference encouraging and informative. It was great to see the number of sessions on gender and women’s land rights; demonstrating success of persistent pushing of the WBG, in previous conferences, by organisations and individuals committed to women’s land rights issues to increase participation of women. According to colleagues who participated in previous Land and Poverty Conferences, the number of women who presented papers, chaired panel discussions, seminars and workshops had increased significantly compared to previous years.

I joined the Women and Land Caucus that met daily to discuss gender and land issues during the Land and Poverty Conference and look at ways to promote this in and beyond the conference. After the other progress made, it was disappointing to see the lack of gender and racial representation at the conference closing session where there were only 3 white male senior officials, all from the WBG, on the platform. This must change to demonstrate seriousness by the WBG on gender equality. I had so much to learn through sessions like WBG social and environmental safeguards and community approaches to promote women’s land rights. At the end the conference, I was ready to attend the IMF/WBG 2015 Spring Meetings to continue my mission to learn about and start to influence the WBG responsiveness to gender equality especially women’s land rights.

The IMF/WBG Spring Meetings

The IMF/WBG Spring Meetings brought together participants to discuss progress on the IMF’s and the WBG’s work, with focus on the global economy, international development and the world’s financial markets. WBG staff shared progress and engaged more directly with participants in various policy dialogues and seminars. In the CSO Policy Forum held alongside the WBG Spring Meetings, I met colleagues from CSOs, Private Sector and Governments; and interacted with WBG and International Finance Corporation (IFC) staff. Women representation was good and several women chaired and made presentations; though representation from developing countries was somewhat low with only 12 (male and female) CSO participants receiving sponsorship from WBG.

This was the time when the WBG received sharp criticism from people of all walks of life over its economic policies and the ineffectiveness of its social and environmental safeguards in protecting communities against human rights violations. This would come as a surprise to some, but not to local communities in various parts of the world including India, Honduras, Guatemala, just to mention a few, who have suffered the negative effects of ‘development projects’ financed by the Bank through Financial Intermediaries (FIs).

Some of the stories are featured in the Oxfam Report; ‘The Suffering of Others’:  see here, here and here.

Women in these communities have suffered disproportionately from the negative effects of WBG and IFC projects, experiencing forced eviction from their land and forests from which they derived their livelihoods, rape, execution and jailing of their husbands who stood up against human rights violations. For instance, Corporation Dinant a local integrated agribusiness company received a direct loan from IFC in 2009 and its activities in Honduras resulted in the forced eviction, killing of 5 men and raping of 4 women by military men.

I share in the pain of all women, their families and communities that have suffered such atrocities including Cecilia from Guatemala, Miriam from Honduras and Lakshmi from India, who I spent time with in Washington. They came to share their stories directly, which are featured in the Oxfam report ‘The Suffering of Others’. These cases demonstrate the failure by the WBG to implement its own policies and serious gaps in its social and environmental safeguards including lack of full disclosure of high risk projects, no respect for Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), and  failure to ensure due diligence of financial intermediaries.

In a show of solidarity with affected communities, CSOs took to the street in Washington demanding the WBG stop human rights abuses and ensure accountability. In a video link, the WBG president Jim Yong Kim restated the WBG goal of ‘ending extreme poverty and building shared prosperity’ and noted that no projects should cause harm to communities.

The WBG is obligated to respects human rights including those of women and indigenous peoples. Officials from the WBG promised to address concerns raised through a number of initiatives, including review of its social and environmental safeguards with a commitment to provide FPIC; although the introduction of ‘Eminent Domain’ seems to add a new spanner in the works and more information is needed to clarify what this could entail. They further promised to undertake full disclosure of high risk projects, pilot a third party verification of high risk projects, and develop a comprehensive gender strategy. These promises respond significantly to Oxfam asks in its report ‘The Suffering of Others’. Although these promises rekindle some hope, unless they are provided for in WBG policies and their implementation fast tracked, we still have no reason to celebrate. As I reflect more on some of the issues raised by CSOs and affected communities, I am deeply concerned and feel the WBG really needs to:

  • Embrace a ‘bottom up’ rather than ‘top down’ approach as it seems to rely mostly on expert views, distancing itself from local processes involving  the very communities they serve;
  • Establish internal programmes and commit financial resources through grant mechanisms for education, information and organising that can enhance local community capacity, especially that of grassroots women, to participate in decision making on the WBG  activities;
  • Strengthen WBG and their partners capacity to provide for gender dimensions through capturing and sharing gender desegregated data, examining resource inequality and power relations between men and women and ensuring women’s access to justice.

I see a future with opportunities to end poverty

Despite the noted challenges associated with the WBG work, I remain hopeful that the future can only get better if we, the CSOs, continue to pile pressure on the WBG to deliver on its mandate and not only respect, but promote and fulfil international human rights. As Winnie Byanyima (Oxfam, Executive Director) observed during a high level panel discussion; the WBG must ‘Walk the Talk’ and ‘Put women’s land rights at the centre of the Banks work’.

The WBG alone cannot fix the world’s growing poverty situation, we all have a role to fight poverty, but the Bank can at least set an example for other players in the sector on how pro-poor economic policies and investment strategies, anchored on human rights, can contribute to ending poverty and promote shared prosperity.


What does this mean for women in Africa?

There is strong evidence of increased international interest, including that of multilateral financial institutions, in large scale land based investment in Africa although all the data so far shows that such land deals are failing to benefit people in poverty. Investment in agriculture done with full respect for human rights could potentially benefit the continent by improving food production. There have, however, been too many cases and there are still risks of further over exploitation of water resources, land grabbing and forced evictions to pave the way for investors, all at the expense of small holder farmers, the majority of whom are women. As observed by WBG President Jim Yong Kim during his press briefing at the Spring Meetings, ‘This will need strong Safeguards’.

African countries with and without the support of the WBG can help secure land rights for all by supporting the implementation of the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGTs)  –  to promote secure tenure rights and equitable access to land based resources as a means of eradicating hunger and poverty. African leaders must also work to give effect to their own Framework and Guidelines on land policy in Africa adopted by the AU in 2009 and the Guiding Principles on Large Scale Land Based Investments in Africa that were adopted in 2014. African governments should enforce the implementation of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa.

My perspectives provide a mirror for the WBG to look at, but we all have a role to hold the Bank and others accountable and ensure any investments respect human rights including women’s land rights. More updates will be coming your way in my next blog.

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