Gender Equality at the Multilateral Development Banks: How to Move the Ball Forward

June 24, 2016

The evidence is clear: integrating a focus on gender into the development agenda is essential if we’re serious about eradicating poverty, improving health and education, and promoting inclusive economic growth. Multilateral development banks (MDBs) have taken this lesson to heart, but there’s still work to be done. In order to discuss pathways forward, CGD recently hosted an event on the MDBs and their various approaches to integrating a focus on gender into their operations and evaluations. Panelists joined CGD senior fellows Mayra Buvinic and Charles Kenny to discuss the challenges associated with making the MDBs more gender-focused, as well as concrete solutions for how to make progress.

At one point in the conversation, Nick York, a director at the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group (IEG), explained the difficulty of tracking and attributing gender-related impacts (as well as the impacts of development projects more generally) by drawing a comparison to rugby. He explained that even when we know progress is being made, it can be difficult to know precisely “who scored,” or which actors’ interventions are the direct cause of that progress. Watch here:

Nick’s analogy is spot on: in a world with donor projects, country-led initiatives, and civil society advocacy all working to advance gender equality within the same contexts, it can sometimes be quite a challenge to meaningfully track the results of a particular program or attribute improvements to a particular actor. But does that mean that trying to incorporate a gender focus and meaningfully capture gender equality successes and failures is just too daunting of a challenge?

Fortunately not. And at the CGD event earlier this month, our panelists—gender experts and others working in the weeds at the MDBs to make their organizations more gender-focused and more committed to measuring gender outcomes—presented a number of concrete ideas for how to move the ball forward. Below I will touch on just one proposal from each panelist, but for more, tune into the full video:

  • Give Incentives: Michaela Bergman, chief counsellor for Social Issues and director of the Gender Team at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), pointed to the role that incentives can play in encouraging staff members to pay attention to gender. She explained that, at EBRD, “a certain percentage of salaries is performance-based. Whether or not [staff members] have projects that include gender and have done well will reflect in their pay basically. That is how we motivate.”
  • Make Leadership More Inclusive: Karen Mathiasen, senior advisor in the Office of the US Executive Director of the World Bank, pointed to the need for more women decision-makers at the MDBs in order to ensure that strong commitments—financial and otherwise—are made to advance gender equality.
  • Consider Unintended Consequences: Andy Morrison, chief of the Gender and Diversity Division at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), outlined the IDB’s unique approach of analyzing and mitigating potential adverse impacts of projects on gender equality. The IDB identifies “five areas in which unintended impacts are most likely to show up…things like rural roads projects where there’s high risk of sex trafficking.” Out of a total of 277 recent projects, Andy explained that 41 were found to have potential negative impacts, and for a subset of these projects, the Gender and Diversity Division worked with project teams on mitigation measures.
  • Change Mindsets with Evidence: Nick York emphasized the importance of continuing to build the evidence base tying gender equality to development progress and economic growth, in order to shift mindsets. He asserted that this increased evidence will persuade MDB staff members of gender equality’s importance—more so than making procedures mandatory without explaining their underlying rationale.
  • Revisit Procurement Policies: Tracy Betts, division chief on Strategy Monitoring at the IDB, suggested reexamining the MDBs’ procurement policies, and restructuring them to make procurement another force for promoting gender equality. If points were awarded to firms led by women, just as they sometimes are for in-country firms, the procurement process in addition to gender-focused MDB projects could work to economically empower women.
  • Focus on the Gaps: Caren Grown, senior director for Gender at the World Bank, explained the importance of using the right terminology, because just referring to “gender mainstreaming” has a tendency to obscure. Instead, through the World Bank’s new gender strategy, she explained that the discussion will become more tailored; team leaders will need to identify gaps that exist between men and women relevant to their projects—and work towards closing those specific gaps. Monitoring and evaluation will then be focused on how well the identified gaps were closed.
  • Improve Feedback Loops: Basil Jones, advisor to the Special Envoy on Gender and vice president at the African Development Bank (AfDB), pointed to the need for improved feedback loops, so that research findings and “lessons learned” not only accumulate, but are also translated into tangible changes in project designs, instead of project implementers going back to square one.
  • Combine Carrots with Sticks: Sonomi Tanaka, technical advisor for Gender Equity at the Asian Development Bank (ADB), explained the ADB’s preferred “naming and shaming” approach, using its corporate scorecard to make lack of attention to gender equality a reputational risk.

From carrots to sticks, increases in women’s leadership to effective incentives, more research to more resources, it’s clear that there are a wide range of options as the MDBs continue to place a focus on gender equality and determine what works best to improve gender-related outcomes. At CGD, and for others working outside of MDB contexts, it’s also our responsibility to continue to propose innovative ways forward, build the evidence base for what works, and hold the MDBs accountable from the outside to sustain their increased focus on gender equality.


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.