International financial institutions, social protection and gender: missing the target


Social protection has been at the forefront of discussions of late, with it playing a central role in the Sustainable Development Goals, featuring heavily at this year’s United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, and as the International Monetary Fund developing an institutional view on social protection. 

Social protection, including floors, is an important component of the 2030 Agenda for  Sustainable Development, including SDG target 1.3, which reflects the collective pledge to “implement nationally appropriate social protection systems for all, including floors” for reducing and preventing poverty. Moreover, target 1.3 commits all UN Member States to “achieve substantial coverage of the poor and the vulnerable” by 2030. 

While the UN links social protection coverage as key to the achievement of gender equality, the outcome depends on how the system is designed. To address gender gaps social protection systems should be both universal and gender-sensitive. In contrast, when poorly designed they can exacerbate entrenched gender roles and gender inequality. 

A vested preference for targeting

However, universality is typically not the approach taken by the International Financial Institutions: rather, they frequently promote targeted approaches to social protection. In IMF programmes, targeting of safety nets is often part of a wider package of austerity measures, which have been shown to have a disproportionately negative effect on women. In this way targeting is seen as a tool to contain expenditure and is actually a reduction of social protection coverage. It is applied rather frequently, Eurodad research from 2018 pointed out that in 15 countries out of 26, targeted approaches to social spending were included in the form of policy advice or conditionality attached to IMF-loans.
Unfortunately, this troubling approach does not end with the IMF. Forthcoming Eurodad research on World Bank conditionality shows that 21 prior actions – reforms to be undertaken by borrowing countries before loan disbursement – focused on enhancing targeted approaches to social programmes in 13 countries. Two of these programmes, in Rwanda and Guatemala, were among the least effective in reaching the poor according to a 2019 survey of 38 social protection schemes.
The selection of beneficiaries for the Guatemala social protection scheme – Mi Bono Seguro – is based on the proxy means test (PMT), a methodology the World Bank has been championing, which measures income and consumption of potential beneficiaries. However, there are a few documented drawbacks of this methodology. 
First of all, PMTs can be gender insensitive, as they generally do not consider the economic value of unpaid care work, which – due to socially constructed norms – is still largely performed by women. 
Second, they are beset by very large exclusion errors ranging from 50 to 93% of the intended beneficiaries not receiving their entitlement. Recently released research from Development Pathways, confirms this trend for Guatemala’s Mi Bono Seguro, as the programme fails to reach 96% of the intended beneficiaries. 

In its loan to Guatemala the World Bank acknowledged the existence of exclusion errors and lower benefit pay-outs, because of “its wide coverage and lack of resources”. Rather than questioning the methodology and approach, which is at the root cause of excluding many beneficiaries, the Word Bank programme continues its plea for targeting. The World Bank’s continued push for poverty targeting  seemingly contradicts its stated commitment towards universal social protection.

Design matters
Beyond the purely quantitative analysis of the number of households reached, a qualitative assessment of the design of social programmes is crucial to understand local realities and to close gender gaps. In contrast, Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) programmes have been found to have unintended consequences for women.
In many CCT programmes, women typically receive the benefits and are expected to comply with programme conditionality. For instance, they may have to agree to regular medical visits or ensure children’s school attendance. However, unless the emphasis on improved regular attendance is matched by attention to the quality and accessibility of the service, there is a risk that CCT programmes increase women’s unpaid care burdens, without bringing any real benefit to them or their families. This happened for example, in a few documented cases of CCT schemes where rural women had to travel long distances, only to arrive at understaffed and under-equipped clinics, schools or CCT offices.


Towards a rights-based approach for social protection
Targeting as part of budget austerity as well as the PMT methods promoted by the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) and implemented through coercive adjustment programmes, not only fail to address the many inequalities faced by many women in the global south, they may even exacerbate and deepen them further. The largely technocratic and quantitative approach towards social protection applied by both institutions seems to be disconnected from social needs on the ground.
Poverty targeting is particularly ineffective in countries where a large proportion of the population lives in poverty, leaving many deprived of their fundamental right to social protection. Furthermore, former UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human rights, Magdalena Sepulveda, stated that poverty targeting goes against the principle of non-discrimination and that its exclusion errors are incompatible with human rights. Targeting of safety nets can only be human rights compatible if its objective is to progressively achieve universal coverage. 

A truly universal protection scheme, which is well-tailored to local circumstances and gender-responsive, has the potential to improve the well-being and opportunities of all and promote more equality, including gender equality. Universal and gender-responsive approaches to social protection also have the advantage that they would avoid exclusion errors and gender bias. Finally, such an approach would be in line with both global agreements and international law, which states that social protection should be universal and rights-based.