This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has made it a tradition to release a statement on their website about the importance of women’s financial security on International Women’s Day – which is about as ironic as it gets, given the organization’s history of being one of the world’s most punitive and cruel financial organizations in modern history to people living in the Global South.
For almost eight decades, the IMF has consistently and directly failed women with its loan package requirements that include privatization mandates and structural adjustment programs (SAPs). Kavita Ramdas and Christine Ahn list the examples of IMF-inflicted suffering by women in Foreign Policy in Focus: Mine privatization in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the introduction of a labor market flexibility plan in South Korea led to extreme job loss for women in both regions. In South Korea, seven women were laid off for every one man. But job loss is not the only threat women have to face in borrowing countries. In Tanzania, after the introduction of fees in exchange for health services, maternal death rates increased as women became less able to seek prenatal and hospital care. In Zambia cuts to public education led directly to a decreased enrollment for girls and, in turn, higher rates of subsistence sex and sex work.
Nonetheless, Christine Lagarde, the managing director and chairwoman of the IMF, makes it a point to blog about the need for women’s financial security once a year.
Not every plea for women’s empowerment is rooted in feminist practice.
The IMF’s appeals for women’s economic stability in the recipient countries of their loans – whether it be Tanzania or South Korea – are a slap in the face to the women who are living proof of the IMF’s indifference to the human suffering they cause.
The IMF’s blog post for International Women’s Day this year shared a bland message: women’s economic stability can improve economic growth. But the IMF has yet to introduce economic stability for anyone other than the already-elite in its borrowing countries – Jamaica, for example, has been exposed to IMF rescue practices for 40 years now, and all it has to show for it is that there is ballooning job growth only in its informal workforce, which is mostly made up of women and doesn’t provide economic security in the short or long term.
Last year – March 5, 2018 – the IMF released #TheEconomyToo on their blog and also on Twitter. The hashtag (an insensitive twist on #MeToo) turned out to be less than popular as it inadvertently equates the global economy with victims of sexual assault and harassment. So while the goal was to promote the idea of a stronger economy as a means to uplift everyone and especially women from systems of harassment and violence, the result was just offensive to women and especially all persons who had identified with the #MeToo movement. Lagarde’s comrades, however, were willing to support her hashtag and reinforce the platform that we should end harassment because “it helps the economy too” – in true neoliberal fashion, the economic cost outweighs the moral cost and the emotional as well as physical suffering. What is most concerning, however, is that Lagarde overlooks the fact that women with economic security are also exposed to violence and harassment because patriarchal relationships are fundamentally abusive.
On March 8, 2017, the IMF published a blog titled “More Women, More Growth” in which, with the support of charts and graphs, it makes the argument that there needs to be more support for women in becoming active participants in the labor force because this will boost the economy.
When the motivation for women’s empowerment is rooted in protecting the economy or macroeconomic gains, as suggested in both the 2017 and 2019 blogs, the desire to increase women’s labor opportunities, which sounds good in the abstract, often has the real-world application in the Global South of an easy method to expand the labor pool and maximize access to cheap labor.
Seeing women’s empowerment as merely an “ethical” obligation is a dangerous precedent to set. Women’s empowerment, financial security, and equality need to be lifted from the constraints of legal language. Otherwise, women are doomed to perform within prescribed roles that subject them to exploitative practices. For this very reason, blogs and hashtags promoting women’s economic empowerment are good ideas, and we certainly need more of them to normalize gender equity.
But does the message for women’s empowerment get muddled when it comes from the IMF?
The IMF is revealing an eagerness to take part in a digital conversation, to feel relevant among a generation of digital natives who know too well that the IMF is instrumental in keeping resource-rich countries economically powerless with its notorious structural adjustment practices. But their eagerness comes off as standard IMF practice – turning disaster into profit. In this particular case, the IMF seems to insist on promoting itself on the back of the disasters generated by women’s inequality.
This brand of doing feminism for the health of the economy is a hard narrative to navigate. It sounds great. And, most importantly, it makes anyone who raises an eyebrow to the IMF selling women’s empowerment and economic security seem almost villainous. But after countries receive IMF loans, there is a tendency for those same countries to also experience economic trouble and, as a result, the lack of economic and political security increases for women. Even with putting aside the sexual assault scandals involving Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the IMF’s role in this conversation is speculative rather than virtuous.