Big infrastructure: getting gender and the needs of women wrong

Infrastructural investment is back on the agenda, but gender is still being sidelined in development and across World Bank infrastructure projects.

Sophie Harman
6 July 2015

Woman drinking water in Ghana Credit: World Bank

Washing, cooking, carrying and cleaning: in the developing world, the role of water looms large in the lives of women. How far is the nearest borehole? How clean is the water? Is there enough to cook with? These are not complex or abstract questions, and yet the answers can be the difference between misery and drudgery and a healthy, decent life for women in the developing world. 

Just as the washing machine opened up space for leisure in high income countries, access to safe and reliable water resources has the potential to free up the time, productivity, and leisure for women in poor countries. Infrastructural investment – in water planning but in many other areas too – can transform women’s quality of life, yet their unique needs and experiences are mostly ignored. 

Why is this important now? Because infrastructural investment in developing countries is back. Global agencies like the World Bank and regional bodies like the Asian Development Bank are prioritising major infrastructure projects, ye despite massive budgets, international institutions like the World Bank have a mixed record of delivery. Critics cite past evidence of population displacement, poor labour standards, and negative environmental impacts. Missing from this critique is the role of gender. 

Gender is seen as an area of human development that has little relevance to big infrastructure programmes. This is remarkable. Women and men in developing countries use services and utilities in very different ways. This policy of omission reinforces the primacy of men in developing countries and cements the role of women as one which is primarily concerned with drudgery and household based tasks. Put simply, gender-blind infrastructure often empowers men but reinforces the existing, narrow roles of women in the informal, unpaid sector. 

The good news is that large development agencies such as the World Bank have started to think about these issues. Gender is briefly mentioned in Pillar 1 of the Bank’s action plan Transformation through Infrastructure and the Gender and Development Unit of the Bank have offered a series of recommendations to the various infrastructure sectors within the Bank.  

However, in an article published this month in Development Policy Review, Lucy Ferguson and I highlight three areas of concern with how the Bank is starting to develop policy in this area and what needs to be done to fully address these problems.


Reflections in a water tank, Ghana. Credit: World Bank.

The first problem is that there is a sporadic approach to gender issues in the infrastructure sector of the Bank. Some sectors think about the issue, others do not. For example while specialists in the energy sector have thought about how women use different types of energy to carry out everyday household tasks such as cooking and washing, the water sector has completely ignored the needs of women and their role in collecting, carrying and managing water supplies. This is a gross oversight and shows how women are seen in some infrastructural spaces but ignored in others.

Gender is not mainstreamed across World Bank infrastructure projects in any meaningful away. For example, analysis of 1878 active infrastructure projects (as of April 2013) suggest only 22 projects list gender as an explicit theme, and only one energy project in Papua New Guinea is explicitly gender-based. With the exception of Latin America and the Caribbean, no regional action plans on infrastructure include gender. 

Second, similar to World Bank work in areas of social and human development, gender is approached in an instrumentalist manner. Infrastructure is seen to help women deliver outcomes that benefit their family, community and state, rather than address their own individual needs. Gender remains framed within an economic-empowerment approach by the World Bank, where women’s work matters not for the women themselves but for their ability to participate in markets. This embeds gender norms as to women’s role in social reproduction and the household and makes assumptions about how they use infrastructure and how it fits with their lives. 

Third, infrastructure is a sector run by engineers and planners with technical expertise that may be unfamiliar or unconcerned with gender equality or the tools used by gender specialists. The mismatch between technical engineering expertise and gender knowledge limits the ability to move the agenda on gender and infrastructure to first be taken seriously, and second, to move beyond instrumentalist approaches. Reconciling this mismatch is key to effective gender mainstreaming across infrastructure projects in the Bank.

Infrastructure will continue to frame the future of development policy. Women make up the majority of the world’s poor. For infrastructure to deliver on development it needs to substantively address the needs of women in developing countries and crucially, gender-equality concerns need to be at the forefront in delivery and implementation. Mitigating the misery of the water carrier is, of course, positive as an isolated outcome – but with better planning and more understanding, we can offer women so much more than a shorter walk to the well. 

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