In recent years, some commentators have applauded the World Bank’s ‘new’ focus on social policy and social protection as a sign of a more holistic approach to development and a step in the right direction.
Others have been more sceptical about the changes, seeing the new policies as a continuation of neoliberal principles, for example a means to shift the burden of social protection from the state to individuals (Molyneux 2006); a means to improve productivity and economic growth through, for example, promoting greater risk taking among the poor (World Bank 2000); and a means to widen the power base of the Bank (Cammack 2002). Similarly, while the Bank has pledged to ‘engender development’ via the adoption in 2001 of a Gender Mainstreaming strategy and the Gender Action Plan of 2006 (World Bank 2001, 2002, 2006), this has been critiqued, most notably for promoting economic growth rather than gender equality gains. A further strong critique has centred on the inclusion of women in policies and programmes as representing a ‘feminisation of poverty reduction’ that transfers the responsibility for improving the wellbeing of children and other household members to women and leaves them little choice other than to take on this new obligation (Chant 2006, 2008). A good example of such a programme is the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) programmes now being implemented across the globe. These programmes have found support from the InterAmerican Development Bank (IDB) and, more recently, the World Bank. They target women with cash transfers as long as a series of conditionalities are fulfilled, most usually relating to ensuring school attendance, meeting health targets for children under five years old and the attendance by mothers at classes on various health-related topics (Molyneux 2006, 2007).
The policy focus arises from the efficiency of women in providing services to others. There is explicit recognition in the programmes that women tend to use household resources to further collective, rather than personal, wellbeing and implicit within this is the idea that their male partners do not. The initiatives also see a shift away from the focus on female-headed households of recent years, and diverts attention back to the heterosexual couple, implicitly reinforcing this as a key social unit and the nuclear household as the most acceptable household type. This implicit discourse of the ‘traditional’ family with a heterosexual couple at its centre finds resonance with what is often seen to be a very different set of actors – those associated with the Christian right and the related neo-conservative discourse. Within the new social policy arena there appears to be an intersection between these two apparently distinct discourses that focuses on women, and while both seem to promote women’s role within the family, this new overlap may be seen to further threaten to erode established gendered rights. This article will use Nicaragua as a case study to explore this possible policy intersection and its consequences.
The article begins with an examination of an IDB and World Bank-backed CCT, Red de Protección Social (RPS – Social Protection Network) to highlight how the application of neoliberal policy prescriptions may reinforce neo-conservative ideals of gender roles. It then goes on to explore a little further the context in which the policy had been applied to highlight the challenges that arise for women mobilising for change when international Bank rhetoric interacts with that of the church and the state. The article highlights how the space of women’s mobilisation is not only narrowing but that actions to resist encroachment of rights seem to remain uncoordinated, as different expressions of the women’s movements not only prioritise different rights but also differ over what counts as a ‘right’. In particular the priorities of young women appear to be somewhat ignored and collective action by, and for, this important group remains minimal.
This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 39.6 (2008) An Unholy Trinity: The Church, the State, the Banks and the Challenges for Women Mobilising for Change in Nicaragua