It’s time for the World Bank to show it truly cares about unpaid care

Fiana Arbab Gender, Influencing, Women's Economic Empowerment

The next funding cycle for the World Bank’s International Development Association could top $100bn – and, says Fiana Arbab, we must keep a close eye on the fraction of that being committed to transforming the lives of the billions of women doing care work.

Every three years, the replenishment of funding for the World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA) is a landmark moment that shapes how billions in development finance is spent globally. Each cycle of funding brings a review of policy commitments and priorities as well as cash commitments from rich-country donors.

So where do unpaid and paid care work and care services fit into these priorities? As World Bank president Ajay Banga calls for the next replenishment in 2025 to be the biggest ever, we looked at recent Bank commitments around care and how the IDA can build on these in the next funding cycle to tackle poverty and gender inequality.

Childcare commitment was a step forward – but it’s not real transformation

The most recent IDA replenishment, “IDA20″, in 2021 brought a historic $93 billion package of grants and loans for lower-income countries for fiscal years 2022-2025. It offered an important opportunity to tackle the persistent gender inequality driven by the unequal distribution of unpaid care and domestic work between women, girls, and boys and men.

The key commitment in this area last time was on Expanding Childcare with the pledge to “Support at least 15 IDA countries to expand access to quality, affordable childcare, especially for low-income parents”. This was a great step forward in acknowledging and recognizing the value of care work, with particular regard for the role of care work in gender inequality. Expanding accessible and affordable childcare does help to redistribute the costs and responsibility for care provision between the individual, private sector, community, and the state and has the potential to contribute to gender equality.

However, care is about far more than childcare provision: whether in doing most of world’s domestic work such as cooking and cleaning, looking after the elderly and the sick, or making up most of the often poorly paid workforce that delivers care services (including health care, disability care, elderly care, and childcare), women are providing a huge and often invisible economic impact that needs much broader policy change across the globe so that all this work is properly valued, redistributed and supported.

‘Women are paying the highest price for the austerity catastrophe in MENA – as women’s unpaid care work fills the gaps created by depleted and deteriorating public services’

To truly tackle poverty and gender inequality, the World Bank and IDA must take a transformative approach to care – starting with improvement of the implementation of current commitments around childcare, keeping a holistic and integrated policy approach to care in mind.    

Investing in care means treating care workers better, and promoting access

The first step will be better implementation of the Bank’s current IDA20 commitment for Expanding Childcare. The Bank must focus more on ensuring decent work and working lives for the care workers at the heart of the sector, who are predominantly women; as well as accessibility and affordability of care services.

The Bank’s new Invest in Childcare Initiative, which aims to deliver on the IDA20 childcare commitment, does not include clear definitions or metrics for how decent work for care workers will be measured, and could draw on clear guidance around this that the International Labour Organization (ILO) has already provided; nor does the Initiative address the significant risks in terms of exclusion and quality from relying on a private sector-led approach to delivery of care services, brought into question by evidence from the education sector. Read other critiques, demonstrating the limits of the Bank’s current approach to establishing childcare systems that are gender transformative, as well as hopes and recommendations for improvement here.

Looking beyond childcare to the whole care infrastructure

Unpaid care work often traps women in poverty, limiting time for other paid work as well as impacting quality of life and wellbeing. We were pleased therefore to see that the IDA’s policy commitments recognize this link between gender equality and unpaid care work, and seek to close gender gaps via gender-responsive budgeting by governments.

However, as we evaluate the efficacy of the care commitments made in IDA20, we can already see the glaring need for the Bank to have a much broader strategy to recognize, reduce, and redistribute the heavy, unequal, and gendered responsibility of unpaid and underpaid care and domestic work. Holistic investment in gender-transformative care includes enabling governments to reduce the time and intensity of labor spent on care work through investments in care infrastructure (such as access to water, sanitation, energy and transport) and go beyond investments in care-related services (such as childcare, older person and disability care) to also include essential services like health and education.

As the new ILO Care Policy Investment Simulator sets out, transformative care policy packages require investing in a continuum of care that covers all the care needs of people throughout their lives – with demands for childcare, social care, elderly care and so on. The World Bank must look to support and promote universal, free at point of use, gender-responsive and publicly funded care services and infrastructure that enable decent care standards of service.

Alongside financial investment, the Bank also needs to give carers a voice in shaping its care policies. That means a commitment to representation of care givers and care workers in policy making – involving them in the design, implementation and evaluation of care-related projects.  

The investment in care women need will not happen if the austerity push continues

And behind all the commitments around care, is a need for a fundamental shift in the mindset and approach – of the World Bank, IMF, and many governments – to public spending.

Coming out of the Bank’s Annual Meetings in Marrakesh there was a disappointing lack of real solutions to the debilitating impacts countries across the global South are facing under debt and austerity crises.

For instance, in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the world’s most unequal region, women are paying the highest price for the austerity catastrophe and absorb many of its negative impacts, notably via extra care work – as women’s unpaid care work fills the gaps created by depleted and deteriorating public services. We also know a worsening climate will increase the need for care – critical to remember in the backdrop of the WB Evolution Roadmap’s new mission to “Ending Poverty on a Livable Planet”.

The new 2024-30 Gender Strategy Draft boasts that amid resource constraints IDA “supports closing gender gaps through fiscal policy and budget reforms, removing discriminatory provisions from tax legislation and enhancing the effectiveness of public spending”.

However, the reality is that the World Bank’s advice and conditions over the last 40 years, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, reflects critical blind spots of its impacts on gender equality – whether by requiring the IMF’s seal of approval prior to receiving development policy financing (even while knowing about the IMF’s austerity push and that austerity is bad for women) or with investment in public service delivery often deprioritized in favour of unaccountable private enterprises that cause great harm. This adds to existing burdens from billions of dollars in cuts to public systems that are falling on the poor, especially women and people facing intersecting forms of marginalisation and discrimination. Austerity needs to end to build a caring economy.

Tax the rich as part of a shift to a feminist global economy

It’s time to ditch austerity and instead tax wealth as a way to begin closing the massive divide between the rich and the rest of us; and shift towards feminist economies that centre gender and racial justice, wellbeing and protection of the planet.

Investing in care-enabling infrastructure and services starts with supporting countries to increase domestic revenues by strengthening revenue streams, including through effective taxation on corporations, capital, wealth and high net worth individuals. The Bank must commit to backing policies that redistribute income and wealth and invest in public goods – including in IDA21. That will be the only way to make real progress on closing gender gaps, meeting countries’ binding human rights and gender equality commitments, and truly delivering and building on the IDA commitments towards transformative care.   


Fiana Arbab

Fiana Arbab is Oxfam International’s IFI (International Financial Institutions) Advocacy & Gender Coordinator

Charlotte Friar, Oxfam America’s Development Finance Senior Policy Advisor, also contributed to this blog. This is the latest in an ongoing series of blogs about care that began around the International Day of Care and Support earlier this year