European Bank for Reconstruction and Development gender equality strategy: an encouraging start, but where to next?

by 18th May 2016
A woman holding a savings group book in Haiti A woman holding a savings group book in Haiti

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has just held its Annual Meeting in London, and I was lucky enough to participate in a panel discussion on their recently published Strategy for the Promotion of Gender Equality 2016-2020. A key focus of the discussion was how EBRD can best work with civil society organisations towards achievement of the strategy. There are many points to welcome in the strategy – but also many challenges to be faced...

My fellow panellists were Serena Grant, from TrustLaw, Afaf Jabiri from the SOAS Centre for Gender Studies and Elena Ferreras Carreras from the EBRD’s own Gender Team. The session was moderated by Michaela Bergman, the Chief Social Counsellor and Head of the Gender Team at EBRD.

EBRD was originally set up in the early 1990s to support the former “Iron Curtain” countries in their transition to market economies, but in more recent years it has also extended its activities into the Middle East. There is therefore overlap between CARE’s countries of operations and those of the Bank, most noticeably recently in countries affected by the Syria crisis.

Points to welcome in the EBRD strategy

The strategy is a wide-ranging document with much to recommend it, particularly in light of the very diverse range of shareholders in the bank (65 countries plus the EU and the European Investment Bank). Firstly, the strategy ties into SDG 5 on women’s equality – and Elena and I agreed that the SDGs will be an important way of coordinating efforts and applying pressure to governments. Also, the strategy spends considerable time discussing the importance of social and cultural factors, and in particular it recognises the importance of the burden of unpaid care work, and of engaging with men and boys. This is particularly important as we know that as women progress towards economic empowerment, the shift in gender roles can provoke significant backlash from men, including gender-based violence, although a process of working with men, with couples and with the wider community can significantly mitigate this. It is also important to acknowledge that EBRD research does recognise the importance of GBV in many of the countries in which they operate, as a key factor in holding back women from economic and social progress.

The strategy also commits to targeting countries with the largest gender gaps, although given the high-level nature of the strategy, it is currently difficult to know what this will really mean in practice and the extent to which it will drive the balance of investment towards different countries. At a more practical level, the strategy sets three specific objectives:

  • To increase access to finance and business support for women-led businesses;
  • To increase access to employment opportunities and skills for women; and
  • To improve access to services.

The first of these, financial inclusion, is core to CARE’s own approach to women’s economic empowerment, since our 25 years of experience with Village Savings and Loan Associations has taught us that giving women access to savings is a first and key step to providing them with control over income and assets. EBRD’s take on the objective is much more credit-related, but we also recognise the importance of this and have ourselves been arguing strongly in favour of banks in developing countries making greater investments in reaching women as an attractive market segment, and much of EBRD’s financing goes through national financial intermediaries of the type our argument is aimed at.

Points to consider in implementation

The nature of a strategy document is that it leaves a lot of issues still to be resolved in implementation, and I highlighted a few:

  • Recognising the importance of social norms is great, but changing them requires a lot of effort over significant time, raising the issue of what is the Bank’s role?
  • Similarly, change only really happens systemically – a lot of things have to change together, often in very complex and sometimes contradictory ways. So how will the Bank help to coordinate this change?
  • How to tackle women’s unpaid care burden. By providing women with more economic opportunity we do not want to simply add to the hours each day which they need to spend working! The World Bank Group’s recent Gender Strategy, for instance, acknowledges this problem and posits “developing policy frameworks for care services” as part of the solution.
  • There is also a much more specifically private sector angle on the unpaid care issue, and that is the provision of decent quality childcare within the workplace, for both men and women.
  • That then leads to the question of job quality, particularly important for investments aimed at women’s progress since women (as the Bank recognises) end up in less-well paid and more precarious employment than men do. The Bank therefore needs to ensure that it has well-developed ex-ante analysis of the likely quality of jobs in investment opportunities, and strong metrics for tracking progress and impact.
  • The Bank is committed to ‘Gender mainstreaming’ by 2020, but ‘mainstreaming’ implies a high level of awareness of, and commitment to, gender issues, with a risk that staff take for granted that processes and policies have ‘solved the problem’. So it needs to be approached cautiously, ensuring that there is solid evidence that gender is being addressed appropriately AND that staff have the right skills and attitudes to address gender issues. CARE as an NGO with a long-standing and strong commitment to supporting women and girls still has gender specialists, to ensure that the rest of us can keep up to speed

The role of civil society

EBRD were particularly keen to hear about what role civil society can play in supporting the strategy. Afaf gave a compelling account of both the terrible pressures that civil society are under in many of the Bank’s countries of operation, but also some examples of how wider society was ready for change and donors and foreign governments are actually taking a very cautious approach. From my side, I highlighted a few key points:

  • Ensure strong engagement with local women’s rights organisations, who are uniquely well-placed to understand the issues, and give them enough support, notice, status etc for them to engage effectively in consultation processes.
  • The Bank should work closely with civil society in policy dialogue and can be very effective in adding its weight to reform efforts.
  • Clearly civil society can play a unique role in reaching marginalised populations, for example refugees, but also religious or ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, youth, LGBT communities, all of whom are recognised by the Bank as carrying greater burdens.
  • And while a great deal of what the Bank does is aimed at developing the formal economy, civil society should be an important bridge to those working in the informal economy, who may be participating in the affected value chains.
  • Finally, there is always also a clear role for civil society to hold the bank to account against its own norms and other applicable standards.


So, we welcome the EBRD strategy for gender equality and are glad to see it take a sophisticated view of what influences women’s economic empowerment. However, we also know that there will be many challenges, not least understanding and being able to respond to women’s local needs and priorities as communicated by women’s rights groups, and coordinating the range of actors across policy and economic development that are needed to ensure systemic change.

Gerry Boyle

Gerry led CARE International UK’s policy analysis and advocacy around value chains and dignified work. He originally joined CARE as the Senior Policy Adviser on Private Sector Engagement. With the advent of our new Global Programme Strategy which put a particular emphasis on women’s economic empowerment, his focus changed a little.

Gerry co-chaired the Bond Private Sector Working Group. Immediately before he joined CARE he worked for Oxfam as Head of Business Relations for about three years, but the vast majority of his career was spent as a management consultant including being a consulting Partner at Deloitte, where for a time he led Deloitte UK’s Consumer Business consulting practice, serving many major multinationals. Gerry's original degree was in Law from Oxford University, and in 2008 when he left Deloitte he did an MSc in Philosophy and Public Policy at LSE.

One good thing I've read

Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom. It provides a framework for many people’s modern understanding of what is development, based on a profoundly human-centred approach rather than anything instrumental. And to check whether one personally is doing enough to fight poverty, I recommend Peter Singer’s The life you can save: Acting now to end world poverty – it’s very clear and easy to read but very challenging! Finally, Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans: Rich nations, poor policies, and the threat to the developing world is a very readable guide to economic development which argues strongly against many of the prevailing orthodoxies.

Twitter: @gerryboyle10