Women’s Rights Advocates And Their Allies Fight To Reform Global Financial Architecture
From 24-26 June 2009, the United Nations held a Conference on the World Financial and Economic Crisis and its Impact on Development. Anne Schoenstein, Program Associate with AWID’s IDeA Strategic Initiative, spoke with Masum Momaya about the progress and challenges associated with the conference’s outcomes.
From 24-26 June, 2009, the United Nations (UN) held a Conference on the World Financial and Economic Crisis and its Impact on Development. The aim of the meeting was to “identify emergency and long-term responses to mitigate the impact of the crisis, especially on vulnerable populations, and initiate a needed dialogue on the transformation of the international financial architecture, taking into account the needs and concerns of all Member States.” 
Civil society organizations were hopeful that the conference could “start a longer-term inclusive process for a fundamental transformation of the economic and financial system and [to] make social and gender justice and the fulfillment of human and environmental rights the key objectives of all crisis-related measures.”  They joined with governments of many developing countries to call for a greater role for the UN in global economic governance and strong commitments to reform global financial architecture, including the roles of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Among those organizing around and participating in the Conference was the Women’s Working Group (WWG) on Financing for Development (FfD), an alliance of women’s organizations and networks, of which AWID is a part, that advocates for the advancement of gender equality, women’s empowerment and human rights in FfD-related UN processes.
Anne Schoenstein, who attended the conference as part of the Women’s Working Group, shared her thoughts.
Why is it so important for civil society organizations, and women’s rights organizations in particular, to participate in United Nations processes in the context of the current financial and economic crises?
From our perspective and the perspective of the WWG, the UN is the only truly multilateral, inclusive and participatory space in which all developing and developed countries have a voice, can discuss and find common solutions to the crisis in the short term and also establish long term structural and systemic changes in the global development and financial architecture that reflect rights-based and equitable principles. In contrast, the G20, in which economic decision making power for the whole world is currently concentrated, only includes a few developing countries, mostly emerging economies (e.g. China, India, Brazil) and does not allow for the effective and transparent participation of civil society organizations. The G20 mainly serves the interests of the most industrialized countries and perpetuates failed privatization-oriented economic policies, while reinforcing existing structural inequalities, including gender inequalities. 
One of the goals of the conference was to clarify, and hopefully elevate, the central role that the UN should have in economic governance via a Global Economic Coordination Council. Can you describe what this is, how it fared in the outcomes deliberation, and why it is important?
A Global Economic Coordination Council would be an overarching body under the UN that is globally representative and deals in a comprehensive and sustainable manner with the functioning of the global economic system. The so-called ‘Stiglitz Commission,’ a commission of experts led by the economist Joseph Stiglitz, put forth this idea.
Unfortunately, the adopted outcome document of the Conference does not include reference to such a council. Moreover, even though the outcome document highlights the importance of the UN’s role in international economic issues, it also limits the role of the UN to the arena of humanitarian assistance and development cooperation. This means that we need to continue advocating for and informing key stakeholders about the urgent need for a council that is transparent, accountable, has the full and equal representation of developing countries and substantially involves women’s rights organizations and other civil society organizations.
Governments of many developing countries and civil societies organizations were all hoping that this conference could also address reform of Bretton Woods institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. What happened on this front?
Prior to the conference, the Women’s Working Group recommended replacing the IMF with a new multilateral institution that would monitor the financial sector to prevent volatility, take into account the social, gendered and environmental costs of financial products, and be based on a one-member-one-vote system not weighted by monetary contribution. While the outcome document recognizes the need for reform of the IMF and the World Bank to some extent, it does not provide concrete guidelines for reform and does not go far enough. The same institutions that partly brought us to the current situation are still in ‘business’ or even ‘back in business’ in the case of the IMF, whose client numbers were actually shrinking in the years before the crisis.
In what ways does gender equality language figure into the final outcome document? And does this help or hinder women’s rights advocates in their work?
The Women’s Working Group assessed the language in the outcome document. We are pleased with language that recognizes that women face “greater income insecurity and increased burdens of family care” and that women and children are most impoverished by the crisis. The document further recognizes that responses to the crisis need to have a gender perspective, that mitigation measures should take into account gender equality and that leadership appointments in the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) should take regard of gender balance.
While this language is welcome, we also need to stress that women are not only victims of the crisis. They are also active and vital agents and must be substantially involved in the thinking and decision-making concerning appropriate responses to the systemic crisis and structural changes.
By giving consent to this outcome document, all member states acknowledge the particular situation of women and the gender dimensions of the crisis; thus, women’s rights advocates can use it to hold governments accountable to what they signed onto and push them to act accordingly. This should, for example, mean that they consult with and ensure participation of women’s groups in all measures related to responding to the crisis.
In the past, and for a long time, policy conditionalities have been a sticking point in negotiations. What happened with them at the conference?
Because of policy conditionalities, loans from institutions like the IMF and World Bank, for example, force governments to cut social spending in the name of efficiency and productivity and unduly limit policy options for developing countries. Given that the financial and economic crises are related to global food, energy and climate crises, this is even more disastrous than before. Many women and men are losing their jobs and are more vulnerable than ever. In particular, women who are often in highly precarious job situations and the most “expendable” workers are likely to be disproportionately negatively affected. This, combined with continued cuts in public social services means that women and girls will continue to compensate for these cuts with their own (unpaid) labor, and the burden on them will continue to increase.
Many at the conference, including the Women’s Working Group, have been lobbying for the end of policy conditionalities. The outcome document is clearly very disappointing and weak here. AWID and its partners have long argued, that from a women’s rights and human rights perspective, policy conditionalities undermine the right to self-determination, the right to development and the right to access information, consultation and participation.
What will happen as a follow-up to this conference? And how can women’s rights advocates be involved?
In the outcome document, the UN General Assembly was invited to establish an open-ended working group and a panel of experts to strategize around and follow-up on the issues in the outcome document. Although they won’t have the heft of a Global Economic Coordination Council, it will still be important for women’s rights and other civil society organizations to be involved in both the open-ended working group and as part of the panel of experts.
At the same time, It will be key to make use of the pieces of progressive language in the conference outcome document and to push further for social and gender justice and human and environmental rights. Women’s rights advocates and organizations can engage in both information sharing and knowledge building around these processes and in advocacy work at the different levels, including with their national governments. Ultimately, if we want to move beyond the current dominant model that led us to this crisis in the first place, we, as women’s rights organizations, need to be engaged in discussions and processes to create a new international system, situated in the UN – and this engagement should go together with women's mobilization at community, national, regional and global levels. We cannot promote global change without articulating local agendas within this international effort. The alternatives for the future should respond to local needs and development policies priorities, and any effort to advocate at for women’s rights at the global level should be articulated with women’s groups from the different regions.
To join the discussion and contribute to the articulation, the WWG on FfD listserv (email@example.com) is a vehicle to exchange information, updates and feminist analyses on FfD issues and to advance development alternatives. To join the listserv or for more information please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Notes & References:
 The G-20, or formally “the Group of Twenty Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors” is a group of finance ministers and central bank governors from 20 economies, including 19 of the world's largest national economies, plus the European Union.