servicesTravels and graduations behind us, we’re back! This month foremost on our minds is the issue of budget cuts. How many times will history have to repeat itself before we get it right?

What do cuts in services for disabled and vulnerable people, shoddy food regulation practices that are making people in some states very sick, the recent rise in crime and simultaneous reductions in police resources, and even Nebraska’s inability to provide adequate services for troubled children and their families have in common?

Answer: These recent phenomena can be traced in some part to the reduction in social services that is common in national, state, and local budgets when trying to prevent the onset of a deep fiscal crisis. While these phenomena are all deeply troubling, even more troubling is the fact that there is historic evidence that such cuts do not work and, in many cases, actually have the opposite effect. That is, when the state no longer pays for things like health care, education, and even local security, there are extremely negative consequences for everyday people, especially for vulnerable groups such as the elderly, the disabled, and children, who depend on such services for daily survival.

In the 1980s, the world saw the effect of these policies writ large in the international arena, with so-called “Structural Adjustment Plans”, or plans put in place by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which laid out various conditions that had to be met by countries in order to get a loan from both establishments. Most of these conditions involved the opening of markets, “free” trade conditions, and extreme reductions in state provisions of social services like health care and education; it was argued that such services should instead be privatized. In short, the prevailing sentiment was this: let the markets take over and we’ll see what happens.

What happened was that structural adjustment plans had disastrous effects, particularly in many parts of Latin America (where the period of heavy structural adjustment has led many to refer to the 1980s as the “lost decade”) and Africa (where 34 countries implemented some form of a structural adjustment plan in the 1980s). Further, women were the ones to bear the brunt of many of the negative effects of these policies. According to Dzodzi Tsikata of the Third World Network, this is because such policies “assume the unlimited availability of women’s unpaid labour and time and… have tended to see women as a resource to be tapped to promote the efficiency of free market policies and to deal with the short-fall in access to social services.” In many instances, this leads to an increase in women’s working burdens and social responsibilities. In other words, women are expected to shoulder the majority of the burden of reductions in state provided services. And this phenomenon is not limited to developing countries (and surely not when the developing countries in question are following the economic prescriptions of their Western donors and lenders) – critics in the US have also argued that domestic budget cuts have a disproportionate effect on women and children.

The USA’s neighbor up north hasn’t done much better. Kathleen Lahley, a Law professor at Queen’s University in Canada outlined in her gender analysis of the 2009 budget, key ways in which the Canadian government has missed the mark. Not only does her analysis make for good reading, it also demonstrates how women in Canada will not directly benefit as much as men will from the $64 billion in spending and tax cuts. Gender equity requirements have not been included in the spending programs – the result is a gender-skewed stimulus.

With so much evidence on the negative effects of cuts to social services, one wonders why this model is still pursued in such a fashion and, further, whether there are any movements (policy or otherwise) to reverse the ongoing trend, particularly as global leaders consider changes to international economic frameworks in light of the recent crisis.

As we can see, leaders in North America don’t seem to be the fastest learners, but what about the rest of the world? The World Bank and the IMF? In 2007 Elaine Zuckerman, a former World Bank economist, challenged the Bretton Woods institutions to improve their track record of short-changing women. For all intents and purposes, it seems that World Bank President, Robert Zoellick, is trying to rise to the challenge. At last month’s G20 meeting in London, he spoke of the Bank’s plan to develop a Vulnerability Framework. The fund would provide support infrastructure, agriculture, small- to medium- size businesses and micro-finance. Past lessons may just be paving the way to a more gender-balanced future for the World Bank. This plan would benefit not only men through infrastructure jobs, but also women who are heavily involved in agriculture, are the majority of small business owners, and represent 85% of the poorest 93 million clients of Microfinance Institutions. This effort would require a contribution of 0.7% of more “developed” countries’ stimulus packages. Maybe this is their way of making up for the gaping holes left at home through budget cuts…nice but gender equality should happen at home too.

Who would have thought that the G20 would bring us even more good news?! We were a bit skeptical at first; the official documents that come out of these meetings rarely mention gender equality. Oh, we of little faith! The G20 countries pledged to support the World Bank’s Vulnerability Framework AND addressed the human dimension to the crisis and the pledge to “build a fair and family-friendly labour market for both women and men.” Steps in the right direction. Let’s hope this will manifest itself in thoughtful gender-conscious budget cuts across the board. The entire Official Communique can be seen here.

Finally, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner called for a “new starting point” in hemispheric relations at the recent Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago (the country that gave you Blogger TAB 🙂 ). While much attention has been given to Presidents Obama, Castro and Chavez, we recommend you take a look at President Fernandez’s speech, which was in our opinion one of the, if not the, best (though we haven’t been able to find any links to it). Further, the Summit’s Declaration of Commitment’s preamble Point 6 is calypso music to our ears: “We recognize the importance of considering the differentiated needs of women and men in promoting and ensuring the integration of the gender perspective as a cross cutting issue in national and hemispheric policies, plans and programmes to be implemented in the political, economic labour, social and cultural spheres…’’

At the very least, countries globally have demonstrated a rhetorical commitment to gender-balanced recovery and development. It remains to be seen how these plans will be put into action. Judging from past experiences, the best way to ensure that these rhetorical commitments are implemented in practice is through the work of gender researchers, advocates and practitioners, who must hold governments and international organizations accountable for the commitments that they make in these international forums. So, please, join us in reminding local, state, and national leaders to stick to their commitments to build a more gender-inclusive world. Let the fiscal crisis be used as an opportunity to strengthen gender equitable programs – not an excuse to cut much-needed services for women, men, and children.

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