Cripping the World Bank / by Corinne Mason

Corrine L. Mason,

Originally appeared on the International Feminist Journal of Politics blog

Violence against women is expensive. Homophobia is bad for business. Working with women is smart economics. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) individuals are untapped resources.

Anyone paying attention to gender and sexuality work at the World Bank will recognize these all-to-common phrases. Feminist scholars, in particular, heavily critique World Bank rhetoric for building a technocratic, growth-focused, and business case for women’s rights. In my IFJP article, I demonstrate how economic language is used to promote responses to violence against women, such as economic empowerment programs, that do little more than reproduce status-quo gender work at the World Bank.

What is original in my critique of the World Bank’s gender work is my focus on disability. The World Bank uses a measurement called “disability-life adjusted years” or DALYs to measure the cost of violence against women on the economy. I argue that DALYs are not only ableist, but reveal how the World Bank imagines women as “good investments” in market-based schemes with little consideration of their overall well-being.

The Cost of Violence Against Women

In the 2009 World Bank report, The Cost of Violence, the organization argues that violence against women is costly to the economy because abused women find themselves in need of social services and health care. Women are also less productive at work because of the violence they experience. In 2013, Caroline Anstey, then a managing director at the World Bank, claimed “all of us – taxpayers, businesses and governments – pay a price with every punch, kick and rape.” The World Bank maintains that violence is inefficient.

In 1993, the World Bank estimated that nine million disability-life adjusted years (DALYs) were lost globally as a result of sexual and domestic violence. The number of DALYs lost from domestic violence is larger than DALYs lost due to all forms of cancer, and twice that lost by women as a result of automobile accidents.

What are DALYs?

DALYs were designed by the World Health Organization (WHO) to measure the gap between one’s current health status and an ideal situation where everyone lives into old age, free of disease and disability.

Using Robert McRuer’s (2006) Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability, my analysis “crips” the World Bank’s use of DALYs to measure the cost of violence against women. “Crip” is a word that is used among disability theorists and in queer studies to disrupt the concepts of “normal” (read able-bodied) and “abnormal” (read disabled). “Cripping” the World Bank is really about working to uncover the ways in which ableism, or assuming the able-body is “normal” and ideal, informs the DALYs measurement. By claiming that able-bodiedness is ideal and the highest quality of life, while simultaneously relating inefficiencies to disability, the World Bank’s DALYs discriminates against those with disabilities.

DALYs also instrumentalized the issue of disability by only using the concept of disability (rather than the experience) to communicate the importance of ending violence against women. Pairing cost analyses with well-know World Bank rhetoric about getting women back to work and living up to their productive potential, DALYs provide the World Bank with a economic justification to position women in precarious employment— such as export processing zones, micro-credit, and entrepreneurship where they are most often employed—as sites of empowerment.

The World Bank claims that labor sites are spaces provide an opportunity for women to fulfill their capacities, yet they are also places where women experience both gendered violence and disabling working conditions. What is more, the World Bank employs the DALYs measurement without explicitly addressing violence against women with disabilities, who are at greater risk of violence than those without disabilities.

Isn’t this focus on women a good thing?

Isn’t it great that the World Bank, a growth obsessed organization, is paying attention to violence at all? And, how do you get an institution that, according to their 1944 Articles of Agreement, is prohibited from “being political” to pay attention to human rights?

According to an interview I conducted a former social development specialist at the World Bank, those who are interested in gender inequality issues have to be “opportunistic” and they “have to go where [they] are invited to go.” Often, gender advocates working inside the organization have to speak the language of economists to make lead-way on any issue that might be deemed outside the mandate of the bank.

 “Cripping” the World Bank shows us that if DALYs are required to obtain the attention of the World Bank, the response to violence against women made possible by this economic focus may be more costly to the lives of women that the organization can comprehend.

More recently, the insiders at the World Bank has used DALYs to gain traction on sexuality, gender identity and expression or SOGIE. Given the salience of sexuality issues in the development industry more generally, it is predictable that questions of homophobia and transphobia are now also enveloped by market logic at the World Bank. DALYs are being used by researchers to convince the organization to pay attention to the cost of homophobia and transphobia. According to Fabrice Houdart (an openly gay former senior country officer who has been recently demoted and is now embroiled in a scandal after publicly criticizing the organization) argues that advocates within the World Bank must use DALYs and other cost analyses to “trigger any interest from bank economics.”  

Given the public ousting of the strongest proponent of LGBT rights at the organization, one might imagine that this research focus will halt. I question the continued use of DALYs, which are inherently ableist, by advocates within the institution to give traction to gender and sexuality issues.

The development industry as a whole is moving toward more inclusive programming for LGBT people. ‘Pink aid’—or LGBT-inclusive or focused foreign aid and development which borrows from the imagery of the pink triangle —might be the most efficient step forward for the World Bank. What impact it will have on LGBT people globally remains unknown.