The economic policies introduced by state governments in order to gain access to funding from the major international financial institutions (IFIs) such as the IMF and the World Bank may appear to impact everyone in a society in the same way, but my research into IFI conditionalities and Ukraine indicate that these policies have a distinctly gendered effect, and that they tend to have a much greater and more damaging effect on the economic security of women than men.
My findings in relation to Ukraine are consistent with the research carried out by feminist political economists over the past 30-40 years, but previous feminist work has focussed primarily on the Global South. My project was inspired by the work of feminist political economists in the past, but it demonstrates that these kinds of IFI conditionalities continue to have a devastatingly unequal gendered impact in the 21st century and that they are not confined to the Global South.
The major finding of my research was that IFI conditionalities imposed on Ukraine in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, and the ways that successive governments in Kyiv have implemented them, have had an impact that is gendered and that makes women in Ukraine less economically secure than men.
This research matters beyond the case study of Ukraine because the processes that Ukraine has gone through are typical of the experiences of states seeking funds from IFIs. This means that the same, or very similar, gendered dynamics are going to be at work. The gendered impacts of IFI conditionalities need to be scrutinised much more carefully and both IFIs and state governments need to be held to account for the ways that that increase the economic insecurity of women.
My research found that there are three major, inter-related reasons for the gendered economic impacts of IFI conditionalities on Ukraine.
First, the nature of the conditions that these financial institutions place on Ukraine require the government to reduce its state spending overall, but at the same time certain areas of state spending – namely spending on social services such as health, education, social security and so on – are singled out for special scrutiny, justified by the IFI’s view that these are technical areas of spending that are optional for states. Reductions in state spending in these areas disproportionately affect women. On the one hand, this is because women are more likely than men to be employed by the state, so cutbacks in state spending – which will reduce the salaries of those employed by the state, the number of people employed by the state, or both – will result in reduced incomes for women. On the other hand, women tend to have the greatest responsibility for looking after the rest of the household, which might include children, the elderly or others who need care. This means that when state provision is withdrawn for childcare or services for the elderly, or when hospital services are reduced, it is usually women who step in and fill those gaps with their own, unpaid, labor. This disproportionate impact of austerity measures on women is true both in Ukraine and globally. In Ukraine the burden that austerity measures place on women is intensified by the additional pressure on women to support the war in the Donbas, ongoing since 2014. For example, the reduction in health care availability has been especially felt by the families of veterans of the war in the Donbas. Many of those veterans suffer from long-term physical or emotional injuries that the health care system is not equipped to deal with, meaning that their care and rehabilitation is taken on by their (usually female) family members.
The second reason for this gendered economic impact of IFI conditionalities in Ukraine is that IFIs explicitly exclude defense spending from their conditions, on the grounds that the proportion of government spending on defense is a political decision for the state government to make rather than technical areas of discretionary spending. (Deciding what is and is not political is, of course, a political decision in and of itself.) The impact of this decision for a country at war, such as Ukraine, is enormous. The pressures to increase defense spending in wartime are constant, and any increases in state spending in this area will increase overall state spending against the targets set by the IFIs, creating further tendencies to cut back even more on social spending to bring the overall figures on spending into line. In addition, defense industries are disproportionately owned by and employ men, which further strengthens the gendered economic impact of IFI conditionalities.
The third reason for the gendered economic impact of IFI conditionalities in Ukraine is related to the way that IFIs negotiate with state governments over the assessment of their progress against the targets set by the IFIs when it comes time for the IFIs to decide whether to release the next tranche of funding. In the case of Ukraine, the government in Kyiv has successfully argued that progress in introducing austerity measures (cutting social spending) should be allowed to compensate for the lack of progress in dealing with corruption, which is a longstanding problem in Ukraine and one that the IFIs have consistently told the government to address. Large-scale corruption in Ukraine – the kind that the IFIs are most concerned about – is the result of the activity of oligarchs. Oligarchs in Ukraine are wealthy and powerful men who control major industries and have enormous political influence, often through their connections to political parties and political officials. Although there has been some progress over the years in reducing their wealth and political influence, the oligarchs in Ukraine are still very powerful. The fact that the IFIs were willing to accept a trade-off between Kyiv’s progress on introducing austerity measures and its lack of progress in dealing with corruption has had the effect of protecting the economic security of powerful men at the expense of far less powerful women.
The case study explored the gendered economic security impacts on Ukrainian society as a result of the conditionalities placed on that country by international financial institutions (IFIs) such as the IMF and the World Bank after the 2008 global financial crisis. The case study revealed the gendered impact of IFI-mandated austerity policies, including the loophole that allows governments to continue to spend high levels of their income on defence even while cutting back areas of social spending, and the way that negotiations between IFIs and state governments can act to further intensify the gendered impacts of these conditionalities.
Data was collected by a desk-based analysis, drawing on officially produced documents by the IFIs, the Ukrainian government and NGOs.
Although the findings of the Ukrainian case study can be generalized to other countries in the sense that IFI conditionalities should be carefully inspected for their gendered economic impact, the context of each case will be specific and will affect the extent and nature of the gendered impact.