Why the International Monetary Fund is Fundamentally Incompatible with Our Demands for Intersectional Feminist Economic Justice

April 26, 2023

BY Sanyu Awori, Marta Music

Photo by Muhammed Emin Canik. Thousands take part in a protest in Argentina in February 2022 against the IMF’s agreement with the Argentine government.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) can never deliver gender justice, because it is not designed to do so: it is at the centre of a global economic system that extracts and exploits in explicitly colonial, gendered, racial and classist ways.

The Burden of Care

The IMF relies on women (often migrant women, women of colour, trans women, women from the Global South and from lower socio-economic backgrounds) to shoulder the burden of care work in society. Care work refers to work that is essential for societies to survive, and due to racist, cis-patriarchal gender norms, women and gender-diverse people either perform this labour unpaid or grossly under-remunerated. Through its loan conditionalities, the IMF requires governments to cut their spending on public services, which feminists have long documented translates into increased unpaid care work by women and gender-diverse people

A recent 2022 report examines how cuts to public wage bills in Ghana, Nepal, Zimbabwe  imposed by IMF reforms have clear and explicit gendered implications. 

Furthermore, as a result of these conditionalities, underfunded public services like health not only have to increasingly rely on the gendered distribution of reproductive labour to pick up the burdens where the public sector should, they also become vulnerable in the face of crises. 

For example, researchers have analysed IMF loan conditionalities across 16 West African countries and found that universal health coverage is severely hampered as a result of IMF conditionalities.  This was starkly illustrated by the inability of many states to cope with the global pandemic of COVID-19.

 Fiscal Policy Measures

The IMF’s fiscal policy measures explicitly inflict austerity and reproduce tax injustices. Decades of IMF policies have left many Global South governments in conditions of debt that make it impossible for them to negotiate their fiscal space. It is not a coincidence that demands for debt justice are a part of many movements for economic and climate justice. Given the very gendered and racial implications of austerity where women, people of colour and gender diverse people are particularly impacted, these are accurately named as a form of gender-based and racial-based violence. Feminists have also been challenging the regressive tax policies the IMF advances like value added tax and other consumption taxes that are shown to negatively impact women – who make up a majority of impoverished communities.

Feminists against false solutions

Rather than offering reparations for the decades of devastating policies that have destroyed economies across the world and the livelihoods of millions of historically and presently marginalised communities, the IMF prefers to pink-wash its way through the crises it has generated. It tokenises women as a means to achieve economic growth and focuses on absorbing them into the labour market without interrogating the power imbalances in the market that rely and reproduce labour and human rights violations.

Their reductionist view on gender equality is why, in 2022, when the IMF published its gender strategy there was global feminist outcry to resist the co-optation of gender justice struggles for a flawed economic project that fails to recognise the full humanity of women and gender-diverse communities.

Global South feminists will continue to challenge the IMF as we have done for generations, recognising it as a rigged system where a handful of rich, white, cis-het men in the Global North make decisions about our lives with wide-ranging disastrous ramifications but with little accountability. As Bhumika Muchhala reminds us, the governance structure of the IMF represents a colonial model where only a handful of Western governments have voting power and  following this thread allows us to unearth the powerful private corporate players behind the IMF’s decisions. 

That is why feminists will continue to build and nurture our economic freedoms without the IMF, by taking back the economy, reclaiming it from the clutches of corporate players and harnessing the power of feminist economic alternatives anchored in care, the sustainability of life and people’s sovereignty. They emerge within the margins of neoliberal capitalism as responses to the crises generated by the current system. Alternatives such as Nous Sommes La Solution, a pan-African movement for seed and food sovereignty led by rural women in West Africa, or the International Domestic Workers Federation, fighting for the labour rights, and safe, dignified working for domestic workers, are but two examples amongst thousands of existing feminist economic alternatives striving to build the just, sustainable, feminist futures we need and deserve.