Moving gender-lens infrastructure investment from niche to mainstream: What will it take?

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Mumbai ,Maharashtra ,May,30,2010:Rag picker happy family smiling for a portrait near santacruz Chembur Link Road bridge under construction ,Mumbai,Maharashtra,India Chembur Link Road bridge under construction | Photo credit: Hari Mahidhar, Shutterstock

Gender bias in infrastructure? It’s a conversation that sometimes starts with a puzzled look. At first glance, it can be hard to see why a road, a cellular signal, or electricity might benefit women and men differently. But, like every sector of the economy, infrastructure can have distinct impacts on people based on their needs and social roles.

Investors in developing market infrastructure projects—including the private sector, public sector, and development finance institutions (DFIs)—are now setting best practices when it comes to integrating gender considerations into project finance, delivery, and operations. This is an exciting development whose results we’ll be able to observe and measure with keen interest in the long term.

Infrastructure connects us to services and economic opportunities. It can also have broad implications for advancing progress or entrenching gender concerns. Examples of gender-specific impacts of infrastructure projects include:

Some of these themes are equally relevant in all countries. But the OECD Council on SDGs’ recent report on gender equality and sustainable infrastructure notes that poverty, discriminatory legislation, and social norms can exacerbate the negative gender-specific effects of infrastructure. And this is precisely why infrastructure can be a significant change agent if properly planned.

In part due to the leadership of DFIs, we’re now seeing proactive integration of gender considerations into infrastructure investment decisions in developing-market contexts.

Often referred to as “gender lens investing,” here are some significant recent initiatives:

  • This year, the World Bank released its primer on gender equality, infrastructure, and PPPs. It recommends preparing gender analyses to understand project risks and opportunities; reflecting this analysis in project design, results, operations, and monitoring; and evaluating results using gender-disaggregated data.
  • In 2018, G7 nations launched the 2X Challenge to mobilize $3 billion to economically empower women in the developing world. Eligible investments must meet minimum criteria for women in leadership, governance, ownership, and the workforce, or provision of products or services that disproportionately benefit women. For example, one company financed solar home systems in West Africa. It used a mentorship program to elevate more women into senior management and designed policies to increase the number of local, female staff.
  • The Inter-American Development Bank has had a Gender Action Plan for almost a decade, including a commitment to promote gender equality in the design and execution of infrastructure projects.

Infrastructure offers an important opportunity to drive forward best practices for gender lens investing.  Because infrastructure generates externalities and generally requires at least some public or DFI funding, it can be easier to bake in consideration of gender impacts than in purely private sector undertakings.

Interestingly, project finance in developed markets seems to be tailing developing markets on this topic. In Canada, we’re just starting to see intentional inclusion of women in infrastructure procurement. For example, the British Columbia Infrastructure Benefit launched this year with a mandate to provide better opportunities for Indigenous peoples, women, and youth to participate in the skilled labor force required for major provincial infrastructure projects.

But this is just a first step; we’re still not building gender considerations into project design or operations. There’s much we can learn about the approaches of gender leadership in projects such as Nam Theun 2 in Lao PDR, which used gender analysis to inform the resettlement process of over 6,000 people—including requiring that new assets be issued in the names of both husbands and wives, that childcare facilities were available during resettlement, and that women and girls would have better access to education and health services in their new communities.

Private sector investors have a strong role to play here. As investors in sustainable energy projects in Latin America and the Caribbean, at Deetken Impact we consider gender at every step of the investment process. As impact investors, generating social and environmental benefits in addition to financial returns is core to our mandate.

We typically invest at a project’s construction stage, after initial design and development is complete. Although this means that we’re less involved from the outset, there’s still considerable scope to integrate gender into our investment decisions. Before committing capital, we look for diversity in project leadership and governance, a robust environmental and social risk management approach, and, where possible, opportunities to advance gender equality through community consultation.

Yet, to expand gender lens investing from something undertaken by only the public sector, DFIs, and impact investors, we need to continuously demonstrate its business case.  Does designing a transit system that considers the different travel patterns of female and male riders lead to increased ridership and increased revenue? Do resettlement programs that focus on women’s needs yield better living standards, incomes, or educational achievement? To do this, we need to develop monitoring and evaluation systems that capture results—not just metrics.

Our experience has been that project proponents and service providers are open to making these changes, but they need investors to drive the process. Particularly in these early days, we must engage with project management to communicate the information we need, how to incorporate it into procurement and delivery, and why we expect it to drive business performance. This requires expertise, and investors may require external advisory services, capacity building, and technical assistance funding until gender-smart investment management practices become as natural as calculating a debt service coverage ratio.

In the longer run, all infrastructure investors will be able to speak with one voice about inclusive project design and delivery—and ultimately engender more services and economic opportunities for women and men, wherever they live. 


Disclaimer: The content of this blog does not necessarily reflect the views of the World Bank Group, its Board of Executive Directors, staff or the governments it represents. The World Bank Group does not guarantee the accuracy of the data, findings, or analysis in this post.


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5 ways public-private partnerships can promote gender equality

Examining public-private partnership projects through a gender lens

This blog is managed by the Infrastructure Finance, PPPs & Guarantees Group of the World Bank. Learn more about our work here.


Alexa Blain

Co-Founder and Managing Partner, Deetken Impact

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