Could the UN’s new Progress of the World’s Women provide the foundations for feminist economic policy?

Yesterday I went to the London launch of UN Women’s new flagship report, Progress of the World’s Women 2015-16, in the PoWW launch + old menslightly incongruous setting of the Institution of Civil Engineers – walls adorned with portraits of bewigged old patriarchs  from a (happily) bygone era (right).

The report is excellent. These big multilateral publications are usually a work of synthesis, bringing together existing research rather than breaking new ground. And that’s fine; it’s really important that a UN body has pulled such an excellent range of research together and made it accessible to policy makers. Gender and development debates suffer from a fair number of unsubstantiated claims and pretty dodgy stats (don’t get me started), and this report feels like something you can trust – I hope someone will go through it and pull out every major stat and graphic.

But the overall approach is both new and exciting, in that it applies an explicitly human rights approach to economic policy. Laura Turquet, UN Women researcher and report manager, summarized this as ‘bringing together human rights and economic policy-making to ask ‘what is the economy for?’’

This is a big deal, because the normal approach to gender and economic policy is incredibly reductive and instrumental – educate girls and get women into the workforce because it boosts growth! It ignores whether that will improve the lives of the said women or just pile more burdens onto their pre-existing roles as carers (of children, old people, neighbours), home maintainers etc etc.

Running economic policy through a human rights filter produces 3 priorities:

  • decent work
  • social policies (including the care economy)
  • an enabling macro-economic environment

Progress 2015 ENGLISH cover-155widthAccording to Laura: ‘Social policies are traditionally seen as a sticking plaster to correct the failings of the economic system. This report says they need to work in tandem. Unpaid care work holds the two together.’

At the launch UN Women Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka argued for ending the ‘care penalty’ that women face, by introducing complementary, supportive public policies. She also highlighted the blurred boundaries of the care economy: 65% of women in family businesses get no salary because their contribution is seen as a ‘twilight extension’ of care work.

The ‘enabling environment’ is the most original of the three bullets, and the hardest to get your head around. According to the Exec Sum:

‘Because macroeconomic policy is treated as ‘gender-neutral’ it has, to date, failed to support the achievement of substantive equality for women. From a human rights perspective, macroeconomic policy needs to pursue a broad set of social objectives that would mean expanding the targets of monetary policy to include the creation of decent work, mobilizing resources to enable investments in social services and transfers and creating channels for meaningful participation by civil society organizations, including women’s movements, in macroeconomic decision-making.

Conventional monetary policy typically has one target—inflation reduction—and a narrow set of policy tools for achieving it. However, there are other policy options: in the wake of the 2008 crisis, many central banks changed their approach to monetary policy by stimulating real economic activity to protect jobs rather than focusing exclusively on reducing inflation. In the arena of fiscal policy, countries can raise resources for gender-sensitive social protection and social services by enforcing existing tax obligations, reprioritizing expenditure and expanding the overall tax base, as well as through international borrowing and development assistance.’

Some initiatives can tick all 3 boxes and make a difference – worth scanning the smorgasbord of post-2015 agenda items and seeing which could simultaneous generate decent jobs for women and alleviate the pressures on the care economy. One such example would be early childhood care – shown to boost long term productivity and health, but also (done right) a path for women to professionalize their skills and have better paid, decent jobs (as well as a way to look after their kids).

Which all got me thinking. Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström recently made headlines with her version of a feminist foreign policy. Does this report pave the way to a feminist economic policy that goes beyond the standard broad-brush critiques (e.g. we are measuring the wrong things and ignoring the care economy)? Could we see a feminist running commentary on the economic issues of the day – Grexit, the TPP, quantitative easing? How would it be different from a left-wing commentary (with which it has large areas of overlap)? I suggested to Laura that she runs the relevant chapters past some of the big heterodox economists (Dani Rodrik, Ha-Joon Chang etc) and ask for their views. She also has an open invitation to have a go on this blog.

Here’s the report’s infographic summarizing a rights-based approach to the macro-economy. It’s busy but repays scrutiny (if you can read it, if not you can download it here PoWW poster_info4_PRINT).

RBA to macroE policy

Here’s the Guardian’s review of the report. What else struck people about the report?

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11 Responses to “Could the UN’s new Progress of the World’s Women provide the foundations for feminist economic policy?”
  1. Ines

    Thanks for this Duncan. I was at the launch and beside the setting, and perhaps the fact that the discussion could have been more detailed and delve much deeper, I totally agree with your positive response and really welcome the report. I am only now looking through the 300 and + pages, so I still have questions, especially about the extent to which the ‘economy’ is privileged over a political or social (or even better: holistic)route to gender equality. All the same, so far what I am really excited about is the unashamedly and sophisticated ‘human rights/women’s rights ‘ stance. For far too long we have allowed many individuals and institutions to adopt an instrumental ‘justification’ not only to gender and economic policy as you mention, but to anything to do with women’s rights and gender equality. The reasons are many but usually tend to be purely tactical: i.e. to humour and allay the fears of policy makers, potential donors or individuals. The negative consequences are many, the most dangerous being to continue denying that women’s rights are human rights. The report really promises to make a difference to this!

  2. Laurie Adams

    Great summary, Duncan. Encourage everyone to get a copy of the report – its a great tool for activists with both detailed analysis and helpful stats – made accessible with case studies and graphics. Two other issues struck me at the launch and in reading the summary. One is how do we bring together our organising and analysis around social and economic justice in the era of the soundbite? The analysis of why social protection is not just a fallback but a prerequisite to women having stength in the economy is crucial – and yet as activisits we tend to campaign separately on these. While we eventually overcame it, at Oxfam we did debate within our Even it Up campaign the degree to which we could message on women’s rights without diluting messaging on economic divide. Where are there great examples? How can we bring the centrality of the need to address unpaid care and work as a barrier more to the mainstream? (the reality of it is already mainstream as the majority of us experience it – but is it because the norms are so embedded that speaking about changing it as part of the development agenda is not?)
    Another thing that I’d like to hear more on is what to do about attitudes and beliefs. While the report speaks to the limitations of policy change, and includes a ‘framework for understanding substantive equality’ that has addressing stereotyping, stigma and violence as one of three main elements, the 10 point agenda for action doesn’t speak to it very much other than ensuring stigma isn’t reinforced in social transfer conditionalities and mechanisms.
    Look forward to others reflections and comments. And congrats to UN Women, Laura and all the contributers.

  3. Lucia Fry

    I really wish I’d been there, it sounds very exciting that UN Women are doing this. The analysis is very similar to our own, which you can find in Close the Gap here
    An aspect that I think we could all draw out more is the link between the type of paid work frequently done by poor women in global supply chains – garments, electronics, cut flowers – links to unsustainable consumption patterns in the North.

  4. Jessica Woodroffe

    Great that you blogged on this report Duncan because it really needs to be read by an audience beyond us usual suspects. I disagree with Ines a bit though; its because this report focuses on the economic that its so ground-breaking. The fundamental contradiction between neo-liberal/austerity measures and gender equality needs far more attention. Having an extremely well research and carefully argued UN report coming out with many radical and wise conclusions is incredibly valuable. I’m looking forward to seeing Oxfam’s Even it Up campaign adopting some of its messages!

  5. Catherine Klirodotakou

    I very much agree with your assessment Duncan. I have to admit I was sceptical prior to attending, thinking it would be the usual re-hash of how to tweak the system rather than anything transformative but I’m pleased to say I was wrong, and hopefully being a UN report will mean it is taken more seriously by the establishment and not just dismissed as the usual rabble rousers. The biggest endorsement by the audience was in response to Andrea Cornwall who unequivocally stated that women’s rights organisations are the fundamental drivers of positive changes in the lives of women and that there is the evidence to back this up. Telling donors in no uncertain terms to stop making women’s rights organisations jump through hoops to access resources. Congratulations to the Gender And Development Network for organising a great event.

  6. Irene van Staveren

    I did that a few weeks ago, asking Ha-Joon Chang to use a feminist lense on his work and integrate gender. But he was hesitant and preferred to leave it to feminist economists …

  7. Chiara Capraro

    Thanks for the blog post Duncan and the comments, agree that this is a groundbreaking piece of workand I look forward to reading the whole report. At Christian Aid we have started integrating a gender perspective into our long-standing tax justice work which has opened up new ways of thinking about tax in development, in particular the need to move towards a holistic approach to fiscal policy. That said there are limitations with gender mainstreaming as the transformative potential of gender analysis risks being reduced to a technical fix to ensure the gender consequences of policy x are taken into account. This is why from my perspective this report is so refreshing and helpful, because it starts with gender as the unit of analysis and builds demands for change from there. And it’s radical, holistic change which is what we need (although I totally hear the challenge re the era of the soundbite)! In the UK I hope that we can build strong bridges between those working on gender justice and women’s rights and those working on economic justice and I think this piece of work will be very helpful in doing so. Exciting times for us feminists!

  8. Ruth Kelly

    Jayati Ghosh is one of the few heterodox economists I know of that does a really good job of combining thinking about industrialisation and thinking about feminist approaches to economics. Any others that people have heard of? (Something we’re doing a lot of work on in ActionAid, by the way, especially with colleagues in Vietnam, Bangladesh and Uganda.)

  9. Tina Wallace

    Sorry to miss this event. The blog is v. interesting and the report sounds very encouraging especially for those women who have worked so long on these issues. The blog omits to mention the years of work done by many feminist economists such as Diane Elson, Naila, Maxine Molyneux and many others (several of whom spoke brilliantly at QEH, Oxford University last year) on these issues. It is an on-going struggle to get women’s organisation’s heard in a world of aid for ‘women and girls’ that is currently dominated by targets, simple solutions, celebrities and massive claims about the change poor women and girls can make with few resources.
    I really look forward to reading this report and using it to open up more serious debates around the realities of women’s lives, allowing us to draw on existing literature that is currently so often neglected by the mainstream around women’s formal, informal and care work. The issues demand responses from the social, economic and political spheres over the long term.