A Caring Economy: What role for government?

March 12, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Anam Parvez
Lucia Rost

Anam Parvez (left), Oxfam’s Gender Justice Researcher and Lucia Rost, research consultant, introduce their new paper on gender equitable fiscal policies.

In economics we are taught that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Even if something appears to be free, there are always costs – to you and/or society. What is striking is that mainstream economists fail to recognize that this applies just as much to the lunch that has been prepared out of love by your mother, as it does to the unappetising conference sandwiches that cost you your entire day at an academic seminar.

Women around the world often spend many hours a day and on average 3 times as much as men (In India 10 times) on unpaid care and domestic work, which includes activities such as cooking, collecting water, caring for the elderly and children. This is an investment of time that we all benefit from, through healthy families, societies and economies. Yet often, unpaid care and domestic work is not considered to be ‘real’ work and is seen to fall outside the boundaries of the “market”. It continues to be invisible in terms of how we understand the economy, what we count as productive and valuable and therefore how fiscal policies get formulated and their impacts analysed.

30 years ago, Marilyn Waring wrote a seminal book critiquing the national system of accounts, showing how macroeconomic policies embedded in such a flawed understanding of the economy have often undermined women’s rights and exacerbated gender inequalities. Studies have since revealed the high cost of the invisibility and ignorance of care, often borne by women and girls: to their health, their choices and the time they have available for leisure, education, paid work and other opportunities.

There are reasons for optimism, however – unpaid care and domestic work is finally moving up international agendas. The SDGs, unlike their predecessors, include a target calling for the recognition, reduction and redistribution of care work. More development practitioners are also starting to acknowledge that care is not just the responsibility of household members, but that governments can and should play an important role in meeting care needs. For the last 5 years, Oxfam’s WE-Care (Women’s Economic Empowerment and Care) initiative has collected data on care work in six developing countries.

So what does the evidence tell us about what governments should invest in?

Our new paper uses the 2017 Household Care Survey (HCS) findings from Uganda and Zimbabwe to explore the relationship between public investments in care related infrastructure and services and better outcomes for society.


When water sources are distant and/or of poor quality, women are often the ones who suffer: In Uganda, women we interviewed spent up to 6 hours a day collecting water. Read that last sentence again and apply it to your own life! Our research shows that access to an improved water source (something other than a natural source) is associated with women spending 4 hours less on care work in Zimbabwe (to put this in perspective that is approx. 1560 hours they save in a year – roughly equivalent to one full time job in the UK) and 2 hours less in Uganda. Women with access to improved water also spend 1 to 2 hours less time multi-tasking on care activities (e.g. cooking with a baby on your back). Not just women, but girls too benefit: For both countries, we find that girls with access to water spend more time on sleeping and leisure and in Zimbabwe more time studying.

Electricity and Childcare

We also find that investments in electricity are associated with boys spending more time studying, most likely because electric light in the evening makes studying easier. Girls and boys spend less time on paid work if the household uses a childcare facility. However, we find that access to childcare and electricity are not associated with women spending less time on care work. This may seem strange since a recent UN Women report shows how important childcare is in freeing up women’s time. Perhaps women’s freed time is being spent other care tasks they were unable to do before. Or that given the considerable time women spend multitasking, one service alone doesn’t reduce the hours women spend on care. This is clearly something to explore further.

The wider implications of investments in care

Fiscal policies that manage to effectively reduce the levels and intensity of women’s care work also have broader implications for women and children’s welfare and for the wider economy

  • Benefit to women’s health: we find that more than 1/3 of women reported an injury or illness due to their unpaid care work and over half of these women said the harm was long lasting.
  • Improvements in care of children: due to heavy workloads, a significant minority of women (24% in Zimbabwe and 18% in Uganda) reported that in the last week, they had left a young child alone knowing there was no one looking after them.
  • Reductions in gender inequalities in paid work: women interviewed in Zimbabwe and Uganda spend over two hours less a day on paid work than men.

Social norm change is also needed

While we find that good quality and accessible public infrastructure is necessary for reducing women and children’s heavy unpaid care workloads, on its own it appears to be insufficient for redistributing care work between men and women. Social norms that dictate that care work is “women’s work” or isn’t as skilled or valuable as paid work must be explicitly addressed by public institutions, advertising companies and cultural leaders among others.  In Uganda, we find that in households where women and men say they approve of an equitable distribution of care work between spouses, care hours are more equitable.

Linking all this to the economy means that in order to achieve transformative change in women’s lives, unpaid care work needs to be a major public policy concern.  Fiscal policy – in particular public spending–is a powerful tool that governments can use to reduce and redistribute more fairly the time women spend on unpaid care work. Ultimately, such policy making can be a step towards building a ‘human economy’ where responsive governments put in place equitable and fair benefits for every woman, man and child to live decent lives. But when budgets are tight and the priority is a narrowly defined GDP target, how can we encourage public spending on care? How can we address women’s unpaid care work holistically and in the context of social norms? Many questions remain and we would be interested in hearing your thoughts.

Download the paper and infographic: Gender-equitable Fiscal Policies for a Human Economy: Evidence from Uganda and Zimbabwe

Read more about Oxfam’s WE-Care initiative

Download the 2017 WE-Care research report: Infrastructure and equipment for unpaid care work: Household survey findings from the Philippines, Uganda and Zimbabwe