Can we Get Davos talking about the Care Economy and Feminist Economics?

January 20, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

Davos is here again, which is always a fun time to be working for Oxfam. Every January, the world’s political and economic leaders jet in to Switzerland, and we try to persuade them, and their press entourage, to focus on the way that growing inequality is holding back global poverty reduction.

This kicked off in 2014 with ‘85 richest people as wealthy as poorest half of the world’. Since then, it’s become almost ritualized: we publish our report, get a conversation going with the media and decision makers, and then sundry critics try and scramble aboard the bandwagon by rubbishing our numbers, only to be swatted down by our in-house geeks.

I’m sure that will happen again this week – this year’s report, Time To Care, is full of Killer Facts and infographics for social media (a few examples here). But I wanted to focus on something else. This year, Oxfam’s Davos pitch is up-front feminist.

This great divide is based on a flawed and sexist economic system. This broken economic model has accumulated vast wealth and power into the hands of a rich few, in part by exploiting the labour of women and girls, and systematically violating their rights.

At the top of the global economy a small elite are unimaginably rich. Their wealth grows exponentially over time, with little effort, and regardless of whether they add value to society.

Meanwhile, at the bottom of the economy, women and girls, especially women and girls living in poverty and from marginalized groups, are putting in 12.5 billion hours every day of care work for free, and countless more for poverty wages. Their work is essential to our communities. It underpins thriving families and a healthy and productive workforce.’

The report sharply contrasts ‘The View from the Top: All Pay and No Work’, with ‘The View from the Bottom: All Work and No Pay.’ And the two are linked.

Women are supporting the market economy with cheap and free labour and they are also supporting the state by providing care that should be provided by the public sector. Oxfam has calculated that women’s unpaid care work alone is adding value to the economy to the tune of at least $10.8 trillion a year, a figure three times larger than the tech industry. This figure, while huge, is an underestimate; because of data availability it uses the minimum wage and not a living wage, and it does not take account of the broader value to society of care work and how our economy would grind to a halt without this support.

Graphic of key stats

Care work is crucial to our societies and to the economy. It includes looking after children, elderly people, and those with physical and mental illnesses and disabilities, as well as daily domestic work like cooking, cleaning, washing, mending, and fetching water and firewood. Without someone investing time, effort and resources in these essential daily tasks; communities, workplaces, and whole economies would grind to a halt.

Across the world unpaid and underpaid care work is disproportionately done by poor women and girls, especially those from groups who, as well as gender discrimination, experience discrimination based on race, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality and caste. Women undertake more than three-quarters of unpaid care and make up two-thirds of the paid care workforce.’

With an ageing global population, the problem of tackling the ‘looming care crisis’ cannot be ignored by policy makers, and the report suggests the ‘4Rs framework’ set out by feminist economists and care advocates:

Recognize unpaid and poorly paid care work, which is done primarily by women and girls, as a type of work or production that has real value.

Reduce the total number of hours spent on unpaid care tasks through better access to affordable and quality time-saving devices and care-supporting infrastructure.

Redistribute unpaid care work more fairly within the household and simultaneously shift the responsibility of unpaid care work to the state and the private sector.

Represent the most marginalized caregivers and ensure that they have a voice in the design and delivery of policies, services and systems that affect their lives.

It turns this framework into some practical recommendations to the masters (and occasional mistress) of the universe attending Davos.

The care economy could be a tough sell for our media team and journos, but the research is both important and powerful – I really hope that the message isn’t lost in the public tussle over killer facts and big numbers.

Oh and here’s my favourite non-care economy killer fact from the report:

‘If everyone were to sit on their wealth piled up in $100 bills, most of humanity would be sitting on the floor. A middle-class person in a rich country would be sitting at the height of a chair. The world’s two richest men would be sitting in outer space.’

Best place for ‘em? Couldn’t possibly comment.

January 20, 2020
Duncan Green