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

April 28, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

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?