UN’s development agenda is not inclusive

by Yash Budhwar

Discourse regarding gender-inclusive growth is almost absent in modern-day economic policymaking - be it about the economic growth of nations, or the process of modernisation undertaken by developing countries. It has taken over 40 years for the World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) Annual Meeting to be chaired by an all-woman committee, despite the fact that less than one-fourth of the delegates at this summit were women. The Commission on the Status of Women, an intergovernmental body established as a function of the ECOSOC of the United Nations in 1946, ratified gender equality and the empowerment of women as an individual goal in 2015 (coming in at number five).

The United Nations is highlighted here to demonstrate how long it has taken to recognise gender-inclusive growth, in spite of being the vital linkage between the developing world and the resource-rich and powerful one. These points, and the ones in this article, are being made to chastise global institutions and their processes and functions. Change is happening but it can happen faster, especially from the seats of those who are primary changemakers.

The general discussion around furtherance of economic development in middle- and low-income nations often includes the likes of fostering technological change, harnessing digital capabilities and encouraging investment and world trade. These points are extremely central to bringing about sustained change in the lives of those who are marginalised, but the process by which these focal aspects are approached needs to change. An intersectional approach, one that views matters through multiple layers of analysis (such as gender, class, race, ethnicity, upbringing, etc) needs to be institutionalised by mainstream bodies. This will ensure the application of solutions at aforementioned levels to achieve equitable change.

In the communities that exist in today's world, there is heavy intersectionality in terms of different nations, societies and identities, and the attributes that these bring with them. Hence, markedly different approaches would be required for motivating citizens of different nations. The WEF, for instance, introduced a new economic policy and performance metric in 2017, called the Inclusive Development Index. In the index’s included parameters there is a glaring absence of a section devoted to gender disparities in the measured metric. The index, however, includes factors such as life expectancy, productivity, poverty rate, and the intensity of carbon emissions. Unless measured metrics reflect on-ground realities, approaches towards modifying these metrics will not change. As a matter of fact, it is only what’s measured that gets effectively managed.

It’s been nearly 80 years since British economists James Meade and Richard Stone devised a method of national income accounting that is now called a country’s gross domestic product (GDP). This global standard estimates the monetary value of all ‘measurable’ economic production that takes place in a country in a given year. During trial runs of this method, however, that were carried out in African British colonies in 1941, a woman named Phyllis Deane found out that it was an error to exclude women’s unpaid household work from the calculation of a nation’s gross economic activity. She argued that such work is productive for the economy and benefits the nation as a whole. But her suggestions were cast aside.

Numerous estimates have demonstrated that women perform a much larger proportion of unpaid household work that fails to get measured. Worldwide, they spend anywhere between two to ten times more time on unpaid work (as per an OECD 2014 report), and estimates of the value of such work range anywhere from 20% to 60% of global GDP (as per a UNDP 2017 report). This goes to show how wrong Meade and Stone were to ignore Deane’s recommendations. What is important are not the exact numbers (as estimates are continuously produced and vary, greatly, from region to region and from researcher to researcher), but the approach towards this given statistic and the policy recommendations that can be gauged from the same.

It is understood that unfair and biased gender stereotypes plague societal functioning, and prevent women from accessing education, the formal labour force and the mainstream economy. Therefore, it is necessary to either bring unpaid work into the mainstream economy, or redefine what the traditional economy’s constituents are. Marilyn Waring and Devaki Jain are two prominent feminist economists who have advocated for the preparation of the national accounts on the basis of time spent performing an activity. Despite India being the fastest growing nation in the world, its female labour force participation has been one of the lowest of the world – a mere 30% (as per World Bank development indicators). This is because nearly half the women in the country perform unpaid work, as per an Indiatoday report. But, thanks to the work of Devaki Jain, and others, the NSSO (a nationally representative household survey of India) will publish results in March 2020 from a year-long survey conducted to measure the amount of time given to unpaid work, by both men and women.

If time is taken as the metric of measurement of economic activity, governments and institutional bodies around the world can devote their resources and attention towards maximising the returns from said resource. They can thus ensure an equitable distribution from these returns amongst society. It is therefore not surprising that there exist economic disparities between communities – when we have been excluding the contributions of a particular section of society, we cannot ensure a fair and equitable distribution to these members from the measured economic pie. It is only when such contributions are measured in a just manner that the distribution will be unbiased; everyone will thus become a contributory stakeholder of the new economic pie.

It is such methodological approaches that the World Bank, and other global bodies, have to inculcate into their mainstream metrics. GDP, when studied alongside other metrics and indices, such as the juxtaposition of unpaid work and its relation with life expectancy, literacy rates and/or carbon emissions, would create a greater knowledge base of policy proposals. Hence, the Inclusive Development Index should have a measurement of the time spent on unpaid work as well.

The UN’s EDGE initiative (evidence and data for gender equality) focuses on two aspects – entrepreneurship and asset ownership. Now, while both are credible measurement statistics at an individual level, these metrics do not bring anything new to the table of existing analyses. Women possess fewer rights to property and have less productive resources. Thus, they are less prone to start their own establishment. Establishments, if at all erected, are also known to operate inefficiently and do not provide women with returns commensurate to their time spent on these ventures. Especially in poverty-stricken nations, women spend most of their time performing unpaid household work. Collecting data on entrepreneurship and asset ownership is irrelevant for these economies. Additionally, it fails to provide any inclusive and growth-oriented policy proposals.

The only, and by far the biggest, obstacle remaining in collecting inclusive statistics for the improvement of an economy is trying to arrive at an intergovernmental institutionalised solution. The current work being done by the UN and World Bank, although appreciable, is insufficient. A lot more needs to be done by the bodies entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring the equitable growth of all nations. Unless this is achieved, we can expect the already gaping inequalities between economies, communities, and individuals to widen even further.

Yash Budhwar is an economics undergraduate from Ashoka University, currently with the Financial Express as a Principal Correspondent. Not a day goes by without writing poetry, reading, cooking, conversing, exercising and listening to people, and I wouldn't have it any other way

My Instagram