Changing the care-less economy

8 March is the centenary of International Women’s Day. This year, we mark the occasion with a series of blog posts about initiatives to strengthen gender equality worldwide. In this post, Rosalind Eyben, from the Institute of Development Studies and former Chair of the OECD DAC Network on Gender Equality, highlights how development policy has failed to address women’s unpaid care work.

When, twenty years ago, I became Chair of the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) working group on women in development (now the Network on Gender Equality), a key issue was the impact on women of the economic policy reforms – structural adjustment programmes – that donors had been encouraging partner countries to adopt.

Writing at that time, Diane Elson explained that because the economy has conventionally been understood in relation to making money, much of the work that takes place outside the market economy is ignored. This includes not only unpaid work in family farms and businesses but also the feeding, caring for and ensuring the well being of families and neighbours.

Today this is often described as ‘the care economy’. It forms the bedrock of human wellbeing and ensures adequate levels of productivity of the labour force. In most countries, including in the OECD, the gendered nature of our society means that women do most of the care. And those in poverty (women are the majority of the world’s poor) have no choice but to bring in money as well as look after their families. Thus they have to juggle constantly the demands on their time. It narrows their options and pushes them towards work which is poorly paid and informal.

Unpaid care work supports the market sector by lowering the cost that employers must sustain to maintain employees and their families, and it supports the public sector by offering health services, sanitation, water and child care when public provision of such services is lacking or insufficient. In times of fiscal retrenchment, the invisibility of care means that the reforms to the ‘care-less’ economy, leave women having to assume greater responsibilities in ensuring their families’ well-being, if not survival.

Unpaid care work contributes to economic growth through producing a labour force that is fit, productive and capable of learning and creativity, but unless women are supported in this work their productive potential in the market is constrained and their own and their family’s well being suffer. In the skewed existing system, where the market sphere receives greater weight and visibility than the non-market sphere, the direction of resources and energy tends to flow from the reproduction of persons to the production of commodities, having a negative effect on prospects for sustainable growth because the depletion of human resources goes unnoticed.

All this, we knew twenty years ago. Today, the good news is that compared with then, development policy agendas are giving greater emphasis to women’s economic empowerment The bad news is the care economy still remains largely invisible in these agendas.  Yet, focusing exclusively on increasing women’s labour market participation and entrepreneurship will not lead to a balanced distribution of productive and reproductive work between women and men.

Many women will be unable to optimise the support given them by these new policy agendas to participate in and benefit from market-led growth. For these reasons, the care economy became an important topic in my work with the DAC over the last year on empowerment and pro-poor growth.

The DAC’s policy communities on poverty reduction and on gender equality have discussed how when the importance of care is recognized it gets described as a ‘burden’, forgetting that the relationships part of care – looking after family members and neighbours – is valued by women and vital for everyone’s wellbeing. And today more men are discovering the satisfaction gained from care work. But because of societal gender stereotypes most men still lack this opportunity.

However, in developing countries there are other aspects of care work that are definitely a burden to be removed, including the inordinate time and drudgery associated with looking for fuel or queuing for water. OECD DAC members can do something about this by financing investments in infrastructure and technology. Donors can also support gender-responsive budgeting that recognises the importance of unpaid work, including social cash transfers that address the inequitable gender relations of care, and expansion of existing services, such as pre-school, health and education to cover care needs.

International Women’s Day is a good time to celebrate the positive changes in women’s lives. But twenty years after the OECD first started enquiring into this matter, and despite a large body of research evidence since then which has demonstrated the pernicious effects of the care-less economy, it is time to ask ourselves why mainstream policy remains fundamentally care-less.

Useful links:

Institute of Development Studies

OECD work on gender


OECD Development Assistance Committee work on gender

OECD Development Centre work on gender


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