Five things we need for a feminist economic future

Rachel Noble Economics, Events, Gender

Why is debt a feminist issue? And why is it time to advance alternatives to GDP? Rachel Noble reports back from an inspiring gathering of the International Association for Feminist Economics in Cape Town.

“Now, more than ever, we are engaging in a battle of ideas. What is holding us back are mainstream orthodox economists, who have the most outdated, linear, ahistorical ideas out there… This is not scientific, but deeply ideological.”

This powerful statement from Sonia Phalatse, of the pan-African feminist network FEMNET, captured the overarching challenge facing feminist scholars and activists who gathered in a stormy Cape Town for the recent annual conference of the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE). 

Rooted in a searing analysis of the racist, patriarchal, neo-colonial and heteronormative basis of our current global economy, the most pressing questions facing humanity were grappled with and their interlinked nature brought to bear. In this blog, I highlight five headline issues from the conference that need to be urgently addressed if feminist economies are to be realised.

1. Value women’s work

A sexist division of labour sees women assume over 75% of unpaid care and domestic work globally. Women’s heavy and unequal share of unpaid care is a major driver of time poverty as well as physical and emotional depletion. It prevents women from seeking decent paid work, accessing education, or engaging in political decision-making.

Meanwhile, women remain vastly over-represented in precarious, low paid work in the informal economy, toiling long hours with limited access to social protection, and regularly exposed to violence and harassment. This includes in the underpaid care workforce, where women make up the vast majority – whether as domestic workers, nurses or teachers.

This points to the need to fundamentally transform an economic system that extracts this unpaid and underpaid labour of women – particularly Black and Brown women in the Global South and racialised minorities in the global North – in the interests of wealth accumulation by powerful elites and multinational corporations.  Black women’s lives and their bodies are treated as less valued and disposable, their full humanity and therefore their full human rights individually and collectively denied, underpinning – as highlighted by pan-Africanist scholar Lebohang Liepollo Pheko – the racialised feminisation of poverty.

2. Tackle the injustice of debt and austerity which falls most heavily on women

This lack of concern for the lives and wellbeing of racialised peoples and the devaluing of women’s work is also reflected in the lamentable failure of the international community to find solutions to the debt crises engulfing many countries in the Global South. In a poignant manifestation of the historic injustices and repeated failings of colonial capitalist systems, currently 54 countries are in debt crisis and many more in debt distress

Indian development economist Jayati Ghosh argued that this is because these countries are not seen as systematically important by high-income countries and international financial institutions. As such, their peoples are left to languish. On the other hand, billions are pulled magically from hats to bail out banks and the private sector at the taxpayers’ expense.

‘The recent gender-related initiatives of the IMF and Bank “will do nothing in the face of the onslaught of austerity”…. I wonder if the IMF representatives attending the conference were listening?

Women experience the harshest impacts and their unpaid care workloads are increased further when public services are cut and privatised because of the need to make exorbitant interest repayments. Despite the urgent need to fund health, education, water and sanitation, and ensure decent jobs for public sector workers, interest can equate to up to 100% of government revenue, as is the case in Ghana.

Cuts and privatisation are also driven by loan conditions and policy advice from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, with many countries subjected to IMF/World Bank austerity for decades.  Professor Vera Fiador pointed out that her home nation of Ghana has sought IMF support the equivalent of once every four years since its independence. 

Such a record, Ghosh asserted, means the recent gender-related initiatives of the IMF and Bank “will do nothing in the face of the onslaught of austerity”. Debt, she pointed out, is a feminist issue. I wonder if the IMF representatives attending the conference were listening?

3. Make the link between climate and gender justice

A third critical area that the conference grappled with was the climate crisis and the links to gender justice. The climate emergency is the biggest existential threat the planet has ever faced, driven by the relentless consumption of fossil fuels in pursuit of the holy grail of economic growth. Whilst caused overwhelmingly by countries in the Global North, Global South countries are bearing the costs – in terms of lives lost, infrastructure destroyed, livelihoods devastated, biodiversity and natural resources depleted, and economic costs incurred.

Moreover, renewable energy projects are not necessarily just. Extraction of lithium, for example, the mineral needed for renewable batteries, is leading to environmental destruction and displacement of marginalised communities whose own energy needs are often overlooked. 

Like debt and austerity, the climate crisis is deeply patriarchal. Ensuring families are nourished, warm and healthy becomes infinitely more challenging when, for instance, lands are flooded, crops afflicted by drought, communities displaced and vital infrastructure destroyed due to cyclones. Like debt and austerity, it is also deeply racist in its effects and rooted in legacies of colonialism.

4. Look beyond GDP for measures that truly reflect women’s economic value

Cut down a rainforest to make way for agribusiness is sure to grow GDP, but will also create intergenerational economic, social and spiritual and destitution for displaced Indigenous communities, while fuelling biodiversity loss and climate crisis. So much of women’s work – the hours spent cleaning, cooking or caring – does not feature in GDP at all.

The urgent need to move beyond GDP as a fundamentally flawed measure of progress and pursue feminist, decolonial frameworks that prioritise care, wellbeing and redistributive justice was the focus of a session organised by Oxfam. Chaired by Professor Dzodzi Tsikata, panelists Lebohang Liepollo Pheko, Dr Ritu Verma, Sonia Phalatse of FEMNET and Oxfam’s Anam Parvez Butt explored how GDP excludes unpaid care and domestic work while externalising social and environmental costs. Be sure to keep an eye out for our forthcoming paper, where these issues are interrogated in more depth and principles for alternative metrics to GDP set out.

So where does IAFFE sit on the questions of GDP growth, degrowth and moving beyond GDP, especially in light of wider movements forming around this agenda and numerous high-level initiatives, including at the UN? Although there was much agreement on the shortcomings of GDP, views varied about whether and how to move beyond it. It will be important for next year’s conference to debate this pressing issue further. 

5. Build movements across feminist academia and civil society

Of course, many of the above questions and debates are not new: feminist scholars and movements have long been raising them, their analysis grounded in the lived realities of women in all their diversity.  The conference abounded with solutions and alternative approaches, including debt cancellation, progressive taxation, reforming global trade rules, investing in public services, advancing alternatives to GDP, and reinstating democratic accountability in economic decision-making.

The challenge is to make those in power listen and to take on the powerful vested interests who benefit from the current system, or who are so steeped in its ideology that that they refuse to see beyond it.

The only way to do this through movement building. In one of the most powerful sessions, Gloria Kente of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU) and Ida Le Blanc of the National Union of Domestic Employees in Trinidad and Tobago talked about their struggles to win greater recognition and legal protection domestic workers. The session finished with SADSAWU’s song of resistance: “My mother was a kitchen girl; my father was a garden boy; that’s why I am a trade unionist.”

It was particularly inspiring to see and hear so much civil society participation at this year’s conference. Forging alliances between scholars and activists will be crucial as we build our growing movement and challenge tired economic orthodoxy with a radical feminist alternative. 


Rachel Noble

Rachel Noble is Senior Policy Advisor on Women’s Economic Justice

Look out for a new Oxfam discussion paper, Radical Pathways Beyond GDP: Why and how we need to pursue feminist and decolonial alternatives urgently, coming out soon, which will be published on Oxfam’s Policy and Practice knowledge hub. Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn to keep up with the latest Oxfam research and blogs.