GDP is Macho and Keeps Women Poor (BUWA)

For decades, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been used the world over as the measure for economic progress and development. Policies and programmes designed to end poverty and inequality have thus been designed and informed through this GDP lens. Yet, the GDP tool and model is macho and masks inequalities – especially gendered inequalities. A telling case is the current ‘Africa Rising’ narrative which is largely based on a narrow focus of African countries’ upward showing in GDP performance.

Alice Kanengoni's picture

Gender and Women's Rights Programme Manager

February 9th, 2015

For decades, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been used the world over as the measure for economic progress and development. Policies and programmes designed to end poverty and inequality have thus been designed and informed through this GDP lens. Yet, the GDP tool and model is macho and masks inequalities – especially gendered inequalities. A telling case is the current ‘Africa Rising’ narrative which is largely based on a narrow focus of African countries’ upward showing in GDP performance. Yet it overlooks the fact that inequalities continue to grow on the continent with women and girls becoming poorer and more vulnerable. As the world frames a post-2015 agenda, it is imperative to rethink this model and explore alternatives that are more inclusive and gender responsive enough to effectively end the feminisation of poverty, especially in Africa. 

While it is important that the post-2015 agenda identifies a goal for transformative gender equality and women’s economic empowerment, it is even more important that this transformation includes challenging the efficacy of long-held economic models and tools such as use of GDP as the primary measure of economic performance. Governments have widely used this approach not only to tell the story of their country’s economic performance but also in prioritising where to allocate resources and incentives for economic growth and expansion. The resultant pattern is that the formal economic sector (the source of GDP figures and indices) tends to be highlighted at the expense of the informal sector (which, in fact, is the sector that nests the majority of economic contributors in Africa). Subsequently, governments tend to incentivise and support the formal economic sectors and formal industry through both policy and practice, thus indirectly destroying and killing the informal sectors where women are the majority of the contributors. 

Given this fact, the sad and unfortunate reality of the current ‘Africa Rising’ narrative is that it narrowly beams its light on the formal sectors of economies, which in most countries in Africa are the smaller part of the economic performance story. It ignores the informal sector which has consistently expanded, especially in the past few decades (due to a number of global economic factors). The least told – and unfortunately the most important part of this story – is that women are the majority of the actors and contributors in this ignored sector and are therefore not included in economic planning, policies and programmes. Using GDP to measure economic performance thus systematically skews the picture and distorts the story by leaving the majority of contributors – women – out of the economic matrix. 

This is problematic for several reasons. The first major flaw and probably the biggest contributor to making and keeping women poor is that GDP reduces the measure of the economy into a monetary value. GDP measures the value of economies through the prices of products and effectively focuses on the flows of money as a result of production. The GDP system does not calculate non-monetary inputs into the economy. This systematically ignores all value added from non-monetary contributions such as the care economy, in-country and cross-border trade and reproductive activities among others where women’s contributions are predominant. For instance, women on the continent provide the majority of care work and they are also the majority contributors to the informal trade industries – sectors not accounted for in GDP terms. The care work of women is largely uncosted, unremunerated and unprotected by policy and/or programming. Thus GDP inevitably pushes women to the margins of the economies, resulting in them being the majority of the poor on the continent. 

Pushing women to the margins also effectively limits their potential to benefit from economic policies and programmes as they are not considered active contributors. For instance, policies and incentives for education, skills development and programmes to increase the employability of workers invariably target men and boys as they are regarded as active players in the formal economies. Consequently, women and girls remain the least skilled and make up the majority of the unemployed on the continent. They remain among the poorest and this cycle of poverty repeats itself across generations. This explains why, despite African women’s history of hard work and economic endeavours, we continue to see the feminisation of poverty and inequality on the continent. 

Similarly, women’s contributions to important economic activities such as cross-border trade are ignored when calculating national economic performances. In Southern Africa, for example, women are the majority of those engaged in cross-border trade in countries such as Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia (to name a few). In countries such as Zimbabwe, these women’s cross-border economic activities have sustained families and anchored livelihoods in a context where the formal economy has significantly shrunk over the past three decades. The informal sector has in fact become the mainstay of the country’s real economy. Part of the problem is that a GDP-focused lens concentrates on the flows of production and consumption in the so-called formal economies within national borders. Yet, the reality on the continent shows that the informal sector, in which women are predominantly active, involve and include activities such as cross-border trade where women are engaging and are economically productive across borders.  

Additionally, women play an important role in reproduction, ensuring the continued supply of human resources which are critical for the sustenance of any economy. Yet, all these contributions by women are not captured in GDP indices and neither are they incentivised through policy and resources. GDP calculations blindly continue to ignore this reality and focus on contributions from the formal sectors where the majority of the economic contributors – women – are least represented. Resultantly, women remain the poorest and most vulnerable in African communities. In his book Gross Domestic Problem, Lorenzo Fioramonti (2013) argues that this GDP system ‘is the source of our social ills in society today’ and I posit that feminised poverty and inequality are some of these key social ills.  

It is therefore critical that the post-2015 women’s economic empowerment agenda of necessity take into account the geo-local realities of the drivers and perpetrators of the impacts of poverty and inequality among women and girls in Africa. One practical step will be to commit to developing alternative economic models that emasculate GDP and ensure it is inclusive of the informal economy and recognises women and girls’ contributions to national economies. This is what will entail a truly transformative and progressive development agenda that will move us towards a better quality of life for women and girls on the continent. Sticking to GDP as a measure of economic development will invariably result in inequality and further entrench the feminisation of poverty and inequality. w

References 

Fioramonti L (2013) Gross Domestic Problem: The Politics Behind the World’s Most Powerful Number. Zed Books: London, UK.

Kanyenze G & Kondo T (eds.) (2011) Beyond the Enclave: Towards a pro-poor and Inclusive Development Strategy for Zimbabwe. Weaver Press: Harare, Zimbabwe.

Stiglitz J (2012) The Price of Inequality. Penguin Books: London, UK.

Alice Kanengoni s the Women’s Rights Programme Manager at OSISA..

About the author(s)

Alice Kanengoni manages the Gender and Women’s Rights programme at OSISA. She joined OSISA from the Johannesburg-based Gender Links, a regional organisation focusing on gender and women’s rights, where she worked as a Senior Researcher. Prior to that, she had worked as a Senior Researcher and deputy head of the gender programme at the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre (SARDC) in Harare. Alice holds a Masters Degree in Media and Communications, and a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English Literature.

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