GDP is macho and keeps women poor

Written by Alice D Kanengoni, Women’s Rights Programme Manager at OSISA on the IRF 2015 blog.

GDP as a measure of development is inaccurate and masks inequalities faced by women. As the world frames a post-2015 agenda, we need to explore alternatives that are more inclusive and recognize women and girls’ contributions to national economies.

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 on African countries’ upward showing in GDP performance, and 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 feminization 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 to not only tell the story of their countries’ 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 then tend to incentivize and support – both through policy and in practice – the formal economic sectors and formal industry, and thus indirectly destroying and killing the informal sectors where women are the majority of 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 in fact the smaller part of the economic performance story. It ignores the informal sector which has in fact 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 in fact the majority of 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.”

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