Dismantling Poverty – A Bold Agenda Calls for Bold Action

Women’s Funding Network Conference

27 April 2007, Seattle, WA, USA


I want to thank the Women’s Funding Network for inviting me to reflect on dismantling poverty. I am pleased to be asked to do this, as I feel you have identified the bold challenge, one no one wants to take on. Increasingly, as the world’s leaders recommit themselves to addressing poverty, they do so in narrower and narrower terms. At one time our goal was eliminating poverty, then it became alleviating poverty, and now it is simply to cut it in half, leaving the other half alone. While this may reflect growing realism, it also reflects a shrinking, and less hopeful, vision.

Today’s world is one of unprecedented wealth, with increasing poverty and inequality; a world that boasts of enormous advances in knowledge, innovation and technology with little increase in health and well being in many parts of the world. Today the 10 richest countries have about 50 times the wealth of the 20 poorest ones. Almost nine out of ten citizens in the world live in countries where income inequality is increasing—a truly staggering figure, in the words of a UN official: “Rising inequality has become a global pandemic, undercutting efforts to secure human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.”

So, to take up the bold challenge of ending poverty, we must match it with bold thinking and action. We must ask, in a world of such wealth and talent and potential, what is driving the processes of inequality and impoverishment? Why is it that so many people, including more and more women, can work and work but never earn enough money to take one step beyond just surviving day to day?

To address these question, we need to start with the global context. While there is ongoing debate about the nature of globalization, it is broadly agreed that it brings opportunities and risks, creating winners and losers. It has generated new opportunities for local producers and entrepreneurs in some countries, while in others it has intensified existing inequalities and insecurities. In fact, globalization has shifted over the last 10 years, as innovation in design, research and technology, long dominated by developed countries, is burgeoning in the multinationals of the global south, which are taking advantage of the liberalized capital and labour markets afforded by globalization as effectively as their richer counterparts. As a result, however, the inequality dynamic is changing – internal gaps are increasing, as corporate elites in the south join those in the north in “a narrow concentration of wealth and power.”

Strategies to address these inequalities have also shifted.  While 20 years ago, the public sector, including the UN and donor countries, accounted for 95 per cent of aid to poor countries, today it amounts to only 20-25 per cent, with the bulk coming from private investment. As a result, strategies for poverty reduction are more and more built on stimulating economic growth. However, while market liberalization may stimulate growth, it also generates inequality. And as inequality increases, it is more difficult to ensure that gains from growth benefit people in poverty. One study showed it takes three times more rapid growth to achieve the same reduction in poverty as it did before 1990.

How can people be mobilized to demand a new public agenda, so that we can take on the task of dismantling poverty and the power structures that sustain it? This is a particular challenge for women, owing to their location in the global economy. Women contribute to the global economy as service providers, producers and managers, as entrepreneurs and investors in business, and through their unpaid work. In export industries, women provide as much as 80 per cent of the labour force in sectors such as the textile or electronics industries. Women’s businesses are also a significant and growing force in many economies. Women constitute the foundation for the “care economy” and are often the producers of free goods and services for households. Their informal or home-based work often subsidizes the formal sector. Nevertheless, women continue to face barriers to accessing the information, education, skills and resources needed to access new business and employment opportunities. For women, therefore, it is not just a matter of more equitable redistribution, but of taking on power relations and transforming systems. This means:  1) re-structuring markets;  2) re-engaging with the state and government; and 3) empowering civil society, at macro, meso, and micro levels. It means seeing where women are located in each of these sites of change and determining when and how their agency can be most powerful.

Today I will look at each of these challenges, but first, I want to briefly review what we know about poverty.

What generates poverty and how is it experienced by different groups?

Poverty is still a daily reality for billions of the world’s people. More than 1 billion men and women are struggling to survive on less than $1 per day. Although the total number of people living in this kind of extreme poverty declined during the 1990s, this drop masks dramatic inequality among and within countries and regions. The decline is greatest in parts of Asia and Latin America. But in sub-Saharan Africa, which already had the world’s highest poverty rate, it has actually increased – millions more people have fallen into abject poverty, as agriculture stagnates and HIV/AIDS destroys an entire generation.

The problem is not Africa, or other countries and communities where poverty remains entrenched. Poverty is not static, with a fixed group of people, so that if we can make them less poor, we can end poverty.  Instead, poverty is generated and regenerated by processes of deindustrialization and dislocation, destruction of livelihood systems, international debt and forced repayment and the destruction of natural resources and the privatization of services and resources that once were free—such education, health care and even water.

The dynamics of poverty impact differently on communities and individuals, depending on whether they are in the North or South, in rural or urban areas, and whether they are men or women. For we cannot talk about poverty without talking about women. Feminized poverty is not about numbers of women and men in poverty, but about differences in their risk of poverty and how they experience poverty.  For women, this means at least three things:

  • First, poverty among women is multidimensional, and includes not only lack of income, but lack of control over that income, as well as lack of autonomy, dignity and leisure and freedom from sexual and gender based violence.
  • Second, poverty is experienced and perpetuated in gender-specific ways–for instance women sell their assets first, eat last, are pulled out of the productive sector as they are expected to take on care-giving tasks that were formerly provided by the state.
  • And third, the intergenerational transfer of poverty is an integral part of the unequal gender power relations that exist in both society and the home. For example, research has shown that women are often better off in female-headed households than in male headed ones, owing to their greater autonomy and power to control how income is earned and spent. Daughters especially who grow up with women in charge of household decision-making may be better able to break the cycle of women’s powerlessness and poverty.

Among the factors that place women at greater risk of poverty are their unequal access to capabilities and resources, such as education, skills, land and property, the discrimination they face in the labour market, their limited representation in political life, their disproportionate responsibility household and caregiving work, and the low value placed on this work.

Breaking the Cycle: Dismantling feminized poverty

Understanding how gender discrimination and inequality nurtures and sustains women’s experience and risk of poverty helps us to outline a strategy to eliminate it. Such a strategy must embrace a number of things, including empowering women to take advantage of new employment and income opportunities in the global economy, ensuring their right to own land and property, improving their access to markets and credit, providing gender-specific social services and broadening social protection. Above all, it means recognizing and valuing the work that women do, so that development strategies will include investing in women’s entrepreneurial and labour market skills rather than depending on women to pick up the social costs of market-driven growth.

Dismantling the multifaceted aspects of feminized poverty requires a multifaceted strategy, working across sectors and at different levels to change legislation and policies, transform institutions, strengthen women’s voice and ability to influence policy; and change the cultural assumptions and attitudes that sustain gender discrimination and inequality. Let me look briefly at each of these at within the context of the three challenges I spoke of earlier.

 Restructuring Markets

Women are differently positioned in relation to labour, capital and commodity markets in different parts of the world. They may be forbidden by social prescription from leaving the home or limited by social expectations from going to market or working full time outside the home. The challenge therefore is to restructure markets to provide ways for women to access new employment and entrepreneurial opportunities, while finding ways to increase their bargaining power both outside and inside the home.

Access to Decent Employment

As UNIFEM noted in Progress of the World’s Women 2005: Women, Work and Poverty women are disproportionately clustered in informal employment, in both the formal and informal sectors. As such they are outside the frame of labour protections, they have little or no job security, no health or pension benefits and are often very badly paid. A gender gap in earnings exists across employment categories, including informal wage employment and self employment.  This results in a hierarchy of earnings in different types of informal employment, ranging from employers and own account workers, mainly men, at the top, to home-based workers, mainly women, at the bottom.

The main attraction of informal employment for employers is the absence of regulation, allowing them to lower the costs of labour. Increasingly, formal sector employment depends on subcontracting and outsourcing, making the line between the two sectors harder to draw. This means that the most basic difference between the formal and informal economy is not regarding access to credit or markets but the absence of regulation and lack of legal and social protection for workers in the informal economy as well as the latter’s lack of voice and political influence.

A number of legislative changes can be made without entailing additional resource commitments. Examples include the revision of labour laws to eliminate gender discrimination and ensure equal protection, and the revision of laws and policies that restrict women’s property and inheritance rights and leave them little opportunity to improve their assets base.

When it comes to implementation, investment in human capital is critical, including investing in the skills that enable women to compete in a changing global economy. Governments can also work to remove systemic policy biases that undervalue women’s work, while promoting a dynamic sub-sector in which women are concentrated.

Access to entrepreneurial opportunities

Access to credit is an essential part of women’s ability to successfully market their products. At one time, women received an extremely small proportion of the cumulative loans given by financial institutions to poor people, especially in rural areas. By 2005, of the of the 82 million poorest reached by the Microcredit Summit, 69 million, or 84 per cent were women, up from 10.3 million at the end of 1999, an increase that represents an additional 58.7 million poorest women receiving microloans in just six years.

For successful women entrepreneurs, credit is much more than access to money. In many cases it is the pathway by which they get themselves and their children out of poverty. It can also bring greater autonomy within the home, enabling them to renegotiate household relations. But access to credit does not guarantee business success. To be successful microfinance schemes must include access to other resources such as land and property, financial and marketing skills, as well as services that reduce women’s household and care-giving burden. To enhance women’s livelihoods, they must ensure that assets used as collateral or purchased with loans are listed in women’s names and there are clear strategies for moving from small to larger loans.

Equal access to property and other productive assets

The poor, especially women and girls in poverty, face tremendous risks. They have limited savings and few resources to protect themselves. While many women are consistently poor, many others dip in and out of poverty depending on risk swings. In times of crisis, women are called upon to act as the heroes of everyday life, providing the ultimate social safety net for their families when all other forms of social security have failed.

Minimizing these risks often depends on protecting and promoting the assets of both women and men within households. Assets are both economic and social, including not only land and property but also kinship and social support networks. Women in many countries remain far less likely than men to own or control productive assets like land and housing, which provide economic security, incentives for taking economic risks. Such rights as they have are often through traditional or collective forms of ownership, which can suddenly vanish in land reform processes when title is granted to the head of household, usually the man. This was the case in many transition countries in Central Asia, where UNIFEM supported women to claim their right to land and other assets, providing access to legal counsel regarding titling procedures and  registering legal documents.

Re-engaging Governments

At the national level, dismantling poverty begins with government. A basic challenge is ensuring that countries can protect their human and environmental capital–delivering basic services; designing policies for more equitable growth and distribution; and providing basic social safety nets, managing crisis and disasters and protecting national resources. Good governance is therefore critical. But strategies to end poverty cannot rely on good governance alone. Countries also must be able to have sufficient autonomy and flexibility to design macroeconomic policy for the benefit of its citizens, not merely its debt holders.  – including fiscal and monetary policy, as well as social service provision and social protection commitments.  Attention needs to be given to integrating a gender perspective into national budgeting, into taxation and investment, into financial and credit markets, into export policies and employment generation, into agricultural and land policies.

Women’s organizations are already active in many countries in monitoring the impact of taxation and expenditures on women and men, and holding governments accountable for their budgets.  In 2001, UNIFEM co-organized a High Level Conference which brought together governments, civil society and gender budget experts to launch a campaign for gender responsive budget initiatives to be undertaken in 45 countries by 2015. Today, we can track results through programmes we have supported in 30 countries.

As governments recognize the need to protect their human capital, they should insist that corporations respect international labour standards in agreements with contractors, subcontractors and suppliers; involve workers and unions in implementation and monitoring; include reproductive rights protection and sexual harassment clauses.  Corporations in turn have an interest in making sure that governments provide the kind of social protection needed for a healthy and productive work force.  This shared interest demands they come together to forge a new social contract.

The social contract model forged at the end of World War II was based on the assumption that economic growth would generate more formal employment. Governments were to provide universal coverage of basic services and formal education, paid for through  contributions from government, employers and workers. Heads of household, typically male, were expected to provide for their families through the so-called social wage.

This model was always only partial in the developing world, where formal employment has rarely been part of economic growth. It is becoming increasingly less viable also for developed economies, as informal employment, far from disappearing has become widespread and persistent, leaving working people more vulnerable not only to loss of income but also loss of protection. So alongside the goal of equal access to opportunities, must be equal access to protection from risk – the other side of the coin in today’s uncertain labour market.

Social protection is fundamentally located within the human rights framework, with states as duty bearers and citizens as rights holders. However, within each country, the nature of social rights necessarily depends on the supply of resources and the political constraints on their distribution. To be effective therefore, a social contract must also reflect the broadest possible political consensus, and be managed by stable and inclusive social institutions.  Such a contract, or covenant, must balance the principles of individual and social equity.

Women in particular need to take leadership on this agenda. Not only they more vulnerable to risk as workers – via job loss and location in informal work – but also as unpaid family members when there is no formal source of employment. And in line with the location vis a vis the state, it is important that women contest the neo-liberal view that globalization has effectively denied nation-states, and social movements within them, the space to negotiate broad-based labour standards and social contract agreements.

Empowering civil society

Ultimately, dismantling poverty requires a transformation of policymaking at all levels.  It requires that women’s work, paid and unpaid is recognized and valued. To make women’s work visible, gender-sensitive, disaggregated statistics must be developed, analysed and used to design policies to strengthen women’s economic security and rights.  Unpaid labour in households  must be included within the system of national accounts so that women’s contributions to the economy can be recognized and valued. Valuing the work that both women and men do is the starting point for meaningful policy decisions.

For this to happen, however, support to women’s organizing is critical—including organizing home-based and sweatshop workers, market and cross-border traders, migrant women workers and women service providers of all kinds to create the space needed to change policy and obtain legal and social protection. Government and international organizations must make complementary changes so that ways of organizing the global economy recognize people as providers of unpaid care for one another and not just as producers of marketable commodities.

I always go back to the words of Margaret Mead who said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” But once legislative and institutional changes are in place, how can these gains be sustained? How can local women’s movements engage national questions or global challenges? How can they creatively resist attempts to co-opt or crush them?

Sites of Change

The dismantling of poverty needs to begin with a recognition of women’s achievements, not their neediness. It should aim at enhancing their capabilities, not their dependence. It starts by building on women’s skills and assets and amplifying their voice and influence.

Women have already taken leadership on campaigns for greater corporate responsibility, developing innovative approaches such as corporate codes of conduct. These must clearly state company responsibility with regard to contractors, subcontractors and suppliers; establish a labour contract; involve workers and trade unions in implementation and monitoring; include reproductive rights protection and sexual harassment clauses. Complementing codes of conduct for existing businesses is the creation of new businesses organized from the outset along ethical lines, such as fair trade organizations and ethical investment funds.

Another bold challenge then is for women’s leadership. In 2005 there were twice as many women in powerful economic decision making positions than there were in 2000—including 20 Ministers of Finance, 10 Ministers of Economic Planning and Development, and 45 Ministers of Trade/Industry.  In the private sector, too, women’s leadership power is increasing. Among Fortune 500 companies in 2006, 10 were run by women; among Fortune 1000 companies, 20 were run by women.

Women’s growing leadership presence is important. Not only are they valuable role models, they also can be powerful agents of change. But increasing numbers of women in leadership is not by itself enough to bring needed change. Women political and economic leaders are still lone individuals in male hierarchies. Their ability to support gender equality depends on support from a strong constituency and influential male allies. We saw in Liberia how demands from a strong constituency propelled greater leadership and commitment. When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was forced into a run-off after the first round of voting, it was women, especially grassroots women and market vendors, who mobilized to get women to the polls—and win the run-off. At her inaugural, she acknowledged their role and promised to empower them in all areas of life—promoting laws to restore their dignity, deal with crimes that dehumanize them and provide economic programmes that enable them to that their full place in the country’s development.

In addition, while governments remain accountable for implementing the policies designed to improve the equality and well being of their people, women are challenging international, regional and national market forces when they undermine the ability of states to implement such policies. They are negotiating for trade agreements to create markets which are pro-women and pro-poor people.  We need to support their ability to reshape the global, national and local agendas, to redefine goals and reshape strategies for dismantling poverty.

Today there is growing outrage that with all the wealth in our world we cannot find a way to eliminate poverty in all countries. In 2005, at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, international NGOs initiated a Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP) dedicated to Making Poverty History.  Last year, together with the UN Millennium Campaign, they launched an initiative called Stand Up Against Poverty on October 17, the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. This year, they agreed to continue the campaign until 2015, focusing on the structural causes of poverty, and specifically looking at those affected by social exclusion, including women and indigenous peoples. The idea is for each country and region to adopt their own political messages focused on justice not charity. They hope to mobilize 50 million people under the slogan Stand Up and Speak Out. One of them has composed a powerful Poverty Requiem, which I am leaving with you in the hopes that you can bring women together in the richest country of the world to take on the bold challenge of dismantling poverty and meet it with bold action.