29 October 2012

Africa: What Keeps Unpaid Care Off Development Agendas?

Photo: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Zuhura Odhiambo’s is a local community health worker and works to document and help improve local sanitation conditions.


Last week at the United Nations in New York I was asking what keeps unpaid care off development policy agendas. By care, I was referring to meeting the material and/or developmental, emotional and spiritual needs of other people through direct personal inter-action. Who could disagree that care is pretty important for the continuation of society and for human wellbeing? So why is it rarely talked about in debates about development policy -for example in discussions about what should be the world's development goals after 2015?

Here are some of the explanations I was given.

The provision and receiving of unpaid care has an impact on food security, health, education, agriculture, business development, water and sanitation, transport etc. By belonging everywhere, care fits nowhere.

People struggle to continue to provide care even when living in extreme poverty. It's called 'resilience' or 'coping'. Thus care only becomes visible in its absence in massive disasters and emergencies when family and community relations are severely disrupted. Afterwards, the UN and governments forget about it again.

The United States is the engine room of development policy ideas and in the US domestic policy arena unpaid care is invisible to policy. The good news is there is a social movement - http://www.caringacrossgenerations.org - recently started in the USA working hard to put it on the agenda.

Because women and girls tend to do most unpaid care it can be conveniently ignored in societies shaped by gender inequities. But this doesn't take us very far. After all, other gender-related issues have got onto policy agendas. Take gender-related violence. Despite also cutting across different sectors violence has become a favoured policy issue in mainstream development agencies. So why not care?

Economists I met suggested that if the provision of good quality care were to get the support it deserved, it would cost a very great deal of money. They talked of strategic ignorance. People ignore information that if taken on board would oblige them to change their behaviour.

This is why in the World Development Report (2011/2012) - despite an extensive analysis of unpaid care in the main text - care disappears in the executive summary. If unpaid care were given the recognition it merits, then governments and development agencies would have to revise radically their policy priorities and budgets (The world is spending $1.6 trillion on military expenditure). Imagine. No one wants to go there.

So care becomes a sensitive issue. I discovered that even organisations that place gender equality at the heart of their work choose not to make care a priority. But I also found some people totally passionate about care. One of them is incubating the idea of a 'global initiative' to which all UN agencies would sign up, engaging with member states to make care a policy priority across the different sectors. We need a high profile champion to make this happen. Any ideas?

Rosalind Eyben is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

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