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Making visible the invisible: commodification is not the answer


If you are invisible as a producer in the GDP, you are invisible in the distribution of benefits in the economic framework of  the national budget. As feminists we must embrace an ecological model if we are to transform economic power, and the market and commodification must be seen as the servants of such an approach.

The system of national accounts and this framework, which brought us Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – the system imposed on all nation states arising from Sir Richard’s Stones work entitled : The British National Income and how to pay for the war – still effectively measures ‘how best to pay for the war’ – demonstrated most markedly in countries where the GDP goes down after a peace settlement holds.

Even before the revision to the GDP’ s ‘boundary of production’ in 1993 the pressure was on from feminist activists around a measure that was used internationally to determine ‘well being’. This boundary of production is the rule that excludes – both in theory and in practice – the unpaid reproductive, productive and service work of the environment, and the unpaid work of women and men and girls and boys from being counted in the GDP. In a policy environment a very simple equation operates: if you are invisible as a producer in the GDP, you are invisible in the distribution of benefits in the economic framework of the national budget.

The pressure from feminists has brought about some key trends – to make this invisible work visible. The UN Statistical Commission response has been to establish working groups for two sets of so called satellite accounts, one for environment and one for unpaid work. The implications for transformation are not good, as both responses see commodification as the answer: that is, measurements would be made and a model agreed to estimate the market exchange value of characteristics of our eco system. This work has been continuing now for more than ten years, and the ‘authors’ of this new framework are now settled on how to place a dollar value on air, earth, forests, fish stocks etc. Fortunately our greatest ally is fresh water.  Fresh water is holding out on this process – the experts are finding it impossible to come up with a formula for valuation of fresh water.

Implications for transformation

As long as water holds out, the implications for the international imposition, of national environmental accounts as market valuations, can’t happen. But economics only values the deletion, depletion, deterioration and extraction of natural resources. The strategic imperative we are interested in is not to find a market value for characteristics of the environment, but to collect the baseline data about these characteristics – the quality of air, the remaining boreal forests, the impacts of climate change.  Translating these characteristics to market prices is a stupid idea for many reasons, but a key is that when the environment is abstracted to a market value, it loses all the characteristics that make it possible to make strategic policy decisions.

Similarly, time use surveys are used more and more as one of the tools of estimating the value of unpaid work. There is a strategic attraction about doing this, regardless of the debates about the best estimation procedure. When I was a politician, I could see a tremendous advantage in being able to compare the unpaid work sector with agriculture, manufacturing etc. and this was a deeply attractive strategy. Fortunately I grew beyond this as an approach. The problem has been that now market estimation is seen by some as the end game, as opposed to its being just a device to gain attention. Yes we need the time use data if possible – but this data should not be commodified.  As a market abstraction, unpaid work then suffers the loss of the texture and integrity needed for strategic policy purposes, just as the environmental accounting framework  does.

I also realised that commodifying either the unpaid work of women or the environment was a really barren approach: I would be arguing that such estimates had a place in a system that sees war, trade in munitions, people, drug trafficking, ecological devastation as great for growth. It is a pathological system, and such an approach was entirely co-opted.

Another worrying trend is the idea that when economics is the problem, economics can be the answer. The Stern report on climate change contained a major critique of cost benefit analyses, failing to take account of externalities – those outcomes generated by an economic intervention but not part of the cost benefit framework: rising sea levels, changes in glacier melt that threatens millions downstream for example. However, Stern thought that fiddling with the economic models was the answer.

One trend that is hugely troublesome to me is this talk about ‘the care economy’, particularly its use as a term to cover all unpaid work that women (and men and girls and boys) do. It’s a most unfortunate trend. Certainly unpaid care work is the key omission in the system of national accounts framework – the specific exclusion – but the reality is that most subsistence production still is not counted, the millions of hours women in paid work do beyond their proscribed hours – especially those in provisioning work, are not counted. This term fails as a descriptor of the complex texture of all unpaid work by all. Men and girls and boys do unpaid work as well: the traditional preparations of indigenous people of the Pacific in building a fale or home for example can’t be encompassed by this approach. And so what if their contribution is a small percentage – I’m part of feminist movement that is inclusive, not exclusive.

The implications for transformation of such an approach is to condemn the visibility of all unpaid work to a ghetto term that will only ever be associated with women, and to fail to encompass all the work on which the commodified economy relies so it can function.

For more than 30 years there have been efforts to find an alternative to GDP. One of the first was the Genuine Progress Indicator movement. Its major attraction has always been that it introduced a debit side to the national income accounting framework, a sort of goods, bads and regrettables.  In this framework the market gains from deforestation would be offset against loss of habitat, loss of pollinating species, loss of soil cover, loss of micro climate influence, etc. The current work is led by the OECD. You can find much of this on wikiprogress. Basically this involves looking for an index of ‘well being’ characteristics and using these as an alternative framework for strategic policy engagement. So a little progress here – but major pitfalls. The strategy is to find yet another accounting framework that can be imposed on us all – from the central committee at the OECD. And now for something completely similar !  from the folks who brought us the GDP. The effort to commodify to a single market indicator remains the outcome sought, so that we can build an international comparative – for which read competitive – framework.

I am really over testosterone being the driver for these models – mine is bigger and better than yours! And don’t give me Bhutan and happiness as the answer: it’s the same as the Genuine Progress Indicator approach with fewer fields. Whether or not a strategic intervention would make us happier is left in the hands of the Bhutanese Parliament. You have to be a graduate to sit in the Bhutanese parliament. As a professor it has never been my observation that common sense was a characteristic reserved for graduates. And as many of you will be aware, happiness is only available if you are Bhutanese: if you happen to belong to the third or fourth generation of Nepali peoples who are being forced from Bhutan, you understand this.

There are other obvious unsettling issues about ‘well being’ or ‘quality of life’ or happiness’ indicators. I asked some of my post graduate Pacific students to ask their colleagues or families how they might translate these terms into Tongan or Samoan, and what would they mean. Other than responses about health, the answers bore no resemblance to western well- being indicators.

The next problem is most easily demonstrated by thinking about those envisioning exercises that metropolitan or other kinds of local and provincial governments engage in. Let’s assume they all engage in genuine consultation. If so, one major concern and priority is always ‘safety’. Now on the way to this conclusion, the texture of what safety means gets lost – we have to homogenise all the responses to ‘safety’ theme. Those who have sight or physical impairment have safety issues around access – often just to have freedom and safety of movement along  public footpaths. Gay people and ethnic minorities want to be safe from victimisation and harassment. Women and children want street lighting for early morning and the nights. The elderly want transparent bus shelters so that the odds of being robbed and beaten are lessened. But what does the city do? It doesn’t collect new indicators to reflect what the specific priorities are. It reaches for national data and suddenly the safety index is about the number of traffic accidents and homicides.

Some specific proposals

I am deeply attracted to the development of well being circles used by Mark Anielski in his construction of Genuine Progress Indicators for the Pembina Institute. You need a radar diagram from the Excel software. Anyone can use this model to build indicators. It has open architecture – that is you can add any new indicator as soon as you have collected just 2 years of the same indicator. Every indicator retains its integrity – nothing is commodified. Trade offs are immediately visible. The model is pictorial and highly accessible: I have watched pre literate people discuss it for hours in making community decisions. Different sets can be easily constructed to reflect different groups, for example by age or gender – including the human rights of third gender persons now recognised in India, Nepal and Pakistan. This can be build at community level and can respond to the particular priorities of that community. It means the homogenised central committee approach can be turfed out.

Anielski has also done ground breaking work with the people of Nunavut in the Northern Canadian Arctic Circle, where spirituality was added to ecological, economic, social and cultural indicators. So for example, well being was not about how many dog sleds a community had, but about how many households shared a dog team. Anielski has also done significant work with the peoples of Canada’s boreal forest region, the largest remaining on our planet, work led by the indigenous peoples of that region.

As feminists we must embrace the ecological model – note – not ‘environmental’ modelling. There is some superb work on this, and we need to understand this to hold back the potential devastation  wrought by the pressure to engage with the ‘green economy’, which continues to be a GDP based piece of propaganda.

Finally the question is: If we were to transform economic power, what would it look like? The market and commodification must be seen as the servants of such an approach.

To do this we go back to discourse, and the derivation of the words economy and ecology, and value. Value comes from the Latin valore: it means to be strong or worthy. Economics comes from the Greek, oikonymikos: it means the care and management of a household, and ecology speaks to care and management of our planet. A feminist transformation places these concepts at the centre of how we are to be in this world and what we are to value. We can – and we must – live this from our own households to the access we have at the highest levels of power, and we must be unrelenting in this commitment.

This article is based on a presentation by the author to the AWID Forum 2012


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