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Updated: March 12, 2012 22:06 IST

Feminists on food, fuel and finance

Padmini Swaminathan
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HARVESTING FEMINIST KNOWLEDGE FOR PUBLIC POLICY — Rebuilding Progress: Edited by Devaki Jain, Diane Elson; IDRC, Canada and Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B1/I-1, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs. 795.
HARVESTING FEMINIST KNOWLEDGE FOR PUBLIC POLICY — Rebuilding Progress: Edited by Devaki Jain, Diane Elson; IDRC, Canada and Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B1/I-1, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs. 795.

This volume brings together 14 essays by feminist thinkers from different parts of the world written in the context of, what the authors call, the triple crises of food, fuel and finance, and reflecting on ‘deep-seated problems of growing inequality, squeeze on time to provide unpaid care to family and friends, and environmentally unsustainable patterns of economic growth'.

Economists and the discipline of economics will profit immensely by engaging with Elson's arguments in her piece entitled ‘Economics for a Post-Crises World' which in different ways emphasises that measures to end the crises will fail if they simply seek to restore growth and greed. Elson puts forward an evaluative framework aimed at achieving socially just economies and for which three key actions need to be combined: recognising the contribution of the unpaid economy, ensuring there is no entitlement failure; and developing social investment, production and consumption as the core of the paid economy.

Questioning economic success through the lens of hunger, particularly the Indian paradox of ‘mountains of food and millions of starving citizens', Devaki Jain, among other things, redirects our attention to the value of Gandhi's economics where the path chosen to achieve prosperity begins with the poor and poverty. While a food-driven economy would necessarily and rightly take us back to agriculture, Jain's lens is insufficient to address the more intractable questions that Indian agricultural economics refuses to face: increasing numbers of all castes waiting and wanting to get out of a sector made economically unviable over the years; the continued designation of non-farm employment as modern and an indicator of development; the conflation of agriculture with rurality and the condemnation of the poorest and illiterate in rural areas to a life bereft of basic amenities.

Discrimination

Beneria's exploration of labour market transformations at the workplace throws up several issues requiring new modes of engagement. For instance, the replacement of long-term stable employment with individualised labour contracts and new forms of organising workers at the workplace necessitate development of new forms of assessing and dealing with discrimination and exclusion; similarly, since, global competition and the race to the bottom has rendered some of the existing national labour legislation meaningless, affected countries have perforce to deliberate on how to balance global labour standards and safeguard jobs without losing their competitive edge. Solita's critique of the System of National Accounts reveals how erroneous definitions and concepts are used to weave a cloak of invisibility that lays the basis for a hidden and “virulent type of discrimination against women”. Solita also provides a step-by-step approach to integrate unpaid work into macroeconomics.

Masculinities

Jhabvala's account of SEWA could have engaged less with descriptive details and more with the challenges that SEWA faced in organising and sustaining its constituency during different phases. Equally problematic is discussion of SEWA women as if they are homogenous.

The papers on Japan and Cuba are brilliant even as they provide us with contrasting pictures of the status of women. While in Japan there is very little correlation between Japan's economic advance and the advancement in the status of Japanese women, Cuban women's development has been an integral part of the country's economic and social progress mirrored in the numbers of highly educated women, women in paid and diverse employment, progressive and changing laws and policies, etc.

Mcfadden's critical ‘introspection' of African feminism is aimed at re-politicising African society that, according to the author, has seen the replacement of women's and civil society movements with UN and donor agencies and discourses. Jael Silliman's lucidly written piece on ‘progressive masculinities' is intended to provide a road map for feminists to consider work on masculinities in order to bring about real gender equality.

There is no doubt that the volume has much to offer in terms of feminist knowledge to macro policy spaces and rethinking, consequent to economic crises. However, while most of the papers are analytically strong and backed by evidence, a few are merely assertive and lack in analytical rigour.

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