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Africa: GDP Is Macho and Keeps Women Poor

By Alice Kanengoni, 22 May 2014 First published in Allafrica

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 has 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.

This is problematic for several reasons. The first major flaw – and probably the biggest contributor in making and keeping women poor – is that GDP reduces the measure of the economy into monetary value.

GDP measures the value of economies through the prices of products and effectively focuses on the flows of money as a result of production.

As such, the GDP system does not calculate non-monetary inputs into the economy. This systematically ignores all value-add from non-monetary contributions such as the care economy, in-country and cross border trade, reproductive activities among others where women’s contributions are predominant.

For instance, women on the continent are the majority of providers of care work and they are also the majority contributors in the informal trade industries; sectors not accounted for in GDP terms.

The care work of women is largely uncosted, unremunerated and not protected through policy and or programming. As such, GDP inevitably pushes women to the margins of the economies, resulting in them being the majority of the poor on the continent.

Pushing women to the margins also effectively limits their potential to benefit from economic policies and programmes – as they are not considered as active contributors.

For instance, policies and incentives for education, skills development, and programmes to increase employability of workers invariably target men and boys (as these are regarded as active players in the formal economies). Consequently, women and girls remain the least skilled and make up the majority of the unemployed on the continent.

They remain among the poorest, and this cycle of poverty repeats itself across generations. This explains why despite African women’s history of hard work and economic endeavours, we continue to see feminization of poverty and inequality on the continent.

Similarly, women’s contributions in important economic activities such as cross border trade are ignored when calculating national economic performances.

In southern Africa for example, women are the majority of those engaged in cross-border trade in countries such as Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Zambia (to name just a few).

In countries such as Zimbabwe, these women’s cross border economic activities have sustained families and anchored livelihoods in a context where the formal economy has significantly shrunk over the past three decades, and the informal sector has become the mainstay of the country’s real economy.

Part of the problem is that a GDP-focused lens focuses on the flows of production and consumption in the so-called formal economies within national borders.

Yet, reality on the continent shows that the informal sector where women are predominantly active involve and include activities such as cross border trade where women are engaging and are economically productive across borders.

Additionally, women also play an important role of reproduction; ensuring the continued supply of human resources which are critical for sustenance of any economy.

Yet, all these contributions by women are not captured in GDP indices, and neither are they incentivized through policy and resources. GDP calculations blindly continues to ignore this reality and to focus on contributions from the formal sectors where the majority of contributors – women are least represented.

Resultantly, women remain the poorest and most vulnerable in communities. In his book Gross Domestic Problem (2013), Lorenzo Fioramonti argues that this GDP system “is the source of our social ills in society today” and I posit that feminized poverty and inequality are some of these key social ills.

It is therefore critical that the post 2015 women’s economic empowerment agenda – of necessity – takes into account these geo-local realities of the drivers and perpetrators of the impacts of poverty and inequality among women and girls in Africa.

And one practical step will be to commit to developing alternative economic models that emasculate GDP, are inclusive and recognize women and girls’ contributions to national economies.

This is what will entail a truly transformative and progressive development agenda that will move us towards better quality of live for women and girls on the continent. Sticking to GDP as a measure of our economic development will invariably result in inequality and further entrench the feminization of poverty and inequality.


Fioramonti Lorenzo (2013) Gross Domestic Problem: The Politics Behind the World’s Most Powerful Number, Zed Books.

Kanyenze Godfrey et al (eds.) (2011) Beyond the Enclave: Towards a pro-poor and Inclusive Development Strategy for Zimbabwe, Weaver Press.

Stiglitz Joseph (2012) The Price of Inequality, Penguin Books.

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