What we measure matters

3 Standard Stoppages

Literacy workers often hear about how increases in literacy levels in a population will increase GDP in the country where that population lives.

What does this mean?

GDP is a country's Gross Domestic Product. This is all the "officially recognized final goods and services produced within a country in a year."

The term was first used by economist Simon Kuznets in 1934 and became the main tool for measuring a country's economy in 1944. Kuznets warned against using GDP to measure standard of living because there is no evidence that all citizens benefit equally from their country's increased economic production.

His warning was not heeded :)

The measure assumes that all things that are produced are sold and that all the people who produce things earn an income for doing so. GDP does not count things that are produced that do not go to market or do not produce income for the producer.

The "increased literacy equals increased GDP" people say that workers who increase their literacy levels will also increase their level of productivity and will have a positive impact on GDP. Of course, an increase in literacy levels only leads to increased productivity if it leads to increased access to work and increased incomes. Some literacy workers argue that the mechanisms whereby certain citizens can benefit from investments in their human capital are much more complex

Feminists also question the validity of GDP for a variety of reasons.

One reason is that domestic work (child rearing, household maintenance, care-giving, etc.), which is most often performed by women, is not marketed or income generating and does not get factored into measures of GDP. This "women's work" is therefore not "officially recognized" as work and women's contributions to the economy go largely uncounted.

Another is that GDP, as Kuznets warned, cannot reflect how different people and different groups of people benefit from increased productivity differently.

We talk about income inequality quite on this blog. The World Bank World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development and the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2012 map the intersection of income inequality and gender over time and worldwide.

Canada rates pretty well in comparison to other countries but women still make 73 cents to the dollar that men earn and the gap has actually widened a little since 2011.
The key for the future of any country and any institution is the capability to develop, retain and attract the best talent. Women make up one half of the world’s human capital. Empowering and educating girls and women and leveraging their talent and leadership fully in the global economy, politics and society are thus fundamental elements of succeeding and prospering in an ever more competitive world. In particular, with talent shortages projected to become more severe in much of the developed and developing world, maximizing access to female talent is a strategic imperative for business. 
World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2012

The World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development argues that closing these gaps is a core development objective in its own right. It is also smart economics. Greater gender equality can enhance productivity, improve development outcomes for the next generation, and make institutions more representative.

Sound familiar? As literacy workers trying to survive the "enhancing productivity" era, we are concerned whenever we see these justifications applied to issues of social justice.
Because of this privileging of the economic, the critical role in society of reproduction -  still so undervalued – and the reality that women continue to play the primary reproductive role, gets lost or downplayed.  If we go down the road of the narrow contribution to ‘production’ in the ‘economy’, we are likely to further undervalue the major contribution of women in reproduction. We also further the pressure on women to have to contribute in the recognised ‘production’ part of the ‘economy’ (if they are to have recognition and respect) while they also have to continue playing the primary role in reproduction – more stress for women, less value of their role = problem. This argument of course should not undermine the absolute right of women to have the same opportunities for participation in production when they choose to.
As Marilyn [Waring], explains, what we measure matters. When driving towards specific goals in, say, increasing the GDP to show growth, policies change to encourage economic growth, but remove costs in social growth. For example, a country wanting to increase the GDP may remove or reduce fines on companies that commit environmental damage in order to raise that company’s yearly earnings and shift the burden onto the education system, an ostensible drain on the economy.
Author/Entrepreneur Tara Hunt on the influence of Marilyn Waring
- from the National Film Board of Canada Blog

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