Globalisation the cause of poor women's woes, says panel

Economic globalisation is concentrating more power in a few corporations and international agencies, and is greatly responsible for the causes of women's poverty. So concluded an interesting panel discussion that was part of the Women's Conference.

By Dzodzi Tsikata

ONE of the more interesting sessions during the official Women's Conference was a panel on Women's Empowerment, Globalisation and Economic Restructuring organised by the UN agency UNIFEM on 12 September 1995.

The speakers were UNIFEM director Dr Noeleen Heyzer, Prof Gita Sen from the Indian Institute of Management, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of the World Bank, Susan Davis of Women's Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO), Dr Dorothy Blake of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Victoria Tauli-Corpuz of the Asian Indigenous Women's Network.

'Temporary nature'

Ngozi Okonjo -Iweala argued that economic restructuring or reform was simply putting in place the right set of policies to give the correct signals to all actors in the economy to encourage them to produce and invest to restore growth. She disputed the charge that structural adjustment policies (SAPs) were similar in all countries. According to her, adjustment had costs but they were usually of a temporary nature and affected vulnerable sections of the population who therefore had to be cushioned against such effects. She also noted that women could not take advantage of favourable conditions created by adjustment policies because of their situation prior to adjustment. The benefits of adjustment cited by Okonjo included growth, development and poverty reduction.

In Africa, women in rural areas and women in agriculture were said to have benefited from changes in pricing policy and foreign exchange rate reforms resulting in increased production. Ghana was cited as an example of a country whose gains from adjustment included reduced poverty especially of women. Okonjo posed the question of why there was a hue and cry about adjustment policies and cited differences in the effects of adjustment as a reason. She noted that there were temporary disadvantages for urban dwellers. She cited social safety net programmes as a way of dealing with the problems, arguing that in spite of problems with them, they can work for women.

She also put down the disenchantment against SAPs to misinformation and urged her audience to inform themselves to strengthen their capacity to influence adjustment policies as a process of empowerment. Okonjo-Iweala's positions were surprising because of what they neglected to mention: the question of debt and debt servicing burdens, the contraction of adjusting economies, the failure to meet results such as an increase in private investment, the increasing inaccessibility of social services, and the unremitting hardships resulting from job losses, low wages and high prices of basic needs. Unlike the other panelists, her presentation was not made within the context of international economic processes. Not surprisingly, Okonjo-Iweala went against the general grain of all the other panelists.

Dr Noeleen Heyzer said there was a fear of globalisation because it had unleashed economic forces beyond national states which had brought about new wealth and new poverty. She noted that in the 1960s and 1970s a number of nation states invested in closing the gaps in basic needs, education and health care and this brought about human development. However, with globalisation which had resulted in the weakening of states, many economies were in transition or implementing different types of reforms, some of which have been quite problematic in terms of their implications for services such as education and health, said Heyzer.

Gita Sen also noted the effects of globalisation, economic restructuring, the technological revolution, the resurgence of financial markets on national economies such as the push for export led growth, the shrinking of national budgets and economies and the growing inability of governments to shape their own national economic destinies.

According to Heyzer, TNCs were very important players in globali-sation processes and had consistently defied attempts of nations to protect their economies by shifting their operations to countries with more liberal climes and/or weaker civil societies.

Heyzer argued that one of the effects of globalisation had been the feminisation of poverty. Susan Davis of WEDO also noted that unpaid work most of which was done by women, was what was sustaining many economies today.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz noted that globalisation and economic restructuring had become the instruments to take away the resources of indigenous people. She noted that, not only the land, but other resources of indigenous people were now under threat as a result of new forms of activity such as bio-mining.

Dr Dorothy Blake of the WHO, whose talk centred on HIV/AIDS argued that health and sickness do not occur in a vacuum and cited poverty as an important vector of HIV/AIDS. According to Blake, HIV/AIDs had disproportionately affected poor countries and the poorest of the poor. In Africa, this group was predominantly women. She pointed out the significant economic impact of HIV/AIDS infection, arguing that in Africa, most infected persons were the most economically active. Therefore, agriculture was likely to be an important casualty of HIV/AIDS infections. All the panelists were interested in the question of accountability and women's empowerment.

Women's rights

Noeleen Heyzer posed questions as to what types of markets and states would address poverty and promote women's rights such as access to and control of certain types of market, economic assets, to wage labour, equality in conditions of work, access to social development, education and health care, and access to decision making. She argued that while there had been globalisation of the labour force and increased migration, economic globalisation had proceeded without political globalisation.

Both Heyzer and Sen were of the view that international conferences such as the Women's Conference created the opportunity to build global civil society.

As Sen put it, the flip-side of the processes of globalisation has been the struggle of NGOs to participate in global decision making. She insisted on the right of NGOs to participate in a process of dialogue and exchange from a position of autonomy. Davis urged women to devise strategies to build democratic governance.

Sen argued that the women's movement had changed its attitude since the 1970s from an utopian sense that government commitments at world conferences would be automatically translated to national and local programmes to a more pragmatic stance about the need to fight for change at all levels. She noted that in spite of the fact that for the last 20 years, women have been engaged in self-empowerment through engagement in action at multiple levels, UN language has created the impression that it is others who empower women.

Tauli-Corpuz noted that there was the need to strengthen organisations at the local level because the threat to resources were manifested at this level. The questions posed to panellists focused on accountability and democracy in the design of economic programmes and the effects of economic policies on women. As one speaker put it, women were subsidising globalisation.

Not surprisingly, African speakers questioned the basis of Okonjo's statistics and findings about adjustment and poverty reduction.

One speaker read passages from a World Bank document which challenged Okonjo's claims. One of the questions touched on issues of values and ethics which had been raised by Heyzer when she noted that the ruling economic philosophy was competition, amorality and a lack of concern about the uses to which national resources are put. Prof Wangari Maathai of Kenya lamented the fact that capital and profit were the ruling concern of economic policy today.

Others spoke of the need for a complete overhaul of economic policy to take national aspirations for development into account and to capture the dynamics of communities and their social relations to ensure that women's needs are addressed. Some contributions spoke of the need to demystify economics and train grassroots activists to bolster their confidence in dealing with officials of governments and the World Bank and IMF.