Published on Development Impact

Getting to equal: more evidence needed

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In an earlier series of posts, Alaka Holla and I talked about why we don’t know much about how to economically empower women, why it’s hard, and how to frame the analysis. Since the World Development Report 2012 came out yesterday, and it’s on gender equality and development, I figured it would be worth broadening the discussion to talk more broadly about what the report identifies (explicitly and implicitly) as what some of the big knowledge gaps are.

Each of the areas I am going to discuss here lies at the intersection of what the report identifies as big issues for gender equality plus those where there is a large gap in rigorous evidence on what works. I am going to take the relevance of these areas as given here – if you want a discussion as to why they matter then I encourage you to read the relevant section of the report (full disclosure: I was on the team that wrote the report).

Let’s start with the realm of health.   One huge issue here is the excess mortality of girls and women in developing countries (and the report has some new numbers on this which are quite striking). To get at this, the argument goes, we need better water and sanitation (cutting down child mortality), better maternal health care, and to slow or stop the spread of HIV/AIDS (both of these to reduce mortality in the reproductive years). 

 On water and sanitation, what is encouraging is that we are starting to see a spate of new work, such as the work in Morocco that I talked about awhile back. But making the link between better water supply and health is the key link we care about to reduce excess female mortality and a recent review paper by Ahuja, Kremer and Zwane makes clear that this is something we need more on. As Ahuja and coauthors point out, we’re learning some about how to get people drinking cleaning water but there is more to learn on this and a lot to learn about how to set up the institutions to deliver this.   

On maternal mortality, we have plenty of work to do. On the demand side, countries, such as Turkey, have tried some innovative conditional cash transfers to bring women in for maternal health care but there are no rigorous evaluations that I know of out there. On improving the supply side, we’re starting to see some interesting work in improving accountability in health systems – see for example Jakob Svensson’s work with Martina Bjorkman (ungated version here) and Jed’s discussion on worker motivation and pay for performance (here). On HIV, which is particularly germane for excess female mortality in Sub Saharan Africa, we need more rigorous work on prevention. There is a fair amount of work underway, and more in the pipeline, but plenty of avenues deserving further exploration (see for example, Berk’s discussion of male circumcision).   

The second big realm is women’s economic activities.   Alaka and I discussed this in our previous post, and there are a number of wide areas that need more work.   Time constraints are a big issue for women’s engagement in economic activities so we need more on child care, particularly in rural areas – how to do it, what happens when you do.   Staying in the rural setting, we need to know more about what works for women farmers –getting them access to the inputs, land, markets, and technology to make them more productive.   More broadly, there is this fundamental question of how to help women into male dominated sectors (for firms), jobs, and crops.   We know bits and pieces, but more would be a big help. 

The third realm is gender gaps in voice and agency. We know something about the benefits to giving women greater voice in politics thanks to the work on India’s reservations by folks such as Chattopadhyay and Duflo and the more qualitative work of Nirmala Buch. But how does policy provide women with better access to the justice system? Here we have just about nothing in terms of rigorous evaluation.   And the other area the WDR talks about is shifting the norms regarding domestic violence against women.   Here we know a bit more about different approaches (for example the emerging work around microfinance and reducing violence), but we are just getting started.   Among the three big areas I have mentioned so far, these are areas where there is the least rigorous evidence.

Finally, we can also think of policies to avoid reproducing gender inequalities across generations.   This includes, for example, labor market policies that target young workers and try to break down (or circumvent) the stereotypes that lead to occupational segregation, where we are starting to see some evidence. But we could push it further – looking at changing the attitudes, behaviors and aspirations of girls and boys so that they start off their adult lives with different gender relations than their parents.   What’s interesting here is the emerging work on “soft skills” training – including life skills, how to interact at work and the like. We’ll see some of that in this blog in the coming months…but more would be good.

Phew, this is starting to read like a laundry list. But, if we take some of the priorities identified by the World Development Report to heart, these provide some areas where we could do more to address gender inequality more effectively. Before signing off, I’d also like to emphasize a point that Priya made on one the posts that Alaka and I wrote: it’s important to think not just about what to do for women, but what role men are going to play.   As Priya wrote: “I am not sure that all attempts to deal with "women's economic barriers"  [as well as the other areas I have talked about above] lead to gender equality. So, beforehand, a distinction needs to be made here regarding the systemic nature of gender dynamics and the fact that helping "women" might or might not have an impact on ending inequality.”  

As always, thoughts and comments are welcome – particularly if you know of ongoing initiatives in any of these areas. 


Markus Goldstein

Lead Economist, Africa Gender Innovation Lab and Chief Economists Office

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