Care work should be at the heart of a people-centred economy

Rosalind Eyben

The Occupy campaigns are fuelling a long-needed discussion about how to design an economy that delivers equity and sustainability. A vital element in this debate concerns the unpaid work that is done outside the market economy. This includes not only unpaid work in family farms and businesses but also the feeding, caring for and generally meeting the material and other needs of families and neighbours. Caring forms the bedrock of human wellbeing and replenishes the human resources needed for sustainable economic development. Everyone has the right to receive adequate care and the right not to be exploited when providing care.

Women undertake the bulk of unpaid care work

In most countries round the world, women undertake the bulk of unpaid care work. In developing countries, where there is less access to labour saving technologies and – for low income families – irregular or difficult access to water and energy supplies, women work longer hours at caring than men, low-income women work longer hours than better-off women, and rural women work longer hours than urban women. The invisibility and undervaluing of care work also has an impact on women’s wages as domestic workers and in jobs such as nursing and care of children and the elderly. Until challenged by feminists, women’s caring role was ‘natural’, and thus not identified as a matter requiring a policy response.

Conventional development thinking emphasizes economic growth over human wellbeing and ignores care (pdf) as a public good that sustains and reproduces society and on which markets depend for their functioning. Women’s resilience may not last forever and it urgent that we work for an alternative economic system that reflects and places a value on equitable relations between women and men. Commonly-held assumptions about how the economy works need to be challenged in this time of global crisis because such assumptions risk bringing greater misery and impoverishment for those who can least protect themselves from collapsing markets.

Juggling demands

The last thirty years have seen increasing numbers of women entering the market economy. Most have to juggle the demands on their time between their paid activities and unpaid care work. As a result they are frequently employed on a part time or piece-work basis where wages are lower, employment less secure and collective action or negotiation more difficult. These changes have coincided with in some countries a decline of state provision and everywhere an increased involvement of the market in care.

Women who can afford to do so hire poorer women, often underpaid and over-worked and in many parts of the world subject to racial discrimination.

The neglect of care is the greatest scandal of development policy

Care is a public good that sustains and reproduces society. Yet, despite all the evidence of its importance and accumulating research findings, most development organisations remain blind to all but the paid, visible forms of women’s economic contribution. Development policies and programmes have failed to address the inter-connected interests of women as producers, employees and carers with negative effects for individual, family and social wellbeing.

From a political analysis perspective, it is clear that neglecting care has political advantages, allowing governments to pass on its costs to families and communities, rather than financing care as a public good. At the same time, the women who are the most over-whelmed with care responsibilities are those with the least voice and chance to influence policy choices partly because the time they spend on care excludes them from political participation. The neglect of care is the greatest scandal of development policy.

Care’s importance to the economy and society must be recognised for example through integrating unpaid care into systems of national accounts. Recognition will encourage development agencies and governments to do more to reduce the drudgery through labour-saving technologies and reliable access to water and energy supplies. Support must be given also to redistributing care more equitably, not only within families but also among and between families and other providers of care services i.e. community based and non-governmental organisations, the private sector and state agencies.

More politically challenging is the maintenance and expansion of core public services to reduce unpaid care work. This is why, global and local debates are needed for people to re-imagine potentially diverse ways in which their social and political economy could be re-ordered so that care is recognised and properly supported as the foundation for living well together.

Rosalind Eyben is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

5 Responses to Care work should be at the heart of a people-centred economy

  1. […] being paid to efforts to increase economic growth, Research Fellow Rosalind Eyben’s blog post, “Care work should be at the heart of a people-centred economy”, was a timely reminder that discussion is still desperately needed around the vast amount of […]

  2. Joannie says:


    Martha Fineman is an important theorist who has been rethinking the social structuring of care from a different perspective – you can see her presentation on this at:

    cheers, Joannie

  3. Marian Barnes says:

    Hi Rosalind

    Are you familiar with work on feminist ethic of care? There is loads written on this but the work of Fiona Robinson on care and international relations might be of particular interest to you. There is lots of important stuff about the relationship between care and justice – so considering care as a moral and political value as well as necessary work to ensure individual well-being. We’re hosting a conference called ‘Critical Care: advancing an ethic of care in theory and practice’ here in Brighton this September. Joan Tronto will be a key speaker. Do get in touch if you’d like to follow up.

    Good wishes


  4. […] Care work should be at the heart of a people-centred economy […]

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