I’m (still) hungry, mum: the return of Care

Naomi HossainNaomi Hossain photo mini

Is it just me or have we come full circle on care* in development? Back in 1994, armed with a box-fresh copy of Naila Kabeer’s Reversed Realities, I got my first job in development, in Bangladesh. There I was first set to study whether non-traditional jobs empowered women, and then to analyse rural women’s time-use diaries. My eyes were opened to the perennial contradiction of women’s empowerment: earning money is lovely and really important if you want autonomy and control. But someone still has to wipe the dirty bums.

Naomi Hossain blog 7 Mar image 1What happened in the last 20 or so years that took our (my) eye off the care-ball? We started to glamorize women’s empowerment as always and necessarily positive-sum.** Gender equity got a makeover as ‘smart economics’; development meant high return investments in future mothers, clever low-cost micro-credit, and win-win global export industries employing poor young women to make fast fashion for rich young women. At its glossiest, gender equity was uber-modern, future-looking and positive-sum. Celebrities got in on the act (I was once in a workshop breakout session with Renee Zellweger – yes, Bridget Jones – on girls’ education). Rarely a dirty bottom in sight. And certainly no expectation that for women to do these great new jobs would mean men might have to do their share of bum-wiping.

So what has changed? As far as I can tell, the focus on care has sharpened with the financial crash and food crisis. How did all these people manage to cope, particularly with export sector jobs and micro-credit looking so shaky, we wondered? By letting unpaid care work absorb the shocks, it turned out. People, particularly women, have been working longer and harder, figuring how to stretch resources to ‘make do and mend’. A research project I’m involved with tracking the impacts of food price rises on care finds the pressures mothers feel to feed children are particularly powerful: ‘I’m hungry, Mum’ is a familiar sound for many women in developing (and indeed, developed) countries. The cumulative pressures mean more women in hard, low-paid jobs, as street vendors or sweepers, laundrywomen etc. This is all shifting what Annie Whitehead once called the ‘conjugal contract’: more hardworking and frustrated men feel they are failing as providers, even while more over-stretched and exhausted women feel they are failing as mothers and housekeepers. We find older people, particularly older women, picking up their adult daughters’ care responsibilities, in a sometimes reluctant renegotiation of the generational contract. And we also see a small but definite growth in institutional care: low-cost crèches and school meals schemes are popular and effective – and quick and easy processed foods (like the ubiquitous instant noodle).  Naomi Hossain blog 7 mar Image 2

The smallness of these mundane concerns is out of sync with development fashion, with its high-tech evidence-based solutions to everything. It’s about the fact that a vital source of social protection is being eroded by development policies that valorise that which can be paid for over that which cannot. Talking about care is the reverse of the ‘everyone’s a winner’ glitz of the empowerment industry.

Care has done a lot of the heavy lifting in people’s ‘resilience’ to the ups and downs of the past five years, but it is still often ignored in development policy. As Rosalind Eyben points out in her blog on care today, this is a matter of power. Real gender equity means recognising care, reducing its drudgery and redistributing it to men and the state. On International Women’s Day let us bravely face the filthy facts: progress towards real gender equity is unlikely to be positive-sum; there will be losers, and they will have to wipe their share of dirty bums.

This blog draws on a forthcoming IDS working paper on care and crisis, by Naomi Hossain, Alex Kelbert and Arran MacMahon.

*There are lots of good definitions out there: try Action Aid’s new report for starters. What we now commonly call care is short for unpaid care work, and was once upon a time called social reproduction among other things.

** Google ‘women’s empowerment’ today and you have at No. 3, a fashion show, and at No. 12, a Facebook game.

Annie Whitehead’s ‘I’m hungry, mum’: the politics of domestic budgeting’ was a chapter in the 1984 feminist development classic ‘Of Marriage and the Market’ (Kate Young et al, London: Methuen).

More info about the project tracking food price impacts on care can be found at Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility. The first year research results will be published in May 2013.

The Recognise, Reduce & Redistribute Care formula is Diane Elson’s.

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

Read other recent blog posts by Naomi Hossain:


9 Responses to I’m (still) hungry, mum: the return of Care

  1. […] care responsibilities for children or parents! My IDS colleague Naomi Hossain today also blogs on the return of the care agenda to development, particularly in the context of the recent food price […]

  2. Certainly “care” is not a development “buzzword”: care is an extremely important variable in human wellness and development.

  3. Marzia Fontana says:

    I wish current debates on care could give more attention to the following three points:

    1. Care shouldn’t be seen as a development issue but as a global issue. A re-orientation of economic policies towards meeting our need to be nurtured as well as supported in our care-giving to others is vital not just in low-income countries but also in high-income ones. Austerity measures in Europe at the moment, for example, are seriously undermining our capacity to care and to exist as healthy communities, especially in the context of an increasingly aging population.

    2. We need to care for old people and the disabled, not just children. While many battles around childcare still need to be won, the disabled, the elderly and their families are even less of a priority in most policy agendas. And while childcare is considered a legitimate issue in some workplaces, workers’ responsibilities for other dependents are scarcely recognised. A shift in emphasis from children to a wider group of dependents would require also a shift away from viewing care as a good investment for a productive economy towards acknowledging care as a right for everybody.

    3. Greater emphasis on redistribution between families and the State, not just between genders within the family. Redistribution from women to men within households will not help much, and will still leave all family members exhausted, unless care is fully recognised as a public good and not seen as a private matter. In parts of Europe, such as Southern Italy, families claiming their right to public support are often received with indifference or disdain by local and national institutions.

  4. Al Scott says:

    Care really does need to include caring for the elderly and the disabled. In the northern industrialised world in particular, lack of care for the elderly is reaching a crisis point. So care isn’t just a development issue, nor is it primarily about caring for children:


    At the same time, caring for the disabled has always been a huge problem in developing countries, where levels of disability have always been very high for all the obvious reasons (poor health care, inadequate health and safety measures & injuries sustained during conflict). Yet remarkably the development sector still pays very little attention to the issue of care for the disabled. I do wonder why there isn’t more research about this issue?

  5. Jumoke Idowu says:

    This one fantastic area which Actionaid in Nigeria as impressed me especially care across the ages, disability and health conditions. Nurses in Nigeria rarely do hospital care for trauma patients and so the family substitutes and mostly women do, what is the system doing concerning these issues

    • Jumoke Idowu says:

      Home based care system here is non existent and rarely remunerated and poorly, related care jobs are neglected and looked down upon and mere jobs

  6. […] with eking out an existence on subsistence crops and little income. It is the work of putting food on the table, insisting your children attend school so the next generation can have hopes of life away from the […]

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