SIXTY-FIVE per cent of women’s working hours are unpaid every week and excluded from official measures of economic activity, an Oxfam report has found. Radical Pathways Beyond GDP highlights how unpaid care – which accounts for forty-five per cent of all adults’ working hours each week globally – is excluded from gross domestic product (GDP) calculations.

The discussion paper looks at how the over-reliance on GDP warps governments’ priorities. Women carry out the majority of unpaid care – nearly 90 billion hours a week.

There is a growing consensus among policymakers and institutions that GDP is no longer fit for purpose as the primary indicator of economic and social progress. By excluding many factors that contribute to the overall health of the economy and wider society, the metric steers policymakers towards priorities that are fuelling inequality, gender and racial injustice and climate breakdown. The report argues that transformative alternatives to GDP are urgently required and that narrowly defined growth should never be a primary objective or end goal.

Anam Parvez, Oxfam Head of Research and author of the report, said: “Women are being short-changed the world over, pushed deeper into time and income poverty. To add insult to injury, the majority of their work is ignored by official statistics. Unpaid care is a hidden subsidy to the global economy; without it the system would collapse.

“Governments’ fixation on GDP leads to policies that are directly harming women, for example cuts to vital public services. Those who experience intersecting inequalities, such as racial discrimination, are particularly impacted. Women are expected to act as shock absorbers, cushioning the impact of austerity and other harmful policies through their unpaid labour.

“In an age of climate crisis, growing inequality and economic turmoil, there is a strong case that this outdated metric should no longer be the dominant compass guiding policy making. It fails to distinguish whether economic activity is harming or benefitting people and the planet. Government policies and budgets should be guided by a set of metrics that look at the whole picture, including closing the divide between the richest and the rest, instead of relentlessly pursuing growth for its own sake.”

The report argues that alternative metrics should capture all forms of economic activity – paid and unpaid, formal and informal – and critically include use of time. They should factor in ‘wellbeing elsewhere’, taking into account the positive or negative impact of a country’s policy decisions and resource use on equality, social prosperity and sustainability in other countries. And the design and implementation process must meaningfully engage women and indigenous communities.

GDP takes no account of inequality. A country can have high GDP growth yet all the benefits accrue to the richest people. The report found that since 1965, while the UK’s GDP has almost tripled, glaring gaps in life expectancy remain. The lives of people living in the most deprived areas in England are, on average, 8.5 years shorter than those of people living in the richest areas.

Globally, despite the US and Luxembourg having GDPs per capita more than triple the size of Costa Rica’s, it is Costa Rica that tops the Happy Planet Index for achieving long, happy and sustainable lives, as measured by the New Economics Foundation. The US ranks at a lowly 122nd, with Luxembourg at 143rd.

There is increasing public support in high-income countries to move beyond GDP – UK polling carried out by the Women’s Budget Group found that almost seven out of 10 people say that wellbeing should be used to measure the success of economic policy.

A number of governments and institutions have acknowledged the shortcomings of GDP and are looking at alternatives; including the UN’s Beyond GDP initiative. The UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) has proposed including time-use estimates in a new beyond GDP measure of Gross Inclusive Income (GII), which adjusts GDP to include unpaid household production and additional ecosystem services to better capture economic activity and economic welfare.

But lack of a common language and shared methodology has meant limited progress. GDP also has ‘single indicator appeal’. Most multi-dimensional frameworks of wellbeing have many indicators, instead of a clear, smaller set of key indicators, which makes it difficult to get an overall picture or tell a compelling story.

A handful of countries have made efforts to incorporate alternative measures into the highest levels of national law and policy. Bhutan‘s Gross National Happiness (GNH) Index is enshrined in the nation’s constitution, with GDP as its subordinate. Further laws and regulations have supported this. For instance, using the GNH, environmental protection became a priority, leading to Bhutan limiting tourism and banning log exports. As a result, Bhutan became the world’s first carbon-negative country.

The Scottish government has described the transition towards a wellbeing economy as a top priority. It is legally required to consult on the outcomes of its National Performance Framework (NPF) every five years. This is now complemented by a new Wellbeing Economy Monitor, which focuses on how the economy and economic policy contribute towards Scotland’s national outcomes. However, questions remain over the extent to which the national outcomes are prioritised within policy and spending choices.

* Read Radical Pathways Beyond GDP: Why and how we need to pursue feminist and decolonial alternatives urgently here.

* More information on the Happy Planet Index here.

* More information on Scotland’s Wellbeing economy monitor here.

* Source: Oxfam GB