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Suman Bery: The secret of development

Why gender will matter for India

Suman Bery 

A recent editorial in this newspaper commented on the lukewarm and indeed puzzling political reaction to the committee set up under former chief justice J S Verma to strengthen India’s legal remedies and law enforcement capabilities against gender violence (“Voices for women”, January 30). I happened to be in Delhi in the immediate aftermath of the awful Delhi bus rape and murder, and was deeply moved by the episode and by the public reaction. But my reactions were primarily those of a (male) human being and of a citizen. I have since come to realise that my reactions to these events as a development economist and development practitioner were grossly inadequate.

This is not meant to minimise the legal, ethical and moral dimensions of gender empowerment and gender equality, all of which are undeniable and are primary. It is rather to say that the transcendent nature of the challenge for the nation’s long-term strength and social sustainability was inadequately appreciated by me at the time. My epiphany is due to my participation at a very fine conference hosted by Green Templeton College at Oxford University in January on gender inequality in emerging markets. The conference was part of an annual series hosted by the Emerging Markets Symposium ( in whose Steering Committee I have participated since its inception.

These annual symposia (of which this was the fourth) are animated by the belief that the middle-income emerging markets face challenges in their economic and social development that differ from those facing both the advanced countries and the least developed countries. Further, the international development assistance community is increasingly focused on poor countries (even though poor people are just as likely to be located in middle-income countries), as rich country governments increasingly see emerging markets as sophisticated competitors and as societies with adequate intellectual and administrative capacity to solve their problems on their own.

These countries are, therefore, literally in uncharted territory, and are often pioneers in policy innovation and practice. Accordingly, the symposium focuses on exchange of experience among scholars and practitioners, drawn from advanced countries and emerging markets supported by a rich, customised and invaluable database assembled from a range of international sources. The discussions take place under the Chatham House rule to allow free and frank discussion without attribution.

The 22 countries included in the database (unfortunately not available in the public domain) range from Pakistan, India and the Philippines at the poorer end to Chile, Malaysia and Poland at the upper end. Chile is now a member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and Poland is one of the larger economies in the European Union; the real per capita income of Poland is seven times that of Pakistan and six times that of India. Even a sustained annual real per capita growth rate of six per cent over the next 25 years would move India from its current real income level only to that of a Malaysia or a Turkey today. So India will remain an “emerging market”, a very important and influential one, for the foreseeable future.

Why is gender an important issue for economic development? What aspects are distinctive for emerging markets? Why have these issues now achieved such salience? What can and should be done, and in what order? These dimensions of the discussion at Oxford were what I found to be of particular interest. I learned that the tensions typically arise in realms where women’s reproductive and productive roles intersect. Since women in rural societies have been part of the productive sphere since time immemorial, a slightly sharper formulation would stress women’s role in modern productive activities. It is little accident that in the now advanced societies the pressure for female empowerment and emancipation followed the First World War when women entered the manufacturing labour force in large numbers, and gained further momentum after the Second World War.

While the focus of the symposium was on emerging markets, it was also striking that there remains an unfinished agenda to this day in even the richest and most progressive countries, let alone in laggards such as Japan. High on the economic agenda are lower pay for equally qualified female staff and unequal representation in the corporate hierarchy. Both these are linked to the need for women to interrupt their careers to look after children. In the sphere of emerging markets, however, the most interesting insights had to do with causality. Despite well-known examples to the contrary (Kerala, Bangladesh), my somewhat casual understanding earlier was that female empowerment follows rising living standards. Two important points were made in the symposium. The first is that accurate data on female participation and economic status for the emerging markets are of relatively recent origin (less than 20 years) and still incomplete. So, formal hypothesis testing is in its infancy. Even so, such data as do now exist are consistent with the finding that countries that rate high on a gender index (including the dimensions of economics, education, health and political power) tend to enjoy faster growth, better health outcomes and lower levels of political instability and political violence than countries that rate lower on such an index.

The mechanisms at work are complex and not fully understood, but include spending choices within the household, the violence of young males with poor prospects of marriage (because of adverse sex ratios), and the spending priorities of female political leaders (as documented in impressive scholarly research on female reservations in Indian panchayat elections). Indeed, much as with climate change, gender inequality is fast coming to be seen as an issue in national security, which is the reason that the outgoing US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, made it a major priority while in office.

The transformation in attitudes that is called for will require action by a broad range of actors, and is beyond the scope of this column. But there were two ideas that appealed to me for their clarity and simplicity. The first was a concentrated effort on keeping female students in secondary school till completion; the second idea concerned concentrating on providing cell phone access to reduce isolation, provide support and as a tool of economic empowerment. While there can be no guarantee that our political class will come round easily, there is nothing that can stop an idea whose time has come — as our prime minister is fond of saying. For India’s future, let us hope that the time is now.

The writer is chief economist, Shell International. These views are his own

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First Published: Mon, February 04 2013. 00:22 IST