MADRE Statements

What's so Liberal About Neoliberalism

Posted on: Monday, December 22, 2003

Keywords: Economic Justice

What’s so Liberal About Neoliberalism
By Yifat Susskind

Most mainstream economists haven’t given much thought to the social consequences of macro-economic policies. But the impacts of economic policies are not race- or gender-neutral. Rather, gender (or the socially assigned differences between men and women) partly determines how economic policies affect people and how people respond to policies. Because we experience gender in relation to other parts of identity such as race, ethnicity, caste, sexuality, national origin and class, we need to understand how these categories work together to shape people’s lives. When we look at the whole person in this way, we see that different groups of women and men may be impacted in diverse ways by the same policy.

And yet, in every society in the world, women have less economic power than men of the same race, class or nationality. That’s because women are subjected to gender discrimination, which denies them resources and opportunities – ranging from fair wages, land, credit and inheritance rights to education, political participation and freedom of movement – and bars them from equal participation in the economy. As a result, women are over-represented among the poor; they are the most impoverished members of poor families and communities; and the hardest hit by policies that hurt poor people.

Consider the distribution of the most basic necessity: food. Around the world, women and girls are less likely to receive the most nutritious foods when they are available, and they generally eat last and least when food is scarce. Because food is often given first to boys and men, seventy percent of the 840 million people in the global South (and eight million in the United States) who go hungry every day are women and girls.  Conversely, where women control a bigger portion of family resources, they and their children are more likely to eat well.

Women’s economic status is shaped not only by discrimination but also by their responsibility for “social reproduction,” which is the work of caring for children, the sick, disabled and elderly and for maintaining households, communities and cultural practices. In every society in the world, women are the primary care-takers, which means that policies that harm poor women also threaten society’s most vulnerable members. But women’s roles in social reproduction mean different things for different groups of women. For example, poor and middle-class women are generally responsible for cooking, cleaning, laundering and providing health care for their children and other family members whether or not they also do paid work outside the home. 

In contrast, many wealthy white women in the US perform their roles in social reproduction as mothers, wives and community members, but are not particularly burdened by household labor because they employ nannies and maids. Women’s work in social reproduction can be either unpaid (like the mothers and wives described above) or paid (like the nannies and maids). Moreover, many women work in the “productive” sphere (producing goods and services) but, unlike men, are not paid. For example, most women farmers in Africa or women who work in family businesses in Europe or Asia are in the productive sphere, but are often seen as “helping out the family” and receive no pay for their work.

In fact, women’s unpaid work (most of it in the sphere of social reproduction) is one of the most fundamental sources of profit in capitalism. The cooking, cleaning, care-taking, laundering and maintenance of social networks that most women do at home is often on top of a full-time paid job, and constitutes a double burden that most men do not carry. Men’s work, as well as women’s paid work, is counted as a cost of production and remunerated (paid an equivalent for) in the form of wages. But since women’s unpaid work in the home and community is work they do for free, the value of what they produce in this arena (just under half of the officially estimated $23 trillion a year in global output) is not remunerated.  Instead, the dollar-value of women’s unpaid social reproductive work is absorbed as profit when goods and services produced by the men they care for are sold on the market. That means that one aspect of women’s relationship to capitalism is that, effectively, women work for their husbands’ bosses for free.
Although each takes on different forms for different groups of women, gender discrimination and women’s role as primary caretakers are cultural universals. Using discrimination against women and women’s social roles in reproductive work as lenses to view the world economy, we see an inequitable relationship between gender and capitalism; more specifically, we see that poor women around the world bear the brunt of profit-driven economic policies. As a result, many women have begun to organize to secure economic rights not only in their local communities, but also in the international arena where many of these policies originate.


Many of the economic trends that we experience today are a result of a balance of forces that crystallized after World War Two. By the 1940s, the Global South (two-thirds of the world) was ravaged by colonialism. Europe was devastated by war. By comparison, the US emerged from World War Two as an economic superpower. Since then, the main objective of US foreign policy has been to safeguard this dominant position. Consider the words of George Kennan, one of the most influential post-war US policy makers, addressing the State Department in 1948:

“We have about 50% of the world's wealth, but only 6.3% of its population. In this situation we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity...We should cease to talk about vague and...unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards and democratization...The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.” 

Kennan's view remains the touchstone of US foreign policy, which, as in his day, generally consists of political and economic moves made with ideological rationales. This point is often better understood by people in countries where these policies are implemented than by those in the US whose tax dollars finance them. One reason is that foreign policy is usually presented domestically as serving the very objectives Kennan characterizes as irrelevant: human rights, raising living standards and, above all, democracy. But when we look at the record of post-war US military actions, both direct and covert, we see that nearly all of them aimed to force developing countries into an economic role prescribed by the US: namely, to provide markets, raw materials and cheap labor to the US and to keep them from developing autonomous economic and political institutions that might challenge US hegemony. This economic lens highlights an important facet of US aggression against countries as diverse as Vietnam, Chile, Iraq, Congo and Guatemala. Even economically negligible countries like Nicaragua, Grenada, Haiti and Cuba have been targeted for insisting that their national resources be used to benefit local populations instead of US corporations, thereby setting a dangerous example for others.

By the 1970s the rebuilt economies of Germany and Japan challenged US economic supremacy. In response, US corporations increased their exploitation of poorer countries’ cheap materials, manufacturing and labor. US-backed governments smashed labor movements, helping to keep production costs down. New technologies made it easier than ever for corporations to move from country to country, setting up shop until some other location became more profitable. This “flexible production” is one hallmark of today's global economy. Another is the emergence of unrestricted worldwide markets in stocks, bonds, currencies and other financial instruments. Governments have little control over these “global capital markets,” which have concentrated an unprecedented proportion of the world's resources in the hands of a few corporations. In the last 20 years, corporations have gained control of 70 percent of global trade and become the world's most powerful economic actors. 

While worldwide trade and commerce are nothing new, the “global economy” refers to this combination of mobile production and international investment in a climate of minimal government interference. The global economy or “globalization” usually also refers to the spread of technology and media, the homogenization of cultures, and the encroachment of the capitalist economy into more and more areas of the globe and more and more aspects of our lives. This is the macro-economic condition that erodes the wages, living standards, health, social welfare and environments of so many women and families in the US and around the world.

What’s So Liberal About Neoliberalism?

Today’s global economy is governed by a doctrine called neo (or new) liberalism. The term can be confusing in the US, where “liberal” is associated with left-of-center politics. Economic liberalism, however, holds that minimal government intervention and unrestricted (i.e., “liberal”) manufacturing, commerce, trade and investment are the key to economic growth. In theory, this growth is supposed to benefit everyone. But the theory ignores inequalities inherent in our systems of gender, nationality and race, which ensure that not everyone benefits equally from economic “good times.” For example, the 1990s are remembered as a boom time for the US economy, but most people in the country experienced falling wages and underemployment under President Clinton, whose welfare reform policies pushed a million more women and children into poverty.

In fact, neoliberalism functions by exploiting these inequalities to ensure that the world’s elites stay at the top and get richer. Since the 1980s, wealth (mostly in the form of natural resources, wages and social benefits) has been siphoned away from poor and middle-income people worldwide and reallocated to the richest (mainly in the form of corporate profits). The trend is visible both within countries (in the US, the gap between rich and poor more than doubled between 1979 and 2000)  and between countries (the gap between poor and rich countries has doubled since 1960, with $48 billion flowing annually from poor to rich countries). 

In the US, neoliberal policies dismantle social welfare systems and force poor women (who are the majority of welfare recipients) into “workfare” programs at below-minimum wages, thereby driving down wages in general. These policies bolster prisons as a for-profit industry and a means of social control; seek to outlaw affirmative action; erode worker’s health, safety and employment benefits; privatize water, electricity, health care and education; and above all, discredit the idea that governments have a responsibility for the welfare of their people.

Poor countries’ debt, resulting from colonial inequalities in the global system as well as the vast spending of corrupt governments, became the wedge tool to open up poor economies to Northern banks and corporations. Africa is the most heavily indebted continent: according to the IMF, 83 percent of countries that face an unsustainable debt burden are in Africa.  Most of this debt is a legacy of loans made to Cold War-era dictators in exchange for siding with the US. These rulers are now gone, but their debt has been inherited by poor women and families. On a per capita basis, every adult and child in sub-Saharan Africa carries a debt of almost $400 – more than the average family makes in a year.  To understand the impact of debt servicing (the portion of debt payment plus interest that governments pay on foreign debt), look at how much of the national budget it absorbs. This is the amount that’s diverted from potential investment in meeting people’s needs. Rwanda’s annual debt service is $43 million –1/4 of its entire national budget and more than 10 times the budget for healthcare.  As a region, sub-Saharan Africa spends four times more on debt service than education and health care combined. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 500,000 children die annually from IMF-imposed policies mandated to service debt.  

Responding to rising demands from the global economic justice movement, the World Bank and IMF finally devised a debt relief plan in the late 1990s for 27 of the most indebted countries – most of them in Africa.  The plan, known as the HIPC (Heavily Indebted Poor Countries) initiative, was touted by the Bank and the IMF as a humanitarian gesture. But its actual impact has been to deepen the crisis of the few countries that met the plan’s stringent conditions, while further enriching countries of the North. That’s because the HIPC initiative was not designed to cancel debt, but rather to ensure that debts could be repaid. Countries that qualified for “debt relief” under the plan were forced to implement even more extreme economic policies that maintain the flow of profits to the North, while local people lost even more basic rights and services. Zambia and Niger, for example, were actually slated to pay more under HIPC than before “debt relief” was implemented.  Clearly, the same international lending institutions that created the debt crisis and deny responsibility for policies that hurt the poor should not dictate conditions for debt relief. Today, most people who are part of the global justice movement no longer call for debt relief but for outright cancellation of poor countries’ debt. They demand that proceeds from debt cancellation be used to meet people’s basic needs in poor countries, with national processes determining specific priorities.

Structural Adjustment Programs

Today, more than 1.3 of the world's 6.2 billion people live in extreme poverty. Over 70 percent are women, many of whom work as many as 90 hours a week to maintain the same marginal standard of living that they possessed a decade ago.  Just as profits depend on treating women’s labor (and natural resources) as a free and infinitely available ingredient of production, neoliberal policies that generate super-profits depend on increasing the exploitation of women’s work, both paid and unpaid. One of the clearest illustrations of this dynamic are structural adjustment programs (SAPs), which have been the cornerstone of neoliberal policy worldwide. 

In recent years, the IMF and World Bank have tried to deflect growing protest against SAPs with a series of cosmetic adjustments. These new policy frameworks, such as the “Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers” use softer, more humane language to replicate the goals and methods of the original SAPs. Like their predecessors, new policies work to ensure that poor countries make debt payments to Northern creditors, re-orient their economies towards a global market and create favorable conditions for foreign investors. Most of these programs consist of a set of related policies based on: 1. loosening government control on manufacturing and investment (deregulation); 2. promoting export production and reducing subsidies and tariffs (“free trade”) and; 3. cutting government spending and selling state-owned resources to corporate investors (privatization). A closer look at deregulation, free trade and privatization shows how these trends hurt poor women and their families, especially in the global South, home to two-thirds of the world’s population.

Deregulation: Women Win the “Race to the Bottom” 

A main goal of neoliberal policies is to limit government control of corporate profit making. This trend, known as deregulation, applies to both investment and manufacturing. Lifting restrictions on international investment and marketing has allowed corporations to manufacture goods in poor countries where costs are low, while maintaining the same access to profitable US markets as if they were producing in New Jersey or Michigan. Meanwhile, deregulation of manufacturing has undermined laws that protect the health and safety of workers, consumers and the environment. These two trends are mutually reinforcing: workers, communities and even governments have lost the ability to demand standards for corporate conduct because corporations can simply relocate to a country with even lower standards. This dynamic has helped spark a worldwide downward spiral in social, environmental and labor conditions, as communities and whole countries compete to offer corporations the cheapest deal. Poor countries are most vulnerable to accepting degraded conditions, while US workers suffer plant closings, increasingly hazardous work places, downsizing, union busting and benefit cuts. In fact, the rights of workers in all countries are eroded by policies that prioritize corporate profit over people's needs.

The new “mobility of capital,” sparked by deregulation of investment in the 1980s, has shifted manufacturing of goods such as garments and small electronics from large, sometimes unionized factories in the global North to non-unionized plants and sweatshops — sometimes called “export processing zones” (EPZs) — in the global South. For corporations like Gap, Wal-Mart, Kmart and many others, the profitability of EPZs is predicated on a gendered division of labor, with women filling as much as 90 percent of low-skilled, low-paying, labor-intensive jobs.  The Thai government, for example, has tried to attract investment from foreign textile companies by advertising the “dexterity of the small hands of the Oriental woman and traditional attitude of submission.”  

In countries such as the Dominican Republic and Bangladesh, EPZs have increased rates of women’s employment. Some economists argue that this change constitutes an advancement for women. But because women are still responsible for social reproduction when they take jobs for wages, policies that increase women’s employment without accompanying services such as day care and family health benefits simply increase the work burden of women. Moreover, the jobs available to women in EPZs usually do not enable them to lift their families out of poverty, to develop skills that can lead to advancement, or to enjoy work that is socially or intellectually satisfying. In this sense, “economic growth” to these women means anchored place at the economic bottom.

In Guatemala, export-manufacturing sweatshops (maquilas in Spanish) have quadrupled in number since 1994. Maquilas have become emblematic of that country’s new role in the global economy as cheap producer of textiles for Northern markets. Like their counterparts in Taiwan, the Philippines, Haiti and elsewhere, over 80 percent of Guatemala’s maquila workers are young women who work longer hours than men and are paid half of men’s wages.  The minimum wage in Guatemala hovers at less than a third of what it costs to meet a family's basic needs and many maquila workers are the sole providers for their families. Without adequate labor laws and enforcement of those laws, workers suffer human rights violations, including physical assaults, mandatory pregnancy tests and the forced consumption of amphetamines to increase output. Since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, many Central American maquilas are relocating to China, where wages are even lower.

For many of the women who work in maquilas, the only thing worse than their exploitative jobs is the prospect of no work at all. That’s why activism in solidarity with maquila workers needs to steer clear of tactics that can result in plant closings or punitive lay-offs. In the US, a call to “shut down the sweatshops!” may evoke the need to end abusive labor conditions. But organizing that truly supports women workers in the global South needs to recognize that families depend on these jobs for their survival. Many women who work in maquilas say that the best way for Northern activists to support them is by challenging corporate control of international trade and investment policies. If governments were less pressured by the threat of corporate flight, workers would be in a stronger position to demand higher wages, benefits and enforcement of health and safety standards.
What's So Free About “Free Trade”?

Advocates of neoliberalism say they favor business not restrained by government interference or regulation. This trend, called “free trade,” means that countries are supposed to open their markets to imports. But in reality, governments of rich countries maintain their advantage by erecting trade barriers (usually in the form of tariffs, or taxes on imports) and subsidizing industry in their own countries. In fact, all US enterprises that are internationally competitive, such as agribusiness, pharmaceuticals and high technology, are heavily subsidized by tax dollars. Profits, by contrast, are pocketed by corporate owners. Neoliberal trade agreements, like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), actually increase protectionist measures in sectors where the US has an advantage.

The problem is not necessarily protectionism itself, but the fact that the US and the stronger European economies maintain this option for themselves while using the threat of trade sanctions to block poor countries from buffering their own industry against competition from Northern manufacturers. For example, in 2002, the US, Europe and Japan subsidized their large-scale farms with $320 billion, far outstripping the $50 billion in foreign aid that those countries dispensed.  Thanks to the massive government aid that they recieve, Northern agro-exporters can sell their products for less than what it costs to produce them. The result is a crisis of overproduction that has glutted markets in poor countries, bankrupting millions of small farmers who are barred by trade regulations from receiving government subsidies.

The blatant double standard in “free trade” led to the collapse of negotiations at the World Trade Organization meeting in Cancún, Mexico in 2003, where trade representatives and politicians from the global North continued to wax ideological about “free trade,” despite their rampant protectionism. The hypocrisy is astounding when we consider that nearly all of the now-industrialized countries relied heavily on the combination of subsidizing key industries and taxing imports as the key to creating their powerful economies. These protectionist measures remain potentially useful strategies for safeguarding workers and small businesses and should be available to all countries as part of a range of options.

A look at “free trade” in agriculture of countries like Haiti, Mexico, and Tanzania shows how neoliberal policies are weighted to benefit large-scale agribusiness based in the global North at the expense of poor women and their families. The global South is home to 96 percent of the world’s farmers  and 70 percent of the population is dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods.  In much of the global South, women are responsible for feeding their families and communities. Women account for 80 percent of the local food production workforce in Africa; 55 percent in Asia and 40 percent in Latin America. 

Before SAPs were imposed on Haiti in the 1980s, 70 percent of Haitians were peasant farmers. Most of the country's food came from women's small family plots. But SAPs mandated that Haiti cut tariffs on US-grown rice from 30 percent to three percent (the lowest tariff in the hemisphere).  By the mid-1990s, imports of cheap US rice had increased 27-fold, bankrupting peasant farmers and causing an alarming rise in hunger and malnutrition throughout the countryside. Today, Haiti is forced to import half of all its food — the highest percentage in the hemisphere. Haitian women report price increases upwards of 100 percent on the imported food they are forced to buy. These imports have almost wiped out local agriculture and Haitian women are now struggling to feed their families.

Haiti’s “food dependency” (also the hemisphere’s worst) holds the government captive to further IMF demands, like an injunction against raising the minimum wage. A key ingredient of the neoliberal recipe, “wage repression” is a disaster for Haitians and a boon to the many US-based assembly plants that have set up shop in Port-au-Prince.

Disney, Nike and other corporations take advantage of a huge reserve of workers, including the tens of thousands of women who were driven off their land by US agribusiness and left with little choice but to accept jobs with US corporations for rock-bottom wages under miserable conditions. Many women have been pushed into even less desirable, sometimes dangerous work in the informal sector (the part of the economy not counted in government statistics), such as maids or prostitutes.

In North America, NAFTA locks Mexico into serving as a market for US agribusiness by creating conditions in which Mexican farmers cannot compete with large US corn producers. As Mexico's chief creditor and trading partner, the US demanded an end to Mexican farm subsidies. Meanwhile, US corn giants, including Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland received about $10 billion in government subsidies in 2002, an amount 10 times higher than Mexico’s entire agriculture budget. Since NAFTA took effect in 1994, US corn exports to Mexico have tripled, flooding the Mexican market and causing domestic corn prices to drop by more than 70 percent. More than 15 million Mexicans depend on corn for their livelihoods . Of these, about 40% are subsistence farmers, who grow most of their crops for their own consumption.  Since NAFTA, millions of Mexican farmers have gone from being poor but getting by to watching their children go hungry.

The crisis is acute in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state, and has placed a particular strain on women. As more and more men lose incomes and are forced to migrate in search of jobs, women are left to work family farms and generate other sources of income in addition to the work they do to maintain their households and families. NAFTA is the latest in a long history of assaults on the rights and resources of Indigenous Peoples in Chiapas. That's why the Zapatistas chose the day of NAFTA’s signing (January 1, 1994), to rise up and demand democratic reform as a basis for economic and racial justice. Some of the loudest calls to crush the rebellion came from US corporations like Chase Manhattan Bank, which had invested billions in Mexico under NAFTA. In response, the US stepped up training and funding for Mexico’s army, which has fueled massacres, forced displacement of peasant farmers and a “scorched earth” campaign that has driven thousands more to the brink of starvation. In an attempt to terrorize and subjugate communities thought to be siding with the Zapatistas, Mexican paramilitary forces use rape and sexual slavery as weapons of war. Indeed, gender-based violence, which is a staple of armed conflict, is a growing problem in many areas where US-backed militarism has become the last word in enforcing a neoliberal economic order.  

Like many heavily indebted countries in Africa, Asia and Central America, Tanzania has been pressured by the World Bank and IMF to shift land use from food production to large-scale industrial agriculture. Cotton, Tanzania’s main cash crop, is exported to raise foreign currency that can be used to pay interest on the country’s huge debt. But small-scale Tanzanian farmers face the same problem as their Mexican counterparts: despite all the talk about “free trade,” US cotton producers are subsidized by tax dollars totalling a staggering three to four billion dollars a year. That’s three times more than the USAID budget for all of Africa.  Because of the massive government aid that they receive, US cotton companies are encouraged to over-produce. As a result, world cotton prices have dropped by half since the mid 1990s, bankrupting many small African cotton farmers.

For rural women in Tanzania, the shift from corn to cotton has been detrimental. Women have lost access to valuable farmland because men control cash crops like cotton, while women traditionally grow food crops as part of their work in social reproduction. Poor, rural households have lost a primary source of food and nutrition; while women, stripped of their livelihoods, have become more dependent on men, leaving them with less decision-making power in the family and more vulnerable to abuse. Women’s lower status is reinforced by agricultural policy that discriminates on the basis of gender: although African women often do more farm work than men, less than one percent of agricultural loans are made to women.

Tanzanian women and their families are further threatened by a sharp rise in the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides known to cause birth defects and cancer. Farmers have become dependent on these agents to offset the soil depletion and insect infestations caused by the single-crop cultivation that is mandated by the World Bank and IMF. Some of the most toxic pesticides sprayed in Tanzania are made in the US and Europe. Thanks to pressure from consumer advocates, these agents have been banned in their country of origin. But in the global economy, pesticide companies such as Monsanto and Ciba Geigy can simply redirect their products to countries that are barred by trade agreements from enforcing environmental standards. The problem illustrates the need for global mechanisms to protect people and the environment in a global economy. 

Private Wealth Versus Women’s Health: Budget-Slashing and Privatization

A key ideological tenet of neoliberalism is that governments need not be responsible for the welfare of their people. This belief is expressed in a range of policy directives from the IMF and World Bank, including tariff elimination, currency devaluation and tax cuts, all of which lower government revenues and decrease public funding for health, education, housing and other services that poor women and families rely on. Similarly, privatization, mandated by SAPs as a way to cut government costs, often results in a lack of access to critical services for poor people. When government utilities, hospitals, schools or transportation systems are sold to private investors, the new owners often increase rates or introduce “user fees” that put services out of reach of the poor majority. While poor people are hurt by privatization and cuts in services, gender discrimination means that when resources are made scarce, the needs of girls and women are sacrificed first. In fact, women in poor countries have shown drastic drops in school enrollment, food intake, hospital enrollment and life expectancy since SAPs have taken hold.  Moreover, when services become unaffordable, people’s basic needs do not disappear; instead, the job of providing necessities shifts to women, who must intensify their work in social reproduction — hauling water, collecting wood, processing food, building community support networks and providing their families with health care, day care and the basic nutrition once guaranteed by public funding.

Consider healthcare: in the world’s 37 poorest countries (more than three-quarters of which are in sub-Saharan Africa), SAPs have slashed national healthcare budgets by a whopping 50 percent. Today, 75 percent of health care in poor countries is provided by women in their homes, leading some economists to describe privatization of health care as “a direct tax on the revenue, labor and working hours of women.”  The assumption that women will bear the burden of providing health care for their families and communities encompasses an unasked question: who will care for the millions of women made even more vulnerable to sickness and infirmity by worsening poverty and added workloads associated with neoliberal policies?

Around the world, more than half a million women die each year during pregnancy and childbirth, mostly from preventable conditions. Ninety-nine percent of these deaths occur in poor countries, where spending cuts and privatization of health care have decimated the provision of basic health services such as nutrition classes, immunization programs and prenatal care. In Latin America and the US, privatization has led to a sharp rise in the number of hospitals owned and operated by the Catholic Church. As a result, women are forced to seek treatment in facilities that refuse to provide critical reproductive health services. In the world’s 46 poorest countries, more than half of the population has no access to health services at all.  Meanwhile, US-based health management organizations (HMOs) make huge profits in poor countries running the newly privatized health systems serving those who can still afford treatment.

Confronting Cause and Effect: Women’s Organizing from the Community to the International Arena

As neoliberalism has pushed governments to abdicate responsibility for people’s basic welfare, women's organizations around the world have stepped in to provide a range of services, including health clinics, domestic violence shelters, AIDS education and literacy programs, income-generating initiatives, nutrition classes and girls' leadership training. These are remarkable achievements that should be supported, but they must also be understood as the result of a serious failure of government, for community-based organizations, no matter how competent, are no substitute for responsible government.

To move beyond a band-aid approach to service provision, women’s community organizing must also work to hold governments accountable to meeting people’s needs. Because national policies are so often influenced by global economic trends, women’s organizing must reach all the way to the international arena. Indeed, the old slogan, “Think Globally, Act Locally,” must now be turned on its head, for while the original injunction to “act locally” remains crucial, community-based work that does not impact policy-making will remain a limited, and ultimately, frustrating venture. At the same time, international work that is not rooted in community priorities risks becoming abstract and irrelevant to most women.

Increasingly, advocates of economic justice like MADRE, the international women’s human rights organization, understand the need to bridge local, national and global arenas in their work. MADRE has pioneered a model of human rights work that supports women working to meet urgent needs in their communities while offering leadership development programs, human rights education and skills training that strengthens women’s capacities to demand alternatives to destructive policies in local institutions, at the national level as well as at the United Nations and in other international human rights arenas.

Economic Rights Are Women's Human Rights

In the narrow logic of neoliberalism, profit and growth are the only measure of economic success. Health, education and other critical social services are seen as costs rather than investments. In fact, providing decent jobs at a living wage, respecting the rights of workers, protecting the environment and ensuring national food supplies are all seen as liabilities for corporations. Neoliberal policies have a particularly harmful impact on women, who, according to the United Nations, work two-thirds of the world’s working hours and produce half of the world’s food, yet earn only 10 percent of the world’s income and own less than one percent of the world’s property.

Too often, the rhetoric that accompanies discussions about economics leaves us feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. Jargon-filled discourse on “globalization” and “the Market” masks the raw violence of economic exploitation, suggesting that the economy functions according to scientific principles instead of political choices. Once we accept this proposition, it is easy to believe that economic matters are simply beyond our control. But the way that people produce and distribute the world's resources is a matter of human decisions — and human rights. In fact, human rights standards offer a valuable and under-utilized tool for achieving economic justice. International human rights instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Bill of Human Rights recognize every person’s legal right to fundamental economic resources. For example, Article 25 of the Universal Declaration guarantees each person’s right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including ... food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services....”
When people move from thinking of such economic resources as needs to conceptualizing them as rights, they generate a sense of entitlement that, in turn, empowers them to demand what they feel they deserve, inalienably, as human beings.  Therein lies the power of the human rights framework to mobilize people on behalf of economic justice issues. The problem is that human rights instruments lack adequate enforcement mechanisms. As a result, they are often violated by the very governments that have promised to uphold them. The global justice movement, however, could work to strengthen these instruments by bringing public pressure to bear on governments. A central lesson of the global justice movement’s victories is that governments – and corporations – can indeed be held accountable when people hold them accountable.

But today, multi-national corporations are able to trample the rights of the world's majority in part because the global arena lacks democratic structures through which people can organize against corporate abuses and government complicity. At present, the only governing bodies of the global economy are institutions like the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, which conduct their operations in secret and impose far-reaching decisions without the consent of communities affected by them.  A central challenge of today’s progressive movements is to create effective mechanisms to win transparency, accountability and representation for ordinary people in the global economy. The human rights framework offers some important building blocks toward this end.

Lessons from the women's human rights movement demonstrate the importance of creating international responses to global problems based on women's local experience. This approach is crucial in a world where crises fueled by capitalist economic policies (unemployment, migration, environmental degradation, AIDS, violence and militarization) are global in scope and more interconnected than ever before. As we work to make policies in the global economy accountable to the needs of the world’s majority, we need to replace single-issue politics and national solutions with integrated approaches and effective international organizing. This model, put forward by women’s organizations such as MADRE and many others in every region of the world, is proving critical in the struggle to defend economic human rights for women and families around the world.

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