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From a Care Economy to a Care Society

How the UN talks about care and why it matters
30 Oct 2023
care economy blog cover

By: Paz Arancibia (ILO), Mignon Duffy (University of Massachusetts Lowell), Rianne Mahon (Carleton University Canada), Silke Staab (UN Women) and Ramya Subrahmanian (UNICEF Innocenti)

Nurses putting their lives at risk to care for COVID patients without proper protection; domestic workers separated from their families to stay in a “bubble” with their employer; mothers struggling to cope with the impact of closed child-care centers and schools during the global pandemic. These and countless similar stories threw into stark relief our dependence on care work for optimal human development, and in particular, the vulnerabilities faced by those carrying out the vast majority of that work - women and children.

The increased visibility of care brought new attention to policy efforts at a multinational level, including the World Bank’s Childcare Initiative, the UN’s Global Accelerator for Jobs and Social Protection, and the Global Alliance for Care. While care is a cornerstone of any economy, our future vision should be broader, building a care agenda that fully incorporates the rights and well-being of women and children, and the planet. 


Care and the United Nations

UN Women is one of the agencies that has spearheaded feminist framings of care in a series of reports since the early 2000s, culminating in a specific plan to address global COVID recovery efforts through a feminist lens. These reports cast care as a make or break for the realization of human rights – focusing on three key rights holders (unpaid care givers, paid care workers and care recipients) and on the state as the main duty bearer (in terms of providing relevant services as well as funding, monitoring and regulating other providers). Drawing on feminist economics, UN Women has positioned care as a public good with benefits that accrue beyond immediate care recipients and into the future.  Rather than see care as a commodity to be provided subject to market dynamics, UN Women argues that public investments in care – including infrastructure, services, and recognition and remuneration for the time of caregivers and care providers are not only critical for realizing rights and strengthening human capabilities, but also have important multiplier effects in terms of job creation and future fiscal revenue.

In 2018, ILO launched its groundbreaking report on “Care Work and Care Jobs for the Future of Decent Work”.  Similar to UN Women’s calls, the report makes a clear public investment case, but one that is embedded and heavily conditioned by a human rights perspective: not any investment will do. At the heart of the report lies the innovative 5R's Framework, a human rights-based and gender-responsive approach to public policy, which creates a virtuous circle mitigating care-related inequalities. The 5Rs framework aims to achieve two objectives: (i) to recognise, redistribute and reduce the burden of care work and (ii) reward care workers with decent jobs and effective representation. By tackling the structural obstacles that hinder women's entry into the labour market and which place them in low-quality jobs, the framework not only improves conditions for all care workers but also boosts the standards of care available (ILO, 2018).

In 2019, UNICEF launched its family-friendly policies initiative, acknowledging a global childcare crisis and promising a ‘triple dividend’ from investments in childcare services. UNICEF recognizes that care concerns are not just about ‘who is watching the kids’. Care is also fundamental to outcomes for children and helps determine how capably they transition to adulthood. COVID-19 uncovered the ways in which care is fundamental to positive outcomes for children. During the crisis, the absence of care services and the additional burden placed on women and girls (who already provide a disproportionate share of unpaid care and domestic work) to care for children made visible not just the time intensity of care activities but also the unequal distribution of care work, the varied costs of care work for unpaid care givers within the home, and the role of schools and other services in contributing to the care, protection and well-being of children. 


Shifting the lens

As the discourse around care extends to include a broader range of UN and other multinational agencies, the challenge is to ensure that the economic case for public investment in care does not become separated from the human rights and wellbeing framework in which it has been embedded.  For example, the World Bank has slowly layered the investment case for the care economy onto long-standing discourses about gender as ‘smart economics’ and the benefits of child-centered human capital formation in its World Development Reports. While these are welcome developments for care advocates, the way in which the issue is framed matters.

Viewed in isolation, the investment narrative can inadvertently perpetuate the view that unpaid care and domestic work is a constraint or burden that should (and can) be done away with. Centering discussions about care around ‘economic returns’, focusing on improving productivity and future human capital, can narrow the care agenda down to childcare. This leads to the risk of leaving out and potentially undermining claims to care for populations who may not be seen as holding future ‘productive potential’ such as the growing older population or people living with disabilities. A final concern is that the investment case – even as it stresses the need for public investment – may drive the expansion of private, market-based approaches to care service provision. This is problematic in light of evidence on the detrimental effects of competitive pressures on the affordability, accessibility and quality of care services – outcomes that feminist and rights-based approaches seek to promote.

To override this narrow rationale for investment, the subordination of social (and environmental) concerns to an economic logic needs to be challenged. Instead of asking what care can do for the economy, we also need to ask: what kind of economy do we need to ensure “the flourishing and survival of life”?


Care as a public good

One example of an integrated approach is the Nurturing Care Framework for Early Childhood Development, which defines care systems as “created by public policies, programmes and services … [to] … enable communities and caregivers to ensure children’s good health and nutrition and protect them from threats".  Building on a life-cycle approach, nurturing care includes giving young children opportunities for early learning, through interactions that are responsive and emotionally supportive. This approach highlights the importance of thinking inclusively about care needs, including the special requirements for children living with disabilities, or those separated from their families, whether living in institutions, unaccompanied and separated as migrants or those who are street-connected.  It also prompts the need to think inter-sectorally about care, recognizing that care services cut across multiple sectors that need to come together to invest in an holistic and integrated way to offer services for children within and outside recognized family structures.

Another critical piece of the path forward is the recognition of the intersection of care with climate change. Natural disasters and extreme climatic events intensify and aggravate  the burden of care work in households, exacerbating women and girls' time poverty and often forcing them to withdraw from education and the labour market. From the perspective of the United Nations, a feminist and gender-transformative agenda entails fostering a paradigm shift that recognizes care as a public good rather than as a women's responsibility. This requires incorporating an intersectional gender perspective into climate and just transition strategies to promote a more equitable and democratic distribution of care work by incentivizing men and boys to take up care and domestic work, to reduce the burden on women and girls, and reward paid care work with decent jobs. Central to achieving this is placing at the core the concept of "care societies" that recognize, value, measure, and utilize caregiving – both paid and unpaid – as a foundation for decision-making. This will help push a paradigm shift towards social justice, with the sustainability of the planet and life at the heart of the development agenda. The United Nations and its agencies can play a crucial role in framing care policy around the globe in this transformational moment. Doing so will require the embedding of the argument for public investment in care into a perspective which prioritizes human rights and values the wellbeing of humans and the planet as much as, or more than, the growth of the economy.



Additional reading

Progress of the world’s women (since the early 2000s) - UN Women

Beyond COVID-19: A feminist plan for sustainability and social justice - UN Women



About the authors:

Paz Arancibia, Regional Senior Specialist Gender Equality and Non-Discrimination, ILO Latin America & the Caribbean

Mignon Duffy, Professor of Sociology, University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA

Rianne Mahon, Distinguished Research Professor, Carleton University Canada

Silke Staab, Research Specialist, UN Women, USA

Ramya Subrahmanian, Gender, Rights and Protection Chief, UNICEF Innocenti – Global Office of Research and Foresight, Italy