Feminist economics posts

Esther Duflo on “women’s empowerment and economic development”: a must-read for feminist economists?

Esther Duflo is a “risen star” in the field of behavioral economics and specializes in the use of quantitative experimental methods to study human behavior. While many of her papers touch on gender-related issues, a recent paper (Journal of Economic Literature 2012) addresses a question of central concern to feminists: what is the relationship between women’s empowerment and economic development? So is this paper a must-read for feminist economists?  Other papers by Duflo perhaps but, in my view, not this one. Let me explain why.

The paper’s overall objective – of challenging simplistic claims that, on the one hand, women’s empowerment will “cause development” or, on the other, that economic growth will lead to women’s empowerment – is likely to resonate with many feminists. As will her concluding statement that while affirmative action in favor of women may be necessary for gender equity, it will not necessarily be compatible with the pursuit of growth.

What troubles me about the paper is what comes in between: an understanding of human behavior which is uncritically informed by neo-classical microeconomic theory, and the very “thin” evidence base she offers in support of her arguments. As feminist economists have long argued the standard assumptions of microeconomic theory tend to absolve its adherents of the need to know much about the social contexts of the behavior they study (England 1993, Nelson 1995, and Power 2004).  Since all behavior can be explained as manifestations of individual maximizing behavior, alternative explanations can be dispensed with. This probably explains the thinness of her evidence base and the fact that her citations are largely restricted to the work of other mainstream economists who share her theory of human behavior. The work of feminist economists is given short shrift, despite the article’s publication in the Journal of Economic Literature.

Duflo’s presentation is somewhat confusing as examples are plucked seemingly at random from different parts of the world and different periods of history to support her various points. But let me try and focus on some examples that illustrate the nature of my reservations.  Duflo explains excess female mortality among children in India in terms of “the grip of poverty” in times of crisis: parents fail to give girls the same medical treatment as boys when they fall ill and are prepared to sacrifice them in times of drought. While partially true, such evidence does not square with the larger picture which shows that excess female mortality in India is higher among wealthier landed households and among households with higher monthly per capita expenditure – what has been called the “negative prosperity effect”  (Siddhanta et al. 2005; see also Miller 1981).

She suggests a straightforward cost-benefit calculus to explain the rising use of female-selective abortions in India to reconcile the desire for sons with the move to smaller family size: the low cost of such abortions compared to the high cost of dowry payments to marry off daughters.  Yet in poorer neighboring Bangladesh, where dowry costs are also escalating, there has been a steady decline in excess female mortality among children and no evidence of sex-selective abortion (Kabeer et al. 2013).

Duflo’s explanation of the positive correlation between women’s rights and per capita GDP is similarly couched in terms of a cost-benefit calculus. As the importance of human capital in the economy increases, men are more willing to surrender some of their rights to their wives to ensure that their children are better educated. Another version:  men’s interests as husbands to monopolize rights within the family give way to their interests as fathers to share rights with their wives. No mention here of the sustained struggle by women’s organizations for these rights or the finding that such organizations have been a powerful force in achieving legal progress on issues of domestic violence  (Htun and Weldon 2012).

When Duflo does consider alternative interpretations of empirical findings, it is in terms of “unobserved variables.” For instance, she suggests that the robust body of evidence that women’s access to education and income leads to more favorable welfare outcomes for their children may simply reflect the greater likelihood that such women marry progressive men. If this is the case, positive male attitudes rather than female altruism or bargaining power would explain these outcomes. This is, in principle, possible, but the existing evidence points to women’s agency: studies from the UK suggest that when income transfers are shifted from men to women within the household, a greater share of the family budget is allocated to children –  which seems contrary to the “unobserved variable” effect (e.g. Ward-Batts 2008). Similarly, studies from sub-Saharan Africa suggest that children appear better nourished in female-headed households than male ones, and sometimes better educated – also challenging the “unobserved variable” effect (Kennedy and Peters 1992).

Duflo pursues the theme of male altruism further on the basis of a study from South Africa that found that male recipients of the Old Age Pension were more likely to invest in children’s education than female recipients. In fact, the findings reported by that study are more complicated.  First, the male pension effect is confined to the education of male children. Second, among the elderly who have not yet received a pension, children’s education is generally higher among households with elderly female members than with elderly males. Thus the male pension effect serves to bring boys’ education to the level enjoyed by boys in households with elderly women who have not yet received a pension. And finally, where a household has male as well as female pension recipients, the education of both boys and girls goes up.

To conclude, I suggest that we reverse the question posed at the start of the paper and ask whether Feminist Economics is a must-read for Esther Duflo? Certainly, it might give her a better appreciation of the structural nature of the constraints within which human behavior plays out. She might then entertain the possibility that the reason that women in West Bengal give priority to public investment in drinking water infrastructure is not simply a matter of “convenience” or “self-reported happiness,” as she seems to suggest, but as a means of addressing the unfair distribution of unpaid work that blocks their ability to participate in the life of their community.


Blog references, in order of appearance:

Duflo, Esther. 2012. “Women Empowerment and Economic Development.” Journal of Economic Literature, 50(4): 1051–79.

Paula England 1993. ‘The Separative Self: Androcentric Bias in Neoclassical Assumptions.” In Marianne A. Ferber and Julie A. Nelson (eds.), Beyond Economic Man: Feminist Theory and Economics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 37–53.

Nelson, Julie A. 1995. “Feminism and Economics.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 9(2): 131–148.

Power, Marilyn. 2004. “Social Provisioning as a Starting Point for Feminist Economics.” Feminist Economics 10(3): 3 – 19.

Siddhanta, Suddhasil, Debasish Nandy, and Satish B. Agnihotri. 2005. “Sex Ratios in India and the ‘Prosperity Effect.’” Paper for the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP) Conference, July 2005.

Miller, Barbara D. 1981. The Endangered Sex: Neglect of Female Children in Rural North India. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Kabeer, Naila, Lopita Huq, and Simeen Mahmud. “Diverging Stories of ‘Missing Women’ in South Asia: Is Son Preference Weakening in Bangladesh?” Feminist Economics, forthcoming in print. DOI: 10.1080/13545701.2013.857423

Htun, Mala. and S. Laurel Weldon. 2012. “The Civic Origins of Progressive Policy Change: Combating Violence against Women in Global Perspective, 1975–2005.” American Political Science Review 106(3):548–569.

Ward-Botts, Jennifer. 2008. “Out of the Wallet and into the Purse: Using Micro Data to Test Income Pooling.” Journal of Human Resources 43(2): 325–351.

Kennedy, Eileen and Pauline Peters, 1992. Household Food Security and Child Nutrition: the Interaction of Income and Gender of Household Head. World Development 20(8):1077–1085.

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