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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  1. Geof Wood says: December 21, 201310:33 am

    Clearly a need to be wary of the automaticity in Duflo’s arguments. Naila might have added the regional data in India, namely the adverse sex ratios in richer states like Punjab (India: Human Development Report 2011) to disassociate rising wealth from positive gender outcomes. And even in the more favourable context of Bangladesh, employable girls attract lower parental investment in education than their less employable brothers. Thus patriarchy and gender trumps Beckerian rational choice. Another victory for empirical sociology over the evidence-lite mantras of neo-classical microeconomic theory?

  2. ISLAH JAD says: December 22, 20133:06 am

    I fully agree with Nail’s brilliant critique, to add to it, in a context of conflict and destitute, like the case in palestine, investing in girl’s education is more rewarding for poorer families duet to: girls better achievement in schooling, patriarchy (easier to control a girl’s income compared to a boy) and emotional ties (girls are taught to be more merciful and affectionate to their families than boys). taking conflict situation into context, will definitely problematize the neo-classical microeconomic theory and its behavioral models.

  3. Naila Kabeer says: December 22, 20134:04 am

    Thanks very much for comments. And absolutely, not only does the Indian data show that the most adverse sex ratios are reported by the landed upper castes in north-western states of India and household with higher per capita monthly incomes across India but also that the richest states have reported the worst and worsening sex ratios for some time. My main problem with neo-classical economic theory, and the particularly approach taken by those specializing in randomized control trials (which anyway raise ethical problems in certain cases), is their apparent lack of interest in any explanations for their findings other than those dictated by the model. Such methods are unlikely to pick up the complex combination of emotional, cultural and instrumental reasons which might lead poor parents to opt for investing in girls education. While they place great deal of emphasis on “”unobserved variables”"to justify the used of randomized trials, they have no means of addressing “”unobservable’”" variables, the weight of unseen structures on people’s behaviour and perceived choices.

  4. shahs says: December 23, 20137:43 pm

    I heartily agree with the two commenters that Naila’s critique is brilliant. Therein lies the need for feminist economists to read Duflo’s work, as her scholarship extends beyond the pure neoclassical constraints. This is a fine way of chipping away at the dominant paradigm.

    Naila says in her comment:
    “Such methods are unlikely to pick up the complex combination of emotional, cultural and instrumental reasons which might lead poor parents to opt for investing in girls education.” This to me sounds like the great burden of feminist economists. Let me explain.

    In conclusion Naila asks the question whether the likes of Duflo should make feminist economics a must-read. We may have a difficulty making it accessible to others precisely because the reasons mentioned above by Naila. These structural constraints vary region by region. Feminist Economics journal publishes excellent articles probing these cultural phenomena as they affect the women’s well-being in all societies. A quick look at the recent issue, October 2013 (Volume 19, Number 4) shows it includes many articles, impeccably researched and argued, almost always dealing with different cultures, regions and so forth. But this granular nature of the publications may cause impediments to challenge alternative flawed explanations.

    How many non-feminist economists would have an interest or curiosity in reading about so many different places? Is there a way to make feminist theory more a part of the publication record of our practitioners, even better, in more mainstream journals? Is there a way to organize our endeavor such that the theory behind it becomes more compelling to scholars who are not stuck in the neoclassical box?

    I apologize for the length of my post and also any misstatements arising for lack of adequate information.

  5. Sumitra Shah says: December 28, 20134:00 pm

    My comment went under the name shahs, even though I had submitted my real name. I don’t believe in hiding my identity from feminist economist colleagues. So I wanted to clarify the matter. Thanks! Sumitra Shah

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