Opinion by Maureen Penjueli, the coordinator of the Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG), presented at the Pacific Women Regional Learning Forum on Women’s Economic Empowerment on 30 May 2019.

As part of PANG’s critique of economic rational, we are interested in origins of key policy drivers, frameworks, ideologies for Women’s Economic Empowerment to understand power and empowerment which is the focus of this presentation.

All the research in the region and globally identifies that economic empowerment of women is considered a “development game changer”, in which investment will lead to increased productivity, efficiency and economic growth in addition to other development outcomes such as (increased spending on food and education resulting in improved outcomes for children’s education, health and nutrition and leads to greater and sustained poverty reduction.

There is a clear reflection on the barriers to how to unleash women’s economic potential – includes a range of measures:  removing barriers to discriminatory laws, changing social and cultural norms that expect women to take on the lion’s share of work home and family care, addressing barriers to equal participation in decision making, obstacles to access to justice, inheritance, etc.

Although noble in its intent about unleashing women’s economic power we need to reality-check this in light of the growing inequality and wealth distribution which remains breathtakingly shocking.

Inequalities at the heart world systems

According to Oxfam International 2019, the wealth of the world’s billionaires increased $900 billion in the last year, which is $2.5 billion a day. In 2018, 26 people owned the same as 3.8 billion people who make us nearly half of the poorest in the world.

It is 10 years since the financial crisis that shook our world and caused enormous suffering (not just for humans but also for the natural world). In that time, the number of billionaires has almost doubled, with a new billionaire created every two days between 2017 and 2018.

They have now more wealth than ever before while almost half of humanity have barely escaped extreme poverty, living on less than $5.50 a day.

Only 4 cents in every dollar of tax revenue comes from taxes on wealth, in some countries the poorest 10% are paying a higher proportion of their incomes in Tax than the Richest 10%.  When governments under-tax the rich, there’s less money for vital services like healthcare and education, increasing inequality and poverty.

In 2019, 262 million children will not be allowed to go to school. At the same time, public services are suffering from chronic under-funding or being outsourced to private companies that exclude the poorest people.

Failing social systems

Right across the Pacific, our health and education systems are failing as result of falling revenue and reprioritising government budgets to other areas for economic growth (infrastructure etc).

The neglect in investments into health and education in our region will have profound implications for the future of our children and the opportunities they will have to live a better and longer life.

Men own 50% more of the world’s wealth than women, and control over 86% of corporations.  The unpaid work done by women is estimated at $10 trillion – 43 times the annual turnover of Apple!

We all suffer when public services are neglected, but women and girls pay the highest price. Girls are pulled out of school first when the money isn’t available to pay fees, and women clock up hours looking after sick relatives when healthcare systems fail.

Most profoundly, our economic prosperity is dependent on the huge but unrecognised contribution made by women through unpaid care work.

Pacific inequalities greater than Asia

Here in the Pacific UNESCAP and ADB have reported far greater inequality in the Pacific region compared to Asian countries.

Findings which are supported by a 2014 World Bank report on hardship and vulnerability in the Pacific’…..(records that more than 20% of the population in PICs live in hardship, meaning they are unable to meet their basic food and non-food needs”(inequality was found to be highest in PNG, Fiji, Solomon Islands – particularly for rural women).

In Fiji, we have some baseline data on hardship, reflected in the FemlinkPacific’s radio interviews with women in rural areas (Tavua – the cost of nutritious local foods which have doubled, and tripled in some cases, coupled by costs of living, whilst support structures such as social welfare are shrinking).

Today extreme poverty and obscene inequalities in wealth distribution, coupled by the ecological crises such as climate emergency and collapse of ecosystems are a direct result of our current international financial, economic and trade systems.

It is a system which promotes corporate power, prioritises foreign investments, shrinks governments and their ability to regulate, and suppresses wages for competitive advantages.

Global systems overhaul needed 

Trying to deal with the problem of extreme inequality through (economic) empowerment/inclusion (for those excluded by the market) approaches and programmes means that we are not actively challenging or seeking to change the status quo and the current orthodoxy of neoliberal capitalist economics.  It also means being silent to making fundamental changes necessary in the established global economic, financial, trade and investment regimes.

Calling for an overhaul of the entire economic system, trade, investment system is not new nor entirely radical today – it has gained traction on the back of growing empirical evidence of how fundamentally and structurally flawed the current neoliberal capitalist economic system is!

In recognition, of this, we need renewed commitments to ensure major overhaul, reforms and policy reversals of this system.

Specifically we need to ensure that corporate pay their fair share of taxes and fair wages to workers.  Introduction of progressive taxation systems in which the rich gets to pay their fair share of taxes.

In addition we need to push for alternative understandings of economics to include traditional ikonomi.

Pacific economic systems offer models for the world

Our own ikonomi systems offer much to the world as it is based on principles of reciprocity, caring, sharing, sufficiency which ensures social cohesion and enduring peace and remains a key part of our resilience not just for the present but also for future generations.

For us in the Pacific where the majority of our people remain outside the formal system (35%–85%) and our people still maintain control over customary land, we need to ensure its protection which remains our key resilience to the economic volatility of the global system, natural (climate emergency) and man-made disasters (coups of Fiji).

After the economic crises of 2008, Oxfam released another report which demonstrated “the traditional social support systems are strong in the Pacific region and policymakers should examine how the ‘traditional economy’, support systems and access to land for subsistence farming can be supported and strengthened to ensure it continues to provide resilience in times of crisis”.

A report by University of Sydney in 2015 further argues that the best way forward for rural families in PNG, is to maintain customary land as the basis for rich hydrid livehood systems.  Figures quoted in the mornings opening session reminds us to the power of this kastom ikomoni which today represents 20% of GDP in PNG!

While Vanuatu became leaders when they launched the regions first Alternative Indicators of Well Being Report in 2012.  The Well Being Report went on to influence Vanuatu’s National Development Plans which reprioritised people, environment, god and culture before economics.

Much of Vanuatu’s emphasis is to ensure it holds on its customary land system.

Pacific land tenureship target of ‘mainstream economists’

Customary land tenureship in the Pacific has long been the target of mainstream economists which sees it as an impediment to development and efforts both by major development partners, multilateral institutions (WTO, Vanuatu’s case) and financial institutions supported by the elites of our countries have tried to open up customary land tenure as to make it more productive, efficient, and available for individual ownership.

Which brings me to my cautionary note, that the Women’s Economic Empowerment Programmes isn’t a Trojan horse for the opening up of customary land in the Pacific.

Development partners of the past have attempted to open up customary land systems through making land work programme/ mama graun programmes which remains one of our biggest sources of conflict.

At a time when the world is in need of alternatives, the Pacific and its system of kastom ikonomi it’s values, principles, practices can offer a leading light.