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Society’s hidden power: the care economy

Adeline, a young woman from Burkina Faso, wanted to get a job, but she faced the challenge of organising caring for her youngest children. Lots of other women from her area had taken up roles in a government-backed roadbuilding and construction programme and many of them, with no alternative, left their children with older sisters, friends or grandmothers, sometimes in unshaded, unsafe areas near to the construction sites so they could nurse them in their breaks. It was dangerous for the children and so stressful for their mothers that they couldn’t concentrate fully on their work.


Realising the problem, the jobs programme organisers, supported by development partners, introduced daycare centres in work-sites. The children could then learn and play in safety, supervised by adults who were trained in childcare and paid for their work. Their mothers were able to focus on their jobs, which increased their productivity. For Adeline it was a huge success: she could buy food and clothes for her family and saved enough money to buy two coolers to start her own enterprise selling fresh water and juices.


This story highlights the challenge that women and girls face all over the world. The burden of caring for children, elderly people and the household falls disproportionately upon them, making it difficult and sometimes impossible for them to study, commit to regular employment or start their own businesses. Their economic potential remains too often unfulfilled.


Our new ICReport “Business Environment Reforms and the Care Economy: The Case of Childcare and Parental Leave Policies” shines a light on what is called ‘the care economy’. According to the International Labour Organization, 16.4 billion hours are spent on unpaid care work every day, which is the equivalent of 2 billion people working eight hours every day with no remuneration and no recognition. Current global estimates indicate that women carry out three-quarters of this unpaid care work.  In Sub-Saharan Africa for instance, women spend between three-to-five times as many hours on unpaid care and domestic work than men, performing 80% of the total hours devoted to the household.


“While care work can be rewarding,” says the International Labour Organization, “when in excess and when involving a high degree of drudgery, it hampers the economic opportunities and wellbeing of unpaid carers and diminishes their overall enjoyment of human rights.”

What is the care economy?

The care economy encompasses both unpaid and paid care work. It includes nursing babies, looking after children, caring for elderly people as well as cooking, cleaning, and fetching water and food. Parents and other family members often carry out these duties unpaid; while healthcare, childcare and domestic workers are paid for their roles.


Care work sustains societies and economies by ensuring that households function well and that people are healthy and fit for other occupations, such as learning or working.

As we emphasise in our report, policymakers that look to improve their economic policies and create inclusive enabling business environments can and should take action addressing care economy. Due to the prevailing statistics on care economy, addressing care economy is a key part of ensuring that women can participate in the economy, which in turn is central to achieving sustainable economic development. Introducing care policies, such as parental leave and childcare, should be regarded as key components in creating an enabling business and investment climate.


Developing effective care policies involves stakeholders from different government departments, the public and private sectors working together, as well as investment, co-ordination and patience, but the results are worthwhile. Our report shows that an increase in the number of professional care providers, combined with appropriate regulations could alleviate much of the unpaid care workload falling on women, while creating new jobs in the traditionally female-dominated care sector. Our report points to studies that show that women’s full and equal participation in the workforce could add $12tn to the global economy by 2025.

The importance of childcare

Childcare for working parents – just one aspect of the care economy, but a crucial one – is a key focus of our report. As the demographics shift across the ACP region and household sizes shrink, the need for more childcare is growing. Evidence shows that when parental leave and childcare are provided, workers take less time off and are more consistently productive. On top of this, the best employees are attracted and retained, saving companies huge amounts on frequent recruitment and onboarding new staff.


In Fiji, only 38% of women are economically active compared with 74% of men, according to the World Bank. Recognising this, since 2013, the Fijian government has granted the right to free education for young children, lengthened paid maternity leave and introduced paid paternity leave. Yet these policies were not enough: a 2019 survey showed that lack of early years childcare cost employers an average of €228,000 in lost work time.


So, early in 2023 following a taskforce review, the government embarked upon designing the country’s first regulatory framework for early childhood care services which will establish minimum standards and a licensing and inspection system. It will also offer guidelines for businesses that offer childcare services to their employees.


In 2020, the Dominican Republic’s government launched a pilot programme with the aim of creating a national care system to help provide what its growing populations of young and elderly citizens need. Its aims are to strengthen coordination between different institutions that provide care, develop local plans to ensure that children and others can access care services, introduce training and certification for carers, collect data to help decision-making, and communicate the new plan to the country’s citizens and institutions. Early successes include the creation of a curriculum for childcare workers and new community childcare centres.


Our report concludes that, if addressed properly, current deficits in care work and its quality across Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific could help prevent a severe care crisis, enhance economic growth and sustainable business development, reduce gender inequalities and improve women’s access to economic opportunities.

The ICR Facility will soon host an interactive webinarTrends in Care Economy Policies in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries”.  It will present key findings from the report and experts from the ACP region will discuss the key challenges and opportunities to advance Care Economy Policies.

The ICR Facility supported the production of this publication. It is co-funded by the European Union (EU), the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS) under the 11th European Development Fund (EDF), the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the British Council. The ICR Facility is implemented by GIZ, the British Council, Expertise France, and SNV. The contents of the publication are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the EU, OACPS, BMZ or of the implementing partners.

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