Month: September 2010

Why the fuss? Why Women?

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Amid the much publicised participation by the Trinidad and Tobago at the United Nations Summit to review the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), somewhat overlooked locally was the announcement by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon for a USD 40 billion plan aimed at saving the lives of 16 million women and children over the next five years. The UN has placed this within the framework of a new organisation, UN Women, to focus on how redressing the needs of women.
While from our small-island perspectives, it may sound like a whooping sum, in effect, it represents less than a miniscule fraction (some 0.0015 percent) of the net income of G8 countries.
Not to be ungracious, even this can significantly dent gender imbalances, if properly managed to ensure that the funds do indeed reach the vulnerable communities and impact on their lives in ways that are meaningful and long term. It is up to the national countries to form and implement plans and programmes to make this happen.
I have heard much skepticism from several quarters – including local women – who should know better, about why the fuss, why women?
This plan came about because development experts and the UN, now awakening to the voices that have pointed out links between the financial, food and other crises, and the economic and other effects of exclusion, discrimination – whether by design or accident – against women who comprise some one half of the world’s population and therefore at least 50 percent of the world’ economic potential and potential for future prosperity of their children.
The experts now acknowledge that the economic and political empowerment of women remain critical for the eradication of poverty, economic growth and sustainable development, and for the wellbeing of families and communities. Better educated women have a better chance in the job market and in decision making at all levels. This benefits the entire society. When women own and control resources and decent and productive work, they can ensure their families and children have a better livelihood – better health care and education for their children which can break the cycle of poverty and deprivation. This pivotal role of women is clearly recognised by the advertising industry, for instance, which has been tailoring their advertising to capture the imagination of women with purchasing power in our societies. It is not rocket science. There is a simple logic in the fact that lifting women from poverty is key to generating economic growth and development and can lead to greater prosperity for all.
Yet, in many countries, women still face barriers to ownership of property, access to education and work opportunities, if not just in law and policies, but also in practices that remain entrenched and internalized which gives them unequally access to be represented in economic and political decision-making and are unable to share equally with men in the benefits of development. Furthermore, women seem to be harder hit by the onset of the world financial crisis.
UN MDG records show that in Trinidad and Tobago, the employment-to-population ratio of men is almost 50 percent (73.1%) to women (49.3) and trends of the last few years with the world financial crisis and economic recession show greater declines in the ratio for women to men. UN data also shows that while there is some progress towards the MDGs overall, and in T&T in some areas for which data exists, inequalities persist not only between women and men, but also between women in urban and rural areas and from different income levels. These are the gaps that action programmes to utilise the UN-40 billion dollar plan should seek to bridge.
According to the UN, in the developing world, women are more likely than men to work in vulnerable employment – either as ‘own-account ‘ (self-employed)workers or as contributing family workers — characterised by low earnings and productivity and lack of security and benefits. While own-account work is male-dominated, women make up the majority of those who contribute family workers. In 2009, one in every four employed women in the developing regions worked as a contributing family worker, compared to only one in every nine employed men. For most of the areas that will indicate the degree of meeting development goals there were no specific data for T&T, but following are some of the data from the Millennium Development Goals – Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, progress chart 2010 prepared by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

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More at stake for T&T in this UN MDG Summit …in real picture of national development vis-à-vis Summit Goals

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At the UN’s Millennium summit 10 years ago, 192 governments signed a compact to reduce world poverty by 50 percent by the year 2015, reduce hunger, disease, achieve equity for women, provide universal education, health, drinking water and effect sustainable environmental management. Trinidad and Tobago joined world leaders this September to review progress in achieving the MDGs, but despite soundings of how well we have done, all’s not well in our front and the overall prognosis leaves much to be desired in all eight MDG areas.
We are no where close to halving poverty (Goal 1), with some one-fifth of our population hovering around the poverty line, despite astoundingly high GDP. Poverty levels is expected to increase as the full impact of the global economic, financial, food, energy and environmental crises and other largely externally generated negative forces set in.
Similarly, while the textbook figures for T&T in relation to universal primary education and literacy look awe-inspiring (Goal 2), the actual performances within the system: high levels of school violence, underperformance, dropouts and functional literacy are humbling. Furthermore, while (Goal 3) empowerment of women through education is commendable, lack of parity in the workplace and alarming levels of violence against women reduce the impact of educational achievements and it is yet to be seen how the new incorporation of gender affairs within the planning ministry will be effected with an holistic and effective gender policy with related implementable actions beyond the Children’s Life Fund and ‘child milk’ that would positively impact child mortality (Goals 4) and maternal health care (Goal 5), are yet to be put in place.
There is much work to be done nationally on actions to reduce environmental pollution, making polluters contribute to clean-up and resuscitation, encourage sustainable community livelihoods, make the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) more than just a political tool, and to secure sustainability in provision of water so the next dry season would not see the numbers of dry taps as the last. But the international community also needs to step its support for the Caribbean’s efforts againstenvironmental degradation and to prepare for the impacts of climate change. Although the Caribbean faces similar threats from temperature changes, melting ice caps, sea level rise, and dangers of sitting on a volatile fault line and active volcanic zone that jeopardizes not only coastal but inland communities international investment (financial and scientific) in these areas are only a miniscule fraction of what is paid to the similarly challenged Pacific region, for example.

Data Challenged
A key problem in all of this for assessment of T&T’s performance is lack of adequate data on several of the indicators, and that existing data are not in sync with MDG definitions. In fact the UN’s ‘regional’ classifications that lumps the Caribbean with Latin America has proven to itself be a handicap in data analyses for the Caribbean as such classification subsumes the realities of the Caribbean with Latin American contexts although they are in almost every instance – in its political systems, historical development, cultural orientation and economic structures – diametrically opposed. It also does not facilitate accommodation of the essential cross-regional and diasporic affiliations of the Caribbean. This results in skewing of all statistical and other representations of the Caribbean that is further handicapped by the lack of data collation and analyses in key indicator areas that could better represent national MDG performance.
One marker of performance, the UNDP human development index (HDI), points in no uncertain terms that our level of well-being is substantially below what may be expected from T&T’s high national (GDP) earnings. A simple comparison shows that Barbados with a GDP of USD 18,000, enjoys better living standards with a ranking of 90 HDI to T&T with its GDP of some USD 23,500 in a lower ranking of around HDI 84. But the HDI is not as clear as to gender or income inequality, levels of respect for human and political rights, and other factors.
Statistics as that above give meat to arguments by the developed world that the real problems of development countries’ attainment of the MDGs are nationally based – poor governance, ineptitude and corruption. The recent change in Government has yet to prove them wrong, and it will take more than rhetoric at the Summit to convince them of that.

T&T’s MDG challenges
While representation of T&T and the region at the UN should not degenerate into finger-pointing and recriminations about why the goals are not being met, we do expect clear, real, sharp and representation of the problems and challenges and proposals to deal with them. Certainly, our representation at the UN should include more definitive positions on the more real handicaps to MDG success – that despite national efforts, the derailment of the MDGs driven by forces that have originated mainly in the developed world which prompted the current Summit in the first instance, calls now for immediate giant steps by leaders to move beyond rhetorical commitments to decisive actions to ensure that the MDGs are back on track to attainability by 2015.
We might be taking steps at national levels but what are we saying to challenge the developed countries in failing to deliver on commitments made in 2000 where the MDGs were set and delivery of promised overseas development assistance (ODA) and World Trade Organisation (WTO) packages that will help to combat the already wide gaps of inequity in trading relations, being further widening by the onset of new challenges posed by high costs of new technologies that can improve our R&D systems and outputs, but which now inhibit our competitiveness in the global marketplace. Development aid would never be enough if it is being counterbalanced by the negative effects of policies that inhibit development of our agricultural and other sectors.
Additionally, in its 2009 T&T report on the MDGs, the UNDP notes that with its strong energy-driven economic base that would make it possible to finance advances in the MDGs, “T&T continues to be challenged to maintain favorable prospects for growth, job creation and poverty reduction in the face of exogenous factors such as a possible downturn in energy process.”
The true picture is that while we might have been making several gains towards the development goals, they are in danger of being reversed with our heightened vulnerability to factors as the externally driven drug trade, international terrorism, human trafficking, inflation in food, energy and commodity prices and the spiraling economic and financial crises. From this Summit should emerge more tangible policy offerings for trade facilitation, and genuine not exploitative global partnership arrangements; effective action to reform the Common Agricultural Policy and WTO, whose export subsidies and trade distortions are so negative for many developing countries; a decisive action agenda for climate change; more sensitive approaches to migration in the context of the global village, among others.
A clearer picture of T&T’s level of dependence on international forces may emerge if we look at migration and remittance data, for instance. Annual migration from T&T stands at more than 20 percent, more than 80 percent of which is to Northern America. The value of such migration to T&T in remittances is some USD 100 million. The fall-off from this for T&T migrants owing to the world financial crisis that has severely affected the US is yet to be ascertained, in as much as there are no estimates of what counter-value such persons could have had if they were absorbed into productive economic activity in T&T – the continuing hemorrhaging of national talents through migration, the exodus of nurses and other health professionals, for examples, which could otherwise significantly impact MDGs 4 and 5.
We might be moving closer to reducing bad governance and strengthen national instruments but we are still hooked on structural and systematic deficiencies within the UN system itself that is heavily influenced by the developed world.
This Summit would want to avoid the failure of last year’s much-hyped Copenhagen Summit which fell woefully short of delivering an effective global climate change agreement. The current MDG Review also gives focus on the continued relevance of the UN and international systems, and the credibility of our leaders. Future generations would not forgive them if substantive commitments to time-bound actions that will make development goals attainable do not emerge.

Dr Kris Rampersad is a media, cultural and literary consultant and International Relations Director of the Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women.
Email: krislit2@gmail.com