Understanding the “Care Economy”

April 19, 2023 The Asia Foundation
Understanding the “Care Economy”
Show Notes Transcript

If all the world’s care workers were one national economy, it would be among the largest, in hours worked, in the world. It would also consist mostly of women, and they would be mostly unpaid.

Ankita Panda (00:03):

16 million hours or so go toward unpaid care work every day. And globally, women perform about three times as much unpaid care work as men. They constitute their own care economy, which deserves its own attention.

John Rieger (00:15):

If all the world's care workers were one national economy, it would be among the largest in hours worked in the world. It would also consist mostly of women and they would be mostly unpaid. Understanding the care economy today on InAsia from The Asia Foundation. I'm John Rieger.

Tracie Yang (00:32):

And I'm Tracie Yang. Something is starting to bubble in the development kitchen and it's a growing unease that unpaid care work is depriving women of their human flourishing and their countries of a big chunk of GDP. Nowhere is this truer than Asia and the Pacific where tradition consigns the care of children, the sick and the elderly to mothers, wives and daughters.

John Rieger (00:51):

Joining us now to bring this issue into sharper focus, we have Ankita Panda, senior program officer in The Asia Foundation's Women's Empowerment and Gender Equality Program, and Ikram Abdullah, a senior policy advisor in our Malaysia office, who also goes by Ji and Ankita, welcome to InAsia.

Ankita Panda (01:09):

Thanks, John. It's a pleasure to be here.

Ikram Abdullah (01:11):

Thank you, John. It's a pleasure to be here as well.

John Rieger (01:14):

Ankita, when InAsia last looked at the care economy back in November, your team was preparing for a major public dialogue on the subject to coincide with the G20 meeting in Bali. You've since published a white paper drawn from that conference. Tell us first what is the care economy, and how did it come to be recognized as a separate facet of development deserving its own study and attention?

Ankita Panda (01:36):

While there are many definitions of the care economy out there, in the white paper, we refer to the care economy as essentially all of the different activities that people perform to provide care for their children, for the elderly, as well as those living with disabilities. And the reason that we decided to focus on the care economy is because most care workers across the world are disproportionately women and girls. And together they support over 1 billion people. And while some of them are paid for this work, so you can think about nurses or childcare providers as some of the care workers who get paid for this work, most care workers are actually not compensated. And so they provide unpaid care and they lack adequate support from their families to redistribute care responsibilities. And unfortunately, many care workers also lack the support from their governments in accessing much needed social protections and the care infrastructure needed to deliver high quality care.


We found in our research that this was true across the world, but it was especially the case for the Asia-Pacific region where care work is further complicated due to pervasive and patriarchal gendered norms that really view caregiving as a woman's responsibility. So what this essentially tells us is that the activities of individual care workers in Asia and the Pacific are large, they're gendered, they're essential, and they constitute their own care economy, which deserves its own attention.

Tracie Yang (03:03):

Ankita, what are some of the economic numbers and social wellbeing indicators associated with unpaid care work?

Ankita Panda (03:10):

When it comes to unpaid care work, what we know right now is that unpaid care is one of the biggest barriers to women's labor force participation. Unfortunately, a lot of existing statistics right now around the care economy don't include unpaid care work and unpaid care work is also not measured in GDP because you're not part of the labor force. But what we do know thanks to data from the International Labor Organization is that I believe about 16 million hours or so go toward unpaid care work every day. And globally, women perform about three times as much unpaid care work as men. But we also found that in Asia and the Pacific, this is even more unequal and women actually perform about four times as much care work as men, which is equivalent to about 2 billion people working every day for eight hours without any sort of a compensation.


So in other words, if the care work sector was valued as its own economy, it would be one of the largest economies in the world and it would be one of the largest sectors in the world as well. We just don't have some of those numbers of the data to speak to unpaid care work.

John Rieger (04:16):

So it's not that this is not valuable work, but this is work that is not being valued and the women who are doing it are unable to participate in the economy in other ways. Is that right?

Ankita Panda (04:28):

Yes, that's right.

Tracie Yang (04:30):

So then, Ankita, what were your hopes for the Bali Care Economy Dialogue? And what did it achieve?

Ankita Panda (04:38):

Yeah. We had a number of motivations going into the Bali Care Economy Dialogue, and we hosted it on the eve of the G20 Leader Summit because we wanted to help push the care economy agenda to the forefront of regional and even global agendas. We also saw that there's a need to build a stronger knowledge base around care. And this goes back to our earlier point about the lack of care data. Our goal with both the white paper and the roadmap for action was to synthesize some of the key insights and gaps related to the care economy, so essentially to highlight what is the state of the care economy in Asia and the Pacific and how can governments, civil society actors, private sector and others come together in order to advance the care economy within their respective spheres of influence. Since then, what we hope is that through some of the findings of the white paper and the roadmap for action that we can translate some of this regional advocacy into national action.

John Rieger (05:33):

This idea of galvanizing regional advocacy and translating it into national level planning brings us to you, G. You have been working on the care economy in Malaysia. How are you and the foundation approaching your work in this area? And what is the path forward?

Ikram Abdullah (05:51):

Thank you, John. The care economy issue is actually a natural progression from the previous work that we have done. This include the establishment of mandatory childcare centers in all government ministries and the most recent child development and policy action bill.

John Rieger (06:08):

It sounds like you're right in there, getting your hands dirty in the policymaking process.

Ikram Abdullah (06:13):

We try to make a meaningful contribution, John, by policy reform.

John Rieger (06:17):

That's another way to put it. Yes.

Ikram Abdullah (06:18):

Yeah. By getting new policies in place or existing ones to be amended. Now the larger issue encompassing childcare and care is about retaining high skilled women in the workforce. We were inspired by the Bali Care Economy Dialogue and we ourselves organize a care economy dialogue on March 28th. We wanted to know what is the current state and who are the current actors in care economy in Malaysia. And number two, we would like to see what are the existing policies or at least the best practices that have been done in Malaysia, as well as probably some that can be shared from other parts of the world.


Now, just to make a long story short, we were very, very encouraged by three points. Number one, the number of participants who attended the care economy dialogue was beyond our expectation and most importantly, the quality of participants. We had influential people from key ministries, namely the Ministry of Women, the Ministry of Human Resource, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Higher Education and the Ministry of Education. And the discussion was highly energetic to the point that we had to stop the discussion because it was going beyond time.

John Rieger (07:39):

It sounds like this is a topic whose moment has come.

Ikram Abdullah (07:42):

Yes, John. That's why I think we are very, very encouraged. So where to now we have identified at least three key issues that were very much discussed, frequently mentioned, in the dialogue. One is on standardization and regulation of care workers. Number two would be digitalization and innovation to support social entrepreneurship. And number three would be data and how we should be measuring care economy in the Malaysian economic development growth.

Tracie Yang (08:15):

So G, Malaysia's a prosperous middle income country. Do we see the same issues with the care economy there as we do in Asia and the Pacific more generally? Or does Malaysia's different development status pose different problems?

Ikram Abdullah (08:32):

Yes. You're right, Tracie. Malaysia is an AMIC, or advanced middle-income country, which are countries with GNI per capita of between 4,000 to 20,000 USD. Now, characteristics of AMICs, just to give a bit of a background here, include low poverty rate. We have a large middle class and a greater capacity to solve our own challenges. Care economy is relatively new in Malaysia, but there is growing interest and awareness of care economy. There is awareness of the importance of women to be in the labor workforce. There is awareness that there is economic loss of women leaving the workforce. There is demand increasing, not only because more people are working, so they need people to take care of the children, but also the fact that Malaysia is becoming an aging population. By 2040, it is expected that two out of 10 people in Malaysia will be over 60, me included. So there is a demand for that.


And do we see the same set of issues or does Malaysia has a different set of problems? My answer to that, Tracie, would be yes to both. The issues in care economy are the same. There are more women in care work. Most of them are unpaid. There is lack of data. There is lack of coordination among ministries. We need to factor in care economy to the country's GDP. There is lack of formalization and recognition of care work and lack of standards of care services. Yes, they're all the same. But the levels of policy responses are different. Perhaps more advanced economies will have more specific policy offerings such as incentives or direct financial assistance, more structured care economy ecosystem, more awareness on care economy, more advanced entrepreneurial approach and participation in care economy.

John Rieger (10:37):

Many of these unpaid caregiving roles that we've been discussing are deeply traditional in Asia. Isn't that right?

Ikram Abdullah (10:45):

Yes, that is true. And if we can relate back to the figure that Ankita mentioned earlier from the ILO, more than 70% of care provision are being provided by women. Now, there is a cultural element involved in this. Most of the Asian countries, in Malaysia especially, you see women being seen as a traditional caregivers. I think this goes to the way we are brought up. I remember as kids, girls are supposed to help their moms in the kitchen while boys like me can go fishing or play soccer.

John Rieger (11:23):

You were playing video games. Come on.

Ikram Abdullah (11:26):

Oh, yeah. Video games nowadays. Very true. But-

John Rieger (11:30):

I'm sorry.

Ikram Abdullah (11:31):

Yeah. It's okay. That's the right point, John. But of course this is another different area. If we're talking about cultural norms and values here, we're not sure whether we need to drill deeper into this because at least based on the dialogue session that we had the other day, the participants believe strongly that if we were to approach care economy, it has to be an economic approach and not a cultural or values approach.

John Rieger (12:05):

But are you suggesting that we should monetize traditional family relationships?

Ikram Abdullah (12:10):

I'm a caregiver myself, John. I take care of my 85-year-old mom. I find that a blessing and something which I want to do because it is a way for me to repay what my mother has done to me when I was small.

John Rieger (12:28):

I've had the same experience and I completely understand.

Ikram Abdullah (12:32):

But it requires a lot of patience. We need to find a balance that is. Some people are happy providing care on their own. They may be able to survive financially. Some people are not because they need to earn a living. Maybe it's a family member that takes care of [inaudible 00:12:53] another family member. Maybe we need to get a service provider or an agent to do that. Some people can afford to have that care service providers. Most of them cannot. So I think we need to find a balance where care services can be affordable and accessible to those who are in need.

John Rieger (13:13):

I cared for my mother during the last year of her life. And I also like you found it rewarding, although at the same time, very arduous, and eventually I had to hire a caregiving agency. This was a huge expense for our middle class family, and yet the caregivers themselves were paid very poorly. I'm not sure how the balance sheet works for this future that we're imagining.

Ikram Abdullah (13:40):

Yes. I think we are still grappling with the solution. We are saying that we need to have trained and professionalized care workers, but there is a cost to that, and we don't know whether people can afford paying for trained and professional caregivers. I think there needs to be a balance between market driven economy with some amount of government intervention, especially to help the lower income group. Governments have to jump in and provide that support because we can't run away from providing that social protection. So yeah, I don't have the answer, John, but the number speaks for itself in terms of the need, the increasing demand for care work, the fact that we're becoming an aging population. So we need to have good policy responses to that.

Tracie Yang (14:29):

Ankita, did you want to add anything?

Ankita Panda (14:31):

Yeah. I just wanted to jump in and mention that there is no one size fits all when it comes to care work. Different models work in different contexts and different actors have different roles to play. And it's really important for countries to identify within their context what kind of a model works for them. And so in the white paper, we actually illustrate a number of different models. For example, in Singapore, we found that a lot of care work is currently being facilitated by private startups that actually help match households with care needs with care workers. And so it organizes care work to facilitate this care provision. But in some of the Nordic countries, we've found that a lot of the care provision is actually being led by the government itself and specifically by municipal government. And we've seen the private sector and civil society organizations as well step in other contexts in order to provide much needed care services.


So there is no one size fits all. There's no utopian model for care provision. And it really does depend on a number of different factors. And the white paper highlights several case studies that have worked for different types of countries across both Asia and the Pacific but also in other parts of the world.

Tracie Yang (15:45):

So what are the overall impacts if we don't address this problem?

Ankita Panda (15:50):

I'm struggling to articulate my response because the impacts are just so substantial. I mean, we've spent a lot of this conversation talking about some of the economic impacts of care work, but there's also a large human rights element as well. Unless we address some of these inequalities related to care work going to reverse decades' long progress that we've made toward gender equality. And so we need to invest in the care economy and we need to address it for both the economic, as well as the human rights reasons and also for some of the gender equality reasons that I shared.

John Rieger (16:28):

I think it's clear from your remarks that we're not really just making an economic argument here. We're talking about human flourishing for everyone.

Ankita Panda (16:36):

Exactly. I think that we talked a lot about the economic argument because the economic argument is often the most compelling when it comes to making policy change, but at the end of the day, this is much more complicated than that. And we need to think about that human argument as well. We need to think about fulfillment and choice and autonomy. And care work is very much connected to that human argument. And it's important for us not to lose sight of that as we're trying to push progress forward in the care economy.

John Rieger (17:06):

Ankita Panda of The Asia Foundation's Women's Empowerment and Gender Equality program, and senior policy advisor, Ikram Abdullah, of our Malaysia office, thank you both for joining us today.

Ikram Abdullah (17:17):

Thank you for having me, John.

Ankita Panda (17:19):

Thanks, John. Thanks, Tracie. Great to be here.

Tracie Yang (17:22):

That's our show for this week. The white paper, Toward a Resilient Care Ecosystem in Asia and the Pacific, is available on The Asia Foundation's website, and you can find the link on the InAsia blog at the bottom of this podcast page.

John Rieger (17:34):

And while you're there, you'll see a button you can push to subscribe to our podcast. Now's your chance. Until next time, I'm John Rieger.

Tracie Yang (17:41):

And I'm Tracie Yang.

John Rieger (17:43):

Thanks for listening.