Expert Commentary

Gender and development in Africa: Roundup of recent research

2014 review of research and data on gender and African women, including four new papers in the Journal of African Economies.

As is the case in many developing countries — as well as in advanced economies such as the United States — women in sub-Saharan Africa still often lack access to the same chances for economic success as their male counterparts. While there has been some progress on the third Millennium Development Goal to “promote gender equality and empower women,” as indicated in the 2013 Millennium Development Goals Report, there is still a long way to go when it comes to equal education and economic opportunities for women.

This economic marginalization has been the result of various historical and cultural factors, and research in this discipline is revising a number of assumptions. In a 2012 policy working paper for the World Bank, “The Contribution of African Women to Economic Growth and Development: Historical Perspectives and Policy Implications Part I: The Pre-Colonial and Colonial Period,” Harvard University historian Emmanuel Akyeampong and World Bank economist Hippolyte Fofack provide a contextual overview of gender discrimination throughout sub-Saharan Africa. They conclude that it is necessary to go back further in African history to the pre-colonial period in an effort to understand the true roots of gender inequality:

[F]or a number of reasons, including data gaps, efforts to understand the gender inequality dynamics and models developed to that effect have often focused on the post-colonial and post-independence period. Consequently, these models have neglected the deeper historical understanding of processes which have shaped the gender relations and dynamics that emerged in the years following independence in Africa. This myopic approach to research also implicitly assumes that gender relations have essentially followed a uniform path, with men consistently and invariably dominating and overpowering women throughout Africa, irrespective of the historical period.

Policymakers and economists underscore that this ongoing inequality is not just damaging for women, but for the continent’s economic prospects. In a 2013 report — “Women and Trade in Africa” — the World Bank highlights the important role women can play in economic development due to their heavy involvement in producing trade-able goods and services. However, they are often relegated to informal economies because of their lack of access to finance and male-dominated networks. The report cites estimates from the International Labour Organization (ILO) indicating that about 62.5% of women were employed in agriculture compared to 61.8% of men: “Yet the potential for women farmers to contribute to the expansion of traditional agricultural exports appears to have been undermined by their limited access to key production inputs relative to male farmers.” The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that “closing the yield gap by providing women with resources equal to those available to men would increase agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5 to 4 percent.”

To highlight new research on gender and development in Africa, in December 2012, the Nairobi-based African Economic Research Consortium (AERC) hosted a workshop for scholars to present recent studies on the subject. In January 2014, the four papers presented were published in a supplement of the Oxford University Journal of African Economies. In an overview and introduction to the papers, authors Damiano K. Manda and Samuel Mwakubo (AERC) summarize the importance of addressing the role of women in economic development:

Gender equality matters as an instrument for development as it enhances economic efficiency and improves other development outcomes in three ways. First, it removes barriers that prevent women from having the same access as men to education, economic opportunities and productive inputs resulting in broad productivity gains. Second, it improves women’s absolute and relative status which feeds in many other development outcomes, including those for their children. Third, it levels the playing field with women and men having equal chances to become socially and politically active, making decisions and shaping policies.

The papers cover a range of topics, including macroeconomic policy recommendations, effective strategies for measuring the gender wealth gap, and the societal responsibility of caring for dependents. (Additional resources on gender inequality throughout the world include the OECD’s Social Institutions and Gender Index, the UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index, and the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report.) Below are the four Journal of African Economies papers included in the supplement:


“Collecting Sex Disaggregated Data to Improve Development Policies”
Doss, Cheryl. Journal of African Economies, Vol. 23, AERC Supplement 1, i62-i86, doi: 10.1093/jae/ejt023.

Abstract: “This paper discusses the need for better data, the possibilities for collecting such data, and the initial findings of efforts to gather sex disaggregated data on important economic activities. Better data at the individual level, for both men and women, will facilitate much better analyses by both macroeconomists and microeconomists. While some data, especially on education and employment, are now routinely collected on individuals, other data, including on asset access and ownership, are still typically collected only at the household level. The paper argues that it is both feasible and important to collect individual-level asset data, rather than simply collecting data at the household level. At the macro level, these data are needed to understand changing patterns within the economy; at the micro-level, the data are needed to understand the economic relationships among individuals, households and communities and can help in the design of policies to promote poverty reduction, growth and development. Drawing on the data collected under the Gender Asset Gap Project, differences are demonstrated between women and men in the ownership and control of assets and in the access to specific types of capital. Periodic data on gender asset and wealth gaps tracked over time would provide insights into policies designed to reduce poverty and promote economic growth.”


“The Care Economy in Africa: Subsistence Production and Unpaid Care”
Folbre, Nancy. Journal of African Economies, December 2012, Vol. 23, AERC Supplement 1, i128-i156, doi: 10.1093/jae/ejt026.

Abstract: “What do we know about the extent and value of the care economy in Africa, and why does this matter? This paper outlines a theoretical framework for analysing the care economy, including both the paid and unpaid work of caring for dependents and the flow of financial resources through the family, the community, the state and the market. A brief review of research on care work and economic development is followed by more specific consideration of empirical research on African countries, with a particular focus on the impact of HIV/AIDS. The paper concludes with a brief summary of policy implications and an agenda for future research.”


“Gender, Development and Economic Growth in Sub-Saharan Africa”
Seguino, Stephanie; Were, Maureen. Journal of African Economies, December 2012, Vol. 23, AERC Supplement 1, i18-i61. doi:10.1093/jae/ejt024.

Abstract: “A plethora of scholars have attempted to discern the causes of slow growth in the Sub- Saharan Africa region. The effects of global economic integration, corruption, geography, and ethnic diversity have been widely explored. Mainstream growth analyses have not yet integrated the body of scholarship that identifies the linkages between gender, economic development, and growth. This paper explores the theoretical and empirical macro-growth effects of gender inequality in sub-Saharan Africa. It further identifies two key policy avenues for promoting growth-enhancing gender equality and thus growth: a revised central bank focus on employment targets, and public investment to reduce women’s care burden.”


“Gender and Economic Empowerment in Africa: Evidence and Policy”
Wekwete, Naomi N. Journal of African Economies, December 2012, Vol. 23, AERC Supplement 1, i87-i127. doi: 10.1093/jae/ejt022.

Abstract: “Gender inequality continues to be a major challenge in Africa. Although progress has been made by ratification of international and regional conventions and commitments by African countries, gender inequality is still prevalent in all sectors of the economy, including the labour market. The majority of women are working in the informal sector or on small pieces of land and are engaged in care work, where the work is invisible and unpaid. Women’s labour force participation rates are lower than those for men. More men than women work in the formal sector where the work is paid and supported by all the national policies. Women contribute immensely to the country’s economy. Despite their contribution, gender inequality still prevails. Women have limited access to credit, land, agricultural inputs, equipment and extension services, and markets for their produce. They spend more time in care and domestic work than men. Some of the inequities are embedded in the deep-rooted cultural norms and beliefs in the societies. These inequalities can only be addressed by removal of policies that reinforce gender inequalities as well as formulating and enforcing laws that seek to improve women’s economic empowerment. Initiatives identified to improve women’s economic empowerment include revision of regulations to increase women’s participation in the labour market, skills training, policy reforms on regulations that hinder women’s empowerment, setting up of micro-credit schemes, use of technology to access markets such as mobile phones to release women’s time in caring and domestic work, fostering of partnership by providing funding to women, cash transfers and welfare fund, subsidised or publicly provided child care and skill training as well as improving infrastructure services such as water and electricity.”


Keywords: poverty, research roundup

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