People count

Marianna Leite discusses the need for a global economic overhaul.

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic we have been bombarded with statements, rapid assessments and calls to action. We have been crippled with fear and anxiety as a result of the many unknowns. But one thing is crystal clear; the pandemic has deepened already entrenched inequalities.

The pandemic has had a  significant impact on women and girls, in particular historically marginalised groups like indigenous women and those of African descent in the global south. This is because we live in a world with gendered institutions and systems that constantly undermine and discriminate against marginalised people. With this realisation comes a responsibility to make radical change.

We need to build a future where everyone thrives, irrespective of who they are, or how, and where, they were born. If the responses to Covid-19 are to be effective, it is important that structural causes of inequality such as neocolonialism, neoliberalism and patriarchy are addressed. We need to challenge the asymmetry between the global north and south by building a new economy that is people-centred and feminist.

Much attention has been drawn towards the post-Covid recovery and the need to “build back better”. According to the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, building back better requires tackling “broader structural challenges” which include a need for radical changes in our global economy. Even conservative actors recognise the need for radical action including pushing corporations from a shareholder to a stakeholder model – one benefiting customers, employees, suppliers, communities and others. Those needs have been heightened by Covid-19.

“We must not assume that all people would have the same needs.”

The mainstream economic practice – in terms of its policy and academic origins – is hierarchical, institution-focused, filled with jargon, and controlled by a few privileged experts. To change the economy, we need to find a different way of doing mainstream academic economics and economic policy, while ensuring both strands are integrated, interconnected and mutually reinforcing.

A people-centred approach requires an economic practice that tips the scales in favour of the global south by engaging individuals and communities so they contribute to that end. A people-centred approach entails accepting diversity and plurality. For example, local ecofeminist approaches in Brazil or social solidarity economies in Honduras can build a bottom-up, people-centred economic model.

A people-centred economy helps people in poverty and exclusion, particularly women and girls, to articulate or formulate economic policies. It enhances their ability to live a life of justice and equality. It requires strong accountability to ensure economic policies deliver on their social purpose by linking them to stakeholder’s obligation to protect, respect and fulfil human rights in all contexts.

But we must not assume that all people would have the same needs. In fact, feminism (or even better, the myriad of feminisms) has taught us that there is no such thing as a homogeneous group. We must understand the nuances and the power dynamics within each group and territory to create just, feminist economies.

We must recognise our own part in perpetuating the current  unequal economic system.”

Many scholars and activists have written about the macro, meso and micro level components needed to deliver a successful feminist system. These range from taking into account the often invisible and undervalued care economy, to creating feminist macroeconomic policies. While not all of us will need or want to become experts in those issues, we must recognise our own part in perpetuating the current  unequal economic system and push policymakers to transform it with people’s interests and feminist values at heart.

The profit-centred economic system clashes with a rights-based, feminist and sustainability vision where human rights have primacy and intrinsic value. It stifles not only huma rights, but also democratic institutions that can counter negative financial and corporate practices.

This artificial choice between people or the economy has become a persistent theme in political debates. Politicians in the UK are rejected a free school meal plan because it would arguably “destroy the economy” and increase dependency. Colombia’s vice-president, Marta-Lucia Ramirez,  has said that no state can afford to cover people’s basic needs. This is unfair and unjust.

“It is equally vital to overhaul how power is vested and what we produce, distribute, consume and value.”

We must stand against profit-oriented practices while supporting transformative initiatives. For instance, the South Africa president announced that the country will build a new economy “founded on fairness, empowerment, justice and equality”. This, he said, will be fundamental to “forge radical economic transformation that ensures and advances the economic position of women, youth and persons with disabilities.”  What this means in practice is yet to be seen but we can ensure policymakers follow through with their promises regardless of where they are made. 

In a recent report, A Rights-Based Economy: Putting People and Planet First, Christian Aid and the Center for Economic and Social Rights laid out some concrete ways of moving towards a people-centred feminist economy. Policies designed and implemented with human rights considerations at the forefront will provide steps on this journey.

These include:

  • The robust taxation of wealth;
  • Universal and comprehensive social protection systems;
  • Reclaiming public services; and
  • Reforming and regulating corporations.

But it is equally vital to overhaul how power is vested and what we produce, distribute, consume and value. For example, unpaid care work must be recognised as the fulcrum of our societies and economies, and valued and supported as such. This is a true feminist calling.

It is easy to see the economic system as an elusive and disconnected higher power. In a recent conversation with my mum on the imminent need for change, she offered a ray of clarity on the matter that scattered my jargon-bound rhetoric: “You can go on and on about the problems of our economic model but the reality is that we are the system and until you make people understand that we are responsible for creating and sustaining an unequal system, nothing will change”.

That’s exactly it. We must connect with each other and challenge our role in this unequal economic system. Buying  ridiculously cheap fashion knowing the factory worker making it lives below the extreme poverty line, we are promoting the system that keeps the worker there.

The system is all of us. We can and must change it  through our everyday practices and by bringing the voices of those it marginalises to the forefront. And we must push economic thinkers and policymakers into making  radical change to policy measures and analyses.


Marianna Leite

Marianna is a legal scholar and a gender and development expert with considerable experience in international human rights law, strategic litigation, in-depth gender analysis and qualitative data gathering. Marianna a …

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