The Challenge of Closing the Gender Gap in Developing Countries

Which is more effective in improving life for women: economic development or specific programs aimed at increasing equality?

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Krishnendu Halder/Reuters

While the developed world discusses the glass ceiling, the end of men and whether women can really ever have it all, activists in developing countries tend to focus on more basic issues like combating violence against women and providing equal access to vaccines, basic healthcare, and primary education.

"Today, it is estimated that 6 million women are missing every year (World Development Report, 2012)," writes MIT's Esther Duflo, one of the world's foremost development economists and a John Bates Clark medalist, in a new comprehensive literature review on the relationship between poverty and gender inequality across the developing world, published in last week's Journal of Economic Literature. Sex-selective abortion, infanticide, unequal treatment in childhood, and the risks of childbirth all play a role in the missing women phenomenon.

Duflo's paper is concerned primarily with the best way to fix this problem. Will economic development, with its attendant rising incomes and resources, eventually lead to gender equality on its own, even without targeted efforts at improving conditions for women? Or is gender equality a prerequisite to achieving development goals, as Kofi Annan and others have argued? And in this age of diminishing foreign aid budgets, can organizations focus their meager resources on just one of these two channels?

There's lots of evidence that gender inequality declines as economic development occurs and incomes rise. Prior to development, poverty-stricken families respond to income shocks by re-allocating resources to sons. "In India, the excessive mortality rate of girls, relative to boys, spikes during droughts," writes Duflo, in reference to a 1999 paper by Elaina Rose. "When they cannot afford to feed everyone, families disproportionately sacrifice the welfare of girls." On the other hand, Rose found that wealthier families with assets—land they can sell during particularly rough times—don't show the same gender disparities.

Economic development in a community not only brings more doctors and health facilities, but also increases families' abilities to weather the kinds of crises that disproportionately harm girls. In Duflo's words: "[B]y reducing the vulnerability of poor households to risk, economic development, even without specifically targeting women, disproportionately improves their well-being."

Development is also often accompanied by decreased maternal mortality and increased labor market opportunities for women, both of which may encourage parents to invest more in their young daughters. In other words, parents who think their daughters have a better chance of surviving the perilous childbearing years, or of one day getting a high-earning job outside the home, might make very different decisions about feeding and educating those daughters. A 2009 evaluation of a policy initiative in Sri Lanka found that a reduction in maternal mortality led to increases in female life expectancy, literacy and years of education.

But is it enough? "Is there a reason to design policies specifically targeted towards improving the condition of women?" asks Duflo. "Or is it sufficient for improving women's condition to fight poverty and to create the conditions for economic growth in poor countries?"

Duflo doesn't think development alone will be enough—gender gaps in wages and political participation persist in even the world's most developed countries, and researchers have found evidence of sex-selective abortion in countries like China, South Korea, India and Taiwan—and among certain ethnic groups in the U.S.

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Dwyer Gunn is a freelance journalist and the co-editor of the Freakonomics website.

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