Until recently, fiscal policy and government budgets were thought to be matters that had no differential impacts on the lives of women and men. Dr. Lekha Chakraborty has been at the forefront of scholarship that has challenged this notion. In the last two decades, Chakraborty has generated a formidable amount of research on gender-aware fiscal policy, specifically the design and implementation of a public finance management tool called gender budgeting. I had the pleasure of interacting with her early in her journey, when we were both instructors in the 2004 training workshop of the “International Working Group on Gender, Macroeconomics and International Trade” (IWG-GEM) at the University of Utah (U.S.)—she on public finance and I on international economics.
Chakraborty’s book is a compilation of her contributions on the plausibility of incorporating gender concerns in public finance, drawing evidence from the Asia Pacific region, with special reference to the Indian context. Gender budgeting (GB) is an innovation that seeks to guide fiscal policy by evaluating public expenditures, public revenues, and transfer of tax revenues to states through the lens of gender. GB was initially adopted as a tool for promoting gender equality by feminist researchers and advocates in Australia, South Africa, and the Philippines, but now has been widely embraced, including by international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The book starts from the premise that women and men are differently situated in the economy, and women, in particular women of lower-income or lower-status ethnic, caste groups may be disadvantaged relative to their male counterparts. These disadvantages are often invisible to fiscal and monetary policymakers, principally because standard macroeconomic models do not count the unpaid work of caring for family members in the labor force and raising the next generation. When a large domain of economic life is statistically invisible, policy may exacerbate gender inequalities is society. Chakraborty provides a comprehensive study of GB efforts to show how this tool has been (or may be) implemented in the Asia-Pacific to address gender inequalities.
Chakraborty’s deep expertise is on India, where she was instrumental in getting the government to adopt gender budgets to earmark expenditures either exclusively or primarily to improve the well-being of women and girls. The book engages in cutting-edge debates concerning public finance in India from a gender perspective. She highlights the challenges of budgeting and cautions how even well-intentioned policy interventions to address women’s disadvantages through public budgets may miss their targets due to inefficiency or corruption.
Chakraborty presents insightful analyses to illustrate the role of fiscal policy (paired with GB) to address persistent disadvantages faced by women and girls in India. In the particularly accessible Chapter 4, Chakraborty reports results of her analysis of India’s first national time-use survey of 2019. She documents the wide gaps in unpaid work hours of women and men in rural and urban areas, nationally, and in 6 selected states. She estimates the monetary value of women’s unpaid work to be between 23 and 41 percent of the gross state product in 6 selected states, which is many times higher than the value of men’s unpaid work (3 and 12 percent, respectively). Chakraborty argues that fiscal policy can address intrahousehold inequalities by reducing the time allocation of women to unpaid work through public infrastructure investments. Focusing on public water infrastructure, she provides new evidence that improving water infrastructure is associated with less unpaid labor, rise in school enrollment of girls (who will spend less time fetching water) and would also increase women’s employment. Chakraborty suggests that the smartest and fastest way to increase GDP of a country is to reduce gender inequality in education and increase women’s labor force participation rates by designing programs to alleviate their care burdens using GB.
For Chakraborty, human development, not solely GDP growth, is the goal of macroeconomic policy. Her analysis in Chapter 5 indicates that GB may be effective in girls achieving parity with boys in school enrollments. She further argues for the use of GB as a potential public policy tool to address the worsening the relative life chances of girls compared to boys in many Indian states. She rightly argues for the use of the state’s child sex ratio (0-6 age group) as one additional criterion in determining the allocation of tax revenue from the central government to the states, so as to encourage states to take discrimination against girls seriously.
The book is an inspiring read on groundbreaking research on GB. It is timely as many governments are preparing post-pandemic fiscal policy strategies and gender budgeting is an appropriate public finance management tool to address the mounting inequalities.
Book: Fiscal Policy for Sustainable Development in Asia-Pacific: Gender Budgeting in India
Author: Lekha Chakraborty
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
The reviewer is teaching at Utah University, and is a scholar in international macroeconomics and gender studies