In the first of two posts inspired by recent reading, Lisa Gormley considers the role of neo-liberalism in States’ failure to implement human rights obligations especially for women and girls.

In ‘Exposing the gendered myth of post conflict transition’ Christine Chinkin and Madeleine Rees describe how as countries emerge from conflict, neoliberal imperatives, particularly the requirements for austerity, lead to disproportionate and discriminatory effects on women’s access to their human rights. I suggest that in ‘Doughnut Economics’ Kate Raworth provides an economic model, and solution.

Neoliberal austerity programmes post-conflict constitute a double burden on women through financial cuts to public services women use, including health and education, and cuts which often include jobs in the public sector where women tend to be employed. Women then tend to have access to only to low skill, low paid, vulnerable and temporary jobs, often domestic work. Where such work is not available in post-conflict States, then women and girls are often targeted by traffickers.

When States withdraw from providing services, this leads to a race to the bottom in terms of human wellbeing and dignity, which affects women disproportionately, leading to what Mary Kaldor calls ‘predatory economies’ – where, during armed conflict and post-conflict situations, social institutions are undermined so that there is no safety net. These effects are also similar in peacetime and high income countries, as was illustrated in the recent inquiry by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in the situation in the UK, which found systematic violations of the human rights of disabled people due to austerity.

Christine Chinkin and Madeleine Rees set out how human rights law should be implemented, with a focus on ensuring women’s economic and social rights – especially to those women who have suffered human rights violations during conflict, as transformative reparation. In ‘Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist’ Kate Raworth provides an economic model which would make this possible. This book addresses the main barrier to the implementation of human rights: States’ unwillingness to provide the necessary financial and human resources, often using neoliberal arguments about austerity and a broad role for ‘free markets’ as justification.

Kate Raworth challenges the model of ‘how the world works’ provided by classical economics and its current neoliberal iteration. She provides instead an economic model embedded in the realities of human existence in the environment of our planet, an analysis of what it would take to maintain a safe global climate, within a social foundation which provides ‘a just space’ – a term which could, and I believe should, be read as the implementation of human rights  for all.

Kate Raworth offers a number of elegant explanations as to why the neoliberal viewpoint is so tenacious, despite its harmful effects on the human rights of individuals. First, those with most resources are able to control the rules of how the economy works for their own ends. Her second explanation is that when considering neoliberal economics, we are dealing with a mythology and narrative drawn from a script prepared since 1947 by members of Mont Pelerin Society, via think tanks, scholarships and politicians. Kate Raworth uses an interesting analogy from literary studies of Shakespeare’s scripts: “To keep his actors on their toes, Shakespeare handed each member of the troupe only their own lines and cues to learn, intentionally leaving them in the dark about the unfolding plot. Soon after his death, however, over-zealous editors added in complete lists of characters and… introduced many parts along with their tell-tale traits. Describe a character as “a usurping duke” and the actors already suspect that past wrongs are waiting to be righted. Name another as ‘an honest old counsellor’ and they know his word is to be trusted…. With such a character list, the play is pregnant with plot and the story ahead almost self-fulfilling.”

If we make a similar list of the characters in our current economic drama, we find:

THE MARKET – which is efficient, so give it full rein

BUSINESS- which is innovative, so let it lead

FINANCE – which is infallible – so trust in its ways

TRADE – which is win-win – so open your borders

THE STATE –  which is incompetent – so don’t let it meddle.

Other characters not required on stage:

THE HOUSEHOLD – which is domestic, so leave it to the women

THE COMMONS – which are tragic, so sell them off

SOCIETY – which is non-existent – so ignore it

EARTH – which is inexhaustible, so take all you want.

Kate Raworth proposes that we free the characters in our current economic drama from those expectations, drawing on a wealth of economic, sociological and historical research to provide for an alternative vision, with the priority given to:

EARTH, which is life-giving – so respect its boundaries

SOCIETY, which is foundational – so nurture its connections

THE ECONOMY, which is diverse – so support all of its systems.

Her comparison of the two scripts shows that it isn’t naïve to think that domestic and international economies and societies can be organised differently – as such views are often portrayed – but  that investment in human rights and human potential is possible, within a context of safety for Earth’s climate.

This is expressed in the Doughnut diagram:


What exactly is the Doughnut? […] Below the Doughnut’s social foundation lie shortfalls in human well-being, faced by those who lack life’s essentials such as food, education and housing. Beyond the ecological ceiling lies an overshoot of pressure on Earth’s life-giving systems, such as through climate change, ocean acidification and chemical pollution. But between these two sets of boundaries lies a sweet spot- shaped unmistakeably like a doughnut – that is both an ecologically safe and socially just space for humanity. The twenty-first century task is an unprecedented one: to bring all of humanity into that safe and just space.

In my next post I will focus on how ensuring gender equality, especially the political empowerment of women in our societies, is a vital part of resourcing of economies for the well-being of people and planet.

Kate Raworth will be speaking at LSE on Thursday 23 November, in ‘Doughnut Economics: Seven ways to think like a 21st century economist’.

Lisa GormleyLisa Gormley is a Research Officer in the Centre for Women, Peace and Security. She has a strong background in women’s human rights, including 14 years as legal adviser at Amnesty International’s International Secretariat, mostly specialising in women’s rights in international law. She is also the author of the ‘Women’s Access to Justice for Gender-Based Violence: ICJ’s Practitioner’s Guide’.