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Dr. Marilyn Waring: Counting for the Future

Dr. Marilyn Waring is a political economist and author with a long history of shaking the place up. As a 22 year old, she was the youngest Member in the New Zealand parliament. David Suzuki has said that she, ‘penetrates to the heart of the global, ecological and social crisis that afflicts the world’. Her book Counting for Nothing/If Women Counted (University of Toronto Press) was the subject of the National Film Board of Canada’s award winning documentary Who’s Counting – Marilyn Waring on sex, lies and global economics, directed by Oscar winner Terre Nash.

We are very excited to announce that Dr. Marilyn Waring will be undertaking a economics policy residency at the Victorian Women’s Trust in early 2018 — stay tuned for updates! Until then, enjoy her searing keynote address from Breakthrough 2016 ‘Counting for the Future’.

Counting for Nothing
Breakthrough 2016
26 November 2016, Melbourne Town Hall
by Dr. Marilyn Waring 

-Acknowledgement of Country in Māori-

I acknowledge the ancestors of the Aboriginal peoples, their culture and their guardianship of this land where we meet. In the last day and a half, one of the things that has most impressed me in the listening to men and women has been how transparent and honest they have been. These are people who are courageous, and who generally would consider themselves unexceptional. That’s been very special. The other thing that’s very special is that I just want to say to all the young women who are here, that for the women my age, you make us feel like all of our work has been worthwhile.


Now many of us, my age, can remember when there was only one or two of us in the room with men. And they know how the story goes. There’s a discussion, one woman has an idea, she finally gets the call from the chair and she describes what she thinks. There’s absolute silence. Then the conversation picks up as if she hasn’t intervened. Forty minutes later, one of the men repeats her ideas. “BRILLIANT” they say, “what a hero, Roger! Why didn’t we think of that earlier?!” Well, in 2009 after the global economic crisis, French president Sarkozy set up a commission on the measurement of economic performance and social progress. He had a Nobel Prize winner there, Amartya Sen, Joseph E. Stiglitz and Jean-Paul Fitoussi. The key message that they bought back to Sarkozy: that the time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production, to measuring people’s wellbeing. Well done boys, you’re only 20 years too late.

It’s 30 years ago that I was working on the final draft of Counting for Nothing. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the work, I analysed how Gross Domestic Product (GDP) derived from a system, imposed by the United Nations on all countries, uses an ideology of applied patriarchy on the measurement of economic progress. The so-called “growth” indicators. It was during the parliamentary committee on public expenditure in New Zealand when we had to update these rules. The rules sounded very odd to me, and I asked our treasury officials to get a copy of them for me. They advised me that there didn’t seem to be a copy of the 1953 or 1968 version in New Zealand anywhere. “Well get them for me from Canberra”, I asked. Soon the reply came back, “well, there’s no copy in Australia either”. Now, it seemed to me that there was something very odd about an international set of rules governing such a central aspect of economic decision making when nobody needed to read them. As a feminist of the 1970’s, discipline-by-discipline, we were uncovering the ways in which male experiences spoke for all. I suspected that economics would be the same, and yes it was.

After I read the rules, which frankly were encyclopaedic and ran to several shelves, Catherina Burvan who was the assistant librarian in the UN in New York at the time and had been there for 20 years, said that in her experience, other than the author, Sir Richard Stone, nobody else had ever turned up to read them. I took the system on in terms of its own rules. I figured, that if it really meant to count all work, then GDP as the focus of economic performance would be transformed. It didn’t, at this point, count community and voluntary work, it didn’t count any informal work, it didn’t count any unpaid productive work, any reproductive work nor any housework. If the set of rules couldn’t work at the point at which what it was supposed to measure was measured, then it was propaganda.

Now this system had what it called a boundary of production, they changed it and after 1953 when the rules were made they changed it in 1968, they changed it in 1993, and in 2008, but completely consistent in these rules was the omission of the work that keeps the world turning. So, the main categories that continued to be excluded:

  • The cleaning, decoration and maintenance of dwellings
  • The cleaning, servicing and repair of household durables
  • The preparation and serving of meals
  • The care, training and instruction of children
  • The care of sick and infirmed people
  • The transportation of members of the households and their goods

The main breakthrough I’m going to put to you is to break through beyond GDP, because the rules have changed, but the measurement hasn’t changed. The system is an appalling joke. What is paraded to you as international GDP, is unadulterated bullshit.


So let me give you loads of reasons why, and if at times if it seems a little bit jargon-laden, just hang in because you’re going to get the picture. So, changes in the rules of the production boundary were a complete pyrrhic victory. Most GDP estimates in sub-Saharan Africa for example, for at least 41 countries, are unreliable and out of date. They’re not even updated to the 1993 boundary of production. Wherever there have been sanctions, wherever people are nomadic, wherever there have been or are wars, wherever there have been major natural disasters in so-called developing counties, like the Nepal earthquake, or where the resources needed to count and conduct valid and reliable data collection have never been available: Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, in the nation states of most of the Pacific, we do not have GDP data that means anything. In addition, translations bias the nature of the terms and the questions that are concocted by the Western statisticians. Most countries do not gather data on the informal sector, though they have been supposed to be doing that since 1968.

When the statistical commission in New York conducts workshops on measuring the informal sector, or what they call the non-observed sector, they say that there are practical data collection problems. The large agricultural sector of many developing countries, which is small and unregistered household enterprises, should not be included because this would increase survey operations and costs. So on that basis, forget the rules, and leave them out. Experts from the World Bank writing in 2015 describe the challenge of improving the worlds agricultural statistics worldwide, as daunting. The poorest countries have the poorest data, and there’s no question that there’s major political interference in data gathering and publication. I recorded this 30 years ago and nothing has changed, but what is clear in 2016 just as it was in 1986 is that nation-state GDP economic statements are not comparable. And yet, one of the major reasons they say they collect this data, is for its international comparability. Now they probably underestimate or misrepresent GDP figures by large amounts for the overwhelming majority of counties; but we’re immersed and perpetuating this GDP fiction as a comparable exercise. I’ve never understood this comparative need, other than the “mine is bigger than yours” patriarchal paradigm. It’s use in national policy planning; you don’t sit there and make Victorian state policy by comparing yourselves with the Northern Territory.  You don’t even sit in Wellington, New Zealand, making national policy and compare yourself with Canberra. They’re not comparable and that’s not the point. It seems to me that “mine is bigger than yours” is now the sexting approach to economic development.

Then, they continue to perpetuate all of these international opportunities for measurement. So we have the millennium development goals, we’ve got the sustainable development goals, and there are lots of “growth” indicators that we’re going to have to use (apparently) in the sustainable development goals. Well as I mentioned, we’ve got informal labour force data on only 62 countries. If we just counted the informal agricultural work, in all countries, we’d meet the SDG targets and nothing would have changed. So what is all this nonsense about? And why don’t people tell the truth about the data that’s going to be measured for these goals?

After I wrote Counting for Nothing we got some support at national levels to conduct time use surveys. Australia did this, Canada did this, New Zealand did this, but women are such a problem for statisticians and economists because you know, most women insist that they do more than one task at a time. And if statisticians counted all of these activities, the minutes of work add up to more minutes than there are in a day and we cannot have that! And some women even claim that they work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week! And that was just not possible. So fire fighters could claim that they were on duty and working while they were asleep, but not mothers of teething children.

Now, we’ve got lots of new data on the amount of work that isn’t seen. Lets have a look at Canada: 8 million informal caregivers in Canada at the moment. More than one in five Canadians providing 80% of the care required by those with long term health conditions, saving healthcare systems an estimated 25 billion a year. Some of you will be familiar with the counting on care research done in Australia. The sector is worth an estimated 762 billion to the 2010 economic year. 112.4 million in paid work, 650 million in unpaid care. Women provide 70% of all economic activity relating to unpaid interactive care work, that means face to face, with the person that you’re caring for. The unpaid work equivalent in Australia is equal to 11.1 million fulltime equivalents. That’s 1.2 times the total Australian labour force. I’m going to have a few more figures and then we’ll bring it all together.

GDP has never been able to cope with biological reproduction. So pregnancy, giving birth, lactation, motherhood, these are all externalities not worthy of mention, unless there’s a need for intervention by others in the paid workforce. Now, if you manage a non-market pregnancy you’re at leisure for nine months.


The best investment in social capitol begins with the child being breastfed for 6 months; and this makes such a difference for future health, brain development and attachment. This is a trade-off that neither governments nor markets appear to understand. The wonderful Julie Smith has been working on valuing breast milk and having it included in the Australian National Income Accounts, and in the GDP. Her research on survey of new mothers found that having an infant added — ADDED — 44 hours per week to a women’s unpaid workload, and exclusive breastfeeding took 17-20 hours of a mother’s time. Her estimates of the annual value of this food were 2.1 billion a year. This has no value in the GDP, but the GDP loves breasts when they’re a part of the vast international pornography industry.


There are still people who think that the GDP is not patriarchy at large. Well there’s lots more data but here’s the key point: you cannot make a policy, you cannot, no one can, plan for policy interventions, OR evaluate them, when the single largest sector of any economy anywhere is missing. It’s a farce. This is hopeless. It’s dreadful.

Now, I’m running out of time. I was going to get on to the environment and use climate change, and talk to you about Tuvalu and Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands, and all of the islands that are in the pacific where international migration of the entire nation will be the only possibility. I was going to talk to you about all of the other kinds of pollution, the Fukushima isotopes entering the Pacific food chain, the 300 million children living in extreme air pollution, where pollution now contributes to 600 000 deaths per year; more than the combination of malaria and HIV and AIDS in children. I wanted to talk to you about the way in which air pollution data is collected, because these days it’s now collected by satellite, and this is an interesting change in the last 30 years that the satellites can provide this measurement. However the satellite data is not as accurate as that which we can collect in Australia or New Zealand, but for the mindless comparative purposes, for the development of environmental wellbeing indicators, we’re invited to use a lesser and less accurate data set for comparative purposes. I beg your pardon, we’ve both had enough issues with climate change deniers and governments who want to continue using fossil fuels, and now we’re to agree to lesser standards for the sake of statisticians and their beautiful modules so we can compare ourselves with others.

Moving right along, a bit of jargon, hang in there. The 1993 GDP treated durable goods purchased by the defence forces, military weapons systems designed for combat, warships, fighter aircraft, tanks, whose sole purpose is to launch and deliver weapons as intermediate consumption. So obviously you produce them, and then they just sit there in the accounts as it were, doing nothing, until they are consumed. But the so-called Canberra group, determined that this treatment was very problematic. Just listen why: it failed to recognise that weapons systems provide a nation with economic benefits by protecting the liberty and property of its citizens. That this also makes you a target is apparently beside the point. It fails to recognise that existing military equipment has value and can be sold. I thought well that’s interesting; it’s cost Australia and New Zealand millions of dollars in the past to get rid of old equipment. Finally, the distinction between destructive equipment and non-destructive equipment; that can be used for peaceful purposes, is difficult to make in practice. So in 2008 the boys pulled a new trick, they extended the asset boundary in government fixed capitol to include the ongoing services of weapons systems, the outcome of this treatment and the national accounting framework is to register an increase in the GDP.

So, you can work the system to register a weapons based increase, but you can’t count breast milk. Ok, now, there are loads of other contributions to the fiction of the GDP. We know that increasingly global production chains allocate value added and profits to national economies to the benefit of multi-nationals. There’s growing international fragmentation of production processes. Where is something produced anymore? There’s double counting in trade flows, there’s tax incentives that mean multinationals distribute profits across countries, just to minimise their total tax. Nothing to do with production, no one knows how to deal with cross-border accounting, the strategies of multinationals. No one can work out how to deal with the economic ownership of intellectual property products. And do we really think that the producers of opium poppies and cacao leaves fill in the census of agriculture? Or the manufacturers of methamphetamines, or people traffickers, fill in the census of business? I have to mention the Australians. The Australians have a special system of national accounts, right, because you’ll be very interested to know that in Australia there is no underground criminal activity. And what is produced from that is left, simply, right out in Australia.

So here’s the point and lets get it really clear, GDP has never been measured properly, and there’s no difference today. The work of most people on the planet that fall inside the production boundaries still aren’t counted, regardless of the rules. The vast sector ignored is outside the boundary, meaning the central measurement is very far from recording the everyday experience of most people and most economies. It’s an appalling misuse of propaganda, masquerading as ideology and science. It’s a malevolent farce. And the sooner we can be rid of it, the better. You’re going to contribute to help getting rid of it, and this is where we need your help. We need a pissy, memorable alternative, to describe the words G.D.P. What really is it? Is it Grossly Deluded Propaganda? Is it a Gross and Deadly Paradigm? Now the Victorian Woman’s Trust, while you work on this creatively and imaginatively, we will be very happy to receive your bids.

Now, the next nightmare, I’m out of time, so this is very fast. The next nightmare is that there are alternatives, wellbeing alternatives. But the good ol’ central committee at the OSCD is determining what the colonial, mono-cultural, Western characteristics of wellbeing are, they’re homogenising them, as they talked about with pollution measurements, and imposing them on everyone, because we need to be compared. It’s that great old Monty Python line, “and now for something completely similar”. Now, there’s great stuff happening, there are Māori wellbeing indicators. There are Inuit wellbeing indicators. The International Women’s Development Agency has its individual depravation measures. We can use radar diagrams and begin our measurements from communities upwards, right? This is the breakthrough, no more waiting for nationally homogenised stuff that leaves us out. We’re not going to put up with the grossly deluded propaganda. And the other thing that’s very very important; there are these great wellbeing radar diagrams used in Alberta, look for those.

Open architecture, nothing has to be compared for 40 years without changing. Any new addition that we can make gets in there. Quick illustration: wellbeing indicators at the moment for safety are usually automobile accidents and homicides. Well, that’s hardly a reflection of things that women need to feel safe about. So we need to get some of those indicators in there, stay assiduously on the case. Refuse data that treats women as homogeneous. Ensure actual realities are the bottom line. You know 78 men have won the Nobel Prize in economics and one woman; Elinor Ostrom. The awards statement about Elinor Ostrom begins in the following way:

Elinor Ostrom’s research methods differed from how most economists work. Usually they start with a hypothesis, an assumption of reality, which is then put to the test. Elinor Ostrom started with reality instead.

Let’s just speak our realities and no more bullshit.


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