By Renee HoMarch 11, 2016

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On International Women’s Day, I was re-reading the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s 2016 Annual Letter.

Melinda’s half of the letter argues that if she had a superpower, it would be “more time”. Women all over the world are spending an unfair amount of time doing unpaid work: cooking, cleaning, and caring for children or the elderly.

Back in 2008, when I worked on “gender-mainstreaming” in agricultural development at the Gates Foundation, the idea was instrumentalist. Investing in women will result in better agricultural productivity, or so the argument went. With 60-80% of agricultural labor done by women, of course you would want gender-smart investments (This figure has been more recently challenged).

In the Gates’ 2016 letter—while there is still a strong instrumentalist argument (“It’s not just about fairness; assigning most unpaid work to women harms everyone: men, women, boys, and girls”)— there’s a surprisingly strong tinge of a rights-based argument.

Melinda throws in the required basic economic theory to give herself a particular legitimacy. “Economists call it opportunity cost: the other things women could be doing if they didn’t spend so much time on mundane tasks,” she explains.

But let’s be honest—what we like and where she shines is when she finally speaks her mind with subjective and less economic productivity-oriented words:

“Mundane”, “Fairness”, “Overwhelming”, “Fulfilled”.

Behind the economic rationale, we hear her crying out, “It’s not fair!”

I spend a lot of time at Feedback Labs trying to explore ways that feedback can be the “smart thing to do”—in other words, finding out if collecting and using constituent feedback is positively correlated with outcomes of interest. Does getting patient feedback improve clinic services and health? Does getting student feedback improve teaching and learning outcomes?

I’ve spent much less time talking about why feedback is the “right thing to do”—that from a moral and ethical perspective grounded in liberal democracy, asking constituents for their feedback is what the aid community needs to do. I’ve spent less time because this kind of argumentation simply hasn’t been as valued.

The Gates’ Annual Letter gives me a little more confidence that all of us who have worked in rights-based development, who see the clear linkages between rights-based development and economic development, should feel free saying:

“The fact that people have little to no say in what they receive from donors is simply NOT FAIR.”

There, I said it.  And so have others in different words, like Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton when he says,

“Helping others is good, not least because of the happiness it brings to the giver. But why do the world’s poor have such a passive role in all of this happiness creation? Why are they not asked if they wish to participate, if they too feel the warm glow?”

Melinda calls on people to Recognize, Reduce, and Redistribute. Recognize that unpaid work is still work. Reduce the amount of time and energy it takes. And Redistribute it more evenly between women and men.

I love these three things but I would switch-it up and this time, actually use a rights-based argument (redistribution out of fairness) in an instrumentalist way:

Recognize, Redistribute, and then Reduce. Because, if you can first redistribute and give more of the work to men, you’re more likely to motivate reduction of the work. When men realize they have to do more, they will have clearer incentives to invest in time and energy-saving technologies.   Until then, though, the work will continue to pile onto the backs of women.

Could it be, if we focused more on feedback as the right thing to do, that it will similarly follow as the smart thing to do, too?

One Response to “Reflections on the Gates’ 2016 Annual Letter”

  1. Marc Gunther

    March 14, 2016

    This is a terrific post, Renee. In the business arena, as well as in the nonprofit world, the “right thing to do” argument is often more powerful than the “smart thing to do” argument. It has moral force behind it and it can take you farther. I hope more funders listen to Melinda Gates, and to you.

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