1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development (2000 - 2009), Special Events (2000 - 2009)

Women’s Livelihood and Entitlements in the Middle East: What Difference has the Neoliberal Policy Turn Made? (Draft)

Background paper prepared for the UNRISD report "Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World"

A large body of scholarship, including much of the feminist literature, has cast a critical eye on globalization’s short-term and long-term social effects. It has been argued that the neoliberal philosophy of “free markets”, on which the economic (and financial) aspect of globalization is based, is inimical to concepts of full employment, public goods, and social rights. Feminists argue further that many of the trade and financial agreements associated with neoliberal economic policies contravene the spirit and letter of international conventions on human rights, women’s rights, and labour rights. In particular, the withering away of the welfarist, developmentalist state is regarded as detrimental to women’s interests. Approaches to globalization remain polarized, and it is not the intention of this paper to review them. Yet qualitative regional or country-case studies could elucidate the contradictory nature of the neoliberal policy turn and the complex and differentiated ways that it has affected states, employment patterns, and social policies, especially as far as women’s rights are concerned.

This paper examines changes in patterns of women’s employment and social policies pertaining to women in the Middle East and North Africa, and make comparisons between two periods: the oil-boom era of the 1960s-1980s, and the period of liberalization since the latter part of the 1980s and into the present decade. Like other areas in the world-economy, the region has undergone a shift from state-directed economic development with protected industries to a more open and liberalized economic policy environment. Economies within the region are more or less liberalized in terms of trade and financial markets, and the region as a whole has seen less foreign direct investment than have other regions. Some economists have explained this in terms of the less competitive nature of MENA industries, labour skills, and wages compared with other regions, largely the result of the region’s earlier “competitive advantage” in oil. This is an argument that is considered in this paper.