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The Impact Initiative has closed. This website has now been archived and will no longer be updated.

Female Labour Supply and the Escape from Poverty: New evidence from household data

Research Partners:

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Principal Investigator: Andy McKay. Lead Organisation: University of Sussex

Co-investigators: Binayak Sen; Abbi Mamo Kedir; Dickson Malunda; Richard Disney; Iftikhar Hussain; Amalavoyal Chari; Hadia Majid

This study will utilize household survey data from four African and Asian countries (Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Pakistan and Rwanda) to examine in depth, and on a comparable basis, the evolving nature of female labour supply in low income countries over the past two to three decades, and to analyse how this has been associated with poverty reduction.

We address primarily Research Question 1 (from the call for proposals), the factors enabling households to escape from or stay out of poverty, although institutional factors (Research Question 2) also play an important role in this analysis.

The choice of countries and similarity of approach enables comparability within and between Africa and South Asia. The roles of women, including in relation to work, are often quite different between countries; and the countries have varying degrees of success in poverty reduction. The analysis draws on repeated cross section household surveys, Demographic Health Survey (DHS) data and household panel data sets. Underlying our research questions is the widely accepted fact that secure productive labour market activities are key to enable a household to escape from and stay out of poverty. We suggest that the labour market activities of women in poor households may play a key role here, whether as secondary household workers or heads in their own right.

Historically females have been less able to engage in work or in more productive forms of work, representing a lost resource for the household. This situation is changing across the world; girls are now educated to higher levels, and norms which constrained female labour market activities are now less strong. A process which started in now-advanced countries is also happening in poorer countries. This affects both the extent to which women are able to work and the type of activities they can undertake. That said, it remains the case in poor countries that much female work, especially in poorer households, plays a buffering role, seeking to support the household in the face of shocks. Over time this is likely to change. The focus here is on different aspects of labour supply and their evolution over a 20 to 30 year time period; we will consider participation, hours, nature of work (wage or self-employment, within or outside the household, sector, occupation etc.), and adoption of productivity enhancing measures. We will disaggregate by household type according to many criteria (geographic, socioeconomic status, household size and composition etc.). We will use the survey data to examine in detail, using a cohort approach, the associations between increased or changing female labour supply and poverty reduction, which has taken place in all countries, controlling for many other correlates.

We are particularly interested in examining the transition of female work from a buffering role to a longer term income generating role. This will partly be apparent from the descriptive analysis; but we will also consider this more analytically by estimating short and long run female labour supply income elasticities and examining how they have changed over time in each country. This can shed light on the institutional and policy factors that facilitate the transition.

Potentially relevant to this transition is that all our study countries are implementing social protection interventions, which in three of the study countries takes the form of workfare. Although such programmes facilitate the buffering role of female labour, they may also help women acquire longer term jobs. We will investigate this in the context of the Vision 2020 Umurenge Programme (VUP) which has been operational in Rwanda since 2008. Our very strong team of local partners will play a leading role in this project, in close partnership with Sussex researchers. There is strong policy interest in these questions in all four countries and internationally; in all countries we will involve and work alongside key stakeholderS from the beginning.

Further Resources:

We are strongly committed to our research having significant policy impact in the partner countries and internationally. We will prioritise stakeholder engagement from the outset and will build a constituency of interested stakeholders from the beginning. There is currently a highly supportive international environment for work in this area (DFID, OECD, World Bank, International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and others). The governments of all our partner countries recognise the key role women can play in poverty reduction and growth. All countries have significant Non-Governmental Organisations and Civil Society Organisations focused on promoting the role of females in their societies, and many country level donor representatives share similar views. We hope that the project would demonstrate whether or not, or in which circumstances, increased or changed female labour market participation could have a beneficial effect on poverty reduction at the country level. Who will benefit? In the country-level policy community, we see the research as of direct interest to three main government constituencies: ministries charged with poverty reduction (variously planning ministries, finance ministries, poverty monitoring authorities); labour ministries; and ministries concerned with women or gender. We will also engage in dialogue in each country with a number of key domestic or international NGOs and CSOs concerned with these issues; with local representatives of donors or international organisations ; and with local researchers working on these issues, and often advising government, NGOs, donors or others. The local Co-Is would play a key role in helping identify these partners, and we already have initial ideas. And finally we would wish to contribute to a wider public debate at the country level, through engaging with the media and social media. We also see wide interest at an international level. This research as being directly relevant to DFID's vision to "stop poverty before it starts". Work from the World Bank (World Bank, 2012) suggests that women's growing participation in the workforce played a major role in poverty reduction in Latin America and the Caribbean, and we see this project as adding to this evidence. It also builds on their 2013 World Development Report on jobs. We also see this work as being very much of interest to the African Development Bank, Asian Development Bank, International Labour Organisation (ILO), other UN agencies and other bilaterals. We would aim for a similar media engagement strategy internationally. How will they benefit? We will involve stakeholders from the beginning in the planning of the research; at country level by inviting stakeholders to be fully involved in our project level country workshops; and at an international level through email and phone contact as well as opportunistic meetings. We would establish a regular communication with these stakeholders through periodic (e.g. quarterly) meetings with the research teams at country level; policy briefs; invites to policy seminars; and through invites (here aiming for a wider group of stakeholders) to country dissemination events towards the end of the project. International stakeholders would be involved with many of the same events, though would also be invited to the final project conference in Sussex. Our research dissemination activities, described elsewhere, will also be communicated to policymakers and others through our involvement in conferences also attended by policymakers, for instance IZA or UNU-WIDER conferences. We would hope to have an initial impact over the life of the project, but also to make the case for the longer term and for a wider set of countries about the benefit of female labour market participation for poverty reduction.

Primary theme: 
Grant Reference: 
Project Status: 
Grant Category: 
Research Grant
Lead Organisation Department: 
Sch of Business Management & Economics
Fund Start Date: 
September 1st, 2015
Fund End Date: 
December 31st, 2018
Fund Currency Code: 
Fund Value: