During my visit to Bhuj in November, I was asked by the Setu Abhiyan to share my experiences in Gender responsive budgeting/planning in Finland with the Setu staff –and I was delighted to do so. This I hope, was the first encounter, of many to come, as I hope to be visiting Bhuj again over the next few years, allowing me to learn from the work that Setu offices do in participatory planning and budgeting in different parts of Kutch district.
When I entered the meeting room, I soon realised that the setting was somewhat uncomfortable, yet familiar, for me: here was I, a white female academic from the global North entering a room full of Kutch (?) men: a situation that immediately gives me (neo)colonial connotations that I wanted to address first: who is the teacher and who knows.
Tackling this question, who knows and teaches and who learns, using the example of gender budgeting was a great opportunity for me. Because I was initially introduced to participatory planning, citizen’s activism, and gender equity and justice questions, not in Finland or global North, but in fact in India, learning from the many women’s groups, feminist movements and advocacy campaings. Each of which that were part of a wider global movement trying to understand the impacts of economic globalisation, structural adjustment programs and their impacts on women’s everyday lives. And importantly, seeking alternative economic models and possibilities for empowerment and focusing on collective learning trying to understand the ways in which economic processes connect us all in our everyday lives, globally.
How to make such connectedness visible in global North? I usually ask my students, or any audience, a simple question: what did you eat for breakfast, or what clothes are you wearing today? What journeys have the food items, or clothes made before you’ve purchased them? In fact, even some of the essential Kutch products -such as cotton, groundnuts, or other consumables, are most likely to be found in the everyday consumption in the Finnish households. Knowledge of such connectedness has over the years become easier, thanks to internet, social media but also tireless work by number of civil society organisations that connect beyond national borders. I also think that the awareness of the production and consumption chains is increasing, thanks to many years of advocacy on the topic.
Over the past 10-15 years I have taken part in number of initiatives that aims at increasing understanding of ’gender budgeting’, but also more generally of economic literacy skills in Finland – both which I think are important for us as citizens. Here I would say the most important has been the collective nature of such initiatives: I am not an economist and in order to understand complex economic processes, or their societal and political consequences, requires multiple perspectives and creation of knowledge that no one can do alone. Increasingly, those of us who produce such knowledge have to think about accesssibility: in which format and in which language we produce it so that non-experts can also take part in the discussions. I believe this in simplicity, is the basic idea of campaigns for economic literacy, that bears transformative possibility for change.
Some of these past initiatives have included producing advocacy materials of the importance of gender budgeting during the municipality elections for candidates, activists, voters, and municipality bureaucrats, but it also included organising collective learning events on economic literacy – part of this is my own recognition of wanting to learn more and combine forces to gain new knowledge.
Of those experiences gained in Finland, but having had chances to hear of the experiences from elsewhere in Europe, some of the key lessons are:
1. Challenges to gain momentum and maintain stamina of people in key decision-making (of the state government, municipality government)
2. It is important to connect beyond national borders – but challenge is that each context has its own specificities (ways budgets are drawn, what are the limits of budgeting via legislation)
3. Gender (often simply translated, problematically, into differences between men and women, or girls and boys) as a stand alone category are not sufficient How come? I give you one example
In the Finnish context there has been decades long focus on how to ”engender” or ensure that the planning processes consider impacts (and positive results) for gender equality. One concrete (and important) step is to demand gender disaggregated data and statistics that can then be analysed and used as a basis of decision-making (for example of completion of primary education, or usage of public services).
Yet, as this map (above map) tries to illustrate, challenges of accessibility cannot be only explained by gender. Here the map tries to illustrate how remotedly located village (which is a home for a indigenous ethnic group called Skolt Sami) lacks most of the basic services that a urban citizen would have available for them:
The big map in blue illustrates how long distance a person living in the capital of Helsinki would have to travel, if it was Sevettijärvi, to access: post office (118km), ATM (139km), pharmacist (148km), bank (168km), hospital (476km) and a railway station (476km). The small map shows the location of the village Sevettijärvi on the Finnish map.
Currently, the questions of equity and equality in basic social and health care services is being debated in Finland, as the current government aims at reforming the whole of the system. From those complex debates, one thing is clear, it is not sufficient to analyse and predict the impacts based on gender only, rather one needs to focus on geographical and income inequalities, just to name a few. What does the priviatization of such services do, especially when it is being marketed and promoted via the language of freedom to choose. How viable such remote places, such as Sevettijärvi village, will be in the future and what does it do for the rights of the indigenous groups, and their livelihoods?
More generally, the challenge of gender budgeting initiatives has been that they:
• Often focuses on ”soft” topics, but big infrastructure or macro economic issues that impact everyday lives are left out
• What to do in a case where there is very little space to change things: examples from highly indebted municipality that has to cut budgets, or as in the case of Finland where many of the services are implemented by laws: what if the law creates forms of inequality? Budgeting is too late stage to interfere and the focus should be elsewhere
• Which specific groups should have attention? Who are the most vulnerable and least resilient or capable for demanding their rights? How to deal with conflicts of interest? Or politicization of interests?
• Will the more powerful and more vocal have most say? In what ways does participatory approach reiterate what the most vocal, and often most resourceful/powerful want?
There are also challenges. Sometimes the budgeting experience ends up reinforcing stereotypes: what is considered as ”natural” becomes supported by the budget – how could a goal of a social change (such as wellbeing and quality of life for all) and budgeting support one another? Focus on the unpaid domestic labour (cooking, raising children) is a case in point.
How can research support gender budgeting initiatives? Over two years, some of my colleagues have produced short articles, opinion pieces and events for bureaucrats and experts on ”gender gap” in economic decision-making and budgeting. Their efforts have resulted in 45 analyses on specific topics that have directly aimed at supporting politicians and civil society organisations, but also to gain media coverage on such topics such as gendered care responsibilities, municipality budgeting and social and health care services, gendered parental responsibilities and working life equality and impacts of austerity measures (budget cuts) to that of gender equality. Such texts have indicated that cuts to municipal day care budgets are most likely to affect low-wage women whose participation in the labour market is dependent on the day care system, or that under-budgeting for shelters is a structural discrimination against women who face gender-based violence.
A major lesson however of the seminar in Bhuj was that compared with that of the Indian municipalities, and in particular the 74th amendment, is that in Finland there is no mandatory process for ward/citizen’s participation in annual planning and budgeting. This leads to situations where expert knowledge dominates over the experiential one. Furthermore, as our municipal election system is not based on wards/neighbourhoods, councillors do not directly engage with those who elected them, but are seen as informal representatives of the neighbourhoods where they themselves live in. This for me, is a democratic deficiency, that may potentially create situations in which those with biggest voice, best connections and perhaps economic situation have more negotiation power than others.
I look forward to hearing how the planning process for the ward plans in Bhuj proceeds, and I look forward to visting Bhuj again.
With warm regards from Vantaa, Finland,
27 December 2017 (sent for Gujarati translation)