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Unpaid Work and the Governance of GDP Measurement

28 5 14
11.01.2019

Few numbers are as ubiquitous in political and economic analysis as gross domestic product (GDP). It is enlisted to rank and compare national economies, it influences lending and investment decisions, and is often taken as a proxy for well-being. GDP and other indicators – from government debt and inflation to poverty statistics – are not only measurement tools but also framing devices. They make states and markets legible in particular ways that can never be fully neutral or objective (Mügge 2016). Internationally harmonized statistics are necessary for cross-country analysis and to have a sense of confidence in global policy-making and markets. This harmonization is valuable and commendable, but it comes with trade-offs. Statistical concepts designed for industrialized market economies do not necessarily fit neatly onto other kinds of socioeconomic settings – for example, low-income areas with high levels of subsistence and informal activity. This article gives a brief overview of the governance of GDP measurement. I zoom in on the politics underlying one particularly contentious issue area: the measurement of unpaid labor. While the international statistical system is a rather non-politicized field, the issue of unpaid labor is a rare example of statistics entering public debate due to its implications for international development policy and gender equality.

Why Do We Measure GDP the Way We Do?

The harmonization of GDP measurement around the world is an enormous, ongoing effort led by several international organizations and expert groups. GDP first emerged in a small number of industrialized countries in the 1940s and attracted the attention of policymakers through its role in economic planning during the Second World War (Kendrick 1970). Since then, it has become a global institution.

Although GDP grabs the most attention, it is only one of many indicators derived from the System of National Accounts (SNA). The SNA is an internationally harmonized ’set of recommendations on how to compile measures of economic activity in accordance with strict accounting conventions based on economic principles’ (ISWGNA 2008: 1). In other words, it is a framework for measuring the total economic activity of a country. The SNA was first published in 1953 and, since the disappearance of alternative systems in post-communist states, is now the only internationally-accepted standard (Herrera 2010: 18).

The revision, publication, and implementation of the SNA is a cooperative task between five international agencies: the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and Eurostat. Since the early 1980s, statisticians from these organizations have worked together on the revision and global implementation of the SNA in the Intersecretariat Working Group on National Accounts (ISWGNA). Prior to the formation of the ISWGNA, the SNA was solely the task of the United Nations Statistical Office, later renamed the Statistics Division. All of this work is overseen by the United Nations Statistical Commission, the highest governing body of the international statistical system.

Unpaid Labor and the Production Boundary

The production boundary is a conceptual line drawn between economic and non-economic activity. In national accounts ‘what is defined as economic activity is, literally, anything deemed to sit inside a designated ‘production boundary’’ (Christophers 2011: 115). With some notable exceptions such as the inclusion of financial services, the production boundary has been one of the most consistent features of the SNA (Bos 2009: 40; Christophers: 2011). With regard to unpaid labor, this continuity has persisted in the face of contestation.

In SNA terminology, unpaid labor corresponds to the category of........

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