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The Scandalous Economics of Crisis in Asia

by Juanita Elias on April 18, 2016

From shock absorbers to resilient economic subjects

Widespread feminist research following the 1997 financial crisis in Asia pointed to the gendered origins and impacts of the crisis on women. These studies point to how women and their households played a role as financial risk and crisis absorbers—a perspective that has now come to be celebrated as women emerge as risk averse and resilient economic subjects in current discussions of economic transformation in the Asian region.

ScandalFor many states across Asia, the so called ‘global’ financial crisis left them relatively unscathed. My chapter in Scandalous Economics engages broadly with the theme of ‘crisis’ from a feminist perspective. It focuses specifically on gendered forms of economic crisis in the Asian region as well as the work that gender does in framing understandings of ‘crisis’ as well as ‘recovery’ in analysis of Asian economies.

A key theme of critical analysis of ‘Asia’s’ financial crisis of 1997 is how the naming of the crisis as a uniquely ‘Asian’ event caused by troublesome crony capitalists served to undermine calls for broader reforms to the international financial system. Dismissed as a financial ‘tsunami’ or ‘tropical storm’ occurring in a far-away part of the world in which norms of respectable financial behaviour were less well entrenched, the events of 1997 nonetheless had significant negative consequences for the poor and poor women in particular. Numerous researchers demonstrated how women bore the brunt of economic retrenchment across crisis-affected states (especially those that also experienced forms of IMF-led restructuring following the crisis). Women experienced higher levels of unemployment, and those in employment saw growing gender wage gaps and dramatic increases in working hours, often due to the taking in of extra home-based work. The crisis also generated gendered health impacts. For instance, increased numbers of women moving into precarious conditions in the sex industry and household crowding, a key determinant of disease, increased as female migrant workers returned to rural areas and households sought to pool their resources.

Rather than seeing these gender impacts as inevitable outcomes of the ways through which economic crisis will always disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in society, I argue that women’s experience of crisis reflects the very gendered assumptions that underpin the governance of financial risk. The feminist economist Diane Elson terms this, ‘downloading risks to the kitchen’. Elson writes: ‘the financial system had developed so that risk was off-loaded from those who took risks (mainly high income men) to women, especially low income women, who had to absorb the risks, because they could not liquidate their responsibility for their children’. The financial system is seen to operate within the context of a gendered political economy that both enables risk taking or acts of extreme financial mismanagement typically by men and shock-absorbing within households usually by women to take place.

Gender, of course, matters to the framing as well as the absorbing of crisis. If we take for example, the accusation of ‘crony capitalism’ in Asia in 1997/8, we can observe that it contains some deeply gendered as well as racialised, assumptions. For example, Lily Ling argues that the IMF’s actions to discipline crisis afflicted Asian states can be read as a mechanism through which Western elites sought to reimpose dominance over unruly ‘hypermasculine’ tiger economies. More recently, gender has been at work in the framing of many of the corruption and other financial scandals to have rocked the region. Yinluck Sinawatra’s ousting by the military as Prime Minister of Thailand under the cloud of a corruption scandal has frequently descended into deeply sexist and misogynistic slurs. Malaysia’s 1MDB corruption scandal – in which the Prime Minister has been accused of channelling funds from the ‘development’ fund into his personal bank account – rapidly came to be represented as a fight between the (female, sensible, responsible and risk averse) head of Malaysia’s central bank governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz and the (big haired, big spending) wife of the Prime Minister, Rosmah Mansor. This displacement of crisis onto sexualised relations echoes the themes of the section on ‘Scandalous Sex’ in Scandalous Economics. And, in another interesting/hilarious twist, it appears 1MDB funds were used to finance Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street film which provides us with one of the most recent depictions of masculine financial excess.

EliasBut the point made in my chapter is that a focus on crisis – be it a more systemic financial crisis or a specific political-economic crisis triggered by corruption scandals – serves to mask ongoing forms of poverty and injustice faced by many women across the region. The idea of the one off ‘traumatic event’ needs to be understood as operating alongside every day and ongoing forms of crisis that affect women’s daily lives. This everyday crisis that stems from the overwhelming responsibility that women take for social reproductive work. A positioning that precisely facilitates particular austerity responses to economic and financial crisis to emerge (such as state spending cut backs, societal assumptions that women can easily bear the burdens of economic hardship and so on).

The lived experiences of gendered precarity, poverty and even destitution need to be better recognised in the context of financial crisis and austerity. In the chapter I also sought to draw upon many of the ideas and issues that emerged in my co-edited collection The Global Political Economy of the Household in Asia. This includes discussion of the rise of poor women’s migration for marriage and domestic work within the region, the impact of pension reforms on poor working women in Sri Lanka, the daily struggles faced by middle class women to balance work and caring responsibilities in states such as India and Malaysia, as well as the deeply gendered nature of precarious employment that have emerged in higher income states such as Japan. These experiences run counter to the way that Asian women have emerged in a number of policy writings as ‘good’ neoliberal ‘resilient’ subjects, who are better at managing micro finance loans, sending remittances home, managing household budgets and engaging in ‘good’ forms of socially-minded consumption. The economic resilience of much of Asia has led organisations such as the World Economic Forum to suggest that women were ‘at the wheel’ of the global economic ‘recovery’.

My chapter, however, suggests that we must dig deeper and uncover how and why this celebrated female empowerment and resilience stems from women’s deeply, unequal economic positioning. For example, to what extent do women’s spending and saving behaviours reflect personal vulnerabilities that are the result of the overwhelming responsibility that they have for social reproductive labour within households and the unequal terms on which they are able to enter the paid labour market?

Juanita Elias

Juanita Elias is Associate Professor in International Political Economy at the University of Warwick. Her research and teaching interests are in gendered approaches in IPE, labour migration, and the political economy of Southeast Asia. Recent work has appeared in the journals Globalizations, Asian Studies Review and International Political Sociology. She is co-editor with Lena Rethel of the forthcoming Cambridge University Press volume The Everyday Political Economy of Southeast Asia.

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