Universal Basic Income Could Work In Southeast Asia – But Only If It Goes To Women
Tamara Nair, 12 Jul 17
       

Women living below the poverty line will be empowered by UBI. Enny Nuraheni/Reuters

The universal basic income debate has been raging for some years, with politicians and people hotly divided over the notion of their government paying every citizen a set amount of money on a regular basis, without requiring work to be completed.

The idea of everybody, including society’s most marginalised, being able to afford their basic needs is popular with mostly libertarian and progressive politicians, and there is some empirical evidence that it can quickly increase a country’s productivity and reduce domestic inequality.

Conservative economists, however, reject the idea, citing its “impossibly expensive” nature.

Economic feasibility is a critical question for any government program, of course, and it is particularly relevant in the developing world, where universal basic income (UBI) has been suggested as a development tool.

One reason that Southeast Asian countries, for example, have struggled to improve gender equality (despite avowals of committment to the idea) is increased economic insecurity, which has widened the gap between men and women and separated women from opportunities.

Might UBI be one way to both empower women and reduce hunger in the region?

Money in the hands of women

My research focuses specifically on women from the region who live below the poverty line, which, for East Asia and the Pacific, the World Bank defines as living on less than US$3.20 a day.

In Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam – among the poorest Southeast Asian nations – between 13% and 47% of the population is living in poverty. The number is significantly lower in better-off Brunei and Singapore.

On the whole, women in these countries fare well enough compared to their peers in other developing regions in terms of literacy, employment, political participation and the right to organise. But this has not translated into greater gender equality.

Here, heteronormativity reigns, dictating that men and women (and only men and women; all other gender identities are discounted) have distinct and complementary roles in life, from economics and education to politics.

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