Feminist scholar links human rights and economics

In a time when the pressing economic crisis is challenging experts from all over the international community to rethink the elements of economic policy, Radkhika Balakrishnan is pushing the envelope towards a different kind of interpretation. In a lecture last Thursday entitled “Sex, Struggle and Daily Bread” held in Griffin, the economics and international studies professor from Marymount Manhattan College discussed her groundbreaking work in utilizing human rights norms in the evaluation and construction of macroeconomic policy. Balakrishnan is currently the chair of the Coordinating Committee on the U.S. Network on Human Rights as well as a board member of the Women’s Edge Coalition.

Introduced by Lucie Schmidt, professor of Economics, Balakrishnan commenced her lecture with a reflection on the recent presidential election campaign and its significance for the feminist community. “This whole year has been an important year for feminism; there’s been an open debate on feminism. A big part of it started in last year’s Democratic primary,” Balakrishnan said. “There was a big divide between feminists who supported Barack Obama and those who supported Hillary Clinton.”

According to Balakrishnan, an additional issue presented itself in the inception of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s run as vice-presidential nominee in the Republican presidential ticket. In the eyes of many, Balakrishnan believes, the Republican Party pushed her candidacy to show women’s politics breaking the glass ceiling.

Faced with tension within the feminist community surrounding what a feminist was or was not, Balakrishnan conducted an informal survey, asking this same question and eliciting responses from a vast multitude of individuals – academics, activists, stay-at-home mothers, yoga instructors and economists, to name a few. What she found was a collection of responses that were telling in their commentaries of youths’ definitions of gender, feminism’s role against misogyny, social capitalism and ownership of the movement.

It was through this brief musing on several aspects of the current political and social milieu that Balakrishnan opened the discussion to what the purpose of her current project is – to answer the questions of what feminist politics is, how it is articulated in society and how capitalism fosters a hierarchy that disenfranchises groups based on race, class, gender and sexuality.

Through her work at the Ford Foundation, as a program officer of the Asia Regional Program, she laid down the foundation for her work in developing an interpretation of macroeconomic policy that can be understood on a more individual level through addressing human rights issues. In Asia, she examined the realm of female subcontracted work, interviewing over 750 workers from Sri Lanka and other Asian countries to understand the underlying social issues of the economic policies implemented in those countries and to begin the process of implementing new policies that addressed such issues. While the Ford Foundation ultimately issued a report without addressing those social economic issues, two out of the five countries studied by her team have since changed their labor laws.

After her work with the Ford Foundation, Balakrishnan began working with human rights groups and activists in enforcing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Created by the United Nations in 1948, the declaration enumerated the necessary rights that all human beings are entitled to, such as the right to freedom, suffrage, education, food and property. She saw a correlation between civic rights and economic social rights and actively worked towards bringing the two communities of activists and economists together. Through instilling a sense of humanity into macroeconomic policy, she said that she hopes that others will continue to draw conclusions based off her work and use her interpretations liberally. “We’re trying to think of a methodology and let people refine it. Anyone can have this and use it for whatever they want,” she said.

She and her team have completed extensive work in examining the policies of the U.S. and Mexican government; they looked at areas such as expenditure, health coverage and trade policy to find out what the two governments pledged to achieve in such areas and how they have progressed since their pledges. The idea is that whatever the implications of the progress, or lack thereof, the government agencies have to address the issues because they signed an agreement saying they would. “We’re trying to find the link between signed agreement and economic policy.”

The reception of her methodology has thus far been successful within the United Nations, the economic community and even the current Obama administration. “It’s amazing how when you change the lenses, there’s a different audience listening to this,” Balakrishnan said.

She and her team began working with President Obama’s transition team before January and have had access to his speechwriters. “We’ve been trying to get Obama to use more human rights language in his policies. His speech to Congress even had three lines from our work. We’re infiltrating. The human rights movement is moving,” she said. “We have access to Obama’s ear. It’s like the civil rights movement – it’s really grassroots.”