Satellites are launched into the cosmos, vaccines are engineered in record time and food supplies are produced to propel our societies forward. Investments in “human capital” are channelled to boost the production of these and other things considered valuable for promoting development. Yet the link between economic progress and people’s overall well-being seems to be broken. In 2022, the Human Development Index witnessed its second consecutive decline, as some countries continue to grapple with economic challenges following the pandemic. Care, often undervalued and underprioritized, holds a critical role in reversing this trajectory.
Care work encompasses an array of services and activities that individuals and societies undertake to nurture, preserve and restore human capabilities. People are not born with the inherent knowledge to construct satellites, create vaccines or produce food, nor are they born knowing how to transform all these resources into well-being. The capabilities to develop fulfilling lives and prosperous societies are also acquired and accumulated. Nurturance, social connections, shelter, emotional support and family assistance, among others core elements of care, provide the enabling environment for a productive society. In other words, care work sustains our societies while being the enabling force behind all other productive endeavours.
At some point in our lives, we all require care, especially during childhood, at later ages or when people experience illnesses or live with disabilities. The lion’s share of care work responsibilities predominantly rests within households, where it is mostly conducted by women and girls. This unequal gender distribution of care work affects women’s economic outcomes and autonomy, personal development and well-being and fuels many gender gaps in today’s society.
Recognising care work’s value demands rethinking the political and economic system by putting people at the centre and acknowledging the interdependence of all living beings. A shared responsibility between governments, the private sector, communities and families is essential to tackle this challenge, meeting care needs in a sustainable and equitable way for the wellbeing of both humanity and the planet.
Even following standard economic indicators, the benefits of building a caring society become evident. Implementing universal childcare and long-term care services worldwide, as proposed by the International Labour Organization (ILO), could potentially create nearly 300 million jobs by 2035. In addition, care policies would bolster tax revenues, economic growth, and productivity, all while promoting gender equality. A safe and affordable care system can empower caregivers, particularly women, to enhance their workforce participation, securing better livelihoods for themselves and their families. Investment in childcare is especially significant due to its profound impact on children’s development and rights.
The International Day of Care and Support offers an occasion to reflect on the prevailing situation and present evidence-based policy recommendations to value care and care workers and enhance accessible, affordable and quality care systems, placing the people both providing and receiving care at the heart of our focus.
For the last year, a group of more than 20 organisations, including think tanks, international institutions, NGOs and the private sector, from across the world have joined forces to making care a global priority. Through fostering collaboration, producing policy-relevant knowledge and coordinating outreach efforts, we have worked together to highlight the relevance of care and offer concrete policies. Our collective efforts have primarily focused on the G20 forum, advocating for a “Care 20” agenda. Below, there are a series of key recommendations we have developed in this pursuit.
Transforming the paradigm of care
Making the value of care visible and recognising its vital role in society is a first step towards advancing the well-being of people, communities and the planet. This entails recognising that households manage most of the resources that societies allocate to producing capabilities, including care, education and health goods and services provided in the monetised economy. To revolutionise the care paradigm, we propose:
1) Enhancing data and evidence: Strengthening data collection, monitoring, evaluation and technical capacity is imperative to better understand the welfare implications of care and guiding policy strategies. Data collection – periodic, intersectional and at both individual and household levels – is crucial to value care, analyse care dynamics and generate evidence on effective strategies to foster a caring society. In this way, it facilitates the identification of lessons learned and good practices.
Estimating the costs of care production from the standpoint of households and women through a Basic Care Basket (BCB) is a powerful tool to build evidence and inform policy. This indicator measures the monetary value of the resources invested by families in producing care -through goods, services and care work-, the profile of their investment and its impact on the production of capabilities.
Preliminary results from the BCB calculation for Argentina (2018-2021) indicate that 65% of households with children and adolescents were able to support the development of capabilities in terms of health, education, sociability and emotional wellbeing. On average, these families invested resources worth 3.7 times the poverty line, with over a third of these resources stemming from unpaid work, primarily provided by the women in the household. In turn, 18% of the resources mobilised by households were provided by the state through education, healthcare and direct cash transfers. The BCB, therefore, offers crucial insights to understanding families’ investment profile in care, subsequently informing decision-making for the creation of care systems.
2) Transforming social norms and roles: Encouraging changes in restrictive social norms can have an impact on care and gender roles, combatting gender stereotypes and promoting shared responsibility for care across sectors, stakeholders and amongst all adult persons, including men. The implementation of public policies and awareness campaigns can contribute to this endeavour. These actions should be underpinned by evidence production to identify what works to catalyse a transformation of existing norms.
3) Understanding care in context: Care intersects with a myriad of issues, such as the demographic transition, migration, worker’s rights, and gender-based violence. Its implications can also relate to crises related to debt, climate and humanitarian emergencies, which threaten the economy, social cohesion and prevailing development models. Although these phenomena are often addressed in isolation, their interconnection is crucial when life in its multiple dimensions is at stake. Care plays a pivotal role in addressing aging populations, migration flows, and environmental degradation. To address contemporary and future challenges, it is essential to evaluate how care needs and provision fluctuate in response to social, environmental and economic processes. Taking into account the care dimension of these multifaceted phenomena can also help to envision better solutions.
Promote investments in comprehensive, sustainable, and inclusive ecosystems of care
Comprehensive Care Systems are essential to ensure equitable access to quality and affordable care services. Public financing must be at the heart of these efforts, while governments should form meaningful partnerships with multilateral organisations, philanthropy, the private sector and civil society to build ecosystems of care to leverage resources, enhance cross-sector coordination and promote transparency and accountability.
The need for quality access to care is evident, as participation in early childhood care and education (ECEC) services is still lacking worldwide. UNICEF estimates that only 4 in 10 children aged 3 and 4 attend ECEC spaces globally, ranging from 66 per cent in Latin America, to below 50 per cent in Asia and as low as 25 per cent in Africa. While data is scarce to assess the global situation of other populations requiring care and/or support, such as the elderly or persons with disabilities, it is generally observed that these groups are disproportionately vulnerable to abuse, neglect and discrimination due to the absence of institutional mechanisms for their care.
Moreover, paid leaves, essential to guarantee quality care, its redistribution and promote work-family balance, are also insufficient worldwide. There are 64 countries that grant below the minimum 14 weeks of maternity leave, as established by the ILO Convention 183 on Maternity Protection. Additionally, only four in ten parents have access to some form of paternity leave, with durations varying from two days to several months. While some countries offer cash transfers to supplement resources for care, much work remains to be done.
Effective care systems should, at a minimum, encompass the following components:
1) Comprehensive care infrastructure: Care infrastructure and services need to encompass childcare, long-term care and support services for persons with disabilities, as well as care for aging populations globally. These systems should consider the specific needs of the most disadvantaged populations, including LGBTI communities, while respecting their rights to autonomy and choice. Gender-responsive water, energy, and sanitation systems are a crucial element of infrastructure to reduce the time spent on domestic work.
2) Paid time to care: parental, maternity and paternity leaves, as well as measures to facilitate work-family balance such as flexible working arrangements, are vital to encourage shared responsibility between genders. Given the prevalence of informal work in the Global South, it is imperative to establish pathways to reach workers in the informal economy -who do not have access to parental leaves- through income transfers scheme, granting monetary resources to fulfil care needs.
3) Cash transfers: monetary resources are a key component of a robust social protection programme, which can support households in acquiring goods and services to meet their immediate needs. Many countries worldwide have progressed on providing both conditional and unconditional income support, yielding positive developmental outcomes for children and better livelihoods for families.
4) Institutional architecture and regulatory framework: coordination and articulation among the different actors responsible for designing and implementing Comprehensive Care Systems require solid and coherent regulatory schemes. This means avoiding isolated interventions that may overlap or leave critical gaps, in favour of cohesive, whole-of-government and whole-of-society efforts to maximise impact. Assurance mechanisms are also essential to guarantee the quality and adequacy of care services. The District Care System in Bogota and the National Care System in Uruguay serve as notable examples at the local and national level, respectively.
5) Decent work for paid care and domestic workers: Paid workers in the care and domestic sector, including migrants, should enjoy decent work conditions, with labour legislation guaranteeing their rights in accordance with the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers (C189). This encompasses fair wages, social protection, written contracts, rights for collective bargaining, formalisation of employment, and opportunities for training and professional development. Collaboration with trade unions and civil society organisations is essential to involve workers’ voices in decision-making and foster social dialogue. In light of technology and digital transformations in labour markets, regulatory considerations should also address digitally enabled care enterprises and care jobs.
6) Resource allocation: To transform commitments into action, resources for the implementation of care systems and for scaling up public and private innovations linked to the care economy are vital. This implies building sustainable, long-term financing by expanding fiscal space and building partnerships between the public and private sector.
Strengthening international cooperation on care
The international arena serves as a fertile ground for bolstering networks, sharing knowledge, disseminating lessons learned, building capacity and advocating for the implementation of comprehensive and inclusive care systems.
Our work within the G20 process united us to work at national, regional and global levels to make care a policy priority. This intention builds upon the numerous commitments on care by G20 leaders over the past decade. In 2014, the importance of care was underscored when leaders committed to reduce the gender gap in labour force participation by 25% by 2025. This commitment was reinforced with an Action Plan in 2021, aiming to establish a roadmap for achieving this goal. In addition, The G20 Early Childhood Development Initiative, launched in 2018, also emphasised the need to increase investments in quality childcare services for younger generations, while promoting shared responsibility. Time is pressing to turn these commitments into tangible results. As the G20 presidency heads to Brazil, new leadership from the Global South offers an opportunity to spotlight the care needs of developing countries.
To foster a new social contract that places care at the forefront of global priorities, guarantees the rights of both care recipients and providers, promotes gender equality and recognises shared responsibility for care, we propose:
1) Opening dialogue in multilateral spaces: Creating opportunities, both within the G20 and other regional and global fora, for peer learning, knowledge exchange and capacity building related to the care economy. These platforms can also support initiatives to design data collection and harmonisation schemes while disseminating evidence on the effectiveness of care policies that can be adaptable or scalable to other contexts.
2) Enhancing advocacy efforts: advocacy is vital disseminate the benefits and evidence of reinforcing care ecosystems worldwide. To this end, common challenges and shared goals need to be identified among different groups working on care and support for early childhood, older persons, and persons with disabilities, as well as organisations representing workers and migrants working in the care sector. In this regard, the role of care recipients and care workers is paramount, placing their experiences at the centre of policy making for care justice.
3) Designing accountability mechanisms: open data and regular reporting are important to monitor the commitments made by governments and international agencies within multilateral spaces. This ensures transparency and helps track progress towards achieving the established care-related goals and objectives.
The virtuous circle of care
Care remains the invisible foundation of our socio-economic system, providing vital support to individuals and families and empowering them to lead fulfilling lives and unleash their full potential. Governments have the duty to champion this agenda, a commitment that yields a triple win for society, the environment and the economy.
As we mark the inaugural International Day of Care and Support, it is time to pave the way to a new world: one in which care takes its rightful place as the cornerstone of wellbeing and the development of human potential.
Supported by the IDRC, this article was elaborated in collaboration with a global network of more than 20 organisations dedicated to reshaping care policies and advancing a “Care 20” agenda within the G20 and beyond. Partners in this endeavour include CIPPEC, Southern Voice, IWWAGE, FORCES India, the Center for Global Development, the Asia Foundation, UN Women, The Global Alliance for Care, Early Opportunities Initiative, the Early Childhood Development Action Network (ECDAN) and Asian Venture Philanthropy Network (AVPN).