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Is coal reliance a barrier to gender equality?

07 August 2022

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Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt convenes the gender specialisation in the Masters in Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development (MAAPD) course and also teaches courses on Exploring Gender and Development.

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Grand theories that attribute gendered outcomes to reliance on a particular resource need to narrow their scope and focus on communities, Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt and Donny Pasaribu write.

In 2009, professor of political science at University of California, Los Angeles Michael Ross published an article titled ‘Does Oil Wealth Hurt Women?’ In it, he claimed that oil production, rather than Islamic tradition, was the primary barrier to gender equality in the oil-producing Middle Eastern countries.

His argument received great attention from academics and media, and even spawned its own genre of research. Some added more variables to their studies, and some arrived at the conclusion that the ‘Dutch Disease’ – a term for when an economic boom in one sector causes decline in other sectors – is to blame for an overall change in the economy that in turn exacerbates gender inequity.

Other researchers of politics and development studies, however, were dismayed, viewing this analysis as reductionist. Feminist researchers in particular can be uneasy about viewing wealth generated from resource production as tied directly to gender issues.

As such, research on gender that explores gender in the Middle East has largely ignored this idea. This has created a deep chasm between feminist and economic researchers, with both groups wary of engaging in a productive dialogue.

Looking from the outside in, feminist thinkers have had difficulty conceiving the possibility that there could be any causal relationship between oil wealth and the status of women, but everyone must concede the methods used by Ross’ research were impeccable.

Simply increasing the number of variables is certainly not the answer here, nor is using different methods. Ultimately broader dialogue between quantitative resource economists and feminist researchers is needed to bridge this gap.

This was why we decided to go deeper than tinkering with methods and variables, and address the deeper question of whether this relationship is causal. In this case, the resource in question was coal.

To come to a conclusion about whether resource reliance hurts women in a country, we began our investigation with quantitative data on a global, rather than a local scale.

The reliance of countries on coal could not be interpreted solely based on their production, because while some countries are heavily reliant economically on coal production without consuming much coal, others produce little, yet coal dominates their energy consumption.

The same is true of trade. Some countries rely on coal as their main export commodity, while others rely on imported coal to satisfy their domestic needs.

Still, while no single dimension is a perfect indicator of a country’s overall reliance on coal, a suitable combination needed to be found. That said, we recognised coal production does significantly outweigh other kinds of reliance in terms of its impact.

Taking these into consideration, first, we created a ‘Coal reliance index’ (CRI) that weighed production, consumption, and export-import reliance to produce a final value.

According to the CRI, Australia, South Africa, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Colombia, Russia, China, Romania, and India rely on coal the most – in order from first to ninth. These values were then set against human development indices and gender equity data, bringing the process to the question at the heart of this: does coal reliance – and therefore, potentially, resource reliance in general – cause women harm in a predictable way?

The answer is no. What this result shows is that to understand any relationship between resources and gender equality, researchers must examine impact at the micro-scale of the community, rather than the entire nation-state.

This is invaluable for the debate over whether and how resource reliance affects gender equality outcomes. It shows that macro-level economic studies do not deliver the fine-grained analysis that gender equality research demands.

Analysis at the community scale poses challenges to any grand theory. Often local contexts refuse to bow down to big number relationships, thanks to the innumerable socially, politically, and culturally specific factors.

At the local scale, gender roles and relations within the community and even households come into focus, and participatory and ethnographic fieldwork assumes more usefulness at identifying causes of harm and to ways to help women.

This exercise shows that if researchers of all kinds reject sweeping theories and narrow their scope, then they can better locate structural barriers to equality and use that information to create gender-sensitive energy transition policies.

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