Monday, 19 February 2007

an owl counts

An owl recently appeared on our bookstore countertop. It’s a knitted owl, grey and brown and owly in a cute knitted way, and it retails for $26.99. And you know what it made me think of?

The United Nations System of National Accounts. (you can click this - it's a link)

The bookstore in which the owl currently sits is one in which I spend something close to 40 hours a week. I do things like ordering books and putting them on shelves, talking to publishers, giving schoolkids tours, holding events for teachers, helping grandmas find the right book for their four year old grandson, dealing with invoices, checking what’s selling and what’s not, adjusting the balance accordingly, planning fun book launch parties, writing a monthly newsletter. Outside of my 40 hours I read 5-6 books a week so I can recommend what’s good to teachers and teenagers and parents and kids. For all this, I receive an income that indicates that I am productive and part of Canada’s economy. I have an economic value and thus I appear in the UN System of National Accounts – my government knows I exist because of my productive contribution.

When I go home, I knit. I’m still visible in the economy, because I pay for the wool at a wool shop, which markets a product that has been in some cases imported, in all cases created by shearers and washers and graders and carders and spinners and dyers who have been paid to make it. However, once I make my sweater or shawl or half-finished sock, my work drops off the horizon. Unless I sell my sock – which frankly is unlikely – if I use it only to clothe myself or my family – the work I have done is not accountable by the UN System.

“Subsistence” work like that doesn’t have economic value. Let’s be honest – I’m not making knitted clothes and socks because I or my family need them, but knitting or sewing to clothe yourself or your own family is “subsistence” work. If I had grazed my own sheep on grass and on hay made from my own pasture, shorn and washed and graded and carded and dyed and spun and knitted, my work would be off the map altogether. No money out, no money in.

The owl made a trip of over 8,000 miles to get to a Saskatoon bookstore. He started life in Njoro, Kenya, where his creator, Lucy Wanja, is classified by website as a “rural woman”. Her husband farms; she works at domestic subsistence level: collecting water, cooking for and feeding a family, raising a vegetable garden for food, making clothes.

The owl as a product that has been exported several thousand miles can be counted as having value to Kenya’s economy. Money has changed hands. In the same way, the animals Lucy’s husband raises have a concrete economic value, because they can be sold for meat and milk. The vegetables she raises don’t. The animals are a cash crop, the vegetables, subsistence.

As a rural Kenyan woman, the chances that Lucy is involved in what Marilyn Waring calls “shitwork” – that is, making fuel from animal dung – are high. (Waring discusses all this, and the UN System, in a lot more detail in her books). This job involves collecting dung, making it into packed briquettes at a mixture that emits the least smoke, drying it, and storing it. Dungwork, needless to say, is also absent from the UN System’s account.

But here’s the thing. Fuel is expensive. With the world running largely on fossil fuels, many countries have to import those fuels in large quantities and at great expense. If not importing it, they are extracting it, at an economic cost of billions of dollars in equipment, transportation and manpower (productive people who have a market value). When Lucy and her colleagues do dungwork, they save the government from having to build and pay for an infrastructure by which they could get fuel to remote communities, save them from importing expensive fuels from other countries, save them from using up limited and expensive resources. Her vegetable garden does the same thing. She saves the government money by being a producer of product that has direct daily usage right where she is.

And still, the UN System of Accounts is for her a System of No-Account. Until she started knitting owls for Saskatonian children, she was off the economic map.

The Kenana Knitters website stresses that Lucy will directly receive our $26.99 for the owl, and that this will give her valuable income in a world where she is marginalized and prevented from earning money. At the same time, it says that knitting is an ideal job for the Kenana women because it can be fitted into their regular day “in snatches” – ie you can grab a pair of knitting needles and do a row while you’re waiting for the water to boil on the stove. So though her owls have economic market value, her “real” work still does not. And while Kenana is undoubtedly a Very Good Thing, it doesn’t solve the fact that Lucy and her colleagues can only be “counted” – like a Canadian housewife could only be “counted” – if they make a product that appears in the market.

The United Nations System of National Accounts has been created by economists, academics, political scientists, and is an internationally-agreed “best-fit”. So how do we expect governments to create legislation that benefits people who, by the UN’s account, simply don’t exist in the method by which their country is valued?

I’m coming to a point. It has to do, among other things, with Hans Island. I’ll see you tomorrow.

No comments: