Ten women economists exchanged ideas in a roundtable on rewriting the economy for the 21st century. During the roundtable, which was moderated by BBC journalist Zeinab Badawi, one participant summarized the challenge as: finance is a tool we designed, and we can redesign it.

The roundtable on 3 September 2020 was part of a series organized by the Office of the UN Deputy Secretary-General. Part of the UN Secretary-General’s Initiative on Financing for Development in the Era of COVID-19 and Beyond, which is co-convened with Canada and Jamaica, the roundtable will be followed by a meeting of ministers on 8 September to consider a “menu of options” in six areas: external finance, remittances, jobs, and inclusive growth; recovering better for sustainability; global liquidity and financial stability; debt vulnerability; private sector creditor’s engagement; illicit financial flows. Heads of State and Government then will discuss the issue in a virtual event on 29 September.

Our next economy should be more about workers than jobs.

During the 3 September roundtable. Nadia Ouedraogo, UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), highlighted that the costs of renewable energy have fallen to the point that new solar or wind plants cost less than a fossil-fuel-based power plant. She said this removes the “excuse” for governments to argue that green growth is unrealistic while allowing investments in renewable energy to create space for new jobs.

Kate Raworth, Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, said high-income countries should address the “existential question” on which economic models are predicated: the assumption of endless growth. She said that even middle-income countries would be wise to look ahead and decide how much more growth is needed.

Bogolo Kenewendo, former Cabinet Minister of Investment, Trade and Industry, Botswana, agreed that a sole focus on growth leads to economies that, like a balloon, look big and beautiful outside but have nothing on the inside. Instead, she said, “we want growth with jobs, sustainable livelihoods, and to be able to uplift the members of our communities.”

Laura Carvalho, University of São Paulo, added that the perceived trade-off between economic growth and human wellbeing does not have to be true. She noted that GDP growth can be driven by different sources, such the health sector and education, as they all generate GDP. She added that recovery from COVID-19 can be based on a green economy that supports GDP growth.

The economists also held a detailed discussion on jobs and work, and how employment intersects with both COVID-19 and climate action. Busi Sibeko, Institute for Economic Justice in South Africa, called for a focus on not just “productive work, but reproductive work” that is linked to transformation and accounts for the oppression of women, Black people, young people, and rural people – oppressions that many people experience at the same time. She also highlighted those whose work is not good for the climate, such as coal electricity, and the need to directly create jobs for them.

Carys Roberts, Institute for Public Policy Research, UK, suggested ways for governments to support employment based on three pillars of the UK’s strategy: a wage subsidy to protect existing jobs, which she said can also be used to protect part-time work; incentivizing the private sector and investors to create jobs in the locations in greatest need; and creating secure jobs by strengthening labor laws and collaborating with unions.

Maty Konte, UN University (UNU-MERIT), pointed to the value of supporting people who are entrepreneurs by nature. Raworth noted that the power of these entrepreneurs will be unleashed by technology that allows for wider distribution – a decentralization and scaling down – of the means of production and the energy sources for industry.

Konte also stressed the importance of agriculture in Africa, and the potential of green technology and climate-smart technologies to increase productivity and help young people get better jobs that also feed their populations. She suggested that women economists work together to develop online training for young African farmers.

Dyah Pritadrajati, Asian Development Bank, called for active labor market policy to enable vulnerable workers to build skills. She also suggested enhancing workers’ individual power to negotiate with employers. She added that governments sometimes resist investing in human capital because the returns are not evident as quickly as other types of investment.

Kenewendo suggested that “our next economy should be more about workers than jobs.” This could be achieved by formalizing the gig economy and providing access to finance for gig workers.

Julie Rozenberg, World Bank Sustainable Development Group, said governments have a wealth of options to create climate-friendly jobs, including: leverage the forestry sector to create jobs; encourage plant-based agriculture, which creates more jobs than livestock agriculture; and prioritize maintenance for infrastructure systems, which is both more cost-effective and more job-intensive than replacing systems.

Farah Said, Lahore School of Economics, reported that in South Asia, safety concerns and gender norms prevent many women from working outside their homes. She said a policy that allows a woman to bring a friend or family member to a job or training greatly increases participation.

The economists also sent messages to the upcoming G20 meetings. Kenewendo urged them to “keep the gates open and let the capital flow,” arguing against protectionist policies that she said will only prolong the current crises.

Raworth put her G20 message this way: jobs and a stable climate are “what human wellbeing looks like.” She also stressed that it is possible to completely redesign finance, and suggested that a redesign should be advanced by “women and people of color coming into economics and rewriting it for 21st century economies.”

In their final reflections on the role of economists, Cavalho said the field has pushed people away because of its technical appearance and language. She suggested that economists must “bring people back to the debate,” as closed-door discussion has led to structural problems like those exacerbating COVID-19 and climate change.

In her closing remarks, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said that, amid the challenges posed by COVID-19, women have risen to the occasion with a sense of conviction and have asked men to move aside. She welcomed the economists’ calls to transform systems, not just tinker with them, and echoed the idea that the informal sector is not properly addressed by policies but should be afforded more importance alongside the formal sector. Mohammed also said the G20 needs to look beyond their usual realms to include all 193 Member States. [First Roundtable, 19 August] [Roundtable series] [Meeting webcast]