What Economics can (and can’t) tell us, Part 3: Prioritising Women

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A few days ago, a report by the UK’s Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), declared that over 5,000 women were missing from the top jobs in the UK. If you’re a development economist, you might recognise the language from Amartya Sen’s seminal piece, written over ten years ago, on the 100 million women missing in developing countries.

Although the EHRC wasn’t talking about women in developing countries, it was still striking. It turns out that women aren’t doing too well at senior levels in the UK.

However, the UK’s civil service came out quite well – we’re on track to meet a government-wide target of 39% of women in the senior civil service by 2013. There are probably several reasons for this, but one I’ve noticed recently – at least in DFID – is that top management seem to invest in women staff, particularly through a programme called Crossing Thresholds. Crossing Thresholds is a leadership course, mostly for women in the civil service, run over 12 months in five modules. I’ve been on two modules so far and already learnt a great deal. I’ve even gained a female mentor in the top echelons of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Baroness Warsi, one of the four women in the UK’s Cabinet, hears the plight of women in Pakistan. Picture: DFID

The last crossing thresholds module I attended was about prioritising – i.e. deciding between different tasks and which task to do when. As an economist I’ve always thought I should use “opportunity cost” to do so.

“Opportunity cost” is an essential concepts for economists.  I covered two other key concepts in my last two blog posts in this series – “equilibrium” and “incentives”. Opportunity cost is the third and final concept.

Put simply, opportunity cost captures the idea that everything involves choices or trade-offs. Nothing is exempt. Even making my morning cup of tea has an opportunity cost – I could have been working at my desk instead. It’s the old adage: “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”.

Opportunity cost is an incredibly important concept in development and environment. For example, as illustrated in this animation from the Center for Investigative Reporting (see below), the opportunity cost of petrol is not just the price you pay for it at the pump, but the costs of greenhouse gases, toxic gases, oil spills, and so on, on top. Opportunity cost helps express these extra negative effects of petrol.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6RhYY_4Wzls?wmode=transparent&rel=0]

Opportunity costs also help with expressing positive effects. For example, an American podcast from last year tells the story of Matt LeBlanc (not Joey from Friends!), who finds efficiency savings in a global firm. He does so through very simple changes – such as moving the desk of the person who makes the most cups of teas closest to the tea room. It sounds like an obvious change, but such changes tend not to happen because of culture, general inflexibility, etc. The changes don’t “cost” anything, but they also don’t take the positive effects of efficiency into account. Not changing has an opportunity cost – it costs the firm profits. Countries across the globe also exhibit these features – efficiency is often undervalued. It means, as this World Bank study shows, that awareness and other structural or institutional factors – rather than money – can often play a huge role in becoming green.

In a similar vein, Amartya Sen’s article above explains how womens’ opportunity costs are often more complex than mens’.

Personally, I meet opportunity costs all the time. Last week, I had to juggle writing a business case for a new programme on green growth, with helping the UK prepare for the Earth Summit due to take place in June in Rio next year, which will focus strongly on green growth. As I juggled, I was working through the opportunity costs of the two projects. On the one hand, taking the opportunity to write the business case would make my work on green growth more effective and efficient. But that could cost the Earth Summit preparations, and vice versa.

But during my Crossing Thresholds module on prioritisation, I realised that opportunity cost doesn’t really help me prioritise. All it does is make me think through possible alternatives, and can send me into even more of a tailspin about how many other things I should be doing! So I took off my economist’s hat and instead learnt about time management techniques such as Stephen Covey’s “important-urgent” matrix and Ken Blanchard’ slightly different “have-want-to” matrix. I’m definitely feeling more efficient as a result. I might even find some time to take the FT’s unusual advice to read a recently published women’s self-help book!

I’m glad that DFID, alongside prioritising women and girls in all our aid, supports women staff like me to take leadership courses like Crossing Thresholds. Doing so might just help avoid the opportunity costs of missing women at the top in the UK.

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Research Analyst

Edmond is a research analyst who is passionate about sustainable development, innovation, and the environment. Passionate about climate financing, he firmly believe there is a more reliable system to promote equality, growth, and welfare in societies without affecting the ecosystem. Through his skills, knowledge and experienced gained over 7 years, he wants to make an impact in the world of development. Edmond holds a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from Korea Development Institute and a BA Degree (Honors) in Business from University of Derby.


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Hannah Ryder is the Founder & CEO of Development Reimagined. A former diplomat and economist with 20 years of experience, named one of 100 most influential Africans in 2021, she is also Senior Associate for the Africa Program of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), sits on the Board of the Environmental Defence Fund, and is a member of UAE's International Advisory Council on the New Economy. Prior to her role at DR, Ms Ryder led the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s work with China to help it scale up and improve its cooperation with other developing countries, including in Africa. She has also played various advisory roles for the UN and OECD and co-authored the seminal Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change in 2006.


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Leah Lynch is Deputy Director of Development Reimagined (DR), and head of the China office. Leah has over 10 years of experience in development and has lived in China for over 8 years. Leah has also travelled extensively around Asia and Africa for research. Leah supports the strategic direction of the team across China, with a mission to deliver high quality research on sustainable development and poverty reduction. Leah is also Chair of the Sustainability Forum at the British Chamber of Commerce in China, providing direction on sustainability initiatives for British and Chinese business. Leah has also consulted on various evaluations on UK aid (ICAI) and is a specialist on development cooperation from the UK and China. Leah has also consulted on various UN projects, including providing support to the UN China team during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Prior to DR, Leah was at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) China, supporting the UN’s portfolio on communication strategies, China’s South- South Cooperation and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Before UNDP, Leah lived and worked in Kenya developing sustainable water policies for the Kenyan government.


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Judith is a Research and Policy Analyst, where she specialises in Africa-China relations, international development, and diplomacy. During her time at Development Reimagined, Judith has co-authored several articles published in The Diplomat on debt and China-Barbados relations and was quoted by China Daily in a piece on Women Rights in China. Previously, Judith worked as a research analyst for an Advocate and Commissioner and Oats office in Kenya.


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Jing leads China-African health and agriculture cooperation research at Development Reimagined, having managed our FOCAC Policy Analysis and Advocacy project. She is also the co-author of “China-Africa Health Cooperation under FOCAC Umbrella”, in which she analysed China’s commitments around health cooperation since the first FOCAC summit and deepdived into four African countries’ health overview, challenges and cooperation with China as cases studies. Before DR, Jing worked at GIZ Cambodia on M&E of a disability advocacy project. She also worked as a translator with Chinese medical team in Benin.


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Patrick is an International Trade Policy and Trade Law Expert with over 5 years of experience. His expertise includes trade law, trade policy analysis and regional integration. He is currently engaged with Development Reimagined as a Senior Trade Analyst and was the lead author of Development Reimagined's recent Report on Africa-China Relations titled "From China-Africa to Africa- China: A Blue Print for a Green and Inclusive Continent-Wide Strategy Towards China." and “Reimaging FOCAC Going Forward.” Patrick has previously consulted for the East African Community, UNECA and for the Kenya Ministry of Trade.


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Jade is a Project Manager for Development Reimagined’s flagship project Africa Unconstrained, which focuses on financing needs and debt vulnerabilities of African countries. Her research focuses on China-Africa development finance alongside debt vulnerabilities, infrastructure needs and South-South cooperation. She has worked with a breadth of stakeholders from China, Africa and the wider international community, including governments, private sector, NGOs and civil society. Her writing has appeared in a number of publications, including The Africa Report, The China-Africa Project, The Diplomat and more. Jade holds a Master’s in China and Globalisation studies from King’s College London.


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Lauren has lived in six countries from the Americas to Europe and Asia and speaks both French and Spanish proficiently. At Development Reimagined, Lauren’s research focuses on climate action both in the Asia-Pacific and in Africa, and how countries are using tools such as SDGs and Covid-19 action to build a more climate-resilient future. She holds a Masters in International Relations from Leiden University.



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Hannah Ryder is the Founder & CEO of Development Reimagined. A former diplomat and economist with 20 years of experience, named one of 100 most influential Africans in 2021, she is also Senior Associate for the Africa Program of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), sits on the Board of the Environmental Defence Fund, and is a member of UAE's International Advisory Council on the New Economy. Prior to her role at DR, Ms Ryder led the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s work with China to help it scale up and improve its cooperation with other developing countries, including in Africa. She has also played various advisory roles for the UN and OECD and co-authored the seminal Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change in 2006.