The COVID19 pandemic is not a war and we should resist the temptation of using securitising language that is easily deployed by elites to avoid scrutiny and accountability for their actions. And yet, thinking through the arguments and research behind my article on gender and the political economy of post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) turned out to be a productive way of raising important questions about the framing and management of the COVID19 pandemic, beyond BiH itself. In this blog, I outline how COVID19 – just like the Bosnian War – presents us with a dangerous transitional narrative that risks reproducing, reconfiguring, and ultimately reinforcing gendered circuits of violence, injustice and exclusion rather than breaking them. I will summarise the argument of my RIPE article and elaborate on two points: the temporality of transitional narratives and assumptions embedded in them; and the importance of looking at the link between structural changes and reforms and locally situated experiences of them. Ultimately, my blog post advocates for the importance of a feminist IPE framework that incorporates justice considerations as a way to question and disrupt economic models that continue to produce gendered injustices and inequalities.
In my contribution to the RIPE special issue, I argued that circuits of labour and violence are crucial for understanding the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the context of its transition from socialism to a market economy. And yet, it is only recently that the socioeconomic dimension of wartime violence in the former Yugoslavia and its implications for post-war justice issues started attracting substantial academic attention. I analysed how IFIs became implicated in such gendered circuits of labour and violence by promoting economic reforms in the aftermath of the Bosnian War (1992-1995) that reflected and further reinforced a limited understanding of wartime violence and justice issues. At the same time, whether intentionally or not, these reforms contributed to entrenching gendered forms of socioeconomic injustice rooted in the war, in ways that are still visible today. As I wrote in the article:
Circuits of violence operate through IFIs interventions that connect the wartime political economy of conflict and violence and the peacetime politics of privatisation, liberalisation and austerity.
Crucially, IFIs’ interventions missed a connection between political economy and justice issues that was so important to fully understand the gendered consequences of war, their persistence after the war, and how they informed claims to socioeconomic and gender justice in BiH.
The Bosnian War – like other conflicts in the former Yugoslav region – was embedded within multiple ‘transitions’, each of which had specific political economy implications for the ‘post’ phase of these processes: BiH moved from war (and war economies) to peace, from socialism to a market economy, and from being part of a Yugoslav socialist federation to an independent state, politically and administratively fragmented along ethnic lines. International organisations intervening in the Bosnian context – IFIs included – had a clear teleological view of this complex process of transition, not too dissimilar from the one promoted in post-communist countries in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. Whatever the context and whatever the process, the end point of transition(s) was the establishment of liberal democracy and a market economy.
In BiH, this kind of narrative could only be built on a ‘bracketing’ of the socialist past that, from a political economy perspective, entailed (among other things) a failure to examine changes in work patterns, in gender relations and in the life conditions of women from socialism through war and the post-war period. Neoliberal reforms were unproblematically proposed as solutions for the future without an examination of past conditions, and they facilitated the disappearance of extensive welfare provisions and services supporting social reproduction that were traditionally available in Yugoslav workplaces.
Conflict – I wrote in the RIPE article – ‘disrupts space by pushing productive and reproductive activities into private spaces, for instance by forcing households into subsistence production, and removing social and public spaces for childcare or healthcare; it warps time patterns of work and leisure; and it exacerbates violence that is ordinarily part of the “everyday” but also stems from the extraordinary circumstances of military efforts and social and economic collapse’. As mentioned earlier, COVID19 is not a war. But it has generated a reorganisation of productive and reproductive activities and patterns of work and leisure that has systematically put women, racialised communities and precarious workers at a disadvantage, and often in positions of extreme vulnerability – something that feminist everyday political economy is able to bring to light.
COVID19 is also a complex process, as the epidemiological situation to be addressed is embedded within political, social and economic changes and power relations. As vaccines are rolled out and countries around the world develop recovery programmes, the emergency of the pandemic is also morphing into a complex transition and generating an accompanying transitional narrative. The BiH transition and the role of IFIs in entrenching gendered socioeconomic injustice caution us against accepting teleological narratives of a post-COVID19 recovery that is premised on a flawed economic model and risks further entrenching gendered injustice rather than addressing it. Adopting what Jasmina Husanović talks about as ‘Bosnian lenses’ may make us wonder: are we once again generating transitional narratives based on a lack of consideration of the past, specifically of how past conditions gave rise to gendered inequalities exacerbated by COVID19? Are we once again missing the connection between political economy and justice as IFIs’ interventions did in BiH?
My RIPE article is based on field research carried out in the cities of Prijedor and Zenica, and specifically on a sample of interviews with women from these cities, alongside documents produced by IFIs. Against the background of the ‘transition’ discussed above, the choice of Prijedor and Zenica was significant because of the place the cities occupied in the political economy of socialist Yugoslavia, the war and then post-war BiH. Both developed through socialist investment in the industrial sector, and their connection in the steel production supply chain was severed by the war and the accompanying fragmentation of the country . When these connections were re-established, in the mid- to late-2000s, it was as part of a privatisation process that brought the same multinational corporation – ArcelorMittal – to acquire part of the Prijedor iron ore mines and of the Zenica steel mill. In this process, most of the pre-war jobs were lost, women’s participation in the labour market fell and remains low, and the social services that socialist firms provided disappeared (and Zenica has also been suffering from deadly levels of air pollution). The gendered effects of labour market reforms and welfare reforms that I describe in my RIPE article persist and are now compounded by the effects of COVID19. While unemployment rates remained high among women and youth even before COVID19 hit, the pandemic led to a contraction of the Bosnian economy (by 4.3% in 2020, according to World Bank estimates) and to a fall in remittances, which still constitute an important survival mechanism for many. While allowing for budgetary easing during the crisis IFIs like the IMF have already emphasised the need to reduce spending and target support towards the most vulnerable as the emergency settles down, signalling that a significant shift in their approach is unlikely. The persistence of gendered socioeconomic injustice thus only underscores the value of combining micro-case studies with the analysis of IFIs’ policies in the political economy of a post-COVID19 world. Feminist IPE gives us the theoretical and methodological tools to trace the links between global political-economic transformations and situated experiences and perspectives from groups that have been traditionally marginalised in processes of knowledge production. The questions it prompts – about the fragmentation of economic, social and political spaces, the kind of connections that are re-established, by whom and for whose benefit – can and should guide our scrutiny of a post-COVID19 ‘transition’ that also promises to reproduce gendered inequalities and marginalisation of voices from spaces that are seen as peripheral.
In sum, the analysis of gendered socioeconomic violence and injustice in Bosnia’s post-war political economy shows just how important it is for IPE to make justice considerations part of its frameworks: to better understand the context of violence and inequality upon which economic interventions are made; to centre marginalised experiences and perspectives of their effects and ultimately break the circuits of violence and injustice that may be established by COVID19 and wittingly or unwittingly reinforced in its aftermath.