© Helvetas

Seizing the COVID-19 Moment for Improving the Care Economy: Reflections from Albania & Bosnia-Herzegovina

BY: Besnik Ligaci, Amar Numanović, Agnieszka Kroskowska, Zenebe B. Uraguchi - 21. April 2020
© Helvetas

Story highlights

  • The global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the surface the ‘care crisis’ that has been building for decades. Childcare has for long been a huge responsibility for women.
  • Even some of the world’s richest countries fail to offer comprehensive solutions to all families. So, for countries like Albania and Bosnia & Herzegovina, this poses a twofold setback: already existing high unemployment rates and missing on a valuable human capital resource due to low women labor force participation mainly because of childcare burden. The pandemic exacerbates unemployment and increases childcare burden on women due to the lockdown.
  • The RisiAlbania and MarketMakers projects in the two countries are tackling the issue from different angles – from offering policy/legal support (e.g. tax systems, subsidies; compliance) to raising social awareness (e.g. sensitization, collective actions) and building the business case (e.g. productivity, branding). 


The world of formal work is very much a man’s world – 76% of men are more likely to participate in labor markets than 49% of women. While creating jobs is an important objective, there are, however, two additional elements: who gets the jobs and what kind of jobs. In other words, labor markets are more than (un)employment numbers. Unpaid work, wage gap, parental leave, legal barriers, social protection, and digital divide are factors that determine labor market participation by women and men.

Several reasons explain the reason for women’s low participation in the labor market, among which their disproportionate role in the care economy is a major one – from childcare to early childhood education, disability, and long-term care, as well as eldercare. Childcare, in particular, has been left on the backburner in many countries, putting women under increasing pressure.

Fast forward: the COVID-19 pandemic that led to self-isolation, lockdown or quarantine has dramatically increased the burden on women. Working parents are more likely to miss work when schools close to take care of their children, incurring wage loss. With the lockdown, more childcare roles are delegated to women.

A twofold setback: unemployment & low labor participation

On average, women fulfill two and a half times more unpaid household and care work than men. This is one of the reasons why they are less engaged in paid labor. The ILO estimates that while 22% of men’s productive potential is underutilized, the figure is as high as 50% for women.

Childcare alone has for long been a huge responsibility for women. It involves the physical, psychological and emotional needs of children. Simply, it’s like having two, paid and unpaid jobs. Even some of the world’s richest countries fail to offer comprehensive solutions to all families. For countries like Albania and Bosnia & Herzegovina, this poses a twofold setback: already existing high unemployment among women and missing on a valuable human capital resource due to low women labor force participation (for reasons such as childcare).

The analyses by the RisiAlbania and the MarketMakers projects of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC)[1] in the two countries show that the lack of childcare, which sometimes is called daycare services, prevents many women from engaging in paid work or pushing them into part-time work when children are young.

In the past, the two countries had largely a tradition of extended families in which several generations live together and share responsibility for household chores, including childcare. This has changed a lot, and few working families have someone who can stay at home to take care of health emergencies, pick children up from school and supervise homework.

Public or private childcare services are highly underdeveloped with the latter one often too expensive, leading to missed opportunities to enable parents to work while the children’s safety and care are ensured. Regulated home-based early childhood education and care don’t exist in both countries. This, for example, is about childminders providing care for younger children, as a home-type environment and small group care considered more suitable for infants.

The challenge is more acute in rural and suburban areas (where childcare services are less accessible) and in more traditional families, where the caring role is assigned to women and where these women make up the majority of marginalized groups. Single mothers (women as head of households) are especially at a disadvantage.

Childcare concerns account for workplace absences, lost productivity and employee turnover. Even in circumstances where women are not dropping-out from the labor market permanently, long ‘career breaks’ negatively affect their prospects (i.e. outdated application of skillsets, difficulty in career progression, level of income, etc.).

Making a difference

Before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, both RisiAlbania and MarketMakers have been trying to improve the labor market participation and opportunities for women, single parents and parents in general through enhancing childcare provision. The two projects facilitate investment in childcare provision in different ways.

The key issues are about availability, affordability, and quality of services. Traditionally, many companies viewed the childcare challenge as a personal issue for families or assumed there must be publicly funded support or someone in the family to help working parents.  

For in-company childcare services, the MarketMakers project has partnered with private companies to develop and launch internal daycare provision to its employees. At the same time, the project is trying to facilitate the investment of private companies in the expansion of existing childcare institutions and to advocate for favorable policy conditions that would incentivize companies to invest in this area as well as improve public services (e.g. for recognizing the benefit of having more gender equality and diversity in their workforce).

Risi is working with businesses interested in investing in the development of affordable and sustainable childcare services in some localities like Kamza, a municipality once an agricultural area, now the sixth biggest municipality in Tirana County. The services are usually available at a fee that is subsidized by employers, or some companies may offer this benefit for free.

The model has ‘win-win’ tangible and intangible benefits to both employers and employees. A workplace daycare is an important means for increasing employees’ motivation and loyalty and for making benefits packages more appealing, thereby lowering turnover and attracting a wider variety of applicants. Through promoting gender equality, employers also benefit by improving their brand and their approach towards a decent job offer.

For working parents (mainly mothers), this allows them to spend more time with their children during the workday – for example, during lunch and coffee breaks, traveling to and from work with their children, or for new mothers to drop in on and breastfeed. Workplace daycare also decreases anxiety for some parents, improving their ability to concentrate on their jobs.

Globally and in the Western Balkans region as well, childcare could be considered expensive. The costs of initiating, financing and managing single in-company childcare services can be higher. Sometimes, it’s also difficult to judge balancing costs and quality as well as predicting demand and deciding the number of places. The model works better particularly in areas where there is a concentration of enterprises like industrial zones or business parks. To address this, several companies invest jointly to establish new childcare institutions.

The RisiAlbania project has engaged municipalities and businesses to jointly invest in infrastructure for onsite childcare services. Using the ‘off-the-shelf guide’ (in the Albanian language), Risi supports the elaboration of the process and necessary steps to establish childcare models identified in compliance with the applicable Albanian legal requirements. The guide serves municipalities and potential businesses, which are willing to apply the same childcare services model(s) in the future. 

The MarketMakers project has engaged the Government of Brčko District in Bosnia and Herzegovina, intending to explore possibilities for joint action between the government and several private companies. Also, the project is in the process of recruiting experts to produce policy study for abolishing the tax on non-salary benefits related to childcare.


The global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the surface the ‘care crisis’ that has been building for decades. For those who can work from home, this requires juggling a variety of unpaid roles in addition to their full-time jobs. For those who have lost their jobs, this means not only unpaid additional roles as caregivers but also the uncertainty of going back to their professional life, widening further gender disparity in labor market participation. Indeed, solutions for addressing the huge unemployment rate as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic call for the strengthening of active labor market measures such as social protection programs.

Well beyond the pandemic, the availability, affordability, and quality of childcare services will continue to determine women’s participation in the labor force and the type of work they can take on. The issue, thus, requires a more concerted multi-dimensional approach: policy/legal support (e.g. tax systems, subsidies; compliance); social awareness (e.g. sensitization, collective actions); and building the business case (e.g. productivity, branding).  

Ultimately, taking care of childcare yields notable economic returns. According to the evidence from both developed and developing countries, a dollar invested in high-quality preschool education results in a return of 6-17 dollars. It sounds like a good investment, right?

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[1] Implemented by Helvetas in partnership with Partners Albania and Kolektiv, respectively.

Besnik Ligaci is the Gender and Social Inclusion (GSI) Lead of RisiAlbania, a youth employment project. He also acts as a local GSI focal point for partners and Helvetas in Albania. His work involves ensuring that GSI actions are compliant with the work we do and the approach we use through GSI sensitive indicators, coaching advice and support to all team members, partners and co-facilitators. He previously worked in different initiatives in the development and civil society sector on challenges regarding mostly development of opportunities for youth, gender equality and entrepreneurship initiatives. Besnik is an aspiring entrepreneur and tech enthusiast.
Amar Numanović is a public policy expert and economic development practitioner with extensive experience working with multilateral institutions, international organizations, think tanks, academia and businesses. His work is mainly focused on economic development, labour market and employment, job-creation measures, and the industrial & innovation policy, primarily concerning the Western Balkan region. He currently works as an Impact Analyst and Self-employment & Inclusion Lead at the MarketMakers, Market System Development (MSD) project in Bosnia and Herzegovina implemented by Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation and Kolektiv Ltd. Also, he is a member of the labour market experts’ network of the European Center of Expertise (ECE). His educational backgrounds are in the Economics of the Public Sector and Environment and the Comparative Literature and Information Science.
Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies