‘Economic policies impact different segments of the population, including men and women, in different ways. In turn, gender inequalities impact on trade policy outcomes and economic growth. Taking into account gender perspectives in macro-economic policy, including trade policy, is essential to pursuing inclusive and sustainable development and to achieving fairer and beneficial outcomes for all.’- United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’ (UNCTAD)
The recent public forum of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in October 2018 with the theme Trade 2030 addressed the issues of sustainable trade, technology-enabled trade, and a more inclusive trading system.
The inclusion of civic voices in the forum was important. Coalitions and organisations such as Third World Network, Our World is Not for Sale, Women at the Table and Consumer Unity and Trust Society International curated and facilitated important sessions debating the intersection and implications of trade justice (or lack thereof) on: human rights gender, agriculture, food security, and climate justice, among others.
Two issues that stood out for me were ‘gender-responsive trade policies’ and the notion of technology as an enabler of trade.
In 2017, the Ministerial of the WTO in Buenos Aires endorsed the Buenos Aires Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment. The views on the Declaration were contrasting. One argument asserted that the Declaration does not need to assess the negative gendered impacts of trade liberalisation in multiple sectors such as agriculture, industries, service and garment sectors, among others. However, Ranja Sengupta of Third World Network in her paper, Addressing Gender and Trade Issues in Trade Agreements: Creating more problems than solutions? suggests the need to explore the question as to which space is best suited for achieving gender equality or readjustment to address the adverse impacts of trade policy and liberalisation. She posed the question: ‘Is it [gender equality] in trade agreements or should it be done in other enabling spaces such as through human rights mechanisms or should it be done through domestic policy…?’
‘Women entrepreneurs and producers not only benefit less proportionately from trade liberalisation but also bear a much higher share of the adverse impacts.’
In the current climate of ‘hyperglobalisation’ where trade negotiations are driven strongly by large and complex corporate and commercial interests, there are indeed serious questions that persist: what policies are likely to have an effect on gender equality and how can such policies be influenced? How can civic voices and development workers advocate for gender equality and better support women’s access to the benefits of trade? And how robust is the process of identifying and addressing gender-based constraints that impede inclusive development?
The dominance of neo-liberalism, which is focused on creating a set of rules, arguably works against women’s rights and equality and excludes women. The questions that resonate are: how can the rules be rigged to make the system more inclusive? How can women in the global south and in the margins of developed countries in the north truly benefit from inclusive and enabling trade policy? What does this look like and what will it take to make this happen? And is the claim that countries should and will be enabled to ‘trade their way out of poverty’ viable?
Trade 2030 also highlighted technology as a driver of innovation for development. But civic voices said this cannot come at the expense of other imperatives such as social justice and environmental protection, which must also be considered when industrial policy is being formulated. While there is healthy scepticism about technology as a panacea, it would be wrong to discount the potential for technology to enable inclusion. For example, women entrepreneurs and producers use technology as part of their business solutions. But even as this is the case, access to technology is differentiated and the result is often making the gulf between haves and have-nots even greater – in an already divided and polarised world. For instance, women entrepreneurs and producers not only benefit less proportionately from trade liberalisation but also bear a much higher share of the adverse impacts due to their unequal access to resources and their location in the power structure. And at the macro level, economic empowerment of women in developing countries must be analysed within the broad context of development in these countries. How can a global ‘free’ trade agreement benefit women if their countries are not able to realise their domestic economic, social and human development plans and outcomes?
The answers to these questions can begin to rebuild trust in institutions- but only if voices less heard in trade debates are listened to.
Myn Garcia is Deputy Director-General at the Commonwealth Foundation. Image credit: WTO