Why Voting for a Woman at the WTO is important for Africa

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Phumza Dyani – Founder: Pan African Network for Investment and Development (PANfID) World Business Angels Forum (WBAF) – International Partner


This August marks a pivotal opportunity to shape the next new decade at the WTO (World Trade Organisation). This moment is particularly important because it is our chance to reinforce the message of gender parity and enact tangible actions on what can progress the Gender Agenda. Women have marched, we have lobbied, and now more than ever, it is time to use whatever power endowed upon us to collectively move the discussion forward. Women need to move in unison for a change that will benefit all.

Globally, the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women would raise per capita productivity by 40% (World Bank – Doing Business Report, 2017).  The report calls for a review on how gender parity is viewed, and most notably it stresses the necessity of direct actions for the sustainability of our economies. Women’s economic empowerment has a positive impact on economic growth and helps to reduce poverty. The more involved they are, the more economies grow.

Far be it for me to try to build a narrative of proving that women are capable, there is no doubt about that. Any doubts have long been assuaged by the countless accomplishments of women in business, politics, science and our broader society where women continue to blaze the paths of progress and change.  Women are powerful and effective, therefore, I will not dedicate this article to proving that notion. I dedicate the article to the practical actions we need to make in order to progress the Agenda, one in particular, which is well timed for a significant move in this year – trade.

The Geneva-based WTO is looking for a replacement for Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo, who is stepping down in August, a year before the scheduled end of his four-year term. A Nigerian woman and a Kenyan woman are among seven candidates to become the next Director-General of the World Trade Organization. The others come from Egypt, South Korea, Mexico, Moldova and Britain. With that said, no African has been WTO Director-general since its founding in 1995, nor headed its predecessor organization, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which started in 1948.

Trade is key for all countries and more than anything, the countries in Africa have been championing the position that ‘Africa does not need aid but Trade’’. This mantra reinforces the premise that improved trade in Africa would create much needed access to opportunities. Of particular significance, trade liberalisation is linked to greater accumulation of education and skills as well as increased gender equality. Trade can also create incentives for countries to expand women’s legal rights and their access to crucial resources such as education and technology. Improving women’s rights have also been linked to a virtuous circle between increased trade and gender equality. In contrast, high levels of gender inequality are linked to lower productivity and poor export diversification. These factors are inherent in lower income countries where gender gaps in education and the labour market decrease potential innovation.

There has never been a more significant time for an African vote, more importantly, a Woman vote. At the time when the continental economy has been ravaged by Covid19, where supply chains have been disrupted and need opportunities re-established, we must take bold steps. Any new WTO leader will need to mitigate the growing tensions between the world powers, United States and China. Which is exactly why there has never been a more opportune moment to have an African fill this global appointment. Mr. Azevedo’s successor will need to have special abilities in steering the WTO through reforms and negotiations in the face of rising protectionism, a deep recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic and broader global trade tensions. More importantly, at such instrumental points of change where women’s issues could be relegated to an afterthought, the WTO has this significant chance to appoint someone with a conscience built on the inclusion of women.

Women are, especially, in danger of losing a sizable share of the economic gains they have reaped as a result of trade over the past few years. Covid19 has preyed on the most vulnerable sectors in global economies by straining already fragile trade links in developing nations. It has literally weakened near term trade growth at a time when investors were seeking broader markets. It’s time to choose leadership that has witnessed these struggles yet remains optimistic about the future of Africa.

If the WTO seeks to build a more inclusive trading system that will empower women to participate and to reap the economic benefits of the global market, this is a time to put their money where their mouth is. Inclusive trade is fundamental to the emancipation of women, globally, and a vote for a woman shows the world’s commitment to this is the action. We are at a time when tangible change needs to be seen. The recommendations provided by the Women and Trade: The Role of Trade in promoting Gender Equality, a report developed by The World Bank and the World Trade Organization offer these tangible changes and specific strategies that can be deployed to achieve this. For women to reap reward of trade, countries need to adopt policy reforms that reduce discrimination against women and build on the significant human capital that women represent. More importantly, women-centric organisations need to collectively put more pressure within their respective countries for their leaders to endorse a Woman vote.

According to FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations), 2011, women produced 50% of global food products and comprise on average, 43% of the agricultural labour force in developing countries. According to ITC (Import Policy) 2012, close to 40% of SMEs worldwide are women-owned businesses, but only 15% of exporting firms are led by women. Global Trade enhances opportunities for everyone regardless of gender, policymakers should assess the potential impact of trade rules on various groups of people and develop policy responses based on evidence. Countries must introduce policies that drive lower tariff and non-tariff barriers on goods produced and consumed primarily by women. They must also help women traders and small enterprises benefit by marketing their products and offering trade financing as just a few measures designed to broaden opportunities.

Finally, this report highlights the key role the WTO can play in identifying and eliminating barriers to women’s participation in trade. Leaders know there is a need for ongoing talks related to services for micro economies, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMMEs), agriculture sectors, and electronic commerce. One of the most significant findings in the report notes the need for improved transparency on gender-related policies. Now is the time  to raise awareness on all the challenges women face in participating in world trade and to help nations establish fair policies and practices that directly increase opportunities for women in education, enhance their  information technology skills, and increase access to their business financing.

Bold actions are required in the face of unprecedented challenges. I submit to you all that a vote for Africa’s women is a vote for meaningful actions that will propel our shared global trade aspirations into a prosperous future.

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