WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde on March 8, 2023 highlighted the importance of continuing to strive for gender equality amid global pressures in a conversation held at the WTO to mark International Women’s Day. Trade must remain as open as possible to safeguard the welfare of the most vulnerable, including women, in times of crises, they said. Several WTO ambassadors also advocated for increasing women’s opportunities in trade during a separate event.
“Although we’ve made some progress, the recent crises we’ve experienced from the pandemic to the war in Ukraine, to the existential threat of climate change have set us back,” DG Okonjo-Iweala said, pointing to data on the increase in poverty, the impact on women and girls, and estimates that gender parity will take more than a century to achieve. “I am really concerned we are sleepwalking into potential world conflict,” she said.
“This discussion is happening at a critical time,” President Lagarde said. “Geopolitical tensions and the fragmenting of world trade are threatening to roll back decades of advances in women’s economic empowerment. Since the great financial crisis, the global economy has been hit by a series of unprecedented shocks.”
It is more important than ever, in this global climate, to ensure trade flows are unimpeded, the two leaders said.
“We need to ensure that a changing global economy does not introduce new inequalities,” President Lagarde said, noting for example how resulting inflation from the war in Ukraine impacts the underprivileged, including women. “We need to ensure that trade remains as open as possible within new geopolitical constraints. And this especially applies to maintaining market access for developing countries that should not have to suffer from great power competition,” she said.
DG Okonjo-Iweala added: “The tensions are increasing by the day and its impact on the multilateral trading system and on trade is palpable. I think it is leading to more protectionism, which is what we don’t want to see. If the multilateral trading system doesn’t work, how will some people feed themselves? Let’s rebuild it, let’s reimagine it so it can be used as a tool for global resilience.”
The two leaders also underlined the importance of women leadership. President Lagarde said more women in leadership positions could halt the slide towards trade fragmentation as they tend to possess vital skills needed to deal with geopolitical tensions. Within the WTO Secretariat, 50% of the four deputy directors-general are women while the number of female directors has risen to 43 % at present from 22 % in 2019, DG Okonjo-Iweala said.
“My question to myself is, what can you control? We’re trying to see in this organization what we can do to support members to try to help with food prices, keep trade open, and be supportive of a more peaceful world,” DG Okonjo-Iweala said.
“We can improve the situation if we put our mind to it,” President Lagarde said.
The video recording of the event is available here.
WTO ambassadors on closing gender gaps in trade
An event titled “Open Mic with WTO Ambassadors: Closing Gender Gaps in Trade” was also held on International Women’s Day at the WTO. DG Okonjo-Iweala opened the event, calling for a paradigm shift to increase women’s opportunities to benefit from global trade. “We need to think about how globalization is done, and we might have to reimagine how we do trade, how we integrate women into value chains,” she said.
Ambassador Einar Gunnarsson of Iceland said including gender equality issues into the work of the WTO was not only important ethically, but also strategically: “I have learned over the course of the years that gender equality may actually provide us one of the best tools to achieve all of our other policy objectives.”
Ambassador Frederico Villegas of Argentina highlighted the need to have a cultural change to help people understand that women’s issues are a development issue. “The WTO is the organization in Geneva that can build a narrative on development as the vehicle to address gender equality,” he said.
Ambassador Ana Patricia Benedetti Zelaya of El Salvador called for a collective and comprehensive effort to promote women’s economic empowerment, noting that “governments also have a responsibility to establish policies that would help to reduce the barriers women face in trade, including the issue of access to finance — one of the challenges that most women face.”
Ambassador Athaliah Lesiba Molokomme of Botswana highlighted women’s contributions to the global economy: “Women, too, contribute to sustainable development and growth. It’s just that women’s contribution has not previously been counted, and it is precisely that methodological question that we need to look at. The conceptual definition of all these terms that we’ve used over the years has been problematic because it has tended to minimize or diminish the role that women play so we need to begin to think in new ways.”
Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF) exhibition
The EIF, a multilateral partnership supporting least-developed countries (LDCs), showcased at the WTO products from female entrepreneurs in LDCs and shared their stories through a photo exhibition and videos online. “Women, particularly in the LDCs, still face many obstacles when it comes to starting, growing and internationalizing their businesses. This is where EIF’s holistic approach to women’s economic empowerment comes in to drive meaningful change through local ownership, working together with our partners,” said Ratnakar Adhikari, Executive Director of the Executive Secretariat for the EIF.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) deals with the global rules of trade between nations. Its main function is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible.