26 July 2021
WTO Advances Gender Agenda Amidst Calls for Broader Gender Lens
Photo Credit: Alex Hudson on Unsplash
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MC12 is now certain to see a trade and gender outcome.

The WTO Secretariat is moving forward with initiatives on trade and gender, which include its Gender Research Hub, launched on 31 May 2021.

The topic is proceeding almost without opposition in the WTO, but gender experts are critical of the WTO’s agenda content and process.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) moved closer to a ministerial deliverable this month, following the meeting of the WTO’s informal working group on trade and gender on 16 July and its “Friends of Gender” drafting group on 20 July. In parallel, the WTO Secretariat is implementing work on trade and gender, which also looks set to gain momentum.

WTO work in this area builds on the Buenos Aires Joint Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment, adopted in 2017 at the WTO’s 11th Ministerial Conference (MC11).

In contrast to several other areas of the WTO’s work, the gender agenda seems to be encountering little opposition from WTO members, and views appear to be converging smoothly as the outcome on gender and trade planned for MC12 takes shape. Civil society groups and academics have however voiced criticism of the WTO’s approach to the issue.

WTO members address gender issues, plan MC12 deliverable

Those WTO members and observers – currently 127 – which have endorsed the Buenos Aires Declaration gathered around a gender work plan in late 2020, with the Informal Working Group (IWG) meeting for the first time in December. The IWG is open to all WTO members and observers seeking, according to the WTO website, to intensify efforts to increase women’s participation in global commerce.

The IWG’s work plan is articulated around four pillars: (1) sharing best practices on removing trade-related barriers and increasing women’s participation in trade; (2) understanding what a “gender lens” is and how it could be applied to the work of the WTO; (3) reviewing gender-related research by the WTO Secretariat and others on women’s economic empowerment; and (4) contributing to the WTO’s Aid-for-Trade Work Programme.

Four meetings have taken place so far this year, chaired jointly by Botswana’s Ambassador Athaliah Lesiba Molokomme, El Salvador’s Ambassador Ana Patricia Benedetti Zelaya, and Iceland’s Ambassador Harald Aspelund. Each has focused on one of the work plan’s four issues.

The June meeting focused primarily on ways that a “gender lens” has been applied in trade-related contexts. Within these discussions, the accent was mostly on women in business and women who trade. Canada’s presentation, for instance, centered on women as business owners. Iceland’s, New Zealand’s, and Saudi Arabia’s looked at women traders and also women employees. The presentations by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the International Trade Centre (ITC) displayed a somewhat broader gender lens. ITC’s presentation, for instance, notes that one objective of adopting a gender lens in the trade context could be to “ensure that trade agreements do not inadvertently undermine national gender equality commitments.” The presentation sets out the planned approach and timeline for applying a “gender lens framework” to different areas of the WTO’s work.

The July meeting was mainly dedicated to Aid for Trade, and included presentations and statements by the WTO Secretariat, the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB), the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and other intergovernmental organizations as well as countries including Canada, China, El Salvador, Turkey, and the US. The latter is significant as the US is not amongst the 127 endorsers of the Buenos Aires Declaration. However, according to Inside US Trade, the Biden administration has made clear that women’s economic empowerment is a priority in its trade policy.

IWG sessions have also addressed the preparation of a declaration or a statement for adoption during MC12, due to take place in Geneva, Switzerland, at the end of 2021. In June, the IWG established a “Friends of Gender” drafting group, in which some two dozen WTO members from all regional groups and all levels of development participate, along with observers from intergovernmental organizations. The role of this group is seen as to “get the ball rolling,” according to one participant, and members might dissolve it following the next session of the IWG on 23 September when the first draft of ministerial outcome text is expected to be brought to the IWG. According to observers, from then until MC12, the main work in the IWG will be to develop and refine the ministerial outcome document.

It is still uncertain whether the outcome will take the form of an MC12 decision approved by the WTO membership as a whole – or a declaration or a statement by a smaller group of willing members as was the case for the 2017 Buenos Aires Declaration. In fact, this appears to be the only point on which members’ views differ. “We haven’t found any resistance to our work so far,” says Javier Gutierrez of El Salvador’s mission in Geneva, who has been involved in the IWG and the drafting of the ministerial outcome document.

Smooth progress within WTO, criticism from gender specialists

This lack of resistance is striking given that the work under the Buenos Aires Declaration is a plurilateral initiative through which a subset of willing members move forward on talks on a particular issue area, departing from the WTO’s tradition of whole membership decisions and processes. Other plurilateral processes in the WTO are the Joint Statement Initiatives (JSIs) on investment facilitation, services domestic regulation, micro-, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), and e-commerce.

Some are of the view that there are advantages to the trade and gender work proceeding as a plurilateral initiative. This helps members “focus their work and avoid having to reach consensus of the full WTO Membership, a factor which prevents outcomes from being reached elsewhere at the WTO,” says the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and the IWG thus has “an opportunity to produce results without the politics that consensus requires.” When the IWG presents its work to the full WTO membership, which does require consensus to make decisions, members “may find it politically infeasible to vote against supporting gender equity. Regardless of its implications for the broader multilateral system, the IWG on Trade and Gender may be more successful than previous WTO working groups thanks to its exceptionally large membership, clear goals, and defined roadmap,” argues CSIS.

As IISD reported earlier, critics of plurilateral processes warn that they can draw attention away from long-standing issue areas that have a multilaterally-agreed mandate. Whilst Egypt, India, South Africa, and others critical of plurilateral processes have not contributed to the IWG on trade and gender, they also have not opposed its work, and have attended its sessions. This may be because the IWG is not planning to come up with a new set of rules – or it could be because no country is willing to come across as opposing women’s economic empowerment by challenging the IWG’s mandate. When India voted against the Buenos Aires Declaration in 2017 because it considered that gender is not a trade-related subject it was careful to specify that it supports gender equality.

Although it has reportedly not yet been discussed within the IWG, several delegates have said that “the goal is to have a formal working group in the future, a formal gender agenda in the WTO.” Sources involved in the IWG are sensitive to the need to move at the pace that works for the membership though. In Gutierrez’s words, “[i]t is important to keep the positive momentum within the IWG, which has become a space where people share their experiences on what has been done on trade and gender.”

Beyond IWG, towards making gender “a horizontal issue”

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, WTO Director-General, is engaged on the gender issue, and has reportedly said that her ambition is to have the IWG as a formal multilateral body in the future. Earlier this month, the WTO published its 2021 Annual Report, which dedicates significant space to its work on gender and asserts that inclusivity (including for women) is one of the ten things that the WTO stands for. If this is to be taken seriously, gender will have to be reflected across the Organization’s work, and not treated as a separate issue. But this may not be easy since there may still be some reluctance within the Secretariat to engage with gender issues, according to some WTO staff.

Gender specialists note the same challenge. “The WTO appears to be working in silos,” observes Clair Gammage, an international economic law expert at the University of Bristol. “Until we see the different Working Groups talk to the IWG on trade and gender, they risk working against each other.”

Several members who participate in the IWG have expressed awareness of the need for gender to become “a horizontal issue,” included in all areas of the WTO’s work. “Within the IWG it is becoming increasingly obvious that gender is a cross-cutting issue that permeates all areas of the WTO’s work, but there is still a tendency to look at things in silos,” said one developing country delegate, specifying that “there is a resistance from some people and some Committees to discussing gender. Perhaps there is a need for a coordination mechanism so that silos start talking to each other.”

WTO Secretariat continues its work

The WTO Secretariat has been undertaking gender-focused work since before MC11, notably in the context of Aid for Trade and through the organization of public events. In 2017, the Organization appointed a Trade and Gender Focal Point – currently Anoush der Boghossian – tasked, among other activities, with coordinating work among divisions, taking stock of what the WTO is doing, undertaking research, and considering opportunities for further work and new initiatives.

Several observers comment that given the momentum the issue is taking, the staffing is insufficient. Members closely involved acknowledge the need to support der Boghossian, whilst some in the Secretariat recognize that a better-staffed WTO unit would be necessary to undertake the different strands of work that members are hoping for. “At some point the Secretariat should decide whether this is really an important issue, and if so, it should create a new post or even a gender unit within the Secretariat,” says one Secretariat source.

Der Boghossian presented some of the Secretariat’s initiatives during the IWG meeting on 16 July. These include establishing a database of gender-responsive trade policies implemented by WTO members, and a set of trade policy tools, including a guidebook and a checklist, to help members integrate gender into their trade policies.

Another recent initiative is the Gender Research Hub that the WTO launched in May. The Hub brings together some 30 experts from the OECD, the World Bank, and regional organizations, among other institutions, as well as a dozen universities from around the world. The objective is to “connect, exchange and act,” says der Boghossian. “The idea is to bring evidence to the table so as to integrate it into trade policy, to link the Hub with Members’ work within the WTO, and to hold a research conference every two years, with the first being scheduled for late 2022.”

In the meantime, the WTO Gender Research Hub will organize a session at the WTO’s Public Forum in September titled, “From gender research to action for a post COVID-19 resilient world,” which will highlight research done by the Hub’s participants and show how findings have been or could be integrated into policies and programmes, paving the way from research to action on women’s empowerment.

Civil society groups have not been invited to join the Hub, although der Boghossian says “we will sometimes invite NGOs to meetings.” This has drawn criticism from civil society organizations (CSOs) in terms of both process and content. “Not only is this non-inclusive and discriminatory as it almost proclaims that women’s rights organisations cannot bring anything to the table, the Hub stands to lose out on real expertise and experiences that will make the research and analysis much richer,” says Ranja Sengupta, Senior Researcher, Third World Network (TWN), and member of the Steering Committee of the Gender and Trade Coalition.

Moreover, “not taking account of women’s lived experiences reinforces the impression that the WTO gave in the 2020 publication it issued with the World Bank on trade and gender, a report that represents the way that women are instrumentalized in a way that further commodifies them,” according to Gammage. 

Despite these critical voices, one thing is clear: gender is no longer a niche issue in trade policy circles. “We’ve come a long way,” says der Boghossian. “The WTO was gender-blind and is now gender-aware. What we need is to become gender-responsive. This is the umbrella principle of the new 2021-2026 Action Plan due to be adopted in the coming months,” she notes.

The fact that WTO members, the Secretariat, and others are proactively engaging with gender issues is a positive development that would have been hard to imagine even a couple of years ago. Going forward, though, the discussion will need to broaden its gender lens to acknowledge the positive and negative effects that all the areas of the WTO’s work can have on women.

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By Caroline Dommen, Senior Associate, IISD

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