Empowering women is smart economics, says WTO director general

Trade body is working to diversify global supply chains to include women-owned businesses as suppliers, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala tells summit in Abu Dhabi

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director general of the World Trade Organisation, addresses the SheTrades Summit in Abu Dhabi on Saturday. Pawan Singh / The National
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Empowering women is not only a social good, but it is also smart economics, the director general of the World Trade Organisation has said.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told the SheTrades Summit in Abu Dhabi on Saturday that women are pillars of their communities and families and catalyse economic growth.

The event was being organised by the International Trade Centre before the WTO’s 13th Ministerial Conference, which will take place in the UAE capital from February 26 to 29.

“WTO research reveals that women entrepreneurs who export earn almost three times than women who trade locally,” Ms Okonjo-Iweala said.

“The launch of the Women Exporters in the Digital Economy Fund tomorrow is a significant milestone in our journey to advance the role of women in global trade.”

The fund aims to empower women-led businesses and open new markets through digitalisation.

The ITC launched the SheTrades Initiative to remove barriers to women’s participation in trade by working with governments, the private sector and entrepreneurs to build the business capacities of women and to create a fairer, more sustainable global economy.

Although women make up about half of the world’s population, they only contribute to 37 per cent of global gross domestic product, the World Economic Forum said in a note last month.

Encouraging more women to become entrepreneurs is not only important for making economies more fair, it could actually increase global economic development in general, the organisation added.

Ms Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigerian finance minister, said while globalisation and trade have lifted a billion people out of poverty since 1990, "it is imperative to acknowledge that not all segments of society have equally reaped its benefits".

"Poor countries, poor people in rich countries and marginalised people in communities, including women, did not benefit as much from the first wave of globalisation,” she said.

“That’s why we are advocating for a re-globalisation to find ways to ensure that people who were left behind can now benefit from globalisation by decentralising and diversifying global supply chains to include women and women-owned micro, small and medium enterprises as suppliers.

“This will help the world build resilience while fostering inclusion.”

The WTO is working with the ITC to further bolster women-led businesses, to enable their expansion into global markets, she said, while helping women maximise the benefits of trade.

The Geneva-based trade agency is also working to make sure trade policies are made more inclusive and women are not disadvantaged through unconscious bias in trade policies, Ms Okonjo-Iweala added.

Speaking at the event, Dr Thani Al Zeyoudi, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Trade and chair of the WTO's 13th Ministerial Conference, said there’s a critical connection between trade and women’s economic empowerment.

“Too many women and women-owned businesses face many barriers to full participation in economic life. This is especially true in least developed countries,” he said.

“Gender-based discrimination and limited access to finances and resources are challenges that still need to be addressed. Trade has the potential to break down these barriers and spur not only growth but also put women in control of budgets and profits, and wider social and economic development.

“Trade also opens doors to education, training, employment and helps women to acquire skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the global marketplace.”

Working women can increase household income by up to 25 per cent, the Minister explained.

Pamela Coke-Hamilton, the ITC’s executive director, said governments have recognised that “unless we tap into the expertise of women everywhere, we will fall short of the Paris Agreement’s objectives”.

“This time, we won’t get a chance at a do-over. We’re at a turning point. Women-led businesses play a key role in achieving a green transition, one that gets us much closer to net zero,” she said.

“Women’s economic empowerment isn’t about quick fixes or patchwork progress, it’s about coming together to change the way we think about the world. It’s understanding that partnerships are the source of our power.”

Governments spend as much as 20 per cent of their GDP on procurement, but women-led businesses capture only 1 per cent of those contract opportunities, said Alia Al Mazrouei, chief executive of Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development.

Moving the needle on this 1 per cent can deliver transformative results for women in trade, she said.

“About 77.6 per cent of women-owned businesses in the UAE are led by individuals under the age of 40, showcasing the vast and substantial contributions by young women to the country’s GDP,” Ms Al Mazrouei said, citing recent surveys by Nama Women Advancement.

Updated: February 24, 2024, 8:36 AM