World Government Summit: UN-backed hub in Dubai aims to connect Middle East women to international trade

SheTrades Mena will address “market failures” in helping Arab women into work, says Arancha González

International Trade Centre (ITC) Executive Director Arancha González. Courtesy International Trade Centre
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The International Trade Centre (ITC), a joint agency of the United Nations and World Trade Organization (WTO), will open a centre in Dubai on Tuesday to foster female entrepreneurship across the Middle East and North Africa (Mena), in partnership with Dubai Exports, a unit of the Department for Economic Development.

“Our main aim globally is to connect more women to the economy because we know there is a specific market failure there: women are having more difficulty in business than men,” said Arancha Gonzalez, executive director of the ITC.

"In the world there are 1 billion women disconnected from the economy [according to McKinsey & Company], which is an economy the size of the US and China. This tells us we have a big source of growth countries are not tapping," said Ms Gonzalez in an interview with The National at the World Government Summit in Dubai.

Despite impressive higher education rates among women, the region has lower rates of female labour force participation than the rest of the world. Women make up 49 per cent of the Mena population and, in some countries, up to 63 per cent of university students. Yet they represent 28 per cent of the labour force compared to over 50 per cent in the US, according to the World Bank.

A 2017 study by UN Women and Promundo, a Brazilian lobby group to promote gender equality among boys, claimed more than two-thirds of Mena men support the notion that a woman’s most important role is to take care of the household, highlighting cultural barriers to gender equality.

However, some governments are working to increase female labour market participation. Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, which aims to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on oil, vies to increase female participation in the workforce to 30 per cent over the next 15 years from 22 per cent. The framework aims to reduce total unemployment to 7 per cent by 2030 from 12.7 per cent. In the UAE, female participation in the workforce exceeds the regional average, growing to 46 per cent from 34 between 2000 and 2014, according to a report from Boston Consulting Group.


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The ITC’s SheTrades initiative aims to connect 3 million women to labour markets by 2020, through a network of national and regional hubs to support female entrepreneurs.

It already runs initiatives in Middle East conflict areas such as Syria and Palestine, to help women-led enterprises find buyers for products.

However, the partnership with Dubai Exports creates the first dedicated SheTrades Mena hub, connecting female entrepreneurs from all across the region to international trade markets, said Ms Gonzalez.

“It has been proven through studies by the World Bank and others that companies participating in international trade are more competitive," she said, adding "only the more competitive are participating in international trade.”

“This translates into better quality jobs, better working conditions and better contribution to economic growth. So there is a virtuous circle in connecting more women to international trade.”

SheTrades Mena will offer practical advice on how to run a business, connect women with prospective customers and help them showcase certified products, as well as increasing access to credit.

“Very often women entrepreneurs in Mena only have access to microcredit, and microcredit means micro-entrepreneur,” Ms Gonzalez said.

When it comes to traditional, offline trade, only one in five exporting companies globally is a woman-owned businesses, whereas four out of five online exporting companies are women-owned businesses, according to ITC estimates.

“Through e-commerce, women have found a means to jump over cultural and traditional lack of available time for remunerated activities,” she said.