E-commerce rules promoted in name of women’s economic empowerment
A recent workshop on women in digital trade heard pitches for international rules on electronic commerce but did not adequately address concerns about the impact of such rules on women in the developing world.
by Kinda Mohamadieh
GENEVA: Women in digital trade was the subject of a workshop convened at the WTO on 1 July.
The workshop was co-convened by the European Union, Trinidad and Tobago and Senegal, the fifth since the release of the Joint Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment at the 11th WTO Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires in December 2017.
Ministers who signed the Declaration agreed to collaborate on making trade and development policies more gender-responsive, including through “information exchanges ... and voluntary reporting during the WTO trade policy review process”, “sharing best practices for conducting gender-based analysis of trade policies”, “sharing methods and procedures for the collection of gender-disaggregated data”, “working together in the WTO to remove barriers for women’s economic empowerment and increase their participation in trade”, and “ensuring that Aid for Trade supports tools and know-how for analyzing, designing and implementing more gender-responsive trade policies...”
When the Declaration was released at Buenos Aires, there was immediate widespread concern and objections from women’s groups worldwide (see below).
At the opening session of the 1 July workshop, Arancha Gonzalez, Executive Director of the International Trade Centre, said that the international trade community could support women’s economic empowerment and levelling the playing field for them through negotiating international rules on e-commerce and investment facilitation. She called on the participants to focus on preparation for the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference, which is scheduled to take place in Kazakhstan in June 2020.
Also speaking in the opening session, Roberto Azevedo, the WTO Director-General, cautioned that if the international trade community is not able to agree on new rules for the digital economy, the result will be fragmentation and higher costs and barriers, thus leading to excluding many, including women entrepreneurs, from the opportunities that the digital economy offers.
Pamela Coke-Hamilton, Director of the Division on International Trade and Commodities at the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), also spoke in the opening session representing UNCTAD Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi. She noted that the digital world is not gender-neutral, whereby there are gender-specific challenges that women face and that should be addressed.
The Ambassador of the European Union to the WTO, Marc Vanheukelen, said that negotiations on e-commerce rules that started in April should adopt a gender lens.
Participants at the workshop heard messages on how digital trade can help with addressing the gender gap in the economy and the need to move trade towards an inclusive, people-centred and gender-aware policy approach.
Focus was given to women’s entrepreneurship and their ability to effectively engage with digital tools. It was suggested that enabling access for women to the digital sphere will contribute to the growth of developing countries’ economies, while Aid for Trade programmes could be of help in this regard.
Other issues addressed during the workshop included the ability of the digital economy to create new income-generating opportunities for women, ways to facilitate access to finance and bridging the gender gap more generally.
Participants also discussed the gender-specific challenges that women face in the digital sphere, including gender discrimination in the male-dominated information and communication technology (ICT) sector, the need for more tailored programmes to support women in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and ways of leveraging information and communication technologies to help women overcome time and resource constraints they usually face.
The workshop included sessions showcasing examples of online businesses, where speakers stressed the importance of finance and networking.
Mark Wu, the Henry L. Stimson Professor of Law at Harvard University, stressed in his inputs that the gap to be bridged is not only about new rules, but also about establishing an enabling environment in the form of physical infrastructure particularly in developing countries, such as addressing women’s access to reliable Internet technologies, including outside of major urban centres. No matter what the rules are, the divide will not be addressed without dealing with the physical component, he stressed.
Another speaker pointed out that any new e-commerce rules should not create new barriers to women’s economic empowerment.
Adverse impact of WTO rules
However, notably absent from the Joint Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment and its follow-up process has been a focus on the impact of existing trade rules on the situation of women.
In response to the Declaration, a large number of women’s groups had in December 2017 released a statement noting that the Declaration “fails to address the adverse impact of WTO rules and instead appears to be designed to mask the failures of the WTO and its role in deepening inequality and exploitation”.
“The removal of tariffs and import limits alone [has] been detrimental to women’s rights. Tariff reductions reduce government revenue essential for public investments in health, education, energy, water, transport and social protection. Reduced public expenditure impacts most heavily on the economically poor and particularly poorer women,” they stressed.
“The proposal for the WTO to deal with ‘new issues’ [including e-commerce] threatens women’s human rights even further,” the statement highlighted.
The groups signing the statement noted that “if governments are genuinely interested in advancing women’s human rights through just trade arrangements, they would allow for pro-poor public stockholding of food, allow domestic regulations a state deems necessary to advance women’s human rights and the public interest, ensure that states can fully utilize intellectual property flexibilities to provide access to medicines, seeds, technologies that advance women’s human rights and refrain from entering into bilateral or multilateral agreements that further restrict the capacity to use domestic regulations in the interests of the public in any way they deem necessary”.
It is worth noting that studies show that the most effective gender equality policies seem to consist of various forms of positive discrimination in national regulation, such as gender-sensitive domestic services initiatives.
However, such initiatives would sit at odds with the WTO’s “anti-discrimination” rules, which is one dimension of the interaction between trade and women’s empowerment that is worth considering in this debate.
When it comes to women and digital trade specifically, studies observe that SMEs continue to have difficulties accessing foreign markets despite the Internet, particularly due to the quality of telecommunication infrastructure, computer access and knowledge, among other factors.
There is also a need to closely examine the assumption that e-commerce will provide the opportunity for developing countries’ SMEs, including women’s entrepreneurial initiatives, to find new markets for niche products. For example, the majority of developing-country economies consist of mundane products for which opening the online route and e-platforms equipped with complementary e-commerce services for payment, logistics and delivery could lead to fierce competition for local suppliers, possibly crowding out these small businesses from the local markets.
Recent research on the e-commerce rules proposed for current negotiations points out that such rules would “reinforce the same model of unbridled globalization that feminists have long been critiquing for its pernicious effects on women in the global south”.
This research highlights that such rules, if agreed, would likely lead to erosion of the revenue base essential for underwriting care infrastructure, precluding governments’ ability to address algorithmic discrimination against women, deregulation that ignores digital restructuring of agriculture, and loss of the right to create digital public goods for women’s economic empowerment.
(The proposed e-commerce rules discussed at the informal joint initiative on e-commerce in which a number of WTO member states are engaged include: permanent ban on customs duties on electronic transmissions; prohibition of mandatory source code/algorithmic disclosure requirements; enhanced market access and national treatment for digital service providers; and adoption of an unrestricted cross-border data flows regime.) (SUNS8940)
Third World Economics, Issue No. 683, 16-28 February 2019, pp10-11