Thursday, 8 November 2007

Gender and Trade or Call your bluff

“Critics of the EU’s trade agreements are gambling with livelihoods in the developing world.”

This claim was made last week by Peter Mandelson (EU trade commissioner) and Louis Michel (EU development commissioner) in The Guardian
with reference to the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) now under discussion in Brussels. Furthermore, the critics “undermine those in Africa and other ACP countries who are seeking to work constructively for economic reform and a new trade and development relationship with Europe.”

But who are these critics? Clearly not willing to be taken in by a little masculine rhetoric, many of them are representatives of regional and international women’s advocacy groups. They have brought out their own analyses on the likely impact of EPAs, which they believe could blight the future of yet another generation, pushing the dispossessed further to the periphery (Lebohang Pheko’s voice)

Research carried out for the Central American Women’s Network

on the recently launched EU-CA negotiations predicts that women’s working conditions in the ‘free-trade zones’ will get worse, women farmer small-holders will be harder hit by competition and in general “women are likely to be further marginalized, uninformed about their rights and less able to organize to defend them”. Women in Costa Rica are already struggling against the US imposed Central America Trade Agreements (CAFTA).

The International Gender and Trade Network have also published a paper discussing the policy linkage between aid and trade under the Doha Development Agenda. This puts trade at the center of growth promotion and poverty reduction strategies at the national, regional and multilateral level. “This political shift affects the way development policies and technical cooperation (including gender-related activities) are to be designed and implemented in the future and will not go without implications for funding provided for other sectors.”

The paper argues that Aid for Trade should go beyond the general policy declarations related to ‘gender-sensitivity’ and ‘sustainable development’. “It should be part of a specific global plan aimed at improving female employment, ensuring higher employment standards and more stable and sustainable income.”

At the World Social Forum in Nairobi
at the beginning of the year, EPAs were top of the agenda, seen as a mechanism for compromising national and regional autonomy (and more: an end to sovereignty in Africa) The organisers of the discussion theme on ‘women farmers cultivating local markets and defending food sovereignty’ talked to me about the importance of the united south-south struggle for fair trade. “Asian women are looking to the African social movements to win over EPAs this year - because we know that Europe will soon be coming after South Asia.”

Sure enough, bilateral EU-India free-trade negotiations are now underway. And the Brussels-based organisation Women in Development Europe have a new report out looking at the implications of EU-India trade for social development and gender equality . The paper questions the main interests behind these free trade agreements on both sides - looking at who is actually going to benefit. It points out that, while Indian economic growth rates now rank second in the world behind China, UNDP ranked India's human development at 126 (out of 177) and gender-related development at 96. One quarter of the population of India lives below the poverty line and female foeticide is systematic.

Since bilateral trade negotiations are held in great secrecy, the paper aims “to provide civil society actors in the EU and India with background information and to build their capacity to engage critically in policy-making on trade and development and in trans-regional networking.” Sounds reasonable in a global democracy?

Speaking out

While I’m on the subject, here’s a plug for another international publication: Unpacking globalisation: markets, gender, work. Edited by Linda E. Lucas this reprints papers from the Women’s Worlds Congress (Kampala, 2002) providing a range of case studies on and by women workers from Mexico through Tanzania to India to exemplify what Saskia Sassen calls the feminisation of survival.

If anyone has real authority to speak about the impact of the current trade system on livelihoods in the south, it has to be the women who live there. And there is plenty of research from women north and south to back them up. In fact, you could say that women have a vested interest in becoming experts on globalisation since they bear the brunt of its effects. And yet it’s still so difficult to be taken seriously.

In December last year Lebohang Pheko took part in a round table on EPAs organised by the European Commission in Brussels where she was due to present a paper giving the gender perspective. What was the response of the EU? She told me:

‘Oh, they said, “let’s stay with the real discussion and look at the gender aspect at the end.” It’s the usual response. But we need to be at the centre of discussions. It’s a question of social inclusion - otherwise, women, men, children, all those who are marginalized, are just taken out of the game. There’s got to be a humanity to these trade agreements.’

As I’ve written before,
it’s easy for western politicians to gamble when someone else is paying for their habit. But if this is a game of poker, the cards are stacked in Europe’s favour. Not a gamble at all then, just a con trick.

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