The Global Trade and Gender Arrangement, founded by Canada, Chile, and New Zealand, encourages action toward mutually supportive trade and gender policies. Since it was announced in 2020, Mexico, Colombia, and Peru have also joined the Arrangement, whose text addresses key domains of gender inequality. In practice, however, its focus so far has been on increasing the number of women entrepreneurs in trade.
In 2022, the Global Trade and Gender Arrangement (GTAGA) welcomed two new participants: Colombia and Peru. The news did not make headlines: the signing ceremony coincided with the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference in June, which attracted most of the trade-focused media attention.
The GTAGA has been heralded by many as “ground-breaking,” a “landmark,” and an innovative and comprehensive initiative. But is it really? What does it add to trade and gender provisions in existing agreements and how far can it go to redress gender inequalities in participating countries?
This article unpacks what GTAGA entails in practice, what officials from participating countries say about its potential, and what responses have emerged from the wider trade and gender community.
GTAGA’s origins and objectives
The idea of a GTAGA originated in the Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Inclusive Trade Action Group (ITAG) and came into being in 2020, with Canada, Chile, and New Zealand as its first three participants. The non-binding arrangement, commonly known as GTAGA (pronounced “gee-TA-gah”), aims to promote “mutually supportive trade and gender policies to improve women’s participation in trade and investment and in furtherance of women’s economic empowerment and sustainable development.” It is a stand-alone text, not linked to a specific trade agreement. Current GTAGA participants are Canada, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, New Zealand, and Peru.
Alicia Frohmann, a trade policy specialist who delivers technical assistance on gender and trade in the Latin American region, told IISD that “Canada, Chile, and New Zealand agreed on GTGA in the aftermath of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which did not include gender specific provisions.”
GTAGA is a cooperation-focused initiative, strongly geared toward improving women’s access to trading opportunities. While none of its provisions impose legally binding obligations on its participants, it does provide a framework that they can build on for the future.
In its five pages, the Arrangement acknowledges that “women’s enhanced participation in the labour market, the growth of women-owned enterprises and entrepreneurship, women’s economic autonomy and access to, and ownership of, economic resources contribute to prosperity, competitiveness, and the well-being of society.” GTAGA further notes “the importance of adopting, maintaining, and implementing gender equality laws, regulations, policies, and best practices” and recognizes the need for evidence-based trade interventions to respond to barriers limiting women’s opportunities in the economy.
GTAGA participants undertake to enforce their laws and regulations promoting gender equality and improving women’s access to economic opportunities. They reaffirm their obligations under other international agreements addressing women’s rights or gender equality and recognize that it is “inappropriate” to weaken or reduce the protection provided in domestic gender equality laws with a view to encouraging trade or investment.
GTAGA participants agree to encourage enterprises to incorporate gender equality standards, guidelines, and principles and to support the goal of promoting gender equality in the workplace. The Arrangement notes that temporary special measures relating to licensing and qualification requirements and procedures “aimed at accelerating de facto gender equality” are not to be considered discriminatory by GTAGA participating countries.
Similar to gender chapters in recent bilateral trade agreements between Brazil, Canada, Chile, and other economies, GTAGA sets out detailed possibilities for cooperation among its participants through dialogues, technical assistance, exchange of experts, and the sharing of information and best practice. Articles 8 and 9 set out a non-exhaustive list of activities, including capacity-building; access to education, including digital skills development; measures to foster leadership and entrepreneurship; business development; access to networks; trade missions; and government procurement.
The Arrangement establishes a working group to identify, coordinate, implement, and report on activities, as well as to interact with stakeholders. GTAGA further calls for the identification of a Contact Point for Trade and Gender in each participating country. A first periodic review of the Arrangement is scheduled for 2023, at which time participants are also due to look afresh at GTAGA’s legal form and consider whether to undertake negotiations for a treaty-level instrument on trade and gender.
What does GTAGA add to existing gender provisions?
GTAGA’s provisions show several parallels to gender chapters of other trade agreements, and its participants are all parties to trade agreements with provisions that explicitly refer to gender equality. This begs the question of what the Arrangement adds to what already exists.
Former Chilean Foreign Minister Andrés Allamand—who served under the Chilean administration that helped develop the Arrangement—noted the benefits of developing a multi-country arrangement like GTAGA compared to negotiating bilaterally. The Arrangement “takes inspiration from trade and gender chapters,” he told participants at an OECD-organized meeting in June 2021.
GTAGA therefore “represents a second step, reinforcing and complementing countries’ commitment to gender issues and encouraging them to work together. Also, it allows us to go global, as the G in its name suggests,” Allamand said. Chilean officials serving under the current government concur with his comments, pointing out that they cannot always achieve as much as they would like with regard to gender equality in the country’s trade agreements. “Not all our trading partners are as committed to gender equality as we are,” a Chilean trade official told IISD in Geneva recently, explaining that “we can go further with an Arrangement such as this.”
An important feature, a Peruvian trade official affirmed, is that the Arrangement “is open to more interested countries to join, thus increasing the learning space and the number of cooperation activities that can be proposed among participants.” The official further highlighted the arrangement’s focus on cooperation, which “allows Peru to advance in the area of trade and gender in a manner that is in line with the circumstances that apply in the country, and to benefit directly from training activities and the exchange of experiences with leading countries on issues related to the empowerment of women through trade.”
Writing for TradeExperettes, an international network of women who are experts in trade and trade policy, former New Zealand trade negotiator Stephanie Honey noted that GTAGA “builds on what has gone before in terms of best-endeavours approaches to knowledge-sharing,” highlighting the arrangement’s working group as an example of how GTAGA also “adds new elements and a more solid platform for cooperation.”
A unique and potentially significant feature of GTAGA is its provision that participants will share experiences relating to policies and programs that encourage women’s participation in the economy through their reports to the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Trade Policy Review (TPR) mechanism.
TPRs are monitoring exercises that every WTO member undergoes periodically. The WTO secretariat and the member under review each prepare a report on the country’s trading policies and macroeconomic environment. These inform the TPR meeting, during which the reviewed member undergoes a discussion with fellow WTO members, who can submit questions both in advance and during the meeting itself.
What has happened so far?
Trade Policy Reviews
Mexico and New Zealand have come before the WTO’s TPR Mechanism since joining GTAGA. New Zealand’s 2022 TPR report pays considerable attention to women’s economic participation and women’s rights, referring to developments in international trade forums and domestically. The domestic developments described include New Zealand’s world-leading equal pay legislation: the 2020 Equal Pay Amendment Act. Canada, Chinese Taipei, and Iceland picked up on the topic in the discussion during New Zealand’s TPR meeting in June, and no members stated that it was inappropriate to do so. The UK delegate commented that “we should all be thankful to New Zealand for highlighting the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women and girls,” adding that “it is right and proper to draw attention to these important areas.”
Mexico’s TPR report devotes an entire section to policies and actions the country is implementing to improve the integration of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and women into the economy. At the meeting for Mexico’s TPR in November 2022, several WTO members, including Costa Rica, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, commended Mexico for promoting women’s empowerment. Argentina and Chile welcomed Mexico’s TPR reference to measures in favour of women. The Nigerian delegate referred to “the steps taken by Mexico on the inclusion and participation of women and SMEs in Mexico’s economy and international trade.” Sri Lanka, for its part, noted that Mexico promotes women’s empowerment and the development of transport and logistics infrastructure as part of its trade strategy, but cited data indicating “that the use of trade as a tool to reduce poverty and socio-economic inequalities has not achieved the expected outcome in Mexico.”
TPR reporting on steps taken to favour women’s participation in trade is not, however, a new phenomenon. A 2019 WTO working paper found that over 75 WTO members had reported at least one trade policy targeting women’s economic empowerment in their TPRs between 2014 and 2018.
GTAGA participants have organized three events since the Arrangement was signed. These include a 2021 session that Chile hosted on Unlocking Opportunities for Women Entrepreneurs. Last November, New Zealand hosted an event titled Women in STEM—Fixing the leaky pipeline. This brought together speakers and presenters from Canada, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, New Zealand, and Peru with an audience of around 120 people from more than 20 countries. Events planned for 2023/24 include a panel discussion on making the shift to digital, as well as a webinar on how to ensure gender equality, diversity, and inclusion in the private sector as part of a Responsible Business Conduct strategy.
Participation in GTAGA
Growing country membership…
One of the objectives of current GTAGA participants is to draw in new participating countries, with Argentina and Ecuador already poised to join. As the Arrangement is not linked to a specific trade agreement, it is open to other interested economies, a point that current participants emphasize. In the words of former Minister Allamand of Chile, “We want to increase GTAGA’s influence and scope.” At the June ceremony that welcomed Colombia and Peru into the GTAGA fold, ITAG Ministers invited fellow WTO members to “demonstrate their commitment to advancing inclusive trade” by joining GTAGA. New Zealand Minister for Trade and Export Growth Damian O’Connor has stated his country’s commitment “to assist anyone who wants to come on board.”
Officials of participating countries say that consultations within their countries on GTAGA’s content and on whether they should join were broad. Peru, for instance, consulted internally with different parts of its Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism, as well as with the ministry responsible for gender issues, the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations (MIMP), a Peruvian official told IISD.
…but mostly private sector participation
Yet emphasis in the consultations appears to have been on private sector participation, with businesses involved in designing the content of the arrangement. Vicky Saunders, a Canadian entrepreneur, has described how in Canada, GTAGA built on broad consultations and an ecosystem-based approach to supporting women and non-binary people.
Rooted more in trade than gender equality
The Arrangement is rooted more in the trade than in the gender equality field. This, along with GTAGA’s currently small number of participants and that it does not seek to secure access to other countries’ markets, appear to confine knowledge of it to true “trade and gender” aficionados. IISD reached out to a wide range of women’s groups and networks, as well as others working for gender equality and women’s rights, and was unable to locate much knowledge of GTAGA among them or women’s affairs ministries, other than women’s business associations.
“I work on gender issues in Chile and have not heard of the GTAGA,” said a gender economist based there. A quest for information about GTAGA’s impacts among feminist groups in participating countries elicited many similar responses. “I was an advisor in the women’s ministry of at the time of the country’s signing it but didn’t know about the Arrangement,” one Peruvian official told IISD.
Trade and gender experts note that this lack of awareness may also be due to the limited interactions between different policy communities, as well as the result of scarce resources. “Ministries charged with women’s affairs may have limited interest in trade but also they usually are faced with pressing issues that attract their priority attention, such as violence against women and reproductive health, and are often less well-resourced than trade ministries,” explained Frohmann. “It is hard to get them to engage on trade issues, partly because the trade community and the gender equality communities don’t talk to each other much.”
Dr. Suzy Morrissey, a gender practitioner from New Zealand, suggested that this situation also stems from questions in the gender equality community about the pertinence of trade-based initiatives claiming to promote gender equality. “To the extent that I am connected (reasonably well I would say), I am not aware that the GTAGA is a subject about which feminists/the gender equality community are enthused. I would posit that is because it is not an inequality-reducing agenda.” Indeed, many women’s rights advocates consider that to focus on women entrepreneurs capable of entering export markets is to prioritize a small minority of already privileged women.
It is too early to measure the impact of the Arrangement, but based on its current trajectory, GTAGA’s effects may be limited. The work undertaken under the Arrangement’s cooperation provisions so far confirms that it is mainly oriented toward those women who wish to engage in international trade.
Work under GTAGA has the potential to go further, as the Arrangement itself indicates. Its text states that cooperation can extend to key areas for gender equality, such as valuing care work or women’s skills enhancement, which research consistently finds are essential for women’s empowerment. But these words have not been followed up by action. To effect real change, countries participating in the Arrangement must pursue these objectives with as much vigour as they dedicate to supporting women entrepreneurs. Inserting women-friendly references or measures into trade agreements can only do so much if they are unaccompanied by measures to address the range of domains in which gender inequalities play out.
Furthermore, no one appears to be paying heed to a logical end result of facilitating the access of more women-run or women-led companies from different countries around the world to international markets. Fernanda Vicente is based in Chile and is Chief Executive of Mujeres del Pacífico, Latin America’s largest community of women entrepreneurs. She has described GTAGA as a “silk thread that joins women businesses from its different member countries together.” But ultimately, these businesses will be competing against each other for foreign markets in the same way as other companies do. Ultimately, then, the perception that the Arrangement promotes a “more equitable system” and a “values-driven way of doing business” may be short-lived.
More broadly, to ensure that trade and trade rules enhance and do not undermine gender equality and women’s rights, participating countries must consider the impacts of trade on all women, including those who may be indirectly affected by trade rules. Participants have so far hardly considered this aspect. With rare exceptions, there is little indication that participating countries are considering how future trade agreements need to adapt if they are to contribute to broader gender-responsive and inclusivity objectives and support domestic efforts in favour of equality.
These criticisms aside, GTAGA does embody an interesting approach to cooperation on trade and gender. Being purely cooperative and unattached to a specific trade agreement insulates GTAGA from the horse-trading, each-for-its own nature of trade deals. The forum it provides for cooperation, mutual assistance, and experience-sharing may offer a way to ask the harder questions about the relationship between trade and gender, including the objectives and impacts of gender-responsive trade policies.
Describing GTAGA as ground-breaking and comprehensive may be overstating its case. But its existence has the merit of signalling the importance its participants attach to the matters at stake, and it could still be a positive vehicle for more significant engagement with the issues that sit at the nexus of trade and gender equality.
Caroline Dommen is a Senior Associate with the Economic Law and Policy Program, focusing on research and outreach related to trade and gender.
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