Can gender equality give the WTO renewed purpose?

As Canada brings representatives from like-minded countries together to save
a ‘broken’ World Trade Organization, Erin Hannah, Adrienne Roberts and Silke
Trommer look at how championing gender could bring new relevance to the

By: /
23 October, 2018
The World Trade Organization (WTO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
Adrienne Roberts
By: Adrienne Roberts

Senior lecturer, University of Manchester

Erin Hannah
By: Erin Hannah

Associate professor, University of Western Ontario

Silke Trommer
By: Silke Trommer

Lecturer, University of Manchester

This week, on October 24–25, Canada is convening a summit of 13 “like-minded countries” in Ottawa aimed at saving the World Trade Organization (WTO). 

Established in 1995, the WTO presides over the most legally rigorous form of economic integration in the global political economy. It is an intergovernmental organization, comprised of 164 members, tasked with setting the rules for the multilateral trading system, resolving disputes between its members, and increasing transparency and information about trade rule compliance and global trade flows. It was not a brand new creation but rather an incremental change from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) system, which was formed after the Second World War.

The WTO’s negotiating pillar has been under siege in one form or another almost since its inception. Why would Canada now expend so much political capital to salvage an institution that has been dubbed by some trade observers as fundamentally “broken,” and at a time when the US seems dead set upon its imminent demise?

Let us consider for a moment just a few of the challenges befalling the WTO. First is the inability of the WTO to substantially update the multilateral rule book for international trade. Second is the fact that many developing countries have not reaped the purported welfare gains and economic opportunities from membership in the WTO. Third is the de facto abandonment of the so-called Doha Development Agenda which established plurilateralism and critical mass voting as the “new normal.” These new modes of negotiation reject the “Single Undertaking” — the idea that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed — and the principle of consensus among all members in favour of a piecemeal, issue-by-issue approach to negotiating new rules among “like minded countries.” This move ensures that future WTO negotiations will take place only among a subset of members and effectively undermines the collective bargaining power of smaller, developing members. Fourth, the US continues to hold hostage the WTO’s “crown jewel” — the dispute settlement system — by its blockage of replacement appointments to the Appellate Body. We could go on…

On many counts, it can be argued that the WTO is not fit for purpose. Yet, there may be room for some optimism and good reason for Canada to take the lead in revitalizing the WTO, particularly if its efforts centre on reorienting the work of the WTO toward achieving socially progressive goals like gender equality and environmental sustainability.

It must be remembered that the death knell of the WTO (and indeed its predecessor, the GATT) has been ringing for decades to no avail. This is because a rules-based international system is widely recognized as both desirable and politically feasible, despite the obvious challenges and limitations. The WTO facilitates institutionalized interactions, multilateral diplomacy and mechanisms for dispute resolution — arguably, more effectively than any other international institution — all of which are essential for transparency, dialogue and the rule of law character of the multilateral trading system. Meanwhile, the vast (and growing) network of free trade agreements (FTAs) has become complex to a point where it de facto privileges the position of leading global trade powers, and affords less opportunity for middle powers like Canada and poor countries to have their trade concerns addressed. Any attempt to “refresh and revitalize” the WTO should be aimed at protecting rules-based global trade governance from shifts towards power-based forms of global trade governance, including à la carte forms of negotiating new rules or “modernizing the rules for the twenty-first century,” and should recognize that many developing countries’ concerns are real and need to be addressed at the WTO.

“This is where Canada has the greatest potential to exercise leadership and effect socially progressive, positive change.”

Another way to ensure WTO relevance is by boosting its commitment to gender equality. In our view, this is where Canada has the greatest potential to exercise leadership and effect socially progressive, positive change. Canada should use its position as a “gender champion” to build meaningfully on its commitment to use trade as a lever for gender equality. Canada was the architect of the WTO joint declaration on trade and women’s economic empowerment and, as member of the Trade Impact Group, played a key role in convening the coalition in support of the declaration at the WTO’s ministerial conference in Buenos Aires in December. The WTO declaration calls for the removal of barriers to women’s participation in trade and the use of gender-disaggregated data to measure the gender impacts of existing and proposed trade policies. While the declaration is purely aspirational and non-binding, many are hopeful that it signifies a political willingness to link human rights and broader social agendas to the regulation of global trade. Others argue that the declaration primarily works to mask the failures of the WTO and to obscure the role that the organization has played in deepening gender-based and other forms of inequality and exploitation.

Yet, there is still much work to be done. Making progress on the trade and gender agenda will not revitalize the negotiating pillar of the WTO, lead to the successful negotiation of new multilateral rules, or save the dispute settlement system. But getting this agenda right may improve the monitoring functions of the WTO, and it is one pathway for giving the WTO renewed purpose at a time when the other areas of its work are in peril. We must remember that the end game is not shoring up an institution in crisis; it is using trade policy and the multilateral trading system as levers for sustainability, gender equality, welfare and economic opportunities for all. Successfully delivering on this agenda could improve the lived experiences of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

This week’s meeting is a prime opportunity for Canada to advocate for more of this work, and to really walk the talk with regards to its gender sensitive trade policy. The absence of the US from the summit table makes the prospects for progress on this agenda in the near term much more likely.

In practice, progress could mean a number of things:

Adopt a do no harm principle: At a very minimum, WTO members could be encouraged to adopt a “do no harm” principle, ensuring that new agreements (eg. the Trade in Services Agreement, micro, small, and medium enterprises, or MSMEs, E-commerce, FTAs) do not increase gender-based or other forms of inequality. This could involve, for instance, cautioning against EU plans to move away from the WTO practice of listing all service sectors that are included in liberalization to one where all service sectors are automatically liberalized unless explicitly named as excluded. The problem here is that women are disproportionately represented among workers and users of public services, and we know from past trade agreements that their liberalization has gendered effects as women take on the increased costs (including unpaid care work) that come with the loss of these services. A more cautionary, positive-list approach is therefore preferable.

Develop a methodology for conducting gender-impact assessments: All signatories to the WTO declaration have committed to conducting ex ante impact assessments of new trade rules using gender disaggregated data. Despite Canada’s promise to conduct GBA+ (gender-based analysis plus) for all federal government policy, no such methodology yet exists for trade. This is an opportunity for Canada to work with other members to develop a methodology that accounts for the gendered impacts of new and existing trade rules, not just on employment and earnings but also on job segregation and working conditions, consumption and on the provisioning of public services. This includes a consideration of how these things have the potential to increase unpaid labour in the household.

Identify ways of using existing WTO rules to achieve gender equality: Already existing flexibilities contained in the WTO Agreements (such as GATT Article XX, the TRIPS public health declaration, or the expired green-light subsidies under the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures) may allow carve outs that enable governments to minimize the adverse impacts of trade liberalization on vulnerable populations, particularly on women’s health or on women in working environments that are precarious or “hyper-precarious,” low paying or unpaid. Other WTO agreements, such as the Government Procurement Agreement (GPA), may allow positive gender-based discrimination in pursuit of gender equality. Canada can work with members (and the WTO’s Trade and Gender Focal Point) to explore how the WTO’s Trade Policy Review Mechanism can help identify best practices already underway.   

Create economic opportunities for women entrepreneurs: Canada could work with its partners to promote economic opportunities for women-owned MSMEs and those involved in e-commerce. For example, they might create policy space and exemptions that allow and support extra procurement or market access opportunities for women-owned MSMEs. This should take into consideration that simply providing quota-free, duty-free market access is not enough, since small enterprises in particular often struggle to meet technological and consumer standards. Canada and its partners could engage in capacity-building and knowledge transfer to reduce barriers to women’s economic empowerment and precarity. This should be done in ways that are mindful of the need to look at trade and gender through four dimensions: consumption, employment/labour, use of public services and entrepreneurship.

Link trade, gender and environmental sustainability: Existing gender and environmental sustainability chapters in trade agreements share the common pitfall that they are typically excluded from dispute settlement. Yet, the impacts of environmental depletion and climate change are inextricably linked to gendered power relations in society. Environmental degradation hits the poor the hardest and, in many countries, women are among the most vulnerable groups that are set to bear the costs of deteriorating environmental conditions. Canada could use the good will among like-minded countries to work on gender and trade issues in order to revitalize the discussion about how the global trading system could be put on sustainable footing.

If Canada takes such a lead on these issues, it could be the start of a truly reformed, revitalized, gender-equitable and sustainable multilateral trading system, but whether it has the fortitude and political willingness to deliver on this ambitious agenda remains to be seen.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Open Canada is published by the Canadian International Council, but that’s only the beginning of what the CIC does. Through its research and live events hosted by its 18 branches across the country, the CIC is dedicated to engaging Canadians from all walks of life in an ongoing conversation about Canada’s place in the world.

By becoming a member, you’ll be joining a community of Canadians who seek to shape Canada’s role in the world, and you’ll help Open Canada continue to publish thoughtful and provocative reporting and analysis.

Join us