In a climate of growing private investment and free trade worldwide, combined with shrinking international foreign assistance budgets, women have more reasons than ever to understand and be concerned about macroeconomic development. So says Ritu Sharma, director of the newly organized Women’s EDGE: The Coalition for Women’s Economic Development and Global Equality. A revitalization of the former Coalition for Women in Development, Women’s EDGE was started in Washington, DC, last March to take on global macroeconomics. As Sharma explains, “We felt that it was important as a women’s community to essentially put our mouths where the money is. And the money is in private investment and trade.”
Global trade isn’t new. As traders of goods and services across national boundaries for many years, women know this well. But recently the number of rules, laws, and treaties governing it have increased. All of the acronyms being bandied about – GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs), WTO (World Trade Organization), Fast Track, NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), and MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investment) – are basically sets of rules governing trade and investment. Together, they speak to a trend that can profoundly affect the environment and context of women’s lives.
Take the worldwide increase in the number of “export processing zones.” These zones crop up because countries want specific places where tariffs are low and tax structures allow foreign corporations to easily invest, produce goods, and export quickly with a minimum of financial barriers. Businesses in such zones tend to employ a mainly female labor force: in some places, 80-90 percent of all workers are women. That makes the trend very much a women’s issue. As consumers of household goods, Sharma points out, women “have a lot of power to change the behavior of corporations. We are also more directly affected by such things as pesticides in foods, exposure to chemicals, and so on. We need to be engaged.”
But the issues are complicated. While exploitation, long hours, and low wages are rampant in export processing zones, many women still want the jobs – even if labor and safety standards are lacking. The jobs provide them with an economic outlet, some power and autonomy through earned income, and, occasionally, improved access to health care and education. “It’s not a zero sum game,” says Sharma. “That’s why Women’s EDGE doesn’t only look at the negatives of global trade on women. We also consider potential benefits.”
One of the issues facing the organization is the domination of trade agreements by the Group of Seven, or G-7, the richest nations in the world. Sharma notes, “These agreements are just being handed to developing countries with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Take the MAI as an example. It is a new treaty that governs investment (movement of capital) rather than trade (movement of goods). When a group of nations tried to negotiate this agreement within the WTO, which incorporates many more countries than the MAI, developing nations said, ÔWe’re not ready yet. We want to protect certain sectors of our economy from foreign investment. We need the income, the profits, the investment here for our own development.’ So, the wealthy countries said, ÔOkay, have it your way. We’ll negotiate this in the OECD (Organization for European Cooperation and Development) and you can sign on or not.’
“After such a negotiation, developing countries would not be able to influence the agreement,” she continued. “If they don’t sign on, it’s like saying to foreign investors, ÔWe don’t want your money; just go away.’ If they do sign on, it gives carte blanche to foreign investors in their countries. It’s obviously an incredible gap in power and that’s one of the things that Women’s EDGE as well as many other women’s organizations have objected to in the process of negotiation with this agreement.
“Very few organizations have been able to voice their concerns or to participate, with the exception of the US Council for International Business, a lobby of 500 of the largest multinational corporations. They’ve been at the negotiating table while citizens’ groups, labor groups, environment groups, and women’s organizations have not had the same opportunity.”
Women’s EDGE is working closely with other groups such as the Women’s Eyes on the World Bank Campaign to dialogue with institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In addition, it networks and communicates with various women’s organizations around the world to ensure that its positions aren’t detrimental to women. Although careful to avoid the perception that US women are dominating or speaking for “third world” women, Sharma points out that it’s important to have a US presence on international women’s issues. After all, she notes, “the US does tend to throw its weight around pretty heavily on issues of global trade and macroeconomics.”
The short-term goal of Women’s EDGE is to educate the public, particularly women, about MAI and other trade issues. Considerable education is needed, its leaders point out, because many women’s organizations still haven’t heard of the agreement, don’t understand how macroeconomics affect their constituencies, and haven’t yet realized that macroeconomics is a women’s issue. In the longer term, however, they plan to link organizations and individuals concerned with gender and economic issues in both the domestic and international arenas. The objectives are to engage leaders in discussions about the policies and programs of the US government, incorporate gender issues into major international trade negotiations and intergovernmental conferences, and create a larger and more diverse US constituency in support of women’s advancement. Sharma invites input from all interested parties.
Elayne Clift, a consultant on women, health, and development, is a regular TF contributor. Women’s EDGE can be reached at:
1255 23rd St. NW
(202) 884-8145; fax (202) 884-8844; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.