Women in the Commonwealth: Trade and Investment

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:07 pm on 11th March 2020.

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Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for International Trade) 5:07 pm, 11th March 2020

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and to have heard powerful speeches from Members across the House. While only one in five exporting businesses are led by women, I am pleased to say that that ratio has been reversed in this debate. I am the first male to speak while the four women, who spoke so powerfully, went ahead of me.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Theo Clarke, who has great expertise in this area, having previously worked for the Bill Gates Foundation. As she showed in her speech, she cares deeply and knows a great deal about this topic. She founded the Coalition for Global Prosperity and is the vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on trade out of poverty, both of which do so much to increase our understanding of these subjects.

Having recently celebrated Commonwealth Day, and International Women’s Day last Sunday, this is a great chance to reflect on the huge benefits for women and society in this country and throughout the Commonwealth from having the freedom and opportunities to trade and invest. The Government put this issue right at the heart of our international agenda.

As the Minister for Women and Equalities said in the Commons last week, the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day “each for equal” has echoes of the Government’s central domestic mission to level up, deliver opportunity to and unleash the potential of everyone in the United Kingdom. As was suggested in various speeches, we would like that to happen for everyone everywhere, not least for the women who are so often left behind. Women’s economic empowerment is a goal that we in the Department for International Trade and people across Government are pulling out all the stops to drive forward, not just here in Britain but across the Commonwealth and beyond.

The Commonwealth is rapidly becoming one of the economic powerhouses of global growth, with joint GDP expected to reach $13 trillion this year. While progress has been made in unleashing the full economic potential of women across the Commonwealth, their access to the benefits of trade remains startlingly unbalanced, as we have heard from a succession of speakers today. This issue is important for developed and developing countries alike. From barriers to technology and start-up capital to land ownership restrictions, all too often women are unable to fully exploit their business talents and realise their trading ambitions.

Women do not lack ability or ambition, yet we know that only one in three UK entrepreneurs is female, which is a gender gap equivalent to approximately 1.1 million missing businesses. Globally it is estimated that female-led SMEs face a credit gap of around $300 billion, with businesses run by women collecting less than 3% of global venture capital in 2017. The World Bank estimates that of 173 countries worldwide, 90% had at least one law impeding women’s economic opportunities, hence our determination to help women in the UK to export to or invest in our Commonwealth partners and other global markets, and to enable women in Commonwealth nations to trade with us. After all, supporting women-owned businesses to trade internationally is a proven way to boost broader economic transformation.

In recognition of that, at the London Commonwealth summit in 2018 all member states agreed to address systemic barriers to women’s full and equal participation in the economy and increase opportunities for women in trade internationally. The UK is playing a key role in championing those goals. Our 2018 UK export strategy commits us to harnessing trade’s potential for boosting economic growth, creating jobs and supporting greater participation by women in the economy. In the UK-US negotiation objectives announced earlier this month, we made clear that we are seeking an agreement with the US that advances women’s economic empowerment.

As an independent member of the World Trade Organisation, the UK is now working with other members to use the joint declaration on trade and women’s economic empowerment, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and others mentioned, was adopted at the 11th ministerial conference of the WTO in 2017 as a road map for progress on this vital agenda. We will seek to build on that momentum and drive forward our existing commitments at the 12th ministerial conference in June. As we also look ahead to the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Kigali, Rwanda this summer, I am encouraged that strategies for women in business and trade are expected to form part of the discussions.

I was pleased to spend several months working with colleagues in the FCO and DFID to deliver the Africa investment summit on 20 January this year. During the summit, we announced an additional £6.1 million of funding for the extension of the work and opportunities for women programme, known as the WOW programme. That will support a further 100,000 women in Africa to access safer and better paid employment. A memorable part of the event was when I attended a reception in the margins of the summit hosted by the Royal Academy of Engineering, where I met female entrepreneurs from African countries who received the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Africa prize. It is dynamic young entrepreneurs like them who will supercharge economic growth across the developing world in the decades ahead.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford asked whether we should establish Commonwealth MBA scholarships. Since 2018, the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission has focused its new awards under six key development themes. It supports high-calibre female postgraduates from 23 Commonwealth countries in master’s subjects relating to the theme of business and industry. In 2018, some 48% of new awards were for women. As for the investment strategy of the CDC, that body is working hard to help promote women’s economic empowerment through their own investments. The CDC sponsored the first global gender-smart investing summit in London in 2018 and is a founder member of the 2XChallenge, which seeks to mobilise $3 billion-worth of investments into developing countries by the end of this year in support of women’s businesses.

My hon. Friend asked if we could appoint a special envoy on women’s economic empowerment for the Commonwealth. The UK’s special envoy for gender equality already represents the breadth of work that the UK Government do on this issue, and a key part of their role is to promote best practice in gender equality overseas.

I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of women entrepreneurs forging bonds across the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Business Women’s Network is currently a route to do that and a vocal participant in Commonwealth events. Indeed, it is co-hosting a conference this month on collaboration, trade and education across the Commonwealth. It will also be active in the Commonwealth Business Forum, which is taking place immediately before the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Kigali, where we expect encouraging women entrepreneurs to be on the agenda set by the incoming chair-in-office, Rwanda.

My hon. Friend asked me about the SheTrades Commonwealth initiative, which we launched at the last Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, in London. As she observed, that innovative project has been doing great work in supporting women entrepreneurs in four Commonwealth countries—Bangladesh, Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria—by helping to enhance their business competitiveness and connecting them with international markets. Building on the success of SheTrades, the Secretary of State for International Development announced a further £3.5 million, as my hon. Friend mentioned, towards a programme extension at the UK-Africa investment summit in January.

In today’s debate, we heard speeches from across the House. Wendy Chamberlain championed the issue of period poverty and the way it blocks women from accessing the economy, and thus trade. She spoke powerfully about that. Anne McLaughlin, with her memorable reference to the marriage terminator, and others, also spoke with great knowledge, based not least on the interregnum before her return to the House, when she worked abroad to understand the issues at a deep level.

Thangam Debbonaire also spoke powerfully, although it is worth mentioning that, notwithstanding the barriers that women face, which across the House we are all committed to doing everything we can to address, it is trade liberalisation that has led to the greatest and fastest improvement in human welfare in history in past decades. It is a shame that the Opposition party has been taken hold of by a fundamentally Marxist view, which has led them to oppose trade agreements with the most benign of allies, leads to an attitude that regards liberalisation as fundamentally against the best interest, and talks as if we can impose our standards on every country—least appropriately of all on a developing country.