Interview with Pamela Coke-Hamilton Executive Director, International Trade Centre (ITC)

22 June
Interview with Pamela Coke-Hamilton Executive Director, International Trade Centre (ITC)

Based in Geneva, the International Trade Center (ITC) is the joint technical co-operation agency of UNCTAD and of the WTO for business aspects of trade development. Its main goal is to help developing and traditional economies to achieve sustainable human development through exports. Since October 2020, Ms. Pamela Coke-Hamilton, a Jamaican national has been the Executive Director of ITC. She has had an impressive career and held several important positions both in the private and public sector. She is a nice and friendly person, who despite her busy schedule took the time to answer our numerous questions as the organization prepared to celebrate it’s 60 anniversary and she is as busy as ever.

Q: You have had a long and impressive career, and since 2020 you are the Executive Director of the International Trade Centre. Could you tell us a little bit about your career that led you to the ITC and your priorities for it? For example, where would you like to see the organization in a couple of years?

As to the first part of your question, I’ve worn quite a few hats before joining ITC at the height of COVID-19, in October 2020: I’ve served with the Jamaican Government, the Caribbean Forum in trade negotiations and multilateral institutions, including the Organization of American States, InterAmerican Development Bank, Caribbean Export Development Agency and UNCTAD.

Coming to Geneva was a full-circle moment for me. My first posting – more than three decades ago! – was to Geneva. As a young diplomat, I worked on the Uruguay Round negotiations that created the World Trade Organization… and today, I’m leading the joint agency of the WTO and UNCTAD. In a way, I’ve touched upon the work of all three trade institutions here.

Looking back, while Geneva is half a world away from my hometown of Mandeville in Jamaica, the idea of pursuing a career in international trade and development was never too far off. My four siblings and I grew up participating in dining table debates on the new international economic order and development. The life of our grandfather, who was a former speaker of the house of representatives, framed ours in a lot of ways, as well. So I always had an interest in making a difference for my country, my region and more broadly, the world, in some way.

As for the second part of your question, on priorities for us at ITC: All of our projects and programmes contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Everything we do is designed to help small businesses in developing countries to trade, so they can earn more, create jobs and support socioeconomic development of their countries. In short, we work to see big changes through small businesses, through trade-led development.

In line with the Sustainable Development Goals, we at ITC have four high-ambition, strategic pushes – what we call our “moonshots” – which serve as an umbrella for our core work: green, digital connectivity, gender and youth.

At least 80% of our country-level assistance is in least developed countries, sub-Saharan Africa, landlocked developing countries, small island developing states, small and vulnerable economies, and conflITC-affected countries.

Let me focus on Africa in particular, where we have a wide footprint: We have worked in all African countries and currently have interventions in 50 out of 55 African countries. Our current portfolio of projects on the continent totals approximately $150 million.

I also want to mention that we’re celebrating our 60th anniversary this year. This year and every year, we’re working to create a world that is more connected, sustainable and inclusive. I want my legacy to be a world that is a better place to live in than the one I grew up in, for my son’s generation and beyond.

Q: We are living in a period of many challenges. Is there one in particular that you see as the main one, and how is the ITC helping its Member States to overcome these challenges?

[Note: While ITC doesn’t have Member States in the same way the UN Secretariat does, we are accountable to our beneficiary and donor countries.]
The major challenge, the defining issue of our time, is climate change. This goes beyond any sector or country.

The general public may not see the link between trade and climate change. Yet at the last UN climate change conference, we saw trade on the climate agenda for the first time. And there are environment/climate/plastics discussions happening at the WTO. So the two worlds are coming together.

We need to see trade as part of the solution to climate change – in no small part driven by small-scale producers and small businesses in developing countries.
Let me share an example of regenerative agriculture in Ghana: We are helping farmers to move away from clearing forests to grow cash crops. With partners like the Swiss chocolate brand Halba and Max Havelaar Fairtrade Switzerland, we are training farmers of the Kuapa Kokoo cooperative with over 100,000 members (representing 10% of cocoa farmers in the country) to improve the soil, increase biodiversity, inset carbon, and diversify their food and income sources by “intercropping” cocoa seedlings with trees, as it takes three years for cocoa trees to come into fruit. This approach works because producers are owning the process: Nearly 700 farmers (250 of them women) have reforested more than 400 hectares, capturing 75,000 tons of CO2. We can track these figures because we work directly with the farmers, buyers, carbon credit certifiers and agroforestry experts involved. We are working with the Ghana Cocoa Board to integrate these regenerative agroforestry practices across the country.

Q: Trust, peace and predictability are often mentioned as being the main issues of successful trade. Are there other important factors in your opinion that we should bear in mind?

Beyond the foundational elements of trade – such as a strong multilateral trading system underpinned by reliable logistics and infrastructure, market access, and participation of women and youth, for example – I would add “dialogue” as another key factor for trade.

You can’t have trade that works for everyone – including women, youth, Indigenous Peoples, refugees, developing countries – without accounting for everyone’s perspective. How will you make rules for small businesses if you don’t know their pain points, innovations and ideas?

That’s why we deliver homegrown, not “helicopter” technical assistance. That means we listen to and exchange with the entrepreneurs, heads of institutions and policymakers we engage with, so that the training and coaching we provide is practical and useful for them. We want to ensure that long after a project ends, the impact goes on.

All of our projects and programmes are informed by the small businesses we’re working for, the institutions we’re strengthening, the policymakers we’re partnering with.

Q: The founder of the World Trade Center in New York, Guy Tozzoli, used to say that trade is a means of peace, because when people trade together, they have to put their differences aside, and respect each other. How can you situate this point of view into the current context?

Indeed, trade supports peace. Look at the history of the establishment of the pre-WTO GATT, created in 1948, immediately after World War II. One was the big reasons for its creation was to avoid a repeat of the destructive trade tensions before World War II (WTO).

That’s not to say that it’s all about peace – there’s a healthy dose of self-interest driving trade. As we saw during the pandemic, we rely heavily on multi-country supply chains to get everyday basics, from rice to toilet paper to mobile phones. Every country has an incentive to buy from and sell to each other. This element of trade also supports peace because every country benefits from playing by the rules of multilateral trade.

So the big picture is, you can’t have peace or sustainable development without trade. Trade reduces poverty, raises incomes, creates jobs and supports socioeconomic development.

This is important to know, as the world becomes more fragile and conflicts become more frequent. Nearly 90% of the world’s poor could be living in fragile states by 2030. It’s clear that we’re going to need bigger, holistic responses. The immediate humanitarian response in the short to medium term needs to be paired with plans to build economic resilience, for long-term stability and security. Focusing solely on meeting immediate needs is like putting a bandage on a gaping wound. Pass policies that support the small business ecosystem; support small businesses to continue to produce goods and services and to employ people; and provide targeted support to vulnerable groups, including women and youth, who are among those hit hardest by conflict.

Let me share an example of how trade is supporting peace in Iraq. We’re supporting the development of the agri-food industry in a demand-driven way, with a long-term vision. With no subsidies, no free inputs, we are helping farmers double incomes by connecting them with buyers and helping them comply with market requirements. In February, at our Iraq National Trade Forum in Baghdad, we connected small businesses in farming, food processing, packaging and logistics with buyers and investors through 240 business-to-business sessions, resulting in $5.8 million dollars in potential deals. We now aim to replicate our approach to support small businesses in housing construction, to address the housing shortage following years of conflict We are also stimulating investment in climate-smart construction equipment and technology, to create conditions for environmentally sustainable growth in one of the countries hardest hit by the climate crisis.

Q: What is the role of small businesses, especially in developing countries, and how does the ITC support their efforts?

We are the UN small business agency. We are in the business of strengthening small businesses, so they can strengthen the economies of their countries, through trade.

Small businesses are the backbone of most economies, making up 90% of companies and two-thirds of jobs, worldwide. So their action – or inaction – matters.

We support small businesses by working with three core groups, at three levels: small businesses by improving firm-level capacities to trade, institutions to create a more supportive business ecosystem, and governments to create a more conducive policy and regulatory environment for small businesses.

We prioritize support to those who need it most: women, young people and members of vulnerable or traditionally “overlooked” communities, including refugees, Indigenous Peoples and people with disabilities. We support the smallest, most remote and least developed.

Our clients reported having transacted over $300 million in new business last year. Much of our work was with the private sector, so let me share some examples of that. We’re working with Visa to integrate Visa’s resources into our Ye! Community, a global platform dedicated to youth entrepreneurs; we’ll continue to work with the Visa Foundation to support refugees in Kenya and Pakistan, with a strong focus on women and youth, to tap economic opportunities in the digital services sector; in Rwanda, we’re working with the Mastercard Foundation on refugee empowerment in the agricultural sector, to enhance their integration into local and regional trade networks, and we plan to expand our collaboration to countries like Uganda, to empower youth in the creative industries; on digital, we’re partnering with Google and the International Chamber of Commerce to help small businesses in ASEAN countries seize e-commerce opportunities; and on sustainability, we’re working with organizations like ISEAL Alliance to scale up relevant tools like our Sustainability Map to reach more businesses.

We work with small businesses, governments and institutions alike: We’ve helped more than 40,000 small businesses to improve business operations, transact international business or receive investment. More than 14,000 of those are women-led businesses. We’ve helped policymakers to achieve consensus on, introduce or change over 100 policies/strategies, with business sector input, in favour of small business competitiveness. We’ve worked with hundreds of business support organizations (which are multipliers of our work in-country), which reported almost 500 cases of performance improvement. The organizers we work with serve over 1.3 million members. For example, within our Coffee Network, we reached almost 100,000 smallholder farmers.

More than 500,000 clients gained greater awareness of international trade through our global public goods.

We’ve also delivered over 4,000 training days to beneficiaries, to build their overall business/trade skills.

Q: Today e-commerce or digital commerce has become part of our life, and this has increased since the pandemic, but e-commerce is not without its drawbacks. What are the chief challenges, in your opinion, and what do you propose for confronting them?

Here’s the big picture: Digital is shaking up the way trade is done, from the way goods are sold (e-commerce), paid for (digital payments), tracked (blockchain), shipped across borders (e-certificates). Small businesses in developing countries have the most to gain from the rise of digital in trade.

Digital trade reduces costs and speeds up processes at the border; increases trade (during the pandemic, we saw a third of global GDP being traded online); and drives development (an increase in mobile broadband results in increased GDP).

There are challenges. As many as half of all small businesses are unconnected – due to issues such as lack of access to finance, skills and tech, and an ecosystem that is not business-friendly, especially in developing countries. So how do you fix this situation?

First, make connectivity affordable. In least developed countries, the issue is not just availability and accessibility, but affordability, so lower the cost of usage.

Second, invest in knowledge and skills, so small firms understand how to use the internet to grow their business.

Third, build up a supportive ecosystem around small businesses, including by upgrading business support organizations to better advocate on their behalf.

Finally, think big and create partnerships. Our ‘Switch ON’ initiative is designed to increase the scale and reach of our digital initiatives on e-commerce and tech entrepreneurship to reach thousands of small businesses, including in least developed countries.

Digital tools can help small businesses in a number of ways, for example, in identifying and entering new markets through data-driven decision-making. On this front, we’re looking at using AI to upgrade the Global Trade Helpdesk – as mandated to us by the G20 under India’s presidency through the Jaipur Call for Action on enhancing small businesses’ access to information – so small businesses have a one-stop shop to get market intelligence, stay up to date with the latest regulatory requirements, find buyers and more. This tool is important because access to information remains a key bottleneck for small businesses to engage in global trade – despite efforts and progress at national and regional levels.

Small businesses can also use digital tools to improve traceability across their business processes. For example, we’ve helped Rwandan women coffee producers to use blockchain to prove the origin of their beans, as they move along the value chain. These types of initiatives are key, in light of increasingly mandatory green market access requirements.

Small firms can reach more buyers through e-commerce, as well, and improve their online presence through AI-driven personalized marketing and customer engagement. They can take advantage of real-time language translation tools that break down language barriers, opening up new customer bases.

In a sentence, digital is the gamechanger in global trade, including for small businesses.