This week I had the honour and pleasure of being a presenter on the “Redefining Trade Governance” panel at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Youth Forum, one of the pre-events of the UNCTAD XV Quadrennial being held virtually by Barbados. I wish first to congratulate and thank Ms. Roshanna Trim, UNCTAD Youth Forum Lead and her team, for a very thought-provoking and well-organised forum. Second, I am grateful for the opportunity kindly extended to me as a proud Barbadian to participate in this historic moment for our country – the first Small island Developing State to host an UNCTAD quadrennial starting officially from October 3-7, 2021. Third, as a young trade professional, I relished the opportunity to engage with my brilliant fellow panelists who hailed from Kenya, Indonesia and South Africa and who are all doing great things in their countries of origin.
In this article, I wish to share a few thoughts some of which, due to time constraints, I had been unable to flesh out fully during what was otherwise a very interesting session at the Youth Forum.
Pull Up, Change Di Riddim
In preparing for the session, the creative theme chosen by the UNCTAD Youth Forum organizers: ‘Pull up: Change di riddim’ gave me plenty of food for thought. Without doubt, the current soundtrack for the contemporary trade and development governance regime, both at national, regional and the multilateral levels, needs to be changed or remixed to create a more inclusive and equitable space that benefits marginalized groups, particularly the youth and in keeping with the overall UNCTAD XV theme of “from inequality and vulnerability to prosperity for all”.
But what would this new or remixed ‘riddim’ sound like? It would be, for example, the rhythm of an updated World Trade Organization (WTO) trade rulebook with equitable trade rules on existing and emerging trade issues, allowing for sustainable job creation and facilitating youth-owned enterprises. It would be the rhythm of giving the youth opportunities to contribute meaningfully at national, regional and international levels solutions-oriented approaches to trade and development issues confronting our world.
But whose responsibility is it to ‘pull up’ and change this rhythm? I will briefly outline my thoughts on some of the ‘DJs’ responsible for mixing and harmonizing this new riddim for trade governance. These include a wide range of actors, but in this article I am focusing on just a few.
Nearly six decades ago, the Geneva-based UNCTAD was conceived and birthed out of the recognition that marginalized countries in the global trading system – developing countries – needed a voice in the trade and development conversation. UNCTAD already has commendably demonstrated that it values inclusion of youth and young women, including, for example, through its Youth Network and programmes like the Emtrepec Women in Business Award.
Like other UN agencies, UNCTAD has an internship programme which allows those lucky youth chosen a front row seat on global trade and development issues and work alongside some of the world’s foremost experts on these issues. But these, like other UN system internships, are unremunerated positions, and interns have to pay for their own visas, travel and accommodation in Geneva which is a stunningly beautiful but very expensive city. Offering paid internships would extend this amazing opportunity to more youth, particularly those of poorer backgrounds and whose contributions are no less valuable.
UNCTAD, as part of a Youth and Trade and Development work programme, can also serve as a forum for its 195 Member States to share best practices and providing technical assistance and capacity building on youth mainstreaming in trade and development policy making.
Research from the Caribbean Development Bank in 2015 shows that youth unemployment in the Caribbean region is among the highest in the world at 25% and nearly three times the adult unemployment rate of 8%. An increasing number of youth are unable to find decent employment commensurate with their qualifications and skills and made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, anecdotally, there has been an increase in youth in the region choosing to pursue entrepreneurial activities as opposed to working for someone else. These include from farming to soap-making to designing application software. But many of those businesses are in the informal sector and, therefore, often not eligible for assistance programmes, such as COVID relief.
Business facilitation, although there have been improvements, especially due to COVID-19 imperatives, remains a frustration, particularly for youth-owned SMEs. While Jamaica leads the region and is ranked sixth on the “starting a business” indicator, no Caribbean country currently ranks among the top 50 countries on the World Bank Doing Business Index overall. Improving access to information and reducing waiting times for simple things, such as registering a business or incorporating a company would help to incentivize business formalization.
Governments can also expand the number of internship programmes in their ministries of trade, and other trade-related agencies so more young people can see international trade and international trade policy making and implementation in action at the national level.
Another barrier facing youth-owned SMEs is lack of information, especially market intelligence information and having to deal with non-tariff barriers in markets they seek to access. Establishing and/or expanding bespoke youth-targeted export promotion programmes can help more youth make the transition from entrepreneurial exploits to exports to global markets and as part of global value chains.
Youth concerns should be mainstreamed in national trade policies. As an example, Belize’s National Trade Policy includes a section on the youth. Moreover, we cannot create youth policies in a vacuum. Better data is needed for creating evidence-based youth policies and monitoring and evaluating the impact of trade and economic policies on the youth. Additionally, we must move away from the notion that having a young face on a board or at a meeting is enough to qualify as involving a youth voice. The youth should be an important stakeholder in trade discussions, the way we would include the private sector and labour.
The private sector can play a role by mentoring and/or offering more internships to young people interested in trade. Mentorship of the youth, especially those interested in careers in the trade and development field is sorely lacking in the region. We must see investing in young people not as a threat or risk, but as an opportunity and investment that pays dividends.
Access to finance is a major problem for SMEs, including youth SMEs which are often seen as risky. It is made harder by increased bank fees and stricter know your customer (KYC) requirements due to global anti-money laundering/countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) rules. Not every young person has two forms of ID in order to open a bank account. Some also lack the financial records needed to borrow at non-prohibitive interest rates. Banks can do more to facilitate lending to young entrepreneurs.
The ‘youth’ Diaspora
Due to migration, there is a growing number of young professionals in our diasporas in the US, UK, Canada and even as far as China and Dubai. Caribbean governments need to have systematic ways of engaging our ‘youth diaspora’, many of whom have migrated to pursue better opportunities abroad but still want to give back to their home countries. The value of the youth diaspora is not limited to remittances. It is through the networks, know-how and knowledge they have which can be harnessed for our trade and development.
Let’s take the area of sports which as I wrote a few years ago has tremendous potential for export diversification. I recently heard a Brasstacks discussion where our well-respected Olympic champion Obadele Thompson had indicated providing a comprehensive plan for high performance sport to our Olympic Association for their consideration. That is just one example of the eagerness displayed by some in the ‘youth’ diaspora in contributing to development ‘back home’. Additionally, members of the Caribbean diaspora, many of whom are professionals, can also be more fully engaged as potential mentors, particularly for other young entrepreneurs.
While we may not wish to admit it, a big hindrance to greater youth involvement on trade and development matters is the anti-youth bias that pervades many of our societies and which rears its ugly head when youth try to insert their voices into debates on matters of public interest. We need to get away from the belief that calls by the youth for inclusion are conceived in ‘millennial entitlement’ when really they are out of the desire for a voice and for opportunities to contribute meaningfully to the societies which invested in our education and where many of us which to retire some day.
Youth ourselves as DJs
We, as youth ourselves, are DJs and have a role in this riddim. The world is our oyster thanks to the internet. The COVID-19 pandemic has given greater imperative to create and expand spaces for ourselves to network, share information, ideas, opportunities, best practices, with other youth not just nationally, but regionally and across the world. We must also continue to advocate on trade and development issues.
In conclusion, as a SIDS, Barbados’ virtual hosting of the UNCTAD 15 Quadrennial Conference and its concomitant chairmanship of UNCTAD for the next four years provides a unique opportunity for mainstreaming the voice of the youth, particularly from marginalized states like SIDS, in setting and advancing the trade and development governance agenda. This includes on trade issues such as special and differential treatment and solving the WTO Appellate Body crisis, but also non-trade issues like migration, climate change and the blue economy. A youth voice is also pertinent on issues of concessional financing and debt relief because it is the youth who are among today’s and tomorrow’s taxpayers. Every dollar spent in debt repayment is money that could be invested in education, in youth programmes and the like.
Ultimately, the youth can be a valuable actor and change agent in helping to ‘pull up and change di riddim’ so we can have national, regional and international trading systems that move from inequality and vulnerability to prosperity for all.
Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. All views herein expressed are her personal views and should not be attributed to any institution with which she may from time to time be affiliated. You can read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.