Isabelle Durant is Deputy Secretary-General of UNCTAD (the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development), which was established in 1964 as a permanent intergovernmental body and the principal organisation of the United Nations General Assembly dealing with trade, investment, and development issues. She is a former deputy prime minister of Belgium, as well as being minister of transport and energy for four years, before going in to become vice-president of the European Parliament. Isabelle was Belgian senator from 2003 – 2009, serving on the Committees for Foreign Affairs and Social Affairs and participating in election observation missions in the Democratic Republic of China, Egypt and Tunisia.
“…I was in Nairobi a few weeks ago and I met women who started their businesses in the construction sector, and in the transport sector. They have companies with 15, 20 or 30 trucks…”
My career to date
Over the course of my career, I have worked on international trade and development issues several times: both during my time in civil society and as a minister, member of parliament and deputy prime minister in Belgium. As minister of transport and deputy prime minister, I oversaw all matters relating to development cooperation. Moreover, we had to take decisions on any type of subject: in 2001, after September 11th, we had to take a whole series of very important international decisions for Belgium and the European Union, and not only in the field of security.
So international issues, not always international trade-related issues, but international issues related to cooperation and development, have always been part of my ministerial mandate. In parliament, I was a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Belgian Senate. Then I was elected to the European Parliament, where I was involved in budget and transport issues, but also in all matters relating to relations with African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, and everything related to soft diplomacy in relations with the European Union’s partner countries.
I am now discovering, with a great deal of interest, the way in which trade serves development. That is what interests me most about UNCTAD.
Role of UNCTAD (the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development)
Before joining the organisation, I had a great deal of respect for UNCTAD because it produces very interesting reports that pinpoint a range of both macroeconomic and more microeconomic issues that are relevant to the world’s development.
When I prepared to apply for the job, I discovered all sorts of things I didn’t know about the way UNCTAD works, such as how it provides very concrete technical assistance, including on legislative aspects that are not well known but which are very important for organising regulation, fairer competition between economic actors, and laws that make it possible to organise the protection of privacy. This is something I discovered and found very interesting, even if it’s not the most visible part.
There are also some topics in UNCTAD that I am very interested in. Here, I mean newer topics where UNCTAD can offer a new approach and expertise: for example, e-commerce, which offers an opportunity and also a danger for the development of trade between actors in a country or a region.
The issue of climate-related trade is also an interesting one. Countries are committed to the Sustainable Development Goals, and to the Paris Agreement on climate change. As such, we can say that international trade equals kilometers travelled, and CO2 parts-per-million emitted. Is it useful or it is better to favour short distribution channels?
These questions are real questions that are not going to be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but inevitably a little bit of both. But I am interested in the conditions under which trade is conducted, in compliance with the rules and with respect for environmental or social standards.
The issue is not trade for trade’s sake but trade as an instrument of economic action, of action for development, of social action, by considering the environmental issues that are our common good. This approach to the common good is something that motivates me strongly, much more than the very principle of concluding a commercial agreement at any price, the medium and long-term impacts of which are not always known.
In a world where globalisation has not always lived up to its promises, either in developed countries or certainly in developing countries, I think that UNCTAD is at a time in its history when it has to redefine itself as a somewhat more global actor. It needs to be an actor who can prepare for a number of decisions, who can provide instruments and tools for decision-makers, who can be an airlock or a place where a certain number of things are discussed because you don’t have the risk of a very binding agreement behind you or in front of you. It’s about freedom of speech.
I believe that places of this nature, where member states can discuss freely with each other, are valuable places. That is not to say the discussion is easy, but it is probably less painful and less difficult than in places where countries know that in the end there is a binding agreement. This is a role that UNCTAD can play today not only on niche issues but also on big ones such as e-commerce, climate and trade.
UNCTAD can also develop its relationship with civil society, with cities, with all those entities that are not states: valuable, useful entities that can provide valuable development levers. Here too, UNCTAD probably has a role to play in a somewhat subtler governance.
As Pascal Lamy told me recently, “Daddy’s diplomacy” probably belongs to the past. I am in favour of “Mummy’s diplomacy”. And perhaps Mummy’s diplomacy is more agile, subtler, working at different levels, not only at the state level, but at intermediate levels that can allow for a somewhat more innovative approach.
Becoming Deputy Secretary-General
When I was appointed to UNCTAD, firstly I had to move to Geneva, even though I regularly return home to Brussels because my family and children are very important to me. Another change is that I work almost continuously in English. This was already somewhat the case in the European Parliament but less so than in UNCTAD. I find that sometimes languages such as French or other languages recognised by the United Nations are insufficiently used.
It’s a new job, but not so new at the same time. I work a lot, but I don’t mind. It is multifaceted work that includes a share of external representation, a share of negotiations, a share of management and a share of staff mobilisation. Public servants need leadership that motivates and values them. It’s a little bit like this; areas that I have already touched upon in my previous positions and that I find here with a lot of pleasure and interest. This diversity is quite rich and interesting.
Adding value through varied career experience
I was originally trained as a nurse. You will agree that it is not, in principle, this training that has led to the position I hold now. At 40, I obtained a master’s degree in Political Science and Economics.
In the meantime, I was teaching in a school for nursing assistants and childcare workers to many young people with immigrant backgrounds in Brussels. I learned a lot in the field about how to coordinate teams, how to motivate and develop young people who are going astray or dropping out of school.
I then decided I wanted to pass to the other side of the mirror, no longer just being an actor in the field but a decision maker. I applied for a parliamentary assistant position. I found out the other side of the story, how we make laws. Then I took over my political party in the Brussels region. At the time, the management was always mixed between men and women, I was the woman in the leadership duo for ten years.
The election led me to become minister of transport. It’s been exciting. Belgium at that time changed majority after 40 years of uninterrupted presence of the Christian Democrats in power. I came into a new coalition with new actors as the first environmentalist in a government, it was an exciting but difficult adventure.
I was then elected to the European Parliament. Through the Belgian presidency of the European Union in 2001, I discovered this way of working more comprehensively with other member states, other cultures and other approaches in a European context. Basically, I have the impression that each mandate has prepared or nurtured the next one and vice versa.
I think I can look at my UNCTAD mandate with different eyes than if I had a career at the United Nations, for example. I bring to the organisation a view, experience and approach that are a little different. I think every organisation needs to renew its management from time to time.
For me this diversity is really a wealth and I want to share it. I’m coming to the end of my career, but if everything I’ve collected can be shared with others, then at least for that I’ll be useful.
Links between development of trade and female empowerment
Trade is important for the development of any country or region of the world, of course, but you must take trade beyond the buy-sell transaction. It must be approached in the sense of producing a good that will be put at the service of the community.
Women are in the trade informal sector in most developing countries. We know that they contribute enormously through their activity, to their families and communities. They are rather excluded from sectors that are predominantly male-dominated, whether public, political or traditional trade sectors.
So, I think that trade for women in developing countries, if we approach it with their eyes and tools, is a fabulous lever for their development, not only to earn an income but also to gain authority and to learn how to do things, and to have a slightly more multi-dimensional commercial approach than simply selling a product. If I look at women managers in developed countries, I think that there too they do not have the same approach in the way they manage an organisation, a small or medium sized enterprise (SME).
Women who are active entrepreneurs do not manage things in the same way as their male counterparts, including in the way they make their SMEs grow, grow and succeed. They take care in other aspects of their company’s development because, in the end, trade means first building a product, and then selling it – building it with employees, with teams, with resources, with raw materials, with contacts, with the network…
What is missed most by women, particularly in developing countries but also in developed countries, is the network and access to the network. The networks and the codes of these networks are a little closed, and I think that women have a vested interest in developing their entry into these networks but also in building their own networks.
In those networks there are more possibilities to share information and access to funding, access to everything that allows the development of a commercial and economic activity. I think that women must develop their networks first between them to be able to enter together into the networks of others, and that’s something that UNCTAD is trying to bring to them through the Empretec programme, among other projects.
We realise that there is a huge potential that is, contrary to what we think, not at all limited to small micro-credit for sewing and so on. For a certain number of women, entrepreneurship is a question of survival, but for many others we realise that it is in their interest to develop their relationship with technology, their relationship with other sectors that are not specifically female as such.
Women in unexpected sectors
I was in Nairobi a few weeks ago and I met women who started their businesses in the construction sector, and in the transport sector. They have companies with 15, 20 or 30 trucks. There is no reason why these sectors should be closed to them. I think, on the contrary, that a transport or a construction company run by women does not have quite the same way of operating as the same company run by men and that is a strength.
I think it is necessary to get them out of the clichés, even if there are economies in some countries that are really survival economies, because poverty levels are so high that one cannot hope for more than just survival, at least initially. But I am convinced that many women are quite capable of developing activities in different complementary sectors, showing their new ways of doing so and having an impact on their communities.
I met, for example, the Congolese woman who developed the first robot to direct traffic in Kinshasa. It is controlled by a solar panel and replaces the police officer. It has given rise to other products, and her SME is being solicited for the construction of other robots. This is another example showing there is no reason why women should not be active in this field.
In addition, UNCTAD is working on e-commerce and the dangers it can represent. Of course, we see big players coming in trying to absorb all the markets. But nevertheless, for women who do not have access to the network, or to the zone of sufficient influence, e-commerce is a fabulous tool that allows you to be in direct contact with the customer, via platforms, rather than having to go through all the layers that are generally masculine and in which new players, and especially female players, are not necessarily welcomed kindly.
This is also true in developed countries. In Belgium I had one young woman staffer who was brilliant, with three master’s degrees. She was a representative on a board of directors in an intermunicipal body that gives subsidies to companies. She had to fight to exist in a board of directors of 12 guys who only saw a pretty 30-year-old woman coming in. They wanted to limit her to taking care of the little women’s bazaars.
She really had to fight to exist and to be able to participate in the board of directors in good and proper manner just like any other director. It is not a win-win situation, and there is much to be gained by having women’s confidence in their ability to enter the economic world on their own two feet. So, there is still work to be done but it is clear that if I can contribute, I will help.
Celebrating International Women’s Day
Every year 8th March is important. I am not a date-fetishist, even if I think it is necessary to celebrate them. It would be much better if women’s rights were fulfilled 365 days a year, but we still have a way to go. Nevertheless, on 8th March for years now, we have been communicating a lot, taking part in many events, trying to highlight a certain number of things.
I also worked extensively with Eve Ensler, the author of the Vagina Monologues on V-Day, which takes place in February. She works on putting women back on their feet and giving them back their dignity after having suffered violence, and on the right of women to live in safety and to be protected from violence, which is the most basic right alongside a series of other rights that are either to be won or regained, including in developed countries.
Sometimes we lose ground on a certain number of rights that we thought we had acquired, so for this reason I think we should never become complacent. Therefore, this year, I will be active – obviously due to my role – in everything that touches on women and commerce and women and development, including through an event that we’re organising ourselves based on the stories of women who have successfully built and nurture economic activity in developing countries.
The United Nations Office in Geneva has decided to dedicate the whole week around 8th March to women. An event is planned here at the UN’s Palais des Nations in Geneva on this subject, but I’ll participate on behalf of UNCTAD in other events organised by other institutions too.
I hope that it’s a day shared equally not just between women, even if from time to time the bond between women is very precious, but it is also shared with male partners because gender is an issue of equal interest to both men and women. When gender equality is better met, it is not only women who win, it is everyone who wins, but there are still some who have difficulty understanding it.
Some women remain in great difficulty because they pay the price when poverty and inequalities increase, and even more so in developing countries where they pay the highest price because they start from a much lower level.
I think that #PressForProgress is really a theme for everyone at any level of society because women are always the ones who are the first victims of inequalities or exclusions, of the absence or inadequacy of shared development.
Coming up next
Lots of things are coming up! First, I’m due to be a grandmother for the third time in a few months.
Besides that, I am quite busy with my new mandate in UNCTAD. I have assigned myself some objectives that I want to reach. The question of women remains very important for me, first of all because I am a woman, but also, because I think that there is one way of dealing with it that is not only without complacency about all the shortcomings of the law, but also with sufficient capacity to enter an effective dialogue with a range of actors to move the lines.
I’m following the tradition of a series of feminist actors who really opened doors and I was lucky to have a model in my own mother. In the years just after the war, my mother was an exception. She was the first female doctor of her time and she raised us in a certain way. I owe her a lot in this respect, and in the fight of many women, but sometimes I didn’t always like the tools or instruments required to achieve progress.
So, I believe that, today, we must find the instruments that mobilise the new generation of young women and men who have a new approach to these issues, whilst at the same time they are in danger of losing a certain number of rights. The new generation of young men and women must build their world and their children’s world. This is the way we should look at the issue of gender today rather than by referring to the past.
The past is there to nourish us, but apart from that, it does not always provide us with the keys to connecting with today’s young people, whether they are young people from developing countries or from developed countries. These people are often in quite different situations depending on whether they belong to the elite or to the more privileged classes or, on the contrary, to the most neglected young people.
I think that today, technology with all its threats, but also with all the positive sides, can offer these young people, including the most neglected among them, access to things they would not have previously imagined using social networks as a tool to empower and promote. This is my hope.