ITC Executive Director Pamela Coke-Hamilton, Deputy Executive Director Dorothy Tembo and members of the 60th anniversary taskforce at ITC headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, 2024 © International Trade Centre

Big changes through small businesses in trade over 60 years
How one agency invested in core services, while innovating to make trade more connected, sustainable and inclusive
1 Jul 2024

As the International Trade Centre marks 60 years, head of agency Pamela Coke-Hamilton reflects on the organization’s start as a source of trade intelligence and technical assistance for developing countries and its evolution into an all-round trade-led development agency.

There are three trade agencies in Geneva, all simultaneously led by women. Within that context, what does the International Trade Centre (ITC) do?

Yes, we have a trade hub in Geneva. Besides ITC, there is the freshly rebranded UNCTAD/UN Trade and Development – also celebrating their 60th this year – and the World Trade Organization (WTO). 

We are the joint agency of these two organizations, and we three have complementary roles to play.

We’re the only international organization mandated to support small businesses of developing countries through trade. We like to think of ourselves as the practical, nimble partner on the ground, supporting small businesses to compete in global markets by ensuring they have the information, skills and financing they need to produce and sell quality goods and services.

Last year, we helped more than 40,000 small businesses to improve business operations, transact international business, or receive investment. The small businesses we supported reported having transacted over $300 million in new business.

While the WTO sets the rules of global trade and UN Trade and Development works with policies and regulations so developing countries benefit from a globalized economy, ITC translates those rules and regulations into concrete projects to help small businesses earn higher incomes, create jobs, and invest in their families and communities.

This year marks our 60th anniversary. Can you tell us about ITC’s beginnings?

Our story began in 1962, when Brazil asked the pre-WTO General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) Council to establish the “International Trade Information Centre.”

In March 1964, the United States sent a letter to GATT suggesting ‘projects’ for ITC, including the development of tailored trade promotion programs for least developed countries, based on those of developed countries. We have the original letter in our archives!

Less than two months later, on 1 May 1964, we opened our doors in Villa Le Bocage, with five members of staff.

Over six decades, we’ve evolved from a technical assistance agency to an all-round trade-led development agency supporting sustainable development through small businesses.

Growing from a handful of staff to hundreds across the world, how does ITC improve people’s lives through trade today?

All of our work contributes to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Everything we do is designed to help small businesses in developing countries to trade, so they can support the socio-economic development of their countries.

In line with the SDGs, we at ITC have four high-ambition, strategic pushes – our ‘moonshots’ – which serve as an umbrella for our core work: green, digital connectivity, gender and youth.

Let me focus on gender. Not only because women make up half the world population, but because while they do take on the bulk of informal, unpaid work, when they do export they are more productive than women who do not export, and more than men who do export.

Our SheTrades initiative creates economic opportunities for women by sharpening their business skills, strengthening services offered by business support organizations, and engaging with governments to help women trade more and on better terms, and to have a stronger voice in trade.

We need fresh ways to engage women in trade, including within the UN family, in areas with big potential for impact. For example, we recently launched a gender-responsive public procurement campaign with UN Women. Public procurement is the process through which governments source goods and services: for example, computers for offices or school meals. The global market is $13 trillion, yet only 1% of government contracts go to women. We need to do more in this area.

As an International Gender Champion, I support greater participation of women in the multilateral trading system.

As we’re living in unprecedented times and facing multiple global crises, there are questions about whether the multilateral trading system is up to the challenge. What are your thoughts on this?

Let me say it: Multilateralism is alive and well, and we’re not entering an era of deglobalization. I tend to see the glass half full, but I do believe this.

Yes, the global trading system is changing as countries interpret for themselves what it means to become more resilient against shocks ranging from conflict to natural disasters. Reactions include, for example: friendshoring, nearshoring and reshoring.

But this is not deglobalization, it’s what I call “strategic reglobalization.” The most important thing now is to ensure this next phase of multilateralism works for developing countries.

Women entrepreneurs supported by the SheTrades Kenya
Hub, hosted by Absa Bank Kenya and co-owned by ITC © International Trade Centre

What do developing countries want?

First, they do not want to be basic commodity suppliers anymore. Value addition is key.

Second, they want investment, not just in one company or sector but in the whole ecosystem. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an ecosystem to shift a supply chain.

Third, they want to find new export markets, so they don’t have to rely on one or two major markets. This approach helps build resilience ahead of future shocks.

We have to create genuine two-way trade and ensure investment from North to South works for development. This two-way trade is characterized by value addition, diversification, investment, regional integration and access to new markets.

International organizations should grow their in-country presence, with an effective country engagement strategy, to build trust and expertise on the ground.

We also need to think and act long-term, even in the face of immediate crises, to build resilience before it is tested. Fragility knows no borders. Nearly 90% of the world’s poor could be living in fragile states by 2030. We’re going to need bigger, holistic responses. The immediate humanitarian response needs to be paired with plans to build economic resilience, for long-term stability and security. That includes providing support to vulnerable groups, including women and youth, who are among those hit hardest by conflict.

About 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 conflict-affected countries.

Trade doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to its impact on the environment. While it may be good for people’s incomes, how ‘sustainable’ is it?

You can’t have sustainable development without trade. Trade reduces poverty, raises incomes, creates jobs and supports socio-economic development.

The UN recognizes this: For the last year and a half, I’ve been serving as co-chair of the Working Group on Our Common Agenda, 

the UN Secretary-General’s blueprint for global cooperation, which serves as a ‘booster shot’ for the Sustainable Development Goals.

As for the other sense of the word ‘sustainable,’ the public may not see the link between trade and the defining issue of our time: climate change. Yet at the last UN climate change conference, we saw trade on the climate agenda for the first time. We need to see trade as part of the solution to climate change – in no small part driven by small businesses in developing countries, who are coming up with solutions.

For example, young entrepreneur Oyungerel Munkhbat of Airee from Mongolia – who won our global youth ecopreneur contest last year – developed a biodegradable air purifier made of sheep wool waste that not only protects health but is produced in an energy-efficient, waste-reducing way.

Looking ahead to the Summit of the Future and beyond, what do you hope to see?

In a sentence, I see global trade helping to create a more connected, sustainable and inclusive world.

On a personal note, 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. 

* Susanna Pak is the Senior Strategic Communications Officer in the Cabinet of the Executive Director of the International Trade Centre.
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