Speech by the Executive Director at the 2015 Rotary International Convention

7 June 2015
ITC News
Speech delivered by the ITC Executive Director Arancha González at the 2015 Rotary International Convention
7 June, São Paulo, Brazil

President Huang
Rotarians from all over the world
I am honored to participate in the 106th Rotary International Convention.

Two months ago I had the pleasure of welcoming President Gary C.K. Huang at our headquarters in Geneva. We quickly realized that Rotary and the International Trade Centre (ITC) share the belief that the power of collaboration, partnership and economic empowerment are essential to eradicating poverty. That they are essential to ensuring people - the many youth and women often forgotten in our societies - live in dignity. We share a commitment to finding solutions and maximizing impact. From this shared belief came my invitation to President Huang to visit one of our projects in Kenya. And his invitation to me to address this Convention. Mr. Huang is clearly a man of his word who moves with purpose and determination. Thank you for making the International Trade Center part of this year's event.

The International Trade Centre is a development agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. Our mandate is to help small and medium-sized enterprises in developing countries achieve trade impact for good. By working with governments, with trade and investment support institutions and with SMEs we support more and better trade by developing countries. But not just any trade. We support trade that is more sustainable. We support trade that is more inclusive of youth through employment and which empowers women entrepreneurs.

One of Rotary International’s six areas of focus is growing local economies. For ITC, this goal is at the core of why we exist. We believe in the power of markets to lift people out of poverty. This is what we do in post conflict countries - from Liberia to Mali, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar-, in working in refugee camps and in slums, in working in small and poor economies - from Samoa to Burundi, Haiti, Zambia and Madagascar.

Today I would like to bring you the story of the hundreds of women who live in Babadogo, an informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya. Women who proudly received the visit of President Huang and his wife during their recent trip to Africa.

You might think Babadogo seems very distant from international markets. You might think that it occupies a plane of existence entirely unrelated to the fashionable boutiques of Milan, New York and Sao Paolo.

Well, you would be wrong.

For almost seven years, the International Trade Center has been connecting women in places like Babadogo to some of the world’s top designers. Traditional artisanal skills from Kenya, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Cambodia, Palestine and Haiti make for some pretty cool designs! Designers like Vivienne Westwood, Stella Jean and Brazil’s own Oskar Metsavaht agree.

Of course, cool designs are not the point. For thousands of people in some of the world’s most marginalized communities, connecting to the top brands in the fashion business means decent jobs and expanded horizons. A chance to use traditional skills and learn new ones, for respectable wages and under safe working conditions.

The "ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative" is part of our Poor Communities and Trade Programme, which works to reduce poverty by increasing the participation of micro-enterprises in regional and global trade.

How does it work?

On the demand side, we work with many top fashion brands, from Westwood and Osklen to Stella McCartney and Japan’s United Arrows. They crave quality, craftsmanship, and innovative designs – their customers insist on nothing less. But they also understand they can "do business while doing good".

On the supply side, there are artisans with highly refined skills rooted in cultural traditions, as well as less skilled people simply in need of a decent job.

ITC bridges the gap between the two sides with funded support through governmental Official Development Assistance. What does this mean in practice? Women in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Port-au-Prince, Haiti use scrap metal and recycled telephone wires to make necklaces and bracelets, which you can buy at Osklen boutiques in Brazil and New York City. For the women in Cité Soleil, it’s much better work than the alternatives available. For Osklen and its customers, it is great designs with an even better back story.

This is how it happens. We have set up social enterprises based around central hubs in different parts of the world. One of these hubs is the one President Huang visited in Nairobi. The sourcing policies of these enterprises are designed to ensure that the most vulnerable members in society, whether in rural or urban areas, are able to benefit from opportunities to earn a proper wage and improve their livelihoods.

Our hubs work with small communities of artisans, providing crucial capacity building so that they can meet the high standards demanded by top brands. This includes help to adapt traditional skills to meet market requirements, as well as training for those who do not have any artisanal skills. Finally, the hubs host final product assembly and organise shipping and logistics, to guarantee the high quality standards that will bring repeat orders to the business.

This dual focus, on capacity building and product quality, is no accident. While empowerment and training are essential to our business model, so too are repeat customers. This is because the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative is a social business that is, at its core, market driven. It is not about making brands feel that they must help underprivileged people out of a sense of moral obligation. It is about mutual benefit. It is about the designers in London and the artisans in Nairobi reinforcing each others’ creative genius. It is about investing in dignified working conditions and skills upgrading not just because it is the right thing to do, but because workers’ wellbeing is essential to the quality of their craftsmanship. As its motto proudly states, Ethical Fashion is “Not charity, just work.”

This market orientation is shaping the next steps in the evolution of the initiative. Late last year, we received a powerful signal that our business model can stand on its own, when a group of private investors, including one of Kenya’s top women entrepreneurs, invested in our ITC Ethical Fashion Nairobi hub, paving the way for the eventual exit of government funded support. The investors will retain ITC’s advisory services in the near and mid-term future, and plan to direct a percentage of future revenues into capacity building for workers at the hub. The experience with the Nairobi hub is proof that well-crafted, market-driven trade development projects, built on partnerships and local buy-in, can be commercially viable even after external funds are withdrawn.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the continent, our hub in Ghana is supporting young African designers launch their own labels and showcasing them at international shows. Helping talented young designers move up the fashion value chain. After all, the only thing better than selling to a globally recognised brand is successfully competing with it!

In sum, the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative has been at the forefront of a growing global movement to develop more ethical production chains in the fashion industry: respect decent working conditions, produce sustainably, promote artisanal traditions.

The ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative also illustrates how ITC’s priorities overlap with another key Rotary goal, namely, reducing gender inequality.

Over 90% of the workforce is made up of women. Many of them live in urban slums or barren rural areas. They often head single-parent households. Without their outstanding skills and dedication, the system could not work. While the initiative does not discriminate against men, we deliberately choose to make women our target group. Women are more likely than men to invest in their families and communities, particularly in their children’s education, nutrition and health.

What do Malika, Agnes, Lai, Nadia and the thousands of women in this initiative tell us? More than 8600 women now have a job. They were living under less than $1 a day. Today they earn 8, 10 and even 13 dollars a day. 83% can now send their children to school. 90% have improved their dwelling. But more importantly their wages brought them respect and greater power within their households and in their communities.

Paid work for women represents a multi-generational boost to economic growth, as those children grow up and contribute to a strong and better skilled workforce. And the benefits of increased economic opportunities for women are not limited to the children of mothers who work. The tangible prospect of a good job pushes back against centuries of discrimination against girls and women.

At the International Trade Center we firmly believe that promoting gender equality is one of the fastest routes to ending extreme poverty. It is a powerful tool for faster and more inclusive growth.

Full economic empowerment requires action on the policy side, to mandate equal educational and professional opportunities for girls, to ease access to finance for woman entrepreneurs, and to insist on equal pay for equal work.

But governments and well-meaning individuals cannot do it alone. As Rotary has recognised since day one, civil society mobilisation has a crucial role to play in laying the groundwork for economic empowerment, through expanding access to education, sanitation, and basic healthcare. For over a century, Rotary has shown that bringing business and professional leaders together can make a difference. Together, you in this room can encourage businesses around the world to continue to raise their standards for treating women ethically and fairly: whether as employees, managers, suppliers, or would-be entrepreneurs.

Making the world a better place happens in many different ways. It can be about building public toilets for working class residents of Chicago which was Rotary’s first project. As we have seen today, it can even involve catwalks.

To conclude, my message is: help us expand the ITC Ethical Fashion initiative around the world. We undertake to match every dollar in support that you provide. Support us and we undertake to leverage your contribution. Let's work together to empower women economically in order to reduce gender inequality for generations to come.

I would like to congratulate President-Elect Ravi Ravindram and wish him all the best. On behalf of the International Trade Center and the voiceless that we represent, allow me to thank all of you for your attention. We look forward to working together with you in the future.

Thank you