How to Rethink International Trade: A Feminist Intervention

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When crafting and implementing international trade agreements, government officials aren’t often likely to use a feminist lens to examine the potential human impact a certain agreement will have.  This article will unpack the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), critique the lack of consideration toward its effect on workers’ lives, and explore how a feminist perspective might shift the treaty’s repercussions.

CAFTA-DR was first signed into law in 2004 by the United States’ then President Bush.  It was created to reduce trade restrictions on exports and eliminate tariffs, and alongside the United States and the Dominican Republic, CAFTA-DR includes the Central American countries of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. 

On the surface, CAFTA-DR is lauded as an international moneymaker, particularly for the United States. In 2015, the United States goods trade surplus with CAFTA-DR countries was $5 billion USD. When describing how CAFTA-DR affects Central American countries like Guatemala, the Office of the United States Trade Representative uses words like stability, prosperity, and opportunity.  CAFTA-DR has claimed that it would catalyze economic success in Central America and therefore reduce immigration to the United States. 

In reality, many citizens of the Central American countries involved in the treaty stand in opposition to CAFTA-DR. In an article for Foreign Policy in Focus titled “What ‘Free Trade’ Has Done to Central America,” co-authors Manuel Perez-Rocha and Julia Paley explain that CAFTA-DR:

1.  displaces family farmers who can’t compete with U.S. grain imports
2.  creates poor working conditions in export assembly plants, and
3.  leads to the privatization and deregulation of public services, which causes chaos and corruption at local levels of government

When foreign policy is crafted with only the ideology to increase profits in mind, the livelihood of those impacted by its implementation is forgotten.  International policies which reduce trade regulations and increase profits for already wealthy corporations and countries are a frequent occurrence, with minimal foresight given to how these agreements will affect the average worker. 

But what if CAFTA-DR was shaped by those using a feminist foreign policy lens?

Although foundational based around the inclusion of women, the feminist lens is meant for improving the quality of life for all people. For me, a feminist lens encapsulates three core values implemented by feminist inspiration Marcie Smith, founder of the Full Circles Foundation (FCF):

A Strong Self: This would consider the livelihood of all involved, from the local farmer to the corporate businessperson. Does the policy hinder their quality of life, or disproportionately inflate it at the expense of others?
A Fair Economy: This would question the possibility for future economic imbalance. What are the ramifications for Central American economies favoring U.S. imports? Will it encourage fair and balanced trade? Consequently, CAFTA-DR forces Central American countries to rely on cheaper corporate goods, rather than invest in their local economy. At this stage it is crucial to ask how macro-level decisions effect the average person’s daily lived experiences.
A Healthy Earth: This would support sustainable and environmentally conscious business practices. Because CAFTA-DR’s main focus is to deregulate, private energy corporations like those of gold mining, electricity, and even railroad companies bulldoze through governments unable to counter their moves. We must remember that what we do to the earth, we do to the people.

These three values are FCF’s underlying goals in establishing the ideology that individual empowerment, economic justice, and ecological sustainability are interconnected rather than mutually exclusive societal issues. I believe that if foreign policy were drafted with these guiding feminist principles in mind, the world would receive a more equitable outcome for all involved.  Maybe a shift in perspective - one toward a feminist lens - can initiate dialogue between policy makers and the people effected by policy. 


Molly Gene is a writer, political campaigner, and Kick-Ass Kentuckianne. View her blog mollygenecrain.com or follow her on Twitter: @MollyCrain