The impact of Taiwan’s women empowerment project in Latin America and the Caribbean:

An interview with TaiwanICDF Secretary General Timothy T.Y. Hsiang, Minister of Labor, Employment and Social Security of the Republic of Paraguay Carla Bacigalupo Planás and Vice Minister of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) at the Ministry of Industry and Trade Isaac Godoy

Calvin Chu

Editor-in-Chief, Development Focus Quarterly

UN Secretary General António Guterres once said that achieving gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls is the unfinished business of our time, and the greatest human rights challenge in our world!

Women and girls not only make up half of the global population. They also have the potential to make a tremendous contribution to sustainable development and social equality. The UN sought to overcome gender inequality and protect the rights of women across the world by defining Sustainable Development Goal 5 as “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” And, the key role played by women in increased productivity and economic growth, recognition of equal status and greater empowerment for women and girls was also incorporated into other goals and solutions.

Some progress has been made towards the elimination of gender bias since the goals were first launched but gender bias is still evident in the economic and political domains of many countries. The COVID-19 pandemic not only increased the rate of unemployment among women but also resulted in  a high proportion of women leaving the workforce. The accounting firm PwC surveyed the 33-member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for its “PwC Women in Work Index 2022” and found that COVID-19 was a huge setback for global women’s empowerment. Not only did the Index see its first decline in ten years, gender equality at work was also set back by at least two years and the labor gap between genders widened as well. Based on these figures, it will now take 30 years for women to close the gap in the labor force participation rate, 67 years to close the gap in the full-time employment rate and 63 years to close pay gap.

I.   Project Organizer: Place Allies on the Path to Sustainable Recovery through Greater Economic Empowerment of Women

COVID-19 repeatedly wreaked havoc on the global economy. The livelihoods of women and vulnerable groups in Taiwan’s Latin American and Caribbean allies all faced challenges in the post- pandemic era too.

The UN Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe (CEPAL) reported that Latin America and the Caribbean’s GDP growth rate in 2020 was -6.67%, unemployment rates were approximately 10% in 2020 and 2021, and the women’s unemployment rate reached 22%. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated that around 118  million women  are  now  living in poverty. Weak economic growth in each country led to a credit crunch or financial institutions tightening their credit policies and demanding more collateral, preventing 76% of women and women- led enterprises from accessing the financial markets for working capital.

The TaiwanICDF Secretary General Timothy T. Y. Hsiang explained that women accounted for over half of all service sector employees in Latin America. Most were concentrated in micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), which have long been the driving force behind social stability  and economic recovery. The current pandemic did not just slow the pace of progress on gender equality or reduce employment opportunities and income for women, it also affected the pace of recovery in each country. “We are now at a critical turning point. We need to make women the focus of epidemic response and sustainable recovery strategies, as well as accelerating the pace of gender equality” emphasized Hsiang.

Related projects were therefore launched by the TaiwanICDF in accordance with Taiwan’s foreign policy to support the economic recovery of our Latin American and Caribbean allies. In keeping with the spirit of SDG 5 as well as SDG 10 “Reduce inequality within and among countries,” financial services were combined with capacity building for employment and entrepreneurship to expand our cooperation with like-minded countries or bilateral/multilateral development agencies on topics related to the international empowerment of women. Women and MSMEs were provided with substantive support to face their challenges. Greater awareness about the economic empowerment of women beyond the pandemic helped Taiwan become a strong and reliable partner for promoting sustainable development for our allies.

Secretary General Hsiang noted that the 2-year “Post-Pandemic Assistance for Economic Recovery and Women’s Empowerment in Latin America and the Caribbean Project” launched in September 2021 spanned eight countries including Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, Haiti, Belize, St. Lucia, Saint Christopher and Nevis, and Saint Vincent and  the  Grenadines. Assistance focused on three key areas, namely “technical assistance for women’s employment and entrepreneurship,”

“financial services and credit guarantees,” and “cooperation with like-minded countries to become an international advocate for women’s empowerment.”

In terms of technical assistance for women’s employment skills, the mentoring of local vocational training organizations, strengthening the qualifications of cadre teachers and collaborating on vocational training classes all help women train the skills they need at work. On entrepreneurship, training courses were held in partnership with local incubation organizations on food and beverage services, tourism and travel, business management, traditional skills, beauty and make-up, domestic cleaning, healthcare, and information technology. Angel investment and related competitions were arranged to encourage women to become involved in MSMEs and expand the scale of their entrepreneurship. In addition, MSMEs facing business difficulties were provided with business management training, consulting services, and relief funds to tide them over the pandemic. In terms    of financial services and credit guarantees, the project helped allied countries design dedicated credit guarantee mechanisms for women and supported local financial institutions in providing women with the capital they need to start and run their own businesses.

Advocacy for women’s empowerment included cooperating with like-minded countries or agencies on organizing women’s empowerment initiatives. International, locally-stationed, and domestic women’s empowerment organizations were brought together to advocate for the economic empowerment of women, offering training to important women’s representatives in allied countries,   as well as organizing joint international and regional training on women’s empowerment issues. The boost to project capacity and profile helped attract more investment from the public and private sectors which further expanded the scope and reach of the project. Such initiatives increased the international visibility of Taiwan’s “support for women and post-pandemic recovery” as well as the sustainability of its partnerships with Latin American and Caribbean allies.

What opportunities has this project created for women in these countries after one year? To our partners, what are some of the tangible results and effects of the project?

II.   Partner Perspective: Inspired More Women to Surpass Themselves and Demonstrate their Diverse Skills

Paraguay is one of Taiwan’s allied countries in South America. The TaiwanICDF sent its first mission to Paraguay to support Taiwan’s foreign development efforts 50 years ago in 1973. Diverse projects in agriculture, medicine, SME development, medical information management and international higher education sponsorship have established a solid foundation for the cultivation of talent and economic development in Paraguay over the years.

The latest “Post-Pandemic Economic Recovery and Empowerment for Women in Paraguay

Project” (Recuperación Económica y Empoderamiento de las Mujeres de Paraguay, REEMUJERPY) continued to promote the successful experience of Taiwanese SMEs and focused on women, which form an important pillar of family livelihoods in Paraguay. A series of women’s capacity-building, job-seeking and entrepreneurial counseling courses were developed in partnership with Paraguay’s Ministry of Labor, Employment and Social Security, Ministry of Industry and Trade, and Ministry of Women. The provision of comprehensive vocational training, as well as business start-up and micro- enterprise business management consulting services, encouraged women to enter the workforce and pursue the dream of starting their own businesses.

Dedicated project offices were immediately set up in  October last year after a  memorandum  of understanding was signed between Taiwan and Paraguay. These included the establishment of entrepreneurship support centers (CAE) in seven of Paraguay’s geographical departments including  the capital Asunción to help MSMEs obtain micro-financing and corporate diagnosis and advice. Four regional technical service centers (CST) were set up to conduct training courses on business finance management, hotel management, beauty and hairdressing, and textiles. A “Seed Capital” micro-loan competition was also held to give women with the winning business start-up proposals a helping hand.

Paraguay’s Minister of Labor, Employment and Social Security Carla Bacigalupo Planás oversees Paraguay’s national employment policy. She has been actively involved in promoting the transformation of the occupational training system, the formalization of employment, and unemployment insurance  for many years. Such reforms have enhanced the resilience of the labor market by strengthening MSMEs and improving the employability of vulnerable groups. As a professional woman, women’s empowerment was an issue particularly close to her heart. Carla pointed to the history of Paraguay     as an example of the vital role women have played in recovering from national crises ever since the Guerra de la Triple Alianza in 1865. Now, in the face of the threat posed by the current COVID-19 pandemic, they have an important part to play in assisting with the nation’s economic development as well.

Paraguay’s Vice Minister Isaac Godoy of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises at the Ministry

of Industry and Trade, noted that Paraguay has a very traditional culture where women mainly play   the role of  the homemaker. It  is  therefore more difficult for them to  join the workforce and take    a role in business or politics. Widespread impoverishment due to COVID-19 made it even more difficult for women to leave the home. Paraguay has been actively introducing policies to protect and promote women’s rights in recent years. The establishment of mechanisms that support the economic independence of women helps them put their skills to good use, start up their own businesses and play a more proactive role in society while increasing their labor force participation rate. They hope that  this will lead to more female entrepreneurs in the future. “TaiwanICDF has always been one of our  key allies on implementation of MSME policy and our cooperation has always been complementary   in nature. The support of our partner Taiwan has been very important to Paraguay during the complex

challenges posed by COVID-19. It has been particularly vital for hard-hit female entrepreneurs.”

Minister Carla Bacigalupo Planás was very grateful to Taiwan for promoting an important project like women’s empowerment. She praised the start-up consulting services on brand management, marketing, improvement of business image, and how to find new markets and obtain capital, as well   as advice from taking part in the “Seed Capital” competition. For female entrepreneurs in Paraguay, these robust forms of support opened new doors and opportunities. She cited the example of María del Fátima Morel Acosta, a project participant from the Caaguazú department. María learned a great deal of market knowledge through the project’s business training course. She gained a lot of real-world experience that could be applied to her customers. Vice Minister Isaac Godoy referred to the example of Monica Bazánm, a woman with three young children. She had been able to feed her family through baking and making cheese for sale at home until her livelihood was disrupted by COVID-19. Thanks to the training and funding provided by the project, she was able to change tracks and develop innovative anti-epidemic foods. She now sees a bright future ahead for her probiotic beverages pitched at boosting the human immune system.

According to Godoy, the courses on basic business management received the most positive feedback from students. These included basic administration and accounting, digital marketing, financial management, and business planning. He felt that “soft skills” for female entrepreneurs such  as leadership, teamwork, and inter-personal relations should be emphasized in the next phase; Minister Carla Bacigalupo Planás on the other hand hoped that project training will not only focus on traditional fields of female entrepreneurship but also other non-traditional professions such as heavy machinery operation, industrial safety, mechanical and electrical engineering, electricity, and architecture to encourage more women to challenge themselves and demonstrate their diverse skills. By embarking  on such rich career paths, they can become more independent and gradually narrow the gender gap in social and political participation.

Minister Carla Bacigalupo Planás praised the project’s efforts in financial services and credit guarantees. She noted that the project has produced two benefits. One was that it encouraged those women willing to start their own businesses and improve their business environments to make better use of financial services, set up their own accounts and reduce the risk of borrowing. The other benefit was increased confidence among financial institutions due to the success of pilot small credit loans targeted at female entrepreneurs in selected regions. Banco Nacional de Fomento for example has now set aside 2 billion guaraní (about 8.82 million NTD) in low-interest, unsecured credit loans for impoverished women looking to start their own businesses and realize their dreams.

Vice Minister Isaac Godoy noted that the project’s support allowed the Ministry of Industry and Trade to push through legislation promoting a culture of entrepreneurship. This year, for example, they plan to establish 10 CAEs to provide entrepreneurship information, training, and business promotion services. This “triple hélice” concept of industry, government and academic cooperation for the

integration of entrepreneurship and innovation resources will hopefully become a role model for local economic development.

III.   Project Vision: Use SMEs as a Catalyst to Spur Women’s Empowerment in Each Country

UN Women chose “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow” as the slogan for this year’s “UN Women” in recognition of the potential of “women power.” This highlighted the leadership and contributions of women in adapting and responding to global climate change, and a sustainable future. UNICEF also called upon all nations to value their women and girls by doing more to promote their economic, public and political participation and provide more opportunities for formal and informal education, as well as investing in Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) and digital skills training for women in order to bring about gender equality and empower them for a more sustainable future.

During her speech at the Women’s Economic Empowerment Summit in 2019, President Tsai Ing- wen of Taiwan said that Taiwan was ranked No.1 in Asia on the women’s  economic index according  to a World Bank report. Women are therefore a key pillar of the economy and society. She was very encouraged by this outstanding result so now wants to create a workplace environment that is friendly and supportive of women, and encourage more women to become entrepreneurs. The Taiwanese government’s longstanding efforts in co-hosting forums and projects for women’s empowerment with like-minded countries were based on the belief that “having more women pursue their dreams leads to greater national prosperity and regional stability”.

Secretary General Hsiang noted that in supporting the government with the “Post-Pandemic Assistance for Economic Recovery and Women’s Empowerment in Latin America and the Caribbean Project,” the TaiwanICDF set a number of new records. The scope of the project was unprecedented as it involved 18 ministerial departments and 28 executing units from 8 allied countries spanning Central/ South America and the Caribbean. The TaiwanICDF’s technical cooperation, education and training, and investment and financing instruments were used to strengthen partnerships with multilateral and bilateral development financing agencies. Like-minded Western countries and women’s organizations in allied countries jointly spoke out on the international stage on the issue of women’s economic empowerment. By helping allied governments to strengthen the business constitution of their SMEs and offering various incentives, women were encouraged to play an active role in the running of SMEs in the post-pandemic era and create new employment opportunities. These in turn helped enhance social stability and promote post-pandemic economic growth for allied countries.

Secretary General Hsiang emphasized that although the project may only be scheduled to run

for two years, it will serve as a catalyst for encouraging each nation to take women’s empowerment seriously and establish the appropriate implementation frameworks and methods. SMEs provide a platform for enhancing the functionality of vocational training and incubation organizations, capacity building via occupational training and entrepreneurship counseling for women, the establishment of credit guarantee funds for women, encouraging financial institutions to participate in credit loans for women, and providing relief funds for MSMEs. Once the economic and social mechanisms for public services and the promotion of gender equality are progressively put into place, the governments of allied countries can leverage these mechanisms to launch different types of follow-up projects more quickly and effectively to accelerate their economic and social recovery. They can also fan the flames of “women power” into an unstoppable force for global progress.

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