THE INT’L TRADE BOSS
Jamaican Pamela Coke-Hamilton packs big punches on world stage
It is hard to mistake Pamela Coke-Hamilton for anything other than the high-powered, heavyweight international trade expert, diplomat, attorney-at-law and trailblazer she is, yet too often she is wrongly seen as the secretarial accompaniment to delegations at events.
Black, female and from the Third World – more specifically, a small island developing state such as Jamaica – how dare her be the executive director of the International Trade Centre (ITC), a body out of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), where she previously served as director of the division on International Trade and Commodities.
Without fuss, she complies with requests to photocopy documents at meetings, and later when she takes her seat among them and signals that the boss is now in charge, gulps and gaping mouths are the result of the error.
With one too many such requests, the rural Jamaica-born and raised Coke-Hamilton has become a master at delivering wordless body blows to dispel stereotypes.
“Being Caribbean prepares you in a way others don’t. When you grow up in an island that has every class, race and colour dynamic – and I am not saying we don’t have issues, because we do, and in Mandeville where there was every possible race construct thereof – then when I walk into a room in the international community, I don’t see myself first as Black. And I don’t see you as better than me. We are all in this together,” she said with the boldness of Jamaican and Caribbean pride, her heart set on one day having a trade talk show.
“I come from good stock and I am committed to excellence. I don’t believe any kind of disability should be used as an excuse not to be excellent. At the end of the day, when you call my name, you can say anything about me, but you cannot say that I didn’t do the job, and that I wasn’t good at it.”
Her current position has been built on years of experience and expertise in trade-related capacity-building and sustainable development, regionally and internationally, in institutions such as the Organization of American States and Inter-American Development Bank. She has also served as executive director of the Caribbean Export Development Agency, helping to strengthen the private sector as well as micro, small and medium enterprises through investment promotion.
Now she heads ITC – a joint cooperation agency of UNCTAD and the World Trade Organization (WTO) for the business aspects of trade development. UNCTAD is the focal point in the United Nations system, and provides technical support to developing countries, and economies in transition in trade promotion and export development. ITC is tasked with clarifying the business implications of multilateral trade agreements and assists the business community in understanding, shaping and benefiting from trade rules.
TRADE BOSS LADY
“It is an incredible opportunity to take over as ITC head in this space (since October 2020). I have worked in the field for over 30 years and represented Jamaica at the national level in Geneva (Switzerland) as a junior foreign service officer during the Uruguay round negotiations. Then I went to Washington, DC, at the Embassy of Jamaica, working with the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI), and other trade issues for about six years,” Coke-Hamilton shared with The Sunday Gleaner during an interview last week.
She is very keen on developing a small island developing states (SIDS) strategy that looks specifically at challenges they are facing – and will face – in the evolving trade arena.
COVID-19 has exacerbated many issues prior to the pandemic, she said.
“We have looked at four major areas and the first one is our challenge with diversification. The idea of climate-smart agriculture, drip irrigation and intercropping are new methodologies we are trying to bring to bear to help improve the diversification, not just of our goods but also of our services,” Coke-Hamilton said, following a tour of a coconut farm as well as a multi-crop and poultry farm in Knollis, St Catherine.
Before long, she was foot and finger deep in the soil, engaging the farmers.
“The idea is to see how we can expand the capacity of SIDS but not necessarily the way they have always entered, which is at the primary commodity level, because that has not helped us and that’s been standing for nearly 400 years,” she noted.
“It is really important that we are able to utilise not just new technologies for agriculture but the new vision. Right now, it is clear that agriculture is not what it used to be. It is now a technological issue, and it is important that we begin to build that for Jamaica and other SIDS.”
ISSUES AFFECTING SIDS
Described as having a “deep understanding of the challenges faced by vulnerable economies such as SIDS and least developed countries”, Coke-Hamilton has worked extensively with private sectors across “African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries and academia to build trade-related institutional strength within member states”.
Competitiveness is a major challenge for SIDS, as smaller economies must compete with larger countries which often provide significant incentives for businesses. With production costs directly related to energy costs, she said it was critical for SIDS to invest in climate-smart agriculture and alternative energy sources.
A recent meeting on small and medium-sized competitiveness outlook, which involved Jamaica’s Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Minister Kamina Johnson Smith, examined the potential and possibilities in going green to improve competitiveness.
It was an issue of policy, Coke-Hamilton noted, and looked at lowering costs of importing solar panels and other types of alternative energy solutions, as well as the legal issues involving grid and off-grid electricity.
Climate change and new rules that will become part of the international trading space are also of concern to the trade boss, as there are already discussions about carbon border adjustment routes and incorporating it in the WTO context. Countries must address the issues as their requirements may become inimical to economic growth or present hidden barriers, she said.
“The issue of digital connectivity, e-commerce, is of fundamental importance, as every action rides on being connected. We need to create an economic space that fully embraces and understands that being connected is akin to having water. It is as fundamental as that,” she stated.
“In the same way that if you do not have water or electricity, you cannot thrive, digital connectiveness of SMEs, SIDS is now critical because everything is now being done online as we have seen because of COVID, including our education system.”
The implication of sector losses is yet to be understood, she believes, education being one of them, particularly from COVID’s impact.
Coke-Hamilton also stressed that agriculture must cease being referenced as being only for those unable to grasp traditional subjects, noting that it was unpopular to say agriculture brought more value than tourism. She said agriculture must be viewed in the same category as the science and technology subjects as well as coding.
Keen also on empowering women in businesses, Coke-Hamilton established the Women Empowered through Export (WeXport) platform to address the disadvantages that women-owned firms experience in accessing markets. While Jamaica has a large percentage of female middle managers, she believes they are unfairly treated when seeking financial assistance for personal business ventures.
Another drawback she noted, for women, was that many were not owners of production tools and their presence at the middle-management level did not translate to the decision-making table. However, she pointed out that Jamaica and the Caribbean region were ahead of several other countries in female empowerment.
Coke-Hamilton recalled huge pushback from male colleagues when she launched WeXport as they viewed it as unnecessary. To bring home the point, she recounted explaining that Barbados required permission from her son’s father for him to leave the country but hers was not required.
Men continue to want the biggest say in the affairs of women, she noted.
MARRYING JAMAICAN CULTURE, AGRICULTURE AND ICONIC BRANDS
Jamaica’s music, sports prowess, creativity and tourism should all be married to maximise the country’s brand, but too many linkages are made by accident, said Coke-Hamilton.
Citing Jamaican brands of coffee, cocoa and coconuts, she said these were products that can be used in the spa and health and wellness industry and which are directly linked to sports, and sports to music and all other creative aspects of the economy.
“The brand is not just that, but there needs to be excellence of the production element, culture, sports and everything needs to be on a continuum. We have signed on to the Madrid Protocol, so the question is how do we translate that brand identity into moving up the value chain for our exports of goods? How do we put that on the market?” she asked.
The trade expert believes Starbucks, for example, with locations in Jamaica, should be required to utilise at least 30 per cent of local coffee, admitting that such a position may be unpopular.
“We have some of the best cocoa in the world, maybe the best. We may not be able to compete with Cadbury, but we can do an agreement with them that says, ‘we give you brand, you market our speciality Jamaican cocoa, dark chocolate under the Cadbury brand’,” she suggested.
While Coke-Hamilton is unaware if such overtures were made, she called it “quick wins” and cautioned that “we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good”.
“The same is true for cannabis. I know there are legal issues about the money, but I am sure they can be resolved. But if you look at the brand and how it even became popular, it was through Jamaica. If we can begin to translate that into a specific brand, linked to medicinal uses, that would be phenomenal,” she said.
BRAND VALUE CRITICAL
Usain Bolt’s heroics at the Olympics immediately produced a paper from her suggesting how Jamaica could maximise its brand using the Trelawny Multipurpose Stadium. To her, it was a natural marriage to link Bolt – who is also from Trelawny – to the stadium through education, by making the facility not just for sports but orthopaedic surgery, sports medicine, spa and wellness, with restaurants, natural juices and link it to tourism.
The fate of the proposal is unknown.
Most SIDS, she said, have spent decades just trying to survive the oil crisis of decades ago and survival mode denied them an ability to vision the fusion of possibilities available. As a result, Coke-Hamilton will be focusing on embedding knowledge and skills in players instead of the “helicopter technical assistance”, which is the equivalent of a “flyover to drop packages and moving on” while leaving players to read the instructions.
ITC plans to work with all local boards in agriculture and a variety of other private and quasi-government bodies to ensure on-the-ground presence and create the ability to execute. Building long-term sustainability is what Coke-Hamilton wants to create.
VOWS TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
Jamaica may soon become a hub for the SheTrades Initiative of the ITC, which seeks to connect three million female entrepreneurs to the global market. The initiative provides female entrepreneurs and women-owned SMEs around the world with a unique network and platform to work together.
Coke-Hamilton said the scourge of sexual harassment will not be tolerated by her in any connected agencies, and neither will any form of discrimination based on sex, race, gender and mental health. An ITC Mental Health App has been operational since January and provides doctors on call 24/7 to assist women.
This Jamaican mom, whose son believes “Mommy always makes my illnesses better”, is celebrated in Black History Month.