Tredene Dobson, New Zealand Ambassador to Vietnam, had a discussion with Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper over the cooperation potential between the two countries and the role of Vietnamese women in economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, as her island nation is hosting the 2021 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.
During this year’s virtual event, APEC leaders have focused on the region's economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, emphasizing supply chain support and decarbonizing economies.
This year’s APEC forum is probably the most unique edition since it was established because each session was held virtually. It is also special because New Zealand is the host. Ambassador Dobson, can you elaborate on your country’s experience in hosting this year’s APEC forum, how New Zealand chose to incorporate Māori culture into the event, as well as the messages it wants to convey?
APEC 2021 has been an extraordinary journey delivered in extraordinary times.
New Zealand is grateful to all of the APEC economies, including Vietnam, for joining us on that journey.
The APEC community was thrown into a challenge with the pandemic but together we’ve responded, and huge progress has been made.
I want to describe New Zealand’s effort as the host of APEC 2021 in numbers: 21 economies; 8,000 delegates; 340 meetings and counting, all in virtual form. An incredible joint effort.
With the challenges that our economies face, we are firm believers that now, more than ever, collaboration is required to succeed.
This has been our theme for the year, and it has been reflected in the slogan for APEC 2021: 'Haumi ē - Hui ē - Tāiki ē.' This phrase – which comes from the Māori language – is used to signal that a group is united and ready to progress the purpose of them coming together.
It is this spirit that New Zealand has sought to breathe into APEC during its chairmanship.
APEC Leaders’ Week is taking place from November 8 to 12, and it is the pinnacle of New Zealand’s host year.
The meeting of APEC leaders will follow New Zealand’s hosting of APEC Foreign and Trade Ministers and the APEC CEO Summit 2021, as well as meetings with officials, business leaders, and young leaders from around the region.
This year’s APEC has delivered innovative policy that champions the climate; united a region against vaccine nationalism; driven a coordinated economic response to the biggest downturn in 75 years; and front-footed discussions on an inclusive and digital recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Any one of those things could be considered an achievement but the community came together at a critical point in time, set an ambitious agenda, and, we believe, achieved it.
The Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) Ministerial Meeting in October highlighted the role of women in economic recovery from COVID-19. Could you please share your thoughts on this? Is it true that women will aid in such economy recovery? How will businesswomen, particularly Vietnamese businesswomen, be affected?
There is no denying that a resilient and sustainable economy is an inclusive economy.
Most APEC economies rely heavily on their SMEs – they are the engines of growth and innovation across the APEC region, accounting for more than 97 percent of businesses, employing more than 60 percent of the workforce, and comprising 40 to 60 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in most economies.
We know it will not be possible for our economies to achieve a sustainable recovery from the pandemic if we do not address the unique challenges faced by SMEs.
That is why the ministers at the APEC Ministers summit who are responsible for SMEs in their countries focused their discussion on two key levers of SME resilience: digitalization as an enabler of effective recovery from economic shocks and inclusion and well-being for recovery.
Another reason why inclusion is important when talking about SMEs is, of course, that the majority of small and medium enterprises are women-owned or women-led.
So, when we talk about SMEs being disproportionately affected by the COVID19 pandemic, we are also saying that women and their families are disproportionately affected.
In fact, according to the Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs report, 87 percent of women business owners say they have been adversely affected by the pandemic.
This is, in part, because women are overrepresented in the hardest-hit sectors of tourism, retail, and hospitality.
It is also women who bear the added pressures of school closures and the resulting additional childcare needs and the facilitation of at-home education.
The APEC Women in the Economy Forum looked at a number of these issues and the barriers women face in being included in economic recovery.
The forum addressed a number of key issues including the balance and division of unpaid work and caring responsibilities, as well as the importance of accessible childcare; digital and financial inclusion – which means ensuring that women have equal access to the capabilities and tools that will allow them to engage meaningfully in the economy; the interconnectedness of health and the economy; and the importance of education and meaningful participation in decision-making and leadership.
If each APEC economy is able to focus on these issues and take meaningful steps towards addressing them, we can be pretty confident that women will be a major component in our economic recovery.
That would lead to all sorts of positive development outcomes, including in Vietnam.
When we look at how Vietnam has grown in the past four or five decades, we see that Vietnamese women have been a true driving force behind the country’s growth, accounting for more than 90 percent of the workforce in manufacturing, for example.
I’m sure you know the Vietnamese saying, 'Phụ nữ Việt Nam giỏi việc nước, đảm việc nhà' (Vietnamese women excel both inside and outside the home).
While this is of course absolutely true, I admit, I feel slightly concerned about the burden of expectation placed upon the shoulders of Vietnamese women reflected in those words.
Vietnamese society, frankly like all societies, needs to think about how it rebalances the equation of paid and unpaid work and the roles of men and women within our households.
My mother always worked and she also took on the majority of the work within the home, but I saw real change when my dad took on the primary responsibility of cooking for the family and supporting my sister and I with our education and other activities.
That opened up the opportunity for my mom to develop in her career.
That was 40 years ago, so I’m sure Vietnam is ready to address some of the inequalities that might be holding women back from fully realising their economic potential.
Going forward into this decade, I have no doubt whatsoever that Vietnamese women will continue to maintain their significant position in Vietnam’s growth.
This is why New Zealand has, and will continue, to focus our efforts in Vietnam on supporting economic opportunities for women.
For example, since June 2020, the New Zealand Embassy has provided immediate financial support to about 3,000 female workers economically affected by COVID-19 outbreaks, with a total value of VND3.1 billion [US$137,000] awarded through the Head of Embassy Fund.
The beneficiaries of the fund include factory workers, farmers, and those working in the informal sectors in Hanoi, Hai Duong, Bac Giang, Bac Ninh, Hue, Da Nang, Binh Duong, and Ho Chi Minh City.
Furthermore, through our ASEAN Young Business Leaders Initiative, we are supporting young female entrepreneurs who we know will be our business leaders and employers of the future.
Vietnam and New Zealand have maintained diplomatic ties for 45 years. How do you evaluate the current relationship between the two countries and what areas can both sides potentially cooperate on for mutually beneficial economic recovery from COVID-19?
The relationship between Vietnam and New Zealand is in terrific shape.
In 2020, our prime ministers launched our strategic partnership, marking a significant milestone in our bilateral relationship. I’m pleased to say it continues to go from strong to stronger in almost every area.
Despite all of the difficulties posed by the pandemic, we have successfully maintained regular high-level virtual political exchanges, defence and security cooperation, strong growth in bilateral trade, and expanded education links.
The foreign ministers and trade ministers' virtual talks in May, June, and October this year are prime examples of how we have maintained high-level dialogue during this time.
I am also delighted to share that, despite the supply-chain and border issues created by COVID-19, our trade relationship has continued to grow.
Vietnam is New Zealand’s 14th-largest trading partner and two-way merchandise trade topped NZD$1.95 billion [$1.37 billion] by March 2021.
New Zealand’s exports to Vietnam have seen good growth in a number of sectors, particularly the food and beverage field, which experiences 25 percent growth.
This shows the confidence that Vietnamese consumers have in New Zealand’s high-quality products.
Also, in a sign of just how complementary our two-way trade is, Vietnam has grown its machinery exports to New Zealand by more than 28 percent over the last year.
As both our countries look to achieve strong economic growth in the wake of COVID-19, the ambitious trade goals we have set will be an important focus.
We are fortunate to have some very high-quality free trade agreements that link our two countries so we will be working hard to ensure that exporters from both sides are able to leverage those agreements.
In terms of specific sectors, I see a lot of potential in the green economy – and that includes everything from agri-tech to IT services.
New Zealand and Vietnam are both very innovative economies, and we need to take greater advantage of that.
Agriculture is another great example of where both countries have been able to benefit from the relationship.
We have an agricultural cooperation arrangement which supports bilateral trade and is helping to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and promote food safety as well as rural development.
In terms of our agricultural trade, we are fortunate to have very complementary products.
New Zealand’s kiwi fruit and apples have consolidated their position in the Vietnamese market.
Our cherries are also increasingly popular, especially during Tet, the traditional Lunar New Year holiday.
New Zealanders enjoy nuts and tropical fruits from Vietnam, including its iconic dragon fruit and rambutan.
We actually have a great development programme that draws on New Zealand’s expertise in fruit production to develop three new dragon fruit varieties in Vietnam.
Our local partners are now in the process of commercializing those new varieties with the support of New Zealand’s research institutes, as well as getting the license trademark for the new varieties.
These high-quality new varieties are specifically designed to have strong disease resistance, increased storage life, and new colour and flavour profiles, promising to satisfy growers and customers in Vietnam and worldwide.
The pandemic has, of course, made it impossible for students to travel to New Zealand.
There has been a silver-lining though – as education providers have become more creative, New Zealand education institutions have developed flexible in-country options, such as joint programmes and foundation study centres.
There are also ongoing exchanges about online learning and curriculum development.
So, as you can see, a lot of really exciting things are happening and these developments are going to be underpinned by the great cooperation going on in regional forums like APEC.
The future certainly looks bright for the Vietnam – New Zealand relationship.
Thank you for your time!