Rebeca Grynspan, the first woman and first Latin American to lead the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, has a lot of work to do. The organization, founded in 1964 as a standing committee, now has 195 member nations. It meets quadrennially to tackle major economic concerns of developing countries while offering daily assistance.
Often criticized for mismanagement in the past, Unctad, operating on a slim budget that it has little power to control, the agency had recently fallen into deeper internal dissension and international disrepute. It was being investigated under Grynspan’s predecessor, Mukhisa Kituyi, a politician from Kenya who quit the office 2021 to run for president of his country.
Grynspan, 66, is an economist, a former vice president of Costa Rica and an ex-associate director of the UN Development Program. She has excellent credentials and the backing of important Western nations. She was approved by the General Assembly and officially appointed to the job by Secretary-General António Guterres.
Still, some developing country governments tried to block her appointment — ironically arguing that, among other concerns, she was from a highly developed nation, although Costa Rica has demonstrated convincingly how a small, poor country could succeed if it adopted the right policies. Costa Rica ranks in the top third of UN member countries in the organization’s Human Development Report index, on a par with Malaysia and ahead of Brazil, Cuba and Mexico.
In May 2021, Costa Rica became a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an upper-income group of nations promoting democracy and free-market economies.
In a virtual interview with PassBlue on Feb. 21, Grynspan, who took charge of the Geneva-based Unctad in September as its secretary-general, spoke about one of her main objectives: upgrading the work millions of women in the informal sector and the garment industry. Unctad has recently joined with the World Trade Organization, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the International Trade Center in a project surveying the conditions of garment workers in certain low-income Asian countries.
David Malone, the rector of the Tokyo-based United Nations University and a former president of Canada’s International Development Research Center, said in an email interview with PassBlue in February that he was “very much encouraged” by the Grynspan appointment.
“Most member states understand that the economic and social challenges faced by developing countries are both real and increasing,” Malone wrote. “I think Rebecca [sic] is likely to advocate more indigenous development of industry and export-oriented businesses. One untapped potential route for Unctad,” he added, “will be partnering with other UN institutions on the ground in experimental and other projects that other UN agencies have money for, but no time and staff for.”
Grynspan was born in 1955 in San José, Costa Rica, to Polish Jewish parents who emigrated from Europe in the wake of World War II. Her father was first engaged in small-scale trade; later he built two factories, producing textiles and plastics.
She is a graduate of the University of Costa Rica and has a master’s degree from the University of Sussex in England, a wellspring of creative thinking on development policy. Before becoming head of Unctad, she was secretary-general, from 2014 until September, of the management office that administers Ibero-American summits. — BARBARA CROSSETTE
Her story follows in her own words, lightly edited. The interview is part of PassBlue’s Women as Changemakers series.
PassBlue: You grew up through a time when Costa Rica was becoming, or had become, a very advanced country. Are there lessons for other countries that have not been so successful?
Grynspan: First of all, I am the first generation from an immigrant family born in Costa Rica. I had the good fortune of being raised in a country that gave my parents opportunities for decent work, for education, for raising their daughters with more respect. Not without challenges, no doubt. But that’s the first lesson for me from Costa Rica. We were three girls in my household who were able to study, who went to the university and made a professional career, better than their parents. That is really my first lesson and it is very deep in me.
PassBlue: Where did your parents come from?
Grynspan: Europe. They are Jews who came after the second World War. I lost my grandparents on my mother’s side in the Holocaust. My parents were thinking about how you get to a place where you are treated with dignity, with respect, with opportunities. [In 1994] I was elected to the high post of vice president, as a first-generation woman born in the country. That’s not a little thing! I did my master’s degree in the University of Sussex. Development studies was the most interdisciplinary course at the time. Let me say that the lesson for Costa Rica was that doing the right thing [for the people] is also economically the right thing for the country. Costa Rica declared in 1870 that education would be universal and compulsory for boys and girls. We were ahead of many countries — and we were so poor! We did that to get out of poverty. We didn’t wait to be rich for better education, we invested in education, and that’s why Costa Rica was able to go to a better place. We abolished the army in 1948. And we protected, conserved, 25 percent of our territory in the 1970s. We went the path of sustainable development when it was not in fashion. We were a poor country, a developing country that got to the highest levels of the [UN] Human Development Index because of what we did. I think that’s the lesson from Costa Rica.
PassBlue: How did this open up careers for women and how did Costa Rica measure the effects?
Grynspan: The interesting thing is that when girls got an education, the state was also expanding public services, and women went into public administration. Public administration was not discriminatory like the private sector, where biases were everywhere. There had been a fight for equality in the private sector, but it was easier to make your professional career in public administration. Women were able to benefit from that expansion. One anecdote I can tell you from my public career that always meant a lot to me: When I was vice president, I went to a lot of rural communities, very poor communities. Women would give me letters. Poor women on the land, if they needed something, would write a letter to me. That’s democracy — but also it’s because they knew how to write. They could write to express their demands, their needs, and they would expect a public official to respond.
PassBlue: How will Unctad fit into current changing political and economic realities for women?
Grynspan: In Africa, we have countries that have the highest proportion of women in parliament in the world. I think that in Africa we also have in many places an improvement in women’s conditions and awareness of what they need. [At Unctad] We will be concentrating on the economic empowerment part. We think that there are a lot of other organizations working on political rights. I think we need to strengthen economic rights — the economic part of the equation — because a lot of the women are in the informal sector. We need to battle that problem. We have training programs that are very good. We have a training program in e-trade, e-commerce. That’s very important because that’s the [economic] frontier of what is happening in this century. One of the important things about that program is that it is bringing women into the international arena. Many women were able to get formal jobs through garments and textiles. But in a technical revolution, their productivity has to go up. I remember very well a woman from Asia defending the view that the garment industry was the only place where they have liberties. They thought that they were cheated by many of the voices of the North [that downgraded and deplored the garment industry]. My god, she was saying, that’s one of the only places where we were able to have degrees of freedom. I think we have to work in all the sectors where women are and where women were inserted into the labor market. We are not marginalizing any of them.
PassBlue: How do you help women across borders?
Grynspan: We work a lot with programs for women as cross-border traders. This is a very important agenda because a lot of the cross-border trade is made by women in the informal sector. In spite of the informality, you have customs and border procedures [that are barriers]. Credit and financing continue to be one of the major problems to solve. The number of women in parliament makes a difference, but you need a critical mass and the critical mass has got to be beyond 30 percent, because when you have a critical mass you can make a difference. That doesn’t mean that all the women that get to parliament have a gender lens.
PassBlue: You have stressed the acute need for effective, better-coordinated research and analysis in many developing countries, as well as more technical cooperation. Not unrelated, you said in your first major address to Unctad’s governing board on Feb. 10 that you would invest in a new, ambitious communications strategy. “If our voice is weakened, so will be our impact,” you said. Say more about this part of your vision.
Grynspan: Communication is not propaganda and it’s not PR. It’s an essential part of our mission and a very important part of our mandate. We need to foster discussion, to bring our tools for technical cooperation to the [UN] country teams to the resident coordinators, to civil society, so they know what we’re capable of doing in different sectors. We need consensus-building because that is the multilateral part.
PassBlue: How is the “getting to know you” part of your program at Unctad going?
Grynspan: I don’t believe in diktats. I believe in building up. It’s not because I came here that everything will change. Things will change if we work together. I have had more than 100 bilaterals [meetings] during these five months. I have been hearing countries. I have been hearing member states’ ambassadors, ministers. I have been hearing my people. I have been trying to understand Unctad more profoundly. They have what it takes to make a difference. But you have to put it together, to have it better coordinated, more coherent to be able to do it. I think that’s my job. You can’t have one part saying one thing and one part saying another. We have to have discussions inside also.
PassBlue: So will Unctad be a happier place?
Grynspan: I hope so, at least a little bit happier. I think we have a good start, a very good start.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.