By Dr Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria

As APEC navigates this period of uncertainty, marked by trade frictions and growing protectionism, I often pause and think about where we go next during this important year of the forum’s 30th anniversary.

For me, this is a year of self-reflection. As APEC completes thirty years, let me put forward a few questions:

  • Are we looking back at what we have achieved and finding a path for the forward journey?
  • Are our achievements enough? Do we see us continuing business as usual?
  • Or, can we add even more value to our endeavors?

In my view, we can do more.

APEC has done very well, that is not in doubt. Opening up our economies to regional and global trade has fueled the growth of jobs, income and prosperity. The region’s GDP has multiplied exponentially, to some USD 63.6 trillion in 2017.

Yet all those digits can obscure struggle. Millions of people struggle to keep their small businesses afloat. Millions of youth struggle to find jobs. Millions of women entrepreneurs struggle to find investors.

APEC must be able to ease this struggle and ensure that these millions not only benefit from economic integration but appreciate it as well. On top of my wish list for APEC is a bigger tent to fit all our stakeholders.

Let us start with those small businesses. Trade agreements come with many complex rules – a labyrinth that large companies have the resources to navigate, but which can thoroughly overwhelm smaller enterprises. Government agencies must put more effort into engaging these companies and making sure that processes exist so that we do not leave them behind.

Our economy is dependent on these small businesses that hold up the value chain. But the significance of their contribution can disappear in the big box of final products and the way that data is collected. We must do a better job of capturing and recognizing this contribution, so that all enterprises feel invested in regional economic integration. At the same time, we also need to hear more from small businesses about the help they need to succeed.

More inclusion – of SMEs, of women entrepreneurs – is one of the priorities set by this year’s host economy, Chile. It’s about time we do more to level the playing field for women-led businesses; for example, by broadening access to finance.

Let us also engage the youth more. APEC has been around for the entire lives of people under 30 and they will determine the future of the forum. I would like to hear more about their concerns, aspirations, and ideas for the future, as well as their feedback about policies that APEC can help advance, such as those pertaining to the digital economy.  

We are taking some positive steps in this direction. The APEC App challenge, a competition co-sponsored by the Asia Foundation and Google that took place just before the Ministers Responsible for Trade meeting, gathered nearly two dozen youth from across APEC economies. They hunkered down in Chile to create apps that will help connect women entrepreneurs with mentors and investors. Other initiatives, such as the ASPIRE prize, also encourage smart young researchers to use innovation and technology in trying to address policy challenges.

That is one of my tasks for the year: how to ensure that more stakeholders fit in the APEC tent so that we can address the issues that matter most to our communities. APEC works best when it answers a need. Take, for example, the request for freer travel within the region in order to facilitate business and investment. APEC responded with the APEC Business Travel Card, now available in 19 member economies (with two other members in transition) and a favorite of companies across the region. We must show to other stakeholders how their lives have also benefited from APEC. They can then contribute bold ideas that can pave the way for the forum’s next thirty years.