Championing trade in an era of protectionist threats

What drives Riefqah Jappie, Executive MPA 2013, is creating opportunities through good trade policies.

With US President Donald Trump threatening increased protectionism and isolationist tendencies cropping up in many parts of the developed world, it’s a challenging time to be promoting international trade.

Riefqah Jappie moved to New York in February 2017 as the representative of the International Trade Centre to the United Nations. She had previously worked seven years in Geneva for the ITC, a joint agency of the UN and the World Trade Organization that helps small and medium-sized enterprises in developing countries improve their international competitiveness to generate exports, sustainable growth and jobs.

“For us, the rhetoric is very worrying as an organisation that believes in trade as an engine for economic growth,” Riefqah says. “We are trying to urge all countries not to close their doors and to remain supporters of companies and of international trade. History has shown us that an open trading system is beneficial for peace and stability, for growth and for diversity.”

Riefqah completed her Executive Master of Public Administration (Executive MPA) at the Hertie School in 2013 – an experience she says helped give her a better analytical framework for her working life.

“I went straight into work from the age of 23. I changed jobs a few times, and always learned on the job. I saw things happening and I could identify them, but I didn’t really have the analytical framework to understand them better,” Riefqah says. “Being at the Hertie School was great, because I felt finally I could take a step back and look at what I was seeing in the workplace in public management and analyse and understand it better. Using those frameworks, I could also improve what I was doing – I could identify what was missing, how I could do things better, or who else I needed to bring in.”

Meeting people from all over Europe from a range of sectors meant she could share experiences, talk about the analytical tools she was studying, and discuss with others how to apply them in a variety of settings. As mid-career professionals, “we were given the space to challenge the professors and bring in our practical experience – it wasn’t just sitting there and soaking things up, it was bringing the two things together – the theory and the practice.”

Riefqah sees herself as a beneficiary of globalisation. She emigrated to Australia as a young child, speaks multiple languages and has worked in an international organization. Her family left South Africa when she was nine to escape apartheid and seek a better life for their children. Riefqah took bachelor’s courses in economics, international business and Spanish and Latin American studies at the University of New South Wales and volunteered in Nepal as a student, helping farmers to better market and trade their produce. 

She then returned to a post-apartheid South Africa for six years, working in local government as a trade economist before moving to Geneva to work for the ITC as a strategy advisor. Flying into Berlin once every month or two from Geneva, she was able to combine work and study in the Executive MPA programme over a period of three years, from 2011 to 2013. 

I’d stay for the period of my class, which was three days or so, and then I would do my assignments from home.  It was a really handy model, especially for people who have to work or people with families,” she says.

What drives her, she says, is the idea of improving economic conditions to give people more options. Whether by helping farmers in Nepal to find new markets or advocating for small and medium-sized enterprises at the UN, she is serving her conviction that international trade leads “to more opportunities and possibilities, so that they can be the best communities and societies they can be.”

“SMEs are generators of growth and jobs, she says. “If they can trade better and they have the institutions and the business policies locally to support them, it is good for them, good for their societies and good for their countries.”

Much of the negative effects people attribute to globalization are due to other factors such as automation and technological progress, Riefqah says. “But whether their perception is 100 percent right or not is less important when we look at the impact it has had,” – such as the rise of populism, she says. 

“You have to take into account the people,” she says. “We need to know what people are thinking and desiring and how they read the news and what is important to them – especially as the public sector. We serve the public, so what does the public want, need, fear, hope for?”

It sounds almost as though Riefqah is veering away from international policy towards grass-roots politics. She says she sometimes misses “being on the coalface and being part of the community I am directly serving.” But her current role, which she describes as exhilarating, is something she feels she was bound to do – “even though I didn’t know it.”