Women rocking international trade - Ms. Sabrina Varma

27.05.2019 Lisa McAuley

Sabrina Varma has over twenty years of experience working in international trade and development, with a view to maximising trade as a tool to support inclusive and sustainable development.

Based on her work experience at national, regional, global levels, across government, private sector and NGOs, and from developed country and developing country perspectives, her approach is based on bringing together shared priorities, requirements and solutions to support trade capacity building in developing countries.


She currently provides policy and technical advice as Aid for Trade Adviser to the Australian Government across Pacific, South Asia and Multilateral Aid for Trade areas within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). She has an honours degree in public policy, and a masters degree in economics and management.

What is your background working in international trade?

I started a career with the Australian Government, working on trade and investment policy issues, working with various agencies/departments, including Austrade, Commonwealth Treasury and Department of Agriculture.

I wanted to find out first hand about the trade related challenges in developing countries and worked for NGOs, including ActionAid focusing on constraints on the ground as well as the role and impact of international trade rules/practices on Southern and east African and South and S.E Asian agricultural communities. During the late 1990s and early part of 2000-2001, I was also part of joint advocacy efforts which helped to focus the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) membership’s attention on the significant trade capacity needs of developing countries.

Through positions with think tanks/intergovernmental organisations directed at providing research for and trade related technical assistance to developing countries, I came to work with individual countries and various groups of developing countries in the WTO context, including the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), African Group, African Union, African Caribbean Pacific (ACP) countries, Small and Vulnerable Economies and G-90.

As a Trade and Development Specialist with United Nations Development Program (UNDP), I worked with developing country governments across Africa, Caribbean, Asia and Pacific helping to build capacity on trade policy, and providing technical analysis for their engagement in regional trade agreements and the WTO. It was during this time I also became closely involved with development of the global aid for trade initiative, providing input through various WTO and OECD related expert/advisory groups.

I have also worked for the Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF) at the WTO – the main global/multi-donor/agency aid for trade mechanism for LDCs to identify and address their trade related capacity priorities.

My position with AusAID and subsequently Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australian Government, as Trade and Development/Aid for Trade Adviser, enabled me to work on the Australian Government’s first aid for trade strategy; advise on multilateral aid for trade investments; build internal capacity and awareness on trade and development, aid for trade; together with provide technical advice on and undertake design of regional and bilateral aid for trade programmes, including on how to integrate and track inclusive aspects such as gender equality and address the needs of informal traders/micro-small enterprises.

My specific areas of expertise include trade in services, including labour mobility, agricultural trade, trade facilitation, and design of Aid for Trade programmes.

What inspired you to enter into a career in international trade?

A combination of factors. Growing up, my father sparked my interest in international economic development issues, particularly from social justice and equity perspectives. We used to have family discussions while watching the news, reading the papers etc. Also, as a teenager I used to often visit my relatives in Bangladesh and was always struck by the vibrancy, resilience and tenacity of the Bangladeshi private sector, and wondered what could happen if they had the same capacity, support and opportunities as other more developed countries. In addition, I had wonderful history teachers in high school/college who also supported and nurtured my interest, which helped me to decide that I had a passion for and wanted to pursue a career in international economic development issues. I was inspired to do this because I wanted to help developing countries shape, participate in and benefit from a global economic architecture which supported everyone’s development aspirations.

If you were to go back in time and invite any three leaders to dinner who would they be?

Being allowed to invite only three is tough:

Rosa Parks
Joyce Clague and
Elinor Ostrom

What are the top 3 challenges of working in international trade?

1. In the context of development, trade related capacity remains a significant challenge which needs to be addressed. This can relate to a host of areas such as policy/analysis/negotiation, business development skills and access to finance, productivity, trade logistics, streamlining and meeting procedures and processes, infrastructure, re-skilling in the face of adjustment.

2. Related to the above, we need to do more to ensure trade directly benefits all, especially those who currently do not have the necessary support, including women, and that these benefits are effectively communicated.

3. Keeping up with and understanding implications of the latest technological developments on trade, how it will impact developing countries, including the potential opportunities.

What are the opportunities for anyone looking to work in international trade?

There are so many opportunities in the international trade space, especially in the context of development. There is a lot of work to be done in building professional competencies/capacity building along the whole value chain of trade from both government policy/negotiation and private sector perspectives. That is why I am excited to be a part of the Global Trade Professionals Alliance (GTPA) which has an important role to play. Another important dimension is the role of research in helping us to understand latest developments and impact on trade, or deepening our understanding of what sorts of trade capacity building support are most effective, and under what conditions in developing countries and LDCs. There is also the critical role of advocacy on the importance of trade to livelihoods, job creation, skilling up and sustainable development. Another immediate area where more resources are needed is skilled people to help design and implement support directed at identifying binding constraints to trade and helping countries to address those constraints. Related to that, there is a need for people with strong monitoring and evaluation backgrounds who can track and measure effective support with a view to building trade capacity.

How would you encourage more women to enter into a career in international trade?

If you are thinking of a career in this space, speak to as many people as possible, including within the private sector, government, academia and NGOs. Seek out and join relevant networks and find good mentors, who can be an important source of support and inspiration. These conversations, together with reading and research can help shape your specific areas of interest and also inform targeted qualifications. Whilst it is good to see increasing numbers of women, particularly with an economics background working on trade, we need more. I would say if you want to be a part of global change for the better, want to work in an exciting, challenging and rewarding space which is constantly changing and very relevant to our daily lives, then international trade is a great career.

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