Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Defending UNCTAD’s dissenting voice

By Carlos Fortin

The XIII Ministerial Meeting of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) ended in Doha on 26 April with the adoption of a document setting up the programme of work of the organisation for the next four years. The text was approved by consensus, but by all accounts the conference was one of the most acrimonious in the recent history of UNCTAD.

The reason was an attempt by developed country governments to limit the mandate of the organisation to largely technical and uncontroversial areas; this was resisted by developing countries, with the support of international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and others.

UNCTAD’s mandate is to carry out research and analysis and make non-binding policy recommendations on the management of the world economy and on the development problems and prospects of developing countries. All quite harmless, one would have thought: not so, however, in the eyes of developed country governments who look askance at the fact that UNCTAD often takes a different view from that of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund on such issues as the workings of the global financial system, the virtues of unfettered free trade or the role of industrial policy in development strategies.

Specifically, in the preparatory process for UNCTAD XIII the two main developed country blocs (the European Union and the so-called JUSCANZ, i.e. Japan, United States, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Norway, New Zealand, South Korea and Liechtenstein) proposed to exclude from UNCTAD ‘s mandate the analysis of: the global financial crisis and mechanisms, including regulation, to prevent its recurrence; the management and resolution of national debt crises; the role of industrialisation policies in development processes; the pros and cons of foreign direct investment for development; and, in the field of intellectual property rights, the issue of benefit sharing in the areas of traditional knowledge and genetic resources.

The proposal was rejected by the bloc of developing countries and China as an effort to in effect emasculate the organisation. Development NGOs also reacted forcefully, and sent a statement to the conference entitled Strengthen, Don’t Weaken, UNCTAD’s Role in Global Governance which argues for an enhanced role for UNCTAD particularly in the analysis of the financial crisis. A group of over 50 former UNCTAD senior staff – including a former Secretary-General, Rubens Ricupero, and four former Deputy Secretaries-General - as well as academics such as Dani Rodrik, Giovani Andrea Cornia and Thomas Weiss, also signed a public statement in this vein.

After intense negotiations, which ended at 05:00 on the last day of the Conference, developing countries managed to get agreement on a text that did not alter fundamentally UNCTAD’s mandate. The crucial paragraph calls for UNCTAD to “continue, as a contribution to the work of the UN, research and analysis on the prospects of, and impact on, developing countries in matters of trade and development, in light of the global economic and financial crisis.” Commenting on this, the participating NGOs stated that “as civil society, we celebrate that this Declaration language gives a clear mandate to UNCTAD to continue its excellent and highly lauded work on the global economic crisis.”

Others however – myself included - are more cautious. It is unlikely that efforts at silencing dissent in international debates concerning the global economy and development will go away easily. We must remain vigilant.