Friday, 1 February 2013

More on UNCTAD's alternative voice

By Carlos Fortin

In a previous Globalisation blog I reported on the attempt by some developed country governments in UNCTAD to exclude consideration of international financial issues from the mandate of the organisation.  This was justified on the grounds that those issues are best dealt with by the Bretton Woods institutions. The attempt was defeated, at least temporarily, through the determined stance taken by developing countries and international development NGOs. An open letter from a large group of former UNCTAD and UN staff, academics and development activists was instrumental to bringing the issue into public debate and galvanising support for UNCTAD's role as an alternative voice to those of the IMF and the World Bank.

The forthcoming selection of a new Secretary-General for UNCTAD, to replace Dr. Supachai Panitchpakdi whose term of office expires in September, has reopened the issue.

Again a group of interested individuals have written a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon offering views on criteria for the selection. The number of signatories is larger this time comprising of 143 individuals, including:
  • 49 academics
  • 25 national and international current or past development officials
  • 25 former UN high officials
  • 35 former high UNCTAD officials, including all former Secretaries-Generals and Deputy Secretaries-General.
The essential message of the letter is simple but powerful:
‘We very strongly urge that the next Secretary-General of UNCTAD, in addition to all the necessary experience, knowledge and management abilities, should have in particular the capacity and courage for independent thought…  A demonstrated ability to provide strong and independent leadership to global analysis from a development perspective and to promote fresh thinking on trade and development issues is needed today more than ever.’
The point was elaborated by former UNCTAD Director and prime mover of the initiative John Burley at a press conference in Geneva last month where he stated that:
‘The Western liberal post war paradigm of international economic cooperation is melting partly under the weight of successive economic, financial, environmental and social crises. No-one yet knows what will replace it.  As the historical standard-bearer for developing countries, UNCTAD is in a special position to contribute to the new thinking that is desperately required.’
The selection of the new UNCTAD Secretary-General is the responsibility of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, with prior consultation with member governments and subsequent ratification by the General Assembly. On this occasion, for the first time, there has been a vacancy announcement issued, calling for personal applications as well as government recommendations. A welcome element of transparency has thus been introduced.

The hope is that at the various stages of the process, the criterion of intellectual independence the letter calls for will be a guiding principle.