by Kalinga Seneviratne

Bangkok, 21 Feb 2000 (IPS) -- At the just-finished tenth session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) here, the often sidelined UN agency offered itself as the vehicle to kickstart a "new order" of trade negotiations where developing countries have a louder voice.

This stands in contrast to how its clout appeared to wane in past years.

In 1995, the Western powers, particularly the United States, wanted UNCTAD closed down after the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was established in 1995.

Ironically, following the debacle of the WTO talks in Seattle last year, the Geneva-based UNCTAD seems to have got a new lease of life.

At the Bangkok meeting of UNCTAD, even the developed countries urged it to play a more active role in bridging the gap between the North and South, which came into open conflict in Seattle.

"Four years ago (when UNCTAD IX was held in South Africa) UNCTAD was completely isolated in relation to trade and technical cooperation, now virtually everyone is talking about it," observed UNCTAD's secretary-general Rubens Ricupero at a press conference at the end of the Bangkok meeting.

"We rejoice at UNCTAD ideas becoming the mainstream," he added, but warning that there is lot more to be done to make it possible to implement many of the recommendations in the Plan of Action adopted here.

The symbolism of UNCTAD acquiring a stronger voice in the global debate on economic governance and trade, with that of the South being heard clearer, cannot have come at a better time.

A few months ago, the United States tried its best to block the appointment of Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister Supachai Panitchpakdi as director-general of the WTO, fearing that it may give the developing countries, as well as Japan, a greater say in world trade body's deliberations.

Today, Supachai, despite doubts by activists that he can alter the balance of power that gives industrialised countries more clout in world trade talks, is seen at being at the forefront of moves to bring the North and the South together at the WTO.

It is also a plus for his leadership of the UNCTAD conference -- he was conference president -- that the prime minister of Japan, Keizo Obuchi, was the only industrial country leader who bothered to turn up at Bangkok.

As UNCTAD X president, Supachai had been given the task of spearheading the campaign to help implement the main theme of the Bangkok declaration -- to make the right to development a major component of the next round of trade talks at the WTO.

When he takes over the reins of WTO in September 2002, he will still be holding the presidency of UNCTAD on behalf of Thailand.

In his post-conference press conference, Supachai said cooperation between developed and developing countries must be institutionalised to tackle any future global financial crisis like that which struck Asia in the last two years.

"If we run into another crisis, then we need to have cooperation between G7 and the developing countries, so that the deepening of the crisis could be prevented," he said.

"So the combination of G-7 and the participating developing countries, if that could be institutionalised, would really be putting global policy coherence into practice."

UNCTAD X's plan of action adopted here by consensus is designed to make globalisation an effective instrument for development.

In his closing address to the conference, Ricupero said that the economic discourse of the past decade has been dominated by the 'Washington Consensus' with 12 rules of economic policy to which "all sensible people were supposed to agree".

He noted that the assumption contained in those principles such as by liberalising, deregulating, privatising and getting prices right, private markets would allocate resources efficiently for growth, has been shown to be faulty.

"This has proven inadequate for the insecurities and challenges of globalisation. We need to find a new 2000 paradigm," argued Ricupero. "The new consensus cannot be a Washington consensus, but as we have recognised in the poverty reduction strategies, countries must claim ownership and make it part of their national consensus."

He said that he is tempted to offer a new set of 12 principles which he would call the 'Bangkok Consensus', but he would not do so as consensus could sometimes become self-destructive.

Ricupero noted that during the last decade informed public opinion has converged toward liberal views of desired economic policies such as freer trade, promotion of the private sector and the imperative of macroeconomic stability. At the same time however, there is a strong sense that such standards should not be set exclusively by the developed countries.

"A more inclusive and participatory decision-making process is needed at international level," he said. "This is one of the clearest appeals made at this conference by heads of state and government who have spoken."

The elements of the 'new international order' that countries at the UNCTAD X conference said they wanted, Ricupero said, are the dismantling of the trade barriers in developed countries for agricultural, textile and clothing, recognition for efforts by developing countries in promoting regional economic solidarity; and making international economic institutions more pluralistic and participatory.

But some delegates said the despite all of loud voices by the developing countries at the UNCTAD conference about reforming the international economic and financial system, the fact remained that no leader of the North, except Obuchi, turned up at Bangkok.

When this was raised by the Algerian moderator of the heads of state forum Saturday, Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai said most leaders he invited replied back by saying that this was meant to be only a ministerial conference.

However, ministers from the North who attended the meeting, at least in public, seem to support UNCTAD's call for a North-South dialogue.

"UNCTAD X offers us, industrialised and developing countries alike, the opportunity to make up for what we lost in Seattle. The chance to ensure that the ownership of WTO will be universal," said Netherlands Trade Minister Gerrit Ybema.

At the same though, the same trade interests dictated positions during negotiations on the conference's documents. For instance, the least developed countries (LDCs) wanted duty and quota free access for their products, but the European Union wanted access only for "essentially all" items.

Martin Khor, director of the Malaysia-based Third World Network, said: "With the failure of Seattle the rich countries are now more willing to find out what's really have gone wrong," noted Khor. "At UNCTAD X developing countries were getting their act together to make use of this opportunity."

Khor argues that developing country criticism of the existing world order must be transformed into proposals for changes that can be backed up politically in the international fora. "I think there's a long way to go," he added.

"UNCTAD is helping to build a culture of democracy which the World Bank would be well advised to follow suit," argues Prapansak Kamolpetch, chairman of the People's Assembly, the largest network of Thai NGOs.

He noted that UNCTAD X provided ample opportunity for NGO representatives to "speak directly" to delegates. If the World Bank and WTO learn to take the same participatory and analytical approach, then "we will have a new era for trade and development", Prapansak argued. (SUNS4612)