by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Bangkok, 19 Feb 2000 -- The tenth session of the UN Conference on Trade and Development ended Saturday with increased public visibility and perception of the institution as an important economic forum for dialogue on some sharply differing views, and as an institution more relevant to the new millennium where risks and uncertainties abound with no answers.

In the context of the UN and the General Assembly (of which UNCTAD is a principal organ in the area of trade and development), and "the focal point within the UN for the integrated treatment of development and inter-related issues in areas of trade, finance, investment, technology and sustainable development" (as mentioned in the Bangkok Declaration) such a perception is of some importance. The participation of 159 member-nations, 106 of them led by ministers, and 16 heads of government/state from the developing world, as also the heads of important economic institutions (IMF, World Bank, WTO, ILO) in inter-active debates where they faced some sharp questions and comments helped to raise the profile of UNCTAD.

True, the level of US, Canadian and European representation (and the major economies of South America) was low. But after an initial coolness (with EC Commissioner Lamy talking about UNCTAD being no trade event to take him there), some Europeans felt the need to send some ministers, of trade or development cooperation, and many top trade officials, to talk bilaterally and in the corridors with counterparts in the developing world about the WTO and the post-Seattle process.

But this did not produce any movement.

At the same time, this high visibility for UNCTAD and the perception that it is back in the international arena, also poses a major challenge, because of the high expectations raised.

And if UNCTAD manages to succeed, and emerges as an even more influential economic institution, the majors who are never happy with economic issues in universal, and more democratic (one state, one vote) organizations, may again try to clip UNCTAD's wings.

This view that trade could be taken out of the purview of the UN and UNCTAD (reversing the 1964 UN decision to set up UNCTAD) was one of the arguments used by Canada in 1992-93 Uruguay Round negotiations in canvassing support for what ultimately emerged as the WTO. Not only the major industrialized countries, but also some leading developing nations accepted this argument, in the belief that the rules-based trading system would tame US power and unilateralism.

Many developing country governments, and their civil societies and parliaments even more, are now having second thoughts.

When Secretary-General Rubens Ricupero took over as head of UNCTAD in September 1995, UNCTAD was on the chopping block. But unlike specialized agencies from where the US could withdraw and deny funds, they had less room for such blackmail, since UNCTAD is a principal organ of the UN General Assembly, and the US can't withdraw from UNCTAD, without withdrawing from the UN.

Taking the helm at such a juncture (it was Michel Camdessus who suggested to then Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Ricupero's name for the UNCTAD job), Ricupero managed not only to save the organization, but turn it around, and enable the presentation of intellectual challenges to the economic dogma.

The challenge he faces in the 3-1/2 years left in his second term is his ability to ensure a management structure and appoint intellectually-equipped professionals who can think 'why not' and present clear analysis and alternatives on the range of complex economic issues and more diverse and complex problems of the developing world.

But as he confessed at this conference, Ricupero had to agree to cut many posts to 'restructure' the secretariat, and the number of staff with analytical and intellectual capacities and commitment is limited, and it is not certain that in the budget and programming exercises, UNCTAD would get more staff and could bring in competent people, given the UN's recruitment and promotion policies.

At his press conference, however, Ricupero said that UNCTAD was equipped with professionals with analytical capacity and deep moral commitment to development to carry out the work with a sense of integrity and intellectual independence. He acknowledged, however, that there were budgetary problems. While industrialized countries want UNCTAD to prioritize resources to the problems of the least developed, and he recognized that LDCs deserved attention, UNCTAD, he said, had also to help other developing countries through analytical work. While they might be able to get extra-budgetary resources, it would be better if they got funds from the UN regular budget.

Ricupero also stressed the importance of technical assistance to the developing countries in the area of trade, and noted that at Seattle, where along with other UN agency heads he had met President Clinton, he had raised this issue. While UNCTAD could provide help to the developing countries to negotiate trade rules and implement trade rules, many countries with one or two commodities had nothing to export and what they exported (oil, coffee or tea etc) did not figure in the negotiations. These countries needed to diversify their production, and this required investments, transfer of technology and technical expertise.

The Bangkok Declaration asks UNCTAD to pursue an open dialogue among partners in the development process, including the private sector, NGOs, academia and parliamentarians to help shape international economic relations in the 21st century.

The week-long conference was attended by 159 of its 190 member nations, with 106 of them led by Ministers and some 16 heads of states or governments, and 1,963 participants.

The deliberations at UNCTAD-X have reminded member nations of the enormity and urgency of the challenge of translating broadly agreed concepts into effective action, the Bangkok Declaration adopted by the tenth session of UNCTAD said Saturday, adding "We leave Bangkok with the conviction that we will be able to advance in the effort of achieving more effective coordination and cooperation among governments and among international institutions in dealing with global interdependence and development."

Globalization is an on-going process that presents opportunities as well as risks and challenges, the Declaration said, adding that globalization has expanded the "prospect" for technological advances and has increased prosperity and potential for countries to benefit. But it raises the risk of marginalization of countries, in particular the poorest countries, and the most vulnerable groups everywhere. Income gaps within and among countries remain wide, and the number of people living in poverty has increased. Asymmetries and imbalances in the international economy have intensified. Instability in the financial system continues to be a serious problem and requires urgent action.

On the trade front, the Declaration emphasized "commitment to a multilateral trading system that is fair, equitable and rules-based and that operates in a non-discriminatory and transparent manner" and providing benefits to all countries, especially developing countries.

This would involve, among other things, "improving market access for goods and services of particular interest to developing countries, resolving issues relating to the implementation of WTO agreements, fully implementing special and differential treatment, and providing technical assistance. "

A new round of multilateral trade negotiations should take account of the development dimensions and securing early progress on all these issues remained a matter of urgency for the international community, the Declaration said.

The Bangkok Declaration also speaks of UNCTAD's role as the UN focal point for integrated treatment of development and inter-related issues, and for UNCTAD to make a substantial contribution to the pursuit of development objectives.

The declaration commends the open dialogue and frank exchange of views achieved at UNCTAD-X, and has called for the pursuit of such an open dialogue to help shape international economic relations in the 21st century.

The conference, the declaration said, has brought together development partners to propose practical and meaningful solutions, inspiring hope in the possibility of creating a fairer and better world economic system, alleviating poverty, redressing imbalances and improving the protection of our environment, as well as offering all people security and growing opportunities to raise their standards of living and lead a full and meaningful life.

"We have agreed on a Plan of Action to guide this process and we must all now work together to turn hope into reality," the Declaration said.

But the hopes raised, and the gap between those hopes and what the Plan of Action provides is such, that if governments, particularly the powerful, collectively do not act, they may engender more alienation in civil society, a not-desirable outcome. (SUNS4611)

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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