Globalisation, an instrument of development for all?

Although the main theme of UNCTAD X was making globalisation the instrument of development for all countries and people, there was little in the nature of real commitments on solutions as to how this was to be done.

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

THE UN Conference on Trade and Development ended its tenth session on 19 February with more questions and doubts than answers from the collectivity of the world's governments to the main conference theme of making globalisation an effective instrument for the development of all countries and all peoples.

UNCTAD had met for its ninth session at Midrand in South Africa with globalisation as its main theme - full of hype about globalisation and liberalisation. Now, four years later, realisation of the goals and aspirations of a better life for a large majority of the peoples of the developing world or of narrowing the rich-poor gaps within and among countries seems even farther away.

As the UN/UNCTAD member countries ended their 'first economic conference' of the new millennium, adopting a Bangkok Declaration and Plan of Action, collective statements of the world governments, they have talked about many things that globalisation 'can' and 'should' do, about the opportunities and risks, about maximising the opportunities and minimising the risks.

But in terms of what the governments present here have agreed to do or committed themselves to doing elsewhere, the documents are at best very modest and often equivocal - such as on possible proposals on market access for least developed countries (LDCs), or in stating that the international community 'may wish to consider ways and means of identifying that portion of the debt assessed as unpayable for possible action by creditors.'

[The UNCTAD secretariat's proposals for the conference had set much higher standards. On debt, for instance, UNCTAD Secretary-General Rubens Ricupero told a closing press conference, 'we want to go much beyond what has been achieved. Our basic proposal is over the sustainability of the debt (and debt servicing), which can be assessed technically, but must be done by independent panels, independent of the international financial institutions who themselves are creditors. And the results must be accepted mandatorily both by creditors and (by) debtors.']

Perhaps the powerful may pay heed to Ricupero's closing appeal at the conference and abandon extremism in economic policies to construct a better world economic order.

It is a big 'perhaps', though, if translated into action, it may amount to a miracle of the 21st century.

It was difficult in this conference - which was packed with interactive debates, seminars, roundtables and sideshows on just about every subject - to come across a government delegate from the South who in private did not express disillusionment and dissatisfaction with the international system of trade and development and the inability of countries to advance and deliver more to their peoples.

Many frankly admitted that the countries of the South had been taken for a ride in the Marrakesh agreements concluding the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations and in the hype about globalisation.

Conference delegates and representatives who found it difficult to take a very critical view of the trading and financial systems cheered and applauded inside the halls, and even more outside in the corridors and at some NGO events, those who challenged the dogma and the heads of organisations promoting them - the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO.

And yet it is difficult to find in the conference documents that governments negotiated and adopted, any reflection of this deep dichotomy in global polity or how the increasing divides in the world are going to be addressed.

In his closing statement to the conference, Ricupero said: 'Globalisation is not an unstoppable change sweeping inevitably across the face of the world... at least in part, it is a work of deliberate construction' (thus implying that globalisation may be stopped or reversed unless governments changed the 'constructs', outlining the minimum needed to ensure 'real reciprocity' among nations, and warning of the 'at best mixed' prospects for progress in the aftermath of the Seattle WTO failure).

While the governmental accords and willingness to act on critical issues remained at the level of vague promises and statements, UNCTAD is emerging out of this conference with a greater, analytical, role in reform of the international financial institutions and securing financial stability for the global economy, but very ambiguous and weak mandates, even in terms of analysis, in the area of trade as an instrument of development.

The vested interests of the major trading nations of the North in maintaining their advantages within the current system, the US determination in particular not to give UNCTAD any role or credit, and the differing situations and conflicts of interest of developing nations - individual and groups of them - have no doubt contributed to this outcome.

No progress on trade

If governments of developing nations, and even more their civil society or national business sectors, had come to Bangkok in the hope that the major nations would, after the debacle at Seattle, make some gesture about their earnestness to address the problems of the developing world in the trading system, they have gone away in disappointment.

The President of the conference, and the designated successor to Mike Moore as Director-General of the WTO in September 2002, Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister and Trade Minister, Dr Supachai Panitchpakdi, in his closing statement conceded that not much progress had been made here on the trade front.

Given the 'fact' that technically negotiations have begun at the WTO (as mandated) in agriculture, services and the mandated reviews of other agreements (such as the Agreements on Trade-Related Investment Measures (TRIMs) and Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS)) - areas where the North does not want to give up its benefits through protection, while looking for more from developing countries - it was perhaps too much to expect them to give any ground even in terms of generalities in these areas.

But even on such questions as those under the rubric of 'implementation' problems of the developing countries (which involve correcting the imbalances and inequities of the Uruguay Round and its agreements faced by the developing world) or helping the LDCs by way of non-reciprocal market access (through duty-free, quota-free entry for the exports of these countries), there have been much resistance and attempts to use concessions in these areas to get something else from other developing countries - such as the concerted effort by five EU members, in the interactive debate at UNCTAD X, to push for investment negotiations at the WTO.

Though British development minister Clare Short and her colleagues from the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Belgium presented the proposed new issues in the WTO as being in the best interests of the developing countries, the EC trade negotiators have made clear that what they have in mind is benefits for their corporations by way of trade and investments before they would make any concessions in agriculture.

This is nothing new for trade negotiators of developing countries at the WTO.

But the cynical use by the powerful entities and countries of the common concern of the international community on the situation of the LDCs to try to extract concessions from other developing countries, and the ruse to divide the developing countries, has been so glaring in an open forum like UNCTAD that civil society from the South and the North - even those who understand the importance of 'rules-based' systems - are going away from Bangkok more determined than before in their hostility to the WTO and the expansion of its remit through new negotiations and new issues.

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS #4611).