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Africa: UN Conference on Trade and Development

AfricaFocus Bulletin
May 11, 2008 (080511)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"Attempts to take matters outside of the United Nations (UN), such as at G7/8 meetings or at the World Economic Forum, have not been inclusive or democratic. The UN, with all its weaknesses, is still the only multilateral intergovernmental democratic institution the world has, and UNCTAD [United Nations Conference on Trade and Development] is part of that machinery.... Unfortunately, UNCTAD seems to have been further compromised in Accra." - Yash Tandon, Executive Director, South Centre

The 12th ministerial session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, held in Accra, Ghana, from April 20-25, went virtually unnoticed by the international press, yet another indication of the declining prominence of the organization in international debates. Yet, argues analyst Yash Tandon, strengthening UNCTAD remains vital to counterbalancing the dominance of Northern countries and enhancing the negotiating power of the global South in trade negotiations.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains editorial reflections from Mr. Tandon and the text of his presentation in Accra on behalf of the South Centre, an intergovernmental organization representing 51 developing countries ( The South Centre board is chaired by the former president of Tanzania, Benjamin Mkapa...

Another AfricaFocus Bulletin sent out today contains a statement in Accra by Dede Amanor-Wilks, summarizing a new Action Aid - South Centre report on commodity dependence and development.

For additional background on UNCTAD, see the official UNCTAD site at and resources on UNCTAD from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy at

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on related issues, see and

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

South Bulletin: Reflections and Foresights

South Centre is an Intergovernmental Organization and Think Tank of Developing Countries

1 May 2008, Issue 14

Editorial: Reflections on UNCTAD XII

Yash Tandon, Executive Director, South Centre

In the last issue of this Bulletin, we had argued why it was in the interest of both the North as well as the South to strengthen and recreate the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) as a forum where issues of concern to them can be addressed in a proper manner. Attempts to take matters outside of the United Nations (UN), such as at G7/8 meetings or at the World Economic Forum, have not been inclusive or democratic. The UN, with all its weaknesses, is still the only multilateral intergovernmental democratic institution the world has, and UNCTAD is part of that machinery. Overhaul it if necessary, but do not diminish its capacity to address issues of trade and development which was its original mandate. This is also one of the messages of the article by Dede Amanor-Wilks appearing in this Issue.

Unfortunately, UNCTAD seems to have been further compromised in Accra. Once the UNCTAD Secretariat and others concerned have analysed the final outcome document, the extent of the damage would be clearer. For now, it looks UNCTAD has lost the ground it had partially recovered at UNCTAD XI in Sao Paulo.

The countries of the North appeared in Accra to want to diminish UNCTAD as much as they could. Even those among them that normally favour UN's multilateralism were bent on reducing UNCTAD rather than empowering it. In the anodyne language of UN diplomacy, UNCTAD should "not do everything" but should "focus" on what it is best at. In other words, UNCTAD should leave matters of trade to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and of finances to the Bretton Woods institutions and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The effect of this was major trade and finance issues of the "development agenda" were amputated out of 16 the body politic of UNCTAD. Its disfigured and mutilated body was then left with essentially the task of "research" and the provision of "technical assistance" to the countries of the South on residual matters, such as "aid for trade".

Is this a gradual denouement of UNCTAD, a carefully sequenced demise leading to its ultimate collapse at the next Conference in 2012? Possibly, but not inevitably.

Strengthening and recreating UNCTAD is not a bureaucratic act; it is a political act. Only its members can build it or destroy it. What we need, and this is becoming even more urgent than ever before, is a redefinition of what constitutes "membership". In diplomatic parlance, only states are members of intergovernmental organizations. However, we have moved some distance from this Westphalian definition of the interstate system. Increasingly, non-state actors, among them the private sector and the civil society, are recognised agents of international discourse. And this is where the UNCTAD Secretariat could have done more than it did in the months and years between UNCTAD XI and XII.

At Accra itself, UNCTAD did set up the World Investment Forum (WIF) for the private sector and a separate forum for the civil society. The difference, however, was that the private sector was better integrated in the official deliberations that the civil society. At the WIF, high powered speakers, including the representatives of finance capital, were brought centre stage and seamlessly integrated into the mainstream deliberations, whereas the civil society was treated as largely marginal to the proceedings. "Give them a tent and email facilities, and keep them happy" appeared to be the underlying philosophy of UNCTAD towards the civil society. If UNCTAD was listening carefully, it would have learnt that it was from the civil society tent in Accra that the strongest voices were raised to defend the policy space occupied by the UNCTAD. This also came out clearly in the South Centre organized informal meeting with the CSO representatives on the sides of the main event.

How does one explain this differential treatment of the private sector and civil society? There could be many explanations: for example, preceding the Conference the private sector may have been better organised than the global civil society. But there is more to it than that. Underlying UNCTAD`s present philosophy is the oft-repeated mantra that "the private sector is the engine of growth", whilst the civil society is "antiglobalizers". Simplified rhetorical propositions sometimes acquire the force of "axiomatic truths".

One can fairly discuss the merits and demerits of the private sector and the civil society without being dogmatic about either. But to treat the private sector as "central" to UNCTAD`s discourse and the civil society as "marginal" was doing disservice to UNCTAD itself, and ultimately to its own attempt to regain its past glory. Why? Because once you identify the private sector, and especially private capital flows and foreign direct investments (FDIs) as the "engine of growth", you automatically shift responsibility out of the hands of UNCTAD and into those that are "better qualified" to deal with matters of finance and investments, such as the Bretton Woods institutions, the WTO, the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), the OECD and, not accidentally, the World Association of Investment Promotion Agencies (WAIPA) which organised the WIF at UNCTAD XII. The only speaker who seriously interrogated the underlying assumptions of the other WIF speakers at the podium was Mr. Benjamin Mkapa, President Emeritus of the United Republic of Tanzania.

The private sector has a role, no doubt. But so does civil society. The civil society has the role of providing a window to the "existential truth" about the reality on the ground as it affects the poor. For example, the official discourse in the "Main Forum" raised the alarm about the looming "food crisis", but it was at the Civil Society Forum that its structural as well as immediate causes were analysed. At the "Civil Society Forum" there was anguished discussion, to give another example, of the seriously flawed Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) between the European Union and the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries, but, alas, the "Main Forum" was completely oblivious to this.

UNCTAD may work with the private sector, but its natural ally is the civil society whose focus is the real-life situation on the ground, the huge gap between "growth" which UNCTAD (and mainstream ideology) presumes will automatically flow from private investments -- and "development", which the civil society argues can only come when people are empowered to take their destiny in their own hands.

This issue came starkly to the fore on the issue of the looming "food crisis". For the private sector this presents an opportunity to push for "green revolution" for Africa, with commercialized agriculture. For the civil society, it poses a challenge to bring about necessary land reform and create proper institutional structures (such as credit facilities and extension services) to the ordinary peasant farmers so that they, and not agricultural corporations, are responsible for bringing food to the table of the hungry. Sadly, UNCTAD missed an opportunity to offer the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology (IAASTD) to present its report to the Conference []. The recently released report, a work of 400 scientific experts, criticized the present Trade and the Intellectual Property (IP) regimes as favouring the rich and the rich countries to the detriment of the poor. It criticized GMO-based agriculture, and advocated safeguarding natural resources and agro-ecological practices and indigenous knowledge systems in agriculture. The report was vehemently opposed by global agricultural corporations and some large countries which are home to these corporations. If UNCTAD failed to provide space to the IAASTD at Accra, it might have been an oversight, but for the poor it was a costly oversight.

If ever an argument was needed for UNCTAD to better use the medium of civil society to advance its development agenda, it was Accra that provided it. There was plenty in the activities of the civil society just across from the official Main Forum that could have provided the ammunition to UNCTAD to inject a new life into itself. Sadly, a chasm separated the "negotiating context" of UNCTAD (seeking to arrive at some "diplomatic truth" about reality) from the civil society forum that was expressing the brutal reality of "existential truth". What the official discourse lacked, the civil society provided, but the two twains did not meet.

Yash Tandon is the Executive Director of the South Centre, Geneva

He can be contacted at:

For more information on South Centre@UNCTADXII, read the blog postings at

Towards National and Collective Self-Reliance of the South

by Yash Tandon

The South Centre was founded 13 years ago (in 1995) as an institutional expression of the South to build South-South solidarity and on this basis to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the North. The divide between the North and the South, I might add, is both a historical and a conjunctural phenomenon. However, it is not a permanent divide, nor should it be. This divide will disappear as soon as a part of the world - the South - frees itself from its present dependence on the North for aid and technology, and above all finds its own policy and ideological direction.

It is for this reason that the guiding principle of the South Centre is to strive towards national and collective self reliance of the South. This is the legacy left behind by the person who more than anybody inspired the foundation of the South Centre, namely, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere. It is also the legacy left behind, in a broader context, by Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, the founding father of the nation of Ghana where now we have the meeting of UNCTAD XII.

We have a lot to celebrate in the growth and development of the South in recent years. The independence shown by some countries in Latin America from the North is an example of this positive development. The growth of the economies of certain countries in Asia whose increasing so-called "sovereign wealth" is now the source of bailing out distressed banks in the North is a sign of changing times. Africa looks more mired than the rest of the South in the quagmire of the past, but there are signs of growth in Africa, too.

However, whilst we have a lot to celebrate, we still confront major challenges. The following is an illustrative list.

  • The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are not being met, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. For example, at the current rate, universal access to a minimum set of social services will only be achieved in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2108, almost a hundred years later than the target date of 2015 set by the MDGs.
  • Africa is still heavily dependent on aid from the North. But more than the material aspect of it, there is the psychological mind-set that without aid from the North, Africa cannot develop. This makes Africa hostage to policy priorities decided by the donor community and the dominant institutions of global economic and financial governance.
  • Africa, together with other countries in the Caribbean and Pacific region (comprising the ACP group), are placed in a situation where their governments feel they have little choice but to sign on an Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union which will, for sure, set backwards the pace of development and self-reliance for these countries.
  • Hunger continues to stalk the South, and especially Africa which has transformed it from a food self-reliant continent to a food-importing dependent continent.
  • In many parts of the South, and not just in Africa, the prospect of industrialisation has receded. What we have witnessed in the last twenty years is de-industrialisation and now even de-agriculturalisation of many parts of the South.
  • At the systemic level, we witness that despite strenuous efforts by the countries of the South to reform the United Nations system towards a direction that is focused on equitable development, it is subverted by powerful vested interests that will not allow even modest alignment of, for example, the Security Council to reflect the present-day geo-political reality.
  • The increasing out-datedness and irrelevance of the Bretton Woods institutions (the IMF and the World Bank) to today's development challenges is clear, but the reforms undertaken in recent weeks (the voting formula in the IMF, for example) do not address the fundamental problems of the precariousness of the global financial architecture.
  • The Doha Development Agenda of the WTO is not living up to its name as a new resurgence of neo-mercantilism and protectionism from the North subvert fair trade principles and decrease trade policy space for the South.
  • The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has finally made some progress, after a long struggle by the countries of the South, to get a developmental dimension on the agenda. Yet the implementation of that agenda is now facing powerful road blocks, and the whole system of production and dissemination of knowledge that is the basis of innovation and technology remains mired by monopolistic practices of global corporations.
  • Finally, we cannot forget the overarching challenges to sustainable development that climate change poses especially for developing countries, including to food security and sovereignty, livelihoods, and in many cases outright survival. Developing countries and their peoples will be adversely affected the most by climate change, yet the South's needs for support from the North for adaptation, financing and technology sharing under the UN Climate Change Convention and the North's responsibility to effectively mitigate the emissions that contribute to climate change continue to be unfulfilled.

As I said, there are areas of development that give reasons to celebrate. But at the systemic level there are still many serious and formidable obstacles to change towards a more equitable and just world that needs urgent collective action by the global community.

And it is in this direction that the UNCTAD should direct its energies and future efforts. I will summarise some of the major readjustments that need to be made:

  1. Recognise that the three pillars set by the UN reform process -- security, development and human rights -- are interdependent; none can be sacrificed for the others.
  2. Recognise that MDGs are not simply a statistical game of numbers, or simply one of finding money. There are difficult and complex political issues underlying them. Statistization and monetization of MDGs mask systemic and structural malaise behind these issues, and divert attention from them. Recognise that what led to Millennium Summit in 2000 and MDGs was the development failure in 1990s. That still remains the case.
  3. Recognise that the Washington Consensus is dead, and therefore there is need for fresh thinking on development, financial architecture, and climate change.
  4. Recognise that development is self-defined; the North cannot define it for the South.
  5. Recognise that aid and charity are the wrong way towards addressing systemic and developmental issues, especially in Africa. UNCTAD must lead the way towards finding ways and means of exiting from aid dependence for the countries of the South.
  6. Recognise that the UN, imperfect as it is, is nonetheless the only truly global intergovernmental system we have, and the need therefore to work through it. But understand that power and access to knowledge are the key to hard-nosed negotiations.

The risks of not taking action are grim. Among these let me count the following:

  1. We may witness increasing misallocation of global resources, arising out of an intensified tendency on the part of global corporations to put profit before development and the environment.
  2. We may witness an increasing financialisation of the economy and increased risk of systemic collapse. The subprime mortgage crisis is deeper than what appears on the surface; the crisis is still continuing, and there is a huge dislocation between real values of assets and their collaterised prices.
  3. We may witness an increasing alienation of the South - "decoupling" by those countries in the South that can do it, as an insurance against the increased fragility of the global financial and economic system.
  4. We may witness an increasing trend towards Africa getting recolonised by welfare and aid agencies, what can veritably be described as "welfare colonialism".
  5. We may witness increasing migration from the South to the North, and within the South from the poor to the rich countries, as a response to economic distress arising from marginalisation and climate change
  6. We may witness increasing individual violence, including terrorism, countered by increasing state violence at national level and global levels. Allow me conclude by making only two specific recommendations to UNCTAD:
  7. UNCTAD should help strengthen research and knowledge capacity of the South. Knowledge is power.
  8. UNCTAD should help build the ability of the smaller and weaker countries of the South to negotiate in, for example, the United Nations system, the WTO, WIPO and in other institutions of global governance. Activism by civil society for a fair and just world, in the parallel processes to this UNCTAD Conference, is good. But at the end of the day it is negotiations that determine the outcome, and here is where power dynamics and access to knowledge are critical factors. And here is where UNCTAD has a special niche to carve for itself.

In this effort UNCTAD will find in the South Centre a willing ally. The South Centre makes up for its woefully limited resources with hard work and independent conceptual thinking, and enjoys the confidence of the countries of the South.

Statement by the South Centre delivered at the Twelfth Session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development- Accra, Ghana, 23 April 2008.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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