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Africa: UN Conference on Trade and Development
May 11, 2008 (080511)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
"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 (http://www.southcentre.org) The South Centre
board is chaired by the former president of Tanzania, Benjamin
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 http://www.unctad.org and resources on UNCTAD from the Institute
for Agriculture and Trade Policy at http://www.iatp.org/unctadxii
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on related issues, see
++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++
South Bulletin: Reflections and Foresights
South Centre is an Intergovernmental Organization and Think Tank of
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
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
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
[http://www.agassessment.org]. 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
Yash Tandon is the Executive Director of the South Centre, Geneva
He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information on South Centre@UNCTADXII, read the blog
postings at http://southcentrenet.blogspot.com
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
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
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
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
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Recognise that the Washington Consensus is dead, and therefore
there is need for fresh thinking on development, financial
architecture, and climate change.
- Recognise that development is self-defined; the North cannot
define it for the South.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- We may witness an increasing trend towards Africa getting
recolonised by welfare and aid agencies, what can veritably be
described as "welfare colonialism".
- 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
- 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:
- UNCTAD should help strengthen research and knowledge capacity
of the South. Knowledge is power.
- 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.
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