By Vijay Prashad
The crisis continues at the preparatory conference for the 13th meeting of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) to be held from April 21-26 in Doha, Qatar.
It began when the North, led by the US delegation and the Swiss ambassador, refused to allow the United Nations agency any latitude for a discussion on the toxicity of finance and its reform. At the 4th BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in New Delhi last month, the powerful "locomotives of the South" promised to back the UNCTAD summit, and implicitly offered support for UNCTAD's critical position on finance-driven globalization.
A broadside and press conference from 49 former staff members of UNCTAD, including its former secretary general, put on record their frustrations with the North for its obstinacy. Toward the end of last week, it appeared as if these criticisms were to be brushed off as the irritations of mosquitoes. And then the slumbering "G-77 + China" awoke.
At the founding conference of the UNCTAD in 1964, the bloc of developing nations issued a Declaration of the 77 (their number at the time; there are now 132). The main thrust of the declaration was a pledge from the 77 countries to work together for a new international division of labor. Political colonialism had substantially been invalidated, but the inheritances of colonialism in the economic and social domain lingered - one-crop economies and economies premised on the comparative advantage of low wage costs doomed these countries to a second-class position.
In October 1967, the G-77 emerged as a formal institution, and its Charter of Algiers established its basic outlook: to challenge the import barriers in the North and to uproot the unfavorable terms of trade that privileged the products of the North against those of the South. The high point of the G-77 came in 1973, when the UN General Assembly voted in a resolution for a New International Economic Order (NIEO).
Faced with the NIEO, the advanced industrial countries created the Group of Seven (1974) and a political process to undermine the G-77 and the NIEO. The debt crisis of the 1980s weakened the South, which was now unable to push its political agenda. The G-77 withered (it was here that China joined, so that the group is now formally G-77 + China). By the 1990s, as the UNCTAD secretary general of the time, Rubens Ricupero, remembers it, the North pushed for the creation of the World Trade Organization (1994) with the hope that this would make UNCTAD irrelevant.
"When I arrived at UNCTAD in 1995," Ricupero told IPS, "there was already a conspiracy afoot by the 'usual suspects,' the rich countries - not to change the mandate as they want to now, but to simply suppress the organization that they have never accepted since its inception." The G-77's weakness mirrored that of UNCTAD.
The kerfuffle caused by the former UNCTAD staffers last week was heightened by a statement circulated around the UNCTAD preparatory conference called "Friend of Development," authored by 10 influential states from the South. They wanted UNCTAD to directly deal with questions of financial reform.
The Europeans and the US seemed undaunted by these challenges. They went into a final meeting with the G-77. The Swiss Ambassador Luzius Wasescha had earlier pointed out that his theory for the current UNCTAD was to stonewall the South and "create chaos" in the mechanism to draft a consensus document. This sentiment was unchanged in the final meeting.
A member of the G-77 delegation told me that the Thai ambassador who heads G-77, Pisnau Chanvitan, was distressed by the attitude of the North. Either the G-77 would have to join the public declaration inaugurated by the ex-UNCTAD staffers or it would lose its dignity. On April 13, the G-77 released a forthright and unexpected statement that mirrored the ex-staffers' cry from the heart.
The April 13 statement from the G-77 marks a major break from statements released over the past several decades. The first paragraph uses the word "candid" twice and "candor" once, emphasizing the need for the kind of plain speaking that has eluded the G-77 since 1975. The statement makes two broad points, one about the process and the other about the substantive issues at hand.
Process: Chanvitan's statement complains that the G-77 has tried its best to be flexible with the negotiation, but "perhaps our constructiveness was viewed as weakness, and our accommodation viewed as capitulation". The North has "regressed to behavior perhaps more appropriate to the founding days of UNCTAD, when Countries of the North felt they could dictate and marginalize developing countries from informed decision-making."
One Northern ambassador's role was singled out for being "shameful and reminiscent of the darkest days of the North-South divide".
Remarkably, Chanvitan noted that the preparatory conference has seen "behavior that seems to indicate a desire for the dawn of a new neo-colonialism". Such language has not been heard from the G-77 in decades. "Perhaps, in our desire for consensus," Chanvitan notes, "we have accommodated too much and this good faith was misunderstood, and abused. Perhaps this should end now."
Issues: The bulk of the statement from Chanvitan is about the problems of process. The North is not blocking UNCTAD XIII without reason. The main issue before UNCTAD and the other meetings of this summer (Rio +20 and the G-20) is the question of financial reform and finance-led globalization. Chanvitan hopes that UNCTAD XIII can contribute to a new beginning. The basis of the new start will be "development-centered globalization" which "presents an opportunity to articulate a vision of development based on equality, based on a differentiated approach to development, and based on equal respect for all."
Despite its bluster, the G-77 seems prepared to accommodate the North. Chanvitan writes that the G-77 could adopt "the condensed text" that largely reflects the wishes of the North, with some input from the South. Over this weekend, the North has gone into a huddle. It is likely that they will return on Monday prepared to fight tooth and nail for the final outcome to reflect their vision.
If this is the case, one would have to see whether the G-77 has the wherewithal to stand firm on this newly articulated foundation. If the G-77 folds, this narrow opening at the UNCTAD XIII will close and we shall be back, as Chanvitan put it, "to the darkest days of the North-South divide".
Vijay Prashad is Professor and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, United States.