Ex-UNCTAD staff join battle on
North By Vijay Prashad
On April 10, at 9:15am, Dani Rodrik, the
well-regarded Harvard economist, sent out a tweet:
"Rich countries want to reduce UNCTAD's work on
macro/finance. Pity since UNCTAD reports are far
more value-for-money than World Bank WDRs [World
A few hours before
Rodrik sent out his tweet commending the work of
the United Nations Conference on Trade and
Development, he was one of the 49 signatories that
broadcast a statement with a strong headline:
"Silencing the message or the messenger ... or
Former staff members of UNCTAD,
including ex-secretary general Rubens Ricupero,
signed this statement, which praised the history
of the multilateral organization and challenged
attempt to "stifle
UNCTAD's capacity to think outside the box".
Their declaration comes in advance of
three important trade- and economy-related
summits. From April 21-26, UNCTAD delegates gather
in Doha, Qatar, for its 13th meeting. Following
hard on that, the Group of 20 meets in Mexico on
June 18-19 to discuss the world economy, and the
United Nations Conference on Sustainable
Development (also known as Rio+20) will gather in
Brazil on June 20-22.
I asked Rodrik why
he thought the North had gone after UNCTAD once
again. "There is a long tradition of thought" in
the North, he said, "that UNCTAD should get out of
the business of doing policy research in monetary
and financial areas, since others such as the
World Bank and the IMF [International Monetary
Fund] do it plentifully and better. This is quite
wrong in my view, since UNCTAD's analyses have
been prescient and on the mark on a number of
important issues, such as the inherent instability
of our model of financial globalization."
Rodrik put his finger on the main point.
The North has been pushing the South in various
forums to cease any criticism of the "model of
financial globalization" (North
Battles for 'Market' Supremacy, Asia Times,
April 10, 2012).
This battle began at
UNCTAD's formation in 1964 to enable the newly
independent countries of what would become the
South to have a voice in policy debates. I have
spent the last few days reading the papers of R
Krishnamurti, who was the chef de cabinet to the
first head of UNCTAD, Raul Prebisch. The papers
document a consistent attempt by the countries of
the North Atlantic world (Europe and the United
States) to scuttle UNCTAD's work.
Krisnamurti suggested the creation of a joint
UNCTAD/GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and
Trade) Programming Committee in 1966, he hoped
that it would create a place for UNCTAD (the
South) and the GATT (the North) to find a modus
vivendi for their work on the world economy.
This was rejected by GATT director general
E Wyndham White in a series of letters to Raul
Prebisch in March and June 1967. Any and all
constructive means to hold a dialogue on trade and
later on finance was thwarted by the North.
In the 1980s, the North consistently tried
to undermine the work of UNCTAD, moving it to the
wings as the GATT's Uruguay Round took
center-stage. It was in the GATT Round that many
of the main debates around trade took place, and
it was through this round that the World Trade
Organization was created in 1994. A South weakened
by the debt crisis had few resources to stand up
against the aggressions of the North.
UNCTAD might have been sidelined, but it
was not silenced. As the former staff members
remember it, "UNCTAD was ahead of the curve in its
warnings of how global finance was trumping the
real economy, both nationally and internationally.
It forecast the Mexican tequila crisis of 1994/95.
It warned of the East Asian crisis of 1997 and the
Argentinian crisis of 2001. It has consistently
sounded the alarm of the dangers of excessive
deregulation of financial markets. It has stressed
the perils of rapid, non-reciprocal trade
liberalization by developing countries."
Indeed, the IMF, the privileged
multilateral body, was on the wrong side of each
of these forecasts. It continued to preach the
same religion even when the congregation withered
in the pews. "UNCTAD economists have not had to
suffer the psychology of denial so prevalent in
other organizations," wrote the former staff
members in their statement.
seems dedicated to cashiering UNCTAD. The
emissaries of the North seem more committed to the
tethering of UNCTAD than to the reform of the
unstable financial architecture. The North wants
to cut UNCTAD's budget so as to "eliminate
But UNCTAD does not
duplicate the work of the World Bank or the IMF.
It provides utterly different thinking. "The
budget for UNCTAD's research work is peanuts,"
wrote the former staff members, "and disparate
views on economic policy are needed today more
than ever as the world clamors for new economic
thinking as a sustainable way out of the current
If it cannot kill the message,
the staff members wrote, then the North wishes to
"kill the messenger."
I asked Norman
Girvan, Professor Emeritus of Economics at the
University of the West Indies and former board
member of the South Center, what he thought of
"The attack on UNCTAD is
the latest manifestation of desperate attempts by
the North to stamp out challenges to its
intellectual and ideological hegemony and of the
power of financial lobbies in New York, London and
other Northern capitals."
It is these
capitals, Girvan told me, that pushed policies
whose effects were "thoroughly exposed by the
global financial crises of 2008-2012, which has
thrown millions into poverty, unemployment and
homelessness and now threatens to drive several
European countries into Third World status. Yet
still these governments persist in failed policies
and discredited thinking."
There is little
hope that the North will back down unless there is
concerted pressure from the South. Once more all
eyes turn to the larger and more confident of the
Southern states, not only the BRICS (Brazil,
Russia, India, China, South Africa), but also the
Bolivarian bloc (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador).
At their fourth summit, held last month in
Delhi, BRICS pledged to strengthen UNCTAD; there
has been no public statement from the Bolivarians.
If the South also exists, this is its moment to
defend one of its main institutional platforms.
Vijay Prashad is Professor and
Director of International Studies at Trinity
College, Hartford, United States. This spring he
will publish two books: Arab Spring, Libyan
Winter (AK Press) and Uncle Swami: South
Asians in America Today (New Press). He is the
author of Darker Nations: A People's History
of the Third World (New Press), which won the
2009 Muzaffar Ahmed Book Prize.
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