Killing the messenger

At a time when the entire economy of the planet is yet to recover from the debilitating impact of the Great Recession of 2008 and the economic health of the European Union continues to remain rather parlous, the so-called developed nations of the world are seeking to assert their dominance in the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) — a permanent inter-governmental body with a goal to “maximise trade, investment and development opportunities of developing countries and assist them in their efforts to integrate into the world economy on an equitable basis” — in a last-ditch attempt to claim the superiority of their economic ideology.
The creation of the Unctad in 1964 was based on concerns of developing countries over the inequity in the working of international markets that were dominated by multinational corporations based out of the US, West Europe and Japan, which contributed to widening the disparity between rich and poor nations.
Over nearly half-a-century, this UN body has sought to challenge the “Washington Consensus” on market-friendly economic policies that are espoused by countries that form the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the two large multilateral financial institutions, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). With the balance of power shifting against the developed countries in recent years, their representatives are now trying to silence the voices of those in the Unctad who have offered alternative views, which are less market-friendly and in favour of state intervention.
It is ironical that this ideological tussle is currently being played out at Doha, Qatar, at the 13th session of the Unctad which is scheduled to conclude on April 26. Ironical because Doha was also the venue of the last major meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2008. The WTO has been in a limbo for over 11 years now, primarily on the issue of farm subsidies, an issue on which the rich and poor countries are so completely at loggerheads that it is threatening the very survival of this organisation.
The impasse in the proceedings of Unctad has relatively recent origins. Martin Khor, executive director of South Centre, a Geneva-based policy think tank of developing countries, points out that while developed countries have tried to curb the pro-South orientation of the Unctad secretariat and its many reports over the last two decades, this “unhealthy trend seemed to have subsided in the past decade, but in the past two months, during the meetings in Geneva to prepare for Unctad XIII, some developed countries have reportedly attempted to dilute the areas of future work of Unctad, to the frustration of the G77 (Group of 77 developing countries) and China”.
The meetings of the preparatory committee to draft a document before Unctad XIII saw a breakdown in consensus on the use of a few key words. At the committee’s meeting on April 13, a big dispute broke out on what may appear to some to be an innocuous quibble over terms, that is, whether the Doha outcome of Unctad XIII should “reaffirm” the mandate given to Unctad XII at Accra, Ghana, in 2008. The mandate was to continue to support policies that would help developing countries. Spokespersons of a group of developed countries opposed the use of the word “reaffirm” and instead
wanted the document to state that the Doha meeting would “build on” the Accra accord.
Speaking on behalf of the G77 and China, ambassador Pisanu Chanvitan of Thailand regretted that the accommodative stance of his (G77 and China) group had been viewed as weakness or capitulation. The group had hoped that the global economic and financial crisis would signify the once-and-for-all end of the bad old days and usher in the dawn of a new international regime of global economic governance. “Instead, we see behaviour that seems to indicate a desire for the dawn of a new neo-colonialism. We cannot, we will not, accept this,” Chanvitan said angrily, adding, “Let us assure our partners (referring to developed countries) that there will be an outcome document.”
What is apparent is that this document is unlikely to be a consensus document. A vote on a G77 and China document is considered a last resort, since the normal procedure is to adopt a consensus document. The tussle over the future of Unctad has exacerbated with a group of 50 former senior Unctad staffers issuing a joint statement on April 12, criticising efforts by major developed countries to reduce Unctad’s mandate and deny it the right to continue to analyse global macro-economic issues from a development perspective. 
At a press conference to mark the release of the statement, former Unctad director John Burley warned of an attempt “to change Unctad’s mandate by denying the organisation the right to continue to analyse and report on global macro-economic issues, including the role of global finance in development…We are angry because we feel that the two principles of the need for a plurality of views in the international system and the need to preserve Unctad’s freedom of speech, are being threatened”. 
Yilmaz Akyuz, former chief economist of Unctad, said that since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the major developed countries “have become increasingly intolerant to diversity of views and indeed wanted the ‘Washington Consensus’ to become a global consensus”. He said developed countries have seldom engaged in constructive dialogue over policy options and “ignored Unctad research findings even when they are proven right”.
In their statement, the former Unctad staff members said that the UN body had always been a thorn in the flesh of economic orthodoxy because its analyses of global macro-economic issues from a development perspective have regularly provided an alternative view to that offered by the World Bank and the IMF controlled by the West. Now efforts are afoot to silence that voice. This is how they described the move of the developed countries: “If you cannot kill the message, at least kill the messenger.”

The writer is an educator and commentator

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