Photo: Market place. Credit: UNCTAD - Photo: 2016

Promises and Perils of UNCTAD14 in Nairobi

Analysis by J Nastranis

NEW YORK | NAIROBI (IDN) – UNCTAD14 will showcase an organization “with one foot rooted in history and both eyes looking to the future”, assures the communications and information unit of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

Civil society organisations from around the world are however concerned at the prospect of UNCTAD moving toward forcing developing countries to take the role of engines to increase trade. This, they say, would tantamount to the organisation deviating from its mission to support the use of trade for development, the more it risks becoming redundant and irrelevant.

But official sources says that while the the six-day UNCTAD14, opening in Nairobi (Kenya) on July 17, has special historical significance, it makes important concessions to the future. Some 52 years ago, for example, Geneva hosted UNCTAD1, at that time the biggest conference ever, with 4,000 delegates from 120 countries.

The conference established a United Nations agency, whose mission was to support developing countries to benefit from trade more effectively. The agency was the UN Conference on Trade and Development – better known for its acronym, UNCTAD.

UNCTAD has traversed a long way since then. In addition to trade, for example, UNCTAD now works on finance, investment, and technology, making it even more essential to developing countries that wish to access the benefits, and to protect against the downsides, of globalisation in the 21st century.

“We’ve had to move very much with the times, evolving with the rapidly changing global context,” says Dr. Mukhisa Kituyi, UNCTAD’s Secretary-General. “We provide solutions to some of the most pressing issues of our time – all of them linked to globalisation,” Dr. Kituyi says.

Held every four years, the UNCTAD conferences renew the UNCTAD mandate, keeping it fit for purpose. The 5,000 anticipated participants at UNCTAD14 – including UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon – will be generating not just new networks, partnerships, and solutions, they will also be fixing the organisation’s goals for the next four years, according to official sources.

And this in view of the fact that the world economy is far from healthy. Economic growth is sluggish, poverty and inequality remain pervasive, and resistance to globalisation is growing. Besides, the conference is the first since the world leaders endorsed 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015, outlining a vision of how the world should look in 2030.

“These SDGs offer excellent signposts, ways to measure our success in converting trade, investment, finance, and technology into our ultimate goal – prosperity for all,” says Joakim Reiter, UNCTAD’s Deputy Secretary-General, who points to the conference tagline: ‘From Decisions to Actions’.

Globalisation, including a phenomenal expansion of trade, has helped lift millions out of poverty. But Reiter adds that not enough people have benefitted, even as expectations grow.

Meeting these expectations will not be easy. But for the first time in its history, the UNCTAD meeting will have a youth forum, representing the 50 percent of the world who are younger than 30.

“When they’re deciding on their work for the next few years, it’s important that UNCTAD includes points of view from the future,” said Samira Fierro Sedas, who helps to coordinate the forum. “We want to be included, taken into consideration,” she added.

“The problems are easy to identify, the solutions are so much harder. The world has become more complex since 1964, when UNCTAD was founded, and the solutions must involve a wider variety of actors. Today, UNCTAD works not just with governments, but closely with the private sector and civil society too,” says an official release.

“These groups will all be present at UNCTAD14, which promises a set of timely and fascinating discussions on issues that matter to us all today,” it adds.

With this in view, members of 331 civil society organizations (CSOs) including trade unions, farmers, development advocates, and public interest groups from over 150 countries wrote on July 14 “an urgent letter” to 194 members of UNCTAD to express concern regarding the current negotiations towards the quadrennial mandate of the agency during the UNCTAD 14 Conference.

The letter was coordinated by the International Steering Group of CSOs towards the UNCTAD 14, which includes: ActionAid International, Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development (APMDD), Center of Concern, European Network on Debt and Development (EURODAD), FEMNET, Financial Transparency Coalition, Global Alliance for Tax Justice, Jubilee USA, Latin American Network on Debt, Development and Rights (LATINDADD), Our World Is Not For Sale network (OWINFS), Public Services International (PSI), Regions Refocus, Society for International Development, Southern and Eastern Africa Trade Information and Negotiations Initiative-Uganda, Tax Justice Network Africa (TJN-A), and the Third World Network – Africa.

The CSOs highlighted that “UNCTAD can play a unique role in the panorama of international economic institutions thanks to its focus on the interdependence of trade, finance, investment, macroeconomics, and technology as they affect the growth and development prospects of developing countries. However, to live up to its name and promises, its role must be development-centered, and not tied to the liberalization goals of other institutions.”

The letter makes specific policy recommendations, noting that “[t]rade and investment agreements do not support development without the right policy environment (Paras 12 and 48), which necessitates policy space (Para 14 bis), an effective and developmental state able to sustain its own resource base responsible for safeguarding people’s human rights (Para 71), and a more coherent, inclusive and representative global architecture for sustainable development.”

The letter addresses the full range of developmental issues which have been affirmed by member states as crucial to UNCTAD’s mandate, but which developed countries are attempting through the drafting process, to diminish, including on key issues of tax and debt.

CSOs also make recommendations regarding UNCTAD’s mandate on the “integrated approach of UNCTAD to the evolution and management of globalization and on the interdependence of trade, finance, investment and technology as they affect the growth and development prospects of developing countries;” as well as on issues of Least Developed Countries (LDCs); regional integration; monitoring the role of the private sector rather than promoting Public Private Partnerships (PPPs); technology transfer; and the Financing for Development (FfD) process.

UNCTAD’s role on investment is also addressed: “Given UNCTAD’s long history encouraging developing countries to sign International Investment Agreements (IIAs) and the negative impacts developing countries have experienced, particularly due to the Investor to State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanisms, UNCTAD’s mandate should be intensely invested in helping developing countries craft investment policies that will contribute to development (Paras 60 (p) and 60 (w)), rather than just ‘balance the interests’ of investors and development (Para 21); as well as to unwind and reform these agreements (Paras 26 and 60 (ii)).”

The letter concludes: “We believe that the further UNCTAD moves toward seeing developing countries mainly as engines to increase trade — and thus deviating from its mission to support the use of trade for development, the more it risks redundancy and irrelevancy.”

As civil society organizations deeply committed to human rights and social justice, the achievement of the SDGs and sustainable development for all, CSOs urge UNCTAD member states to adopt the above positions and ensure that UNCTAD continues and strengthens its role in trade, finance, investment, macroeconomics, and technology as they affect the growth and development prospects of all developing countries. [IDN-InDepthNews – 14 July 2016]

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

Photo: Market place. Credit: UNCTAD

2016 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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