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Global Civil Society Calls on Governments to Strengthen, Not Weaken, UNCTAD’s Role in Global Governance

The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) meets in Doha, Qatar this week for its 13th quadrennial conference. We don’t hear much about the UN body in Canadian media though globally its importance has increased over the past five years as it emerges, despite underfunding, as an influential counterweight to status-quo neoliberal institutions like the World Bank, IMF and WTO. In fact, it was the only institution out of this long list to have predicted many of the financial crises (Mexican, East Asian, Argentine) of the past 20 years. And it is the only one to seriously want to address the structural problems with “free market” globalization.

Thus the giant bull’s eye on its back. The UNCTAD conference is making international news this year because of a spat between developed and developing countries over what role the agency should play in global economic, trade, investment, food and climate discussions. As a Guardian UK editorial last week put it, “ahead of its conference this month, the agency is under threat from rich countries who want it to keep out of the big issues about how the world’s economy is run, and to stick to touchy-feely stuff instead.”

The Guardian writes this would be “a huge mistake,” and concludes, “Those who want a fairer, more sustainable world economy should want UNCTAD not to pipe down, but to speak up.”

Hundreds of groups are speaking up in its defence, as are former UNCTAD employees. On Sunday, the Council of Canadians, Polaris Institute, National Union of Public and General Employees, Public Service Alliance of Canada and Common Frontiers endorsed an international statement signed by 192 civil society organizations expressing the importance of UNCTAD in exploring alternatives to “Washington Consensus” views on trade and investment, debt, agriculture, employment and climate change.

“In light of the rhetoric surrounding the commitment to a more open, democratic, and participatory system of global governance that have become commonplace in recent years, we find the return to the semi-colonial approach of the developed countries in the UNCTAD negotiations outrageous,” says the international statement, which was co-ordinated by the Our World is Not For Sale network.

“We commend the former leadership and staff of UNCTAD who spoke up against this unacceptable situation last week, as well as the G77 for their statement that called the EU and JUSCANZ (see below) to account for their intransigent positions.”

At UNCTAD’s last conference in Accra, Ghana, the UN body received a mandate to look at climate issues. And in February this year, UNCTAD released a harsh critique of finance-driven globalization, which it said “has eroded the checks and balances that had previously helped channel market forces into the kind of creative and productive activities needed for long-term growth, and has instead encouraged short-term, and at times destructive, behaviour by banks, businesses, and households.”

At the meeting in Doha this week, the EU and JUSSCKANNZ (an alliance of Japan, the United States, Switzerland, Canada, South Korea, Australia, Norway, New Zealand, and Lichtenstein) are seeking to impose a mandate on UNCTAD to push developing countries to adopt investor protection and trade liberalization policies in accordance with the corporate interests of developed countries rather than considering how trade and investment can be harnessed for the purposes of sustainable and inclusive growth within developing countries themselves.

For example, Canada, through the JUSSCKANNZ group, would remove parts of the UNCTAD declaration that talked about the need to “reconnect finance with the real economy in support of inclusive and sustainable development.” The grouping wants to delete a statement that says, “Achieving sustainable growth and development calls for a transition to environmentally compatible patterns of production and consumption that safeguard the biosphere and the capability of its ecosystems to support human activity.”

This paragraph will give you a better idea of the political wrangling going over between the rich and developing or least developing country (LDC) groupings with respect to the UNCTAD mandate:

Contribute within its mandate and without duplicating the work of other international organizations, (EU, JZ) to the global effort to transition to a green economy in the context realize the objectives (EU, JZ) of trade and development (JZ) {of sustainable development, including through follow-up and implementation (G77&CHINA, EU retain) of the relevant outcomes of the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development;}{JZ delete}

(Note the EU and JZ preference for “transition to a green economy in the context of trade and development” over the G77 developing countries and Chinese wording in relation to the Rio+20 conference this summer. In both venues — UNCTAD and the UN Conference on Sustainable Development — the goal of Canada and other rich countries is to push more privatization, foreign direct investment and market opening on countries as a solution to the crisis in the profitability of their own firms, not the development of poorer countries.)

The international civil society letter sent to UNCTAD on Sunday calls on rich countries to abandon the pressure on the G77 negotiators, and instead work together with developing countries to ensure a forward-looking mandate for UNCTAD which, among other things, “recognizes both the costs as well as opportunities of trade, and directs UNCTAD to assist developing countries in utilizing trade for their development, rather than just advising them to join the WTO and other ‘free’ trade agreements.”

The mandate should also:

Acknowledge the problems of investor protection provisions in trade and investment agreements and mandate a role for UNCTAD in helping developing countries design investment policies that will benefit their sustainable and inclusive growth, as well as advocating for development-oriented best practices in investment policies globally.

The OWINFS statement is available here in: