- In the early 1960s, growing concerns about the place of developing countries in international trade led many of these countries to call for the convening of a full-fledged conference specifically devoted to tackling these problems and identifying appropriate international actions.
- The first United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) was held in Geneva in 1964.
Given the magnitude of the problems at stake and the need to address them, the conference was institutionalized to meet every four years, with intergovernmental bodies meeting between sessions and a permanent secretariat providing the necessary substantive and logistical support.
- Simultaneously, the developing countries established the Group of 77 to voice their concerns. (Today, the G77 has 131 members.)
- The prominent Argentinian economist Raúl Prebisch, who had headed the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, became the organization's first Secretary-General.
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- In its early decades of operation, UNCTAD gained authoritative standing:
- as an intergovernmental forum for North-South dialogue and negotiations on issues of interest to developing countries, including debates on the "New International Economic Order".
- for its analytical research and policy advice on development issues.
- Agreements launched by UNCTAD during this time include:
- the Generalized System of Preferences (1968), whereby developed economies grant improved market access to exports from developing countries.
- a number of International Commodities Agreements, which aimed at stabilizing the prices of export products crucial for developing countries.
- the Convention on a Code of Conduct for Liner Conferences, which strengthened the ability of developing countries to maintain national merchant fleets.
- the adoption of a Set of Multilaterally Agreed Equitable Principles and Rules for the Control of Restrictive Business Practices. This work later evolved into what is today known as "Trade and Competition Policies".
- Furthermore, UNCTAD was a key contributor to:
- the definition of the target of 0.7% of gross domestic product (GDP) to be given as official development aid by developed countries to the poorest countries, as adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1970.
- the identification of the Group of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) as early as 1971, which drew attention to the particular needs of these poorest countries. UNCTAD became the focal point within the UN system for tackling LDC-related economic development issues.
- In the 1980s, UNCTAD was faced with a changing economic and political environment:
- There was a significant transformation in economic thinking. Development strategies became more market-oriented, focusing on trade liberalization and privatization of state enterprises.
- A number of developing countries were plunged into severe debt crises. Despite structural adjustment programs by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, most developing countries affected were not able to recover quickly. In many cases, they experienced negative growth and high rates of inflation. For this reason, the 1980s become known as the "lost decade", particularly in Latin America.
- Economic interdependence in the world increased greatly.
- In the light of these developments, UNCTAD multiplied efforts aimed at:
- strengthening the analytical content of its intergovernmental debate, particularly regarding macroeconomic management and international financial and monetary issues.
- broadening the scope of its activities to assist developing countries in their efforts to integrate into the world trading system. In this context,
- the technical assistance provided by UNCTAD to developing countries was particularly important in the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations, which had begun under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1986. UNCTAD played a key role in supporting the negotiations for the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).
- UNCTAD's work on trade efficiency (customs facilitation, multimodal transport) made an important contribution to enabling developing economies to reap greater gains from trade.
- UNCTAD assisted developing countries in the rescheduling of official debt in the Paris Club negotiations.
- promoting South-South cooperation. In 1989, the Agreement on the Global System of Trade Preferences among Developing Countries (GSTP) came into force. It provided for the granting of tariff as well as non-tariff preferences among its members. To date, the Agreement has been ratified by 44 countries.
- addressing the concerns of the poorest nations by organizing the first UN Conference on Least Developed Countries in 1981. Since then, two other international conferences have been held at 10-year intervals.
- Key developments in the international context:
- The conclusion of the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations under the GATT resulted in the establishment of the World Trade Organizationin 1995, which led to a strengthening of the legal framework governing international trade.
- A spectacular increase in international financial flows led to increasing financial instability and volatility.
- Against this background, UNCTAD's analysis gave early warning concerning the risks and the destructive impact of financial crises on development. Consequently, UNCTAD emphasized the need for a more development-oriented "international financial architecture".
- Foreign direct investment flows became a major component of globalization.
- UNCTAD highlighted the need for a differentiated approach to the problems of developing countries. Its tenth conference, held in Bangkok in February 2000, adopted a political declaration – "The Spirit of Bangkok" – as a strategy to address the development agenda in a globalizing world.
- In recent years, UNCTAD has
- further focused its analytical research on the linkages between trade, investment, technology and enterprise development.
- put forward a "positive agenda" for developing countries in international trade negotiations, designed to assist developing countries in better understanding the complexity of the multilateral trade negotiations and in formulating their positions.
- Expanded work on international investment issues, following the merger into UNCTAD of the New York–based United Nations Centre on Transnational Corporations in 1993.
- expanded and diversified its technical assistance, which today covers a wide range of areas, including training trade negotiators and addressing trade-related issues; debt management, investment policy reviews and the promotion of entrepreneurship; commodities; competition law and policy; and trade and environment.