After Seattle we urgently need a "world parliament on globalization". UNCTAD-X, 12-19 February 2000, in Bangkok is the best opportunity at hand for that purpose.
The background: The Seattle events were a worrying way of ending a century and starting a new one. Far from being an isolated incident, they were the last episode in a series of events of a negative nature. They came after the painful process that characterized the preparatory negotiations among WTO members in Geneva and, a little before, the equally difficult choice of a new Director General for the organization. But the problem was not confined to WTO. The negotiations about a Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) in OECD led nowhere and had to be abandoned. Despite the frequency and virulence of currency and financial crisis, first in Mexico, then in Asia, the financial organizations did not succeed so far in adopting effective policies to deal with some of the causes of the crisis, particularly the dangerous destabilizating effect of short-term financial volatility. Even the Uruguay Round only came to a conclusion after two serious stalemates in Montreal (December 1988) and Brussels (December 1990).
This string of events share a double characteristic. On the one hand, they show an increasing difficulty of governments and international organizations of reaching meaningful and effective decisions. On the other hand, they are often composed or complicated by a persistent inability of engaging civil society around the world in a systematic and ordered debate about decisions that will deeply affect common peoples´ lives everywhere. In spite of the growing importance played by non-State actors - NGOs, religious organizations, the private sector, trade unions - it seems that the current structure of international relations is unable to offer these actors an opportunity to participate in the discussion of problems, the decision-making process or the implementation of policies. The net result is that frustration, fears and concerns finally find expression in a confrontational and sometimes violent attitude often leading to disruption and a feeling of confusion. There is a clear need to reach out to the concerned individuals and organizations, to offer them an opportunity to be heard by governments not only when they march or protest in the streets, to start a process of ordered and respectful dialogue with those who want to debate the central issues related to trade, investment, financial crisis, job insecurity, growing inequality inside nations and among them.
The role of UNCTAD-X: Coming so immediately after Seattle and constituting the first major intergovernmental economic conference in the new century and millennium, UNCTAD-X presents us with an opportunity that should not be missed. Its agenda closely mirrors the discussion in Seattle: the future of world trade, the role of investment and transnational corporations, the need for adequate competition rules, all this from a development perspective and in a country and region recently emerging from the most destructive crisis of recent years.
The conference in Bangkok could and should be used by national governments and international organizations to show that they are genuinely sensitive to the concerns of people who have been taking to the street to demonstrate and that they are ready to engage them in a process of open, transparent and mutually respectful dialogue.
In other words, UNCTAD-X is particularly suited to become a sort of "world parliament for globalization". As UNCTAD is not dealing with rule-making, the negotiation of trade agreements or dispute-settlement like WTO, it provides a more relaxed and congenial atmosphere for such debate. UNCTAD already has an old and established relationship with NGOs and the private sector because of its non-negotiating character. It is understandable that when governments are negotiating complex trade rules or are trying to find solutions to problems arising from the clash of concrete economic interests, it is difficult to conduct the kind of participatory debate that we have in mind.
What does it mean to have a "world parliament on globalization"? A parliament is not only a place where new bills are approved and become laws. It is first and foremost a forum to discuss important issues in a representative and legitimate context and with due and ordered process. Its ultimate objective is not to impose artificial consensus or to eliminate difference of approaches and priorities that characterize the existence of parties, fractions and the perspective of regions. The goal of a parliament is to achieve that realistic degree of possible compromise, that minimum common denominator that will allow making decisions that reflect a majority, but respect the rights of a minority.
It is in this conduct that UNCTAD-X can offer the international community an opportunity to conduct a thorough examination and discussion of the experience with globalization and development with three main objectives:
- to take stock of what has happened so far, the successes and failures;
- to identify what was missing in approaches and policies;
- to map the road ahead of us, what are the challenges in terms of needed regulations for the problems brought by the globalized economy and in what institutions should this work be pursued.
As to the latter, the question is foremost how to deal with the need for developing countries to seek their integration into the world economy in such a way that guarantees sustainable integration, which will be achieved in an appropriate sequence of steps and will finally bring about results of increasing quality for all participants involved. In other words, the challenge for developing countries is the quality and not the quantity of integration into the global economy. It is in this respect that UNCTAD is best suited to help the developing countries through its action-oriented approach to research and policy analysis, technical assistance and consensus-building. Examples include our work on:
- a positive agenda and the preparation of developing countries for multilateral trade negotiations. Noteworthy in this regard is the fact that more than 50 per cent of the tabled suggestions for Seattle were initiated by developing countries.
- International investment agreements and the efforts to place developing countries in a position to effectively discuss and negotiate such investment agreements at the bilateral, regional and multilateral levels, as they choose. Witness our assistance in the recent negotiations of BITs among member countries of the Group of 15, the series of regional symposia and the series of monographs on key issues in investment agreements.
- our lead role in the preparation of the third United Nations Conference for the least developed countries, which will be hosted by the European Union in Brussels in 2001, and our related efforts to have this conference produce concrete outputs that will make a difference in the lives of the people of these countries. Witness the LDC Investment Guides project.
It is my dear wish that UNCTAD X will further strengthen this role of our organization as a knowledge-based organization that serves consensus-building on new emerging issues and that is at the forefront of international policy dialogue in the new millennium.