• 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.
Phase 1: The 1960s and 1970s
  • 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 launch
Phase 2: The 1980s

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.
Phase 3: From the 1990s until today
  • 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.

DECADE 2010-2020

In 2013, UNCTAD celebrated its 50th anniversary in a decade fraught with widening inequality and increased vulnerability, making its mandate to serve the world’s poorest countries ever more pressing.

Key developments in the international context:

  • The 2011-2020 decade was bookended by two devastating events. Firstly, the fallout from the 2008-2009 global financial crisis; and secondly, the deep recession caused by the world-altering COVID-19 pandemic. The decade’s developments took place against the backdrop of exponential technological growth and the associated rise of social media, which facilitated mass global connection while also heightening divisions.
  • Throughout the decade, the world confronted enormous challenges in the areas of finance, food security, climate change, environment, inequality and poverty.
  • In the early part of the decade, the world struggled with low growth rates – a situation that continued in the latter half too – alongside an inability to restart economic engines to bounce back from the financial crisis. Emerging markets faltered with the withdrawal of monetary stimuli by central banks and big finance was not adequately reformed. Many governments also adopted austerity measures when public spending could have offset economic woes through the decade.
  • In the context of the United Nations, the organization reoriented itself towards a new development framework focused on sustainable development and delivered through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) replaced the Millennium Development Goals and came with a call for efforts at an unprecedented scale to end extreme poverty and develop sustainably.
  • The Paris Agreement signed in 2015 set the scene for multilateral support for a climate-focused agenda. Mass mobilization around the climate agenda took root this decade amid increasing pressure on businesses and government to take up the climate challenge and protect people and the planet.
  • In the latter half of the decade, the trade environment was deeply shaped by the United Kingdom’s decision to exit the European Union, and trade tensions between China and the United States. Global foreign direct investment also dropped off in the latter half of the decade.
  • On the upside, in 2018, the African Continental Free Trade Agreement was signed and came into effect in 2020, raising hopes for a new age of decisive, pan-African policymaking on trade and development.
  • In general, global politics was influenced by a rise in protectionism, nationalism and right-wing extremism, prompting increased division. Trust in the multilateral system also plummeted alongside a popular backlash against globalization.
  • To top a tumultuous decade, in 2019, a new virus emerged in China, eventually becoming a global pandemic. The COVID-19 virus spread across the world in 2020 shuttering businesses and life as we know it.


In light of global developments, and under the realization that the dream of “prosperity for all” is still out of reach for many people, UNCTAD multiplied efforts aimed at:

  • Advocating for a more inclusive globalization while pointing out the urgent need for increased productive capacity, especially in least developed countries.
  • Analysing the impact of the lopsided influence of financial markets, high levels of indebtedness, trade imbalances, rising unemployment, uneven economic growth, upward trends in food prices and the volatility of exchange rates and commodity prices, all of which are particularly damaging for developing countries.
  • Aligning UNCTAD’s economic and trade agenda with sustainable development efforts and the SDGs, while positioning the organization at the centre of dialogue on the trade and economic dimension of the goals.
  • Monitoring growing inequality within and across countries, and the long-lasting negative effects of the global financial crisis on the world economy.
  • Making contributions to many international gatherings, such as the:
    • Fourth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries in Istanbul in 2011.
    • The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in 2012.
    • Revival of the Doha Development Agenda in Bali in 2013.
    • The Geneva Dialogues, which fed the overall SDG development process in 2013.
    • Annual World Economic Forums.
  • Hosting mandate- and agenda-setting ministerial conferences in Doha, Qatar (2012, UNCTAD13) and Nairobi, Kenya (2016, UNCTAD14) and planning for a delayed UNCTAD15 in Bridgetown, Barbados (scheduled for 2020 and moved to 2021 due to COVID-19).
  • Reorienting and strengthening the UNCTAD work programme on the gainful integration of developing countries into the world economy to align it with the ambitious 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda and the Paris Agreement on climate change under the Nairobi Maafikiano.
  • Orientating our unique contributions to sustainable development, financing for development and climate action across several cross-cutting objectives, including strengthening multilateralism for trade and development, advancing structural transformation and resilience, promoting sustainable economic growth, and supporting implementation and follow-up to the 2030 Agenda.
  • Working to renew and revitalize multilateralism and stave off a popular backlash against globalization and declining trust in the multilateral trading system by demonstrating the positive outcomes of multilateral processes.
  • Emphasizing the challenges and opportunities of digitalization for development while mapping the extent of the growing digital divides and helping advance policies to close them.
  • Facilitating efforts to reduce pressure from rising tensions over trade and technology and a fragmented political landscape.
  • Supporting nations to design policies to enhance their productive capacities and tap into the opportunities offered by e-commerce and new technologies.
  • Contributing to efforts to reform the United Nations Development System.
  • Spelling out how trade can be part of the climate solution.
  • Helping kick off a “Decade of Action” to accelerate progress towards the SDGs.

UNCTAD continues catalysing change as the world races to meet the SDGs by 2030.