The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) was created in 1964, following a resolution proposed and supported by the Group of 77 (G77) developing countries to hold UNCTAD I. At this conference, the G77 supported the creation of a permanent institution whose mandate would be ‘to formulate principles and policies on international trade and related problems of economic development’ (UNCTAD 1964, 15). Raúl Prebisch, who had written the report for the conference entitled “Towards a new trade policy for development”, became the first Secretary General of UNCTAD.
The Debt and Development Finance Branch (DDFB) located within the Globalization and Development Strategies Division (GDS) of UNCTAD is the focal point in the United Nations on debt and related systemic issues. Our analytical and policy work spans a broad array of topics (see Research for our permanent research topics and Projects for specific and timebound areas of work). The Branch plays an active role in promoting consensus building and cooperation around these topics, including the convening of the annual Intergovernmental Expert Group on Financing for Development (see Events) and the participation in a number of intergovernmental processes, including General Assembly Negotiations, UNCTAD Trade and Development Board (TDB), the Economic and Social Council, Financing for Development, and the G20.
Since its first session, UNCTAD has emphasized the interrelation between external financing, trade and development in developing countries. In his report, Prebisch stressed that a satisfactory rate of economic growth in developing countries (minimum of 5 per cent as indicated in the United Nations Development Decade of the 1960s) would require greater amounts of foreign exchange than they could normally earn through trade. The report recommended that preferential treatments of developing countries’ exports by developed countries would be part of the solution to the external financing gap. The report and the following UNCTAD conferences pointed out the risks of rising external debt of developing countries and stressed the shortcomings of an international monetary system based on the dollar as international currency.
Bielschowsky, R. and Macedo e Silva, A. C (2016). “The UNCTAD system of political economy," in: Erik S. Reinert & Jayati Ghosh & Rainer Kattel (ed.), Handbook of Alternative Theories of Economic Development, chapter 16, pages 291-304, Edward Elgar Publishing.
Rosenthal, G. (2005) The Economic and Social Council of the United Nations: an issues paper, Dialogue on Globalization, Occasional Papers, n. 15, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, New York
Toye, J. (2004) UNCTAD: a short history. New York, USA and Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations.
Kasahara, S (2004) “Money, finance and debt”, in: UNCTAD (2004). Beyond Conventional Wisdom in Development Policy: An Intellectual History of UNCTAD 1964–2004. New York, USA and Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations.
Since its inception, the United Nations has recognized the link between peace, security, and economic well-being, with the Economic and Social Council designed to deal with economic questions. Debt issues became one of the main economic themes of the Economic and Social Council from 1950s, amid a broader discussion of financing economic development of under-developed countries (as developing countries were characterized back then). In the beginning of the 1950s the discussion was more focused on the general role of international capital flows in fostering economic development than on the specific benefits and costs of the different modalities of such capital (e.g., Foreign Direct Investment and debt flows). The Council had a positive view of the role of these flows (United Nations Year Book, 1950 and 1951) and stressed that solving the problem of financing economic development was fundamental to the maintenance of the peace of mankind (United Nations Year Book, 1953).
In the light of this and calls for the Economic and Social Council to “consider practical methods, conditions and policies (including fiscal incentives) for achieving the adequate expansion and steadier flow of foreign capital, both public and private” (p. 27), the Council recommended the international lending institutions to make loans at interest rates and on terms of amortization that would place the smallest possible burden on under-developed countries (e.g., United Nations Year Book, 1952). Moreover, the General Assembly requested the Economic and Social Council to submit a detailed plan for establishing a special fund for grants-in-aid as well as for low-interest and long term loans to support their economic development (General Assembly Resolution 520 (VI) of 1st January 1952). Such a fund would be called Special United Nations Fund for Economic Development (SUNFED). In 1955, the General Assembly created the Ad Hoc Committee on the Question of the Establishment of the SUNFED, which was authorized to finance pre-investments in developing countries in 1958 (United Nations Year Book, 1957 and 1959).
Over the next three decades, other main theme of the General Assembly was the debt crises in many developing countries and the possible solutions. Reports of the Economic and Social Council called attention to the inadequacies of past and current Official Development Assistance (ODA), and the constraining impact of the growing external debt on the development agenda of developing countries. Measures to mitigate such impacts were also proposed, such as the increase in total external resources to developing countries, covering greater Special Drawing Rights (SDR) allocations and revision of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) quotas, operations and conditionalities (e.g., United Nations Year Book, 1978, 1982 and 1999). UNCTAD had turned its attention to possible ways and means of alleviating the debt burden of developing countries even before the 1982 debt crisis of Mexico. In 1977, UNCTAD called for explicit principles for sovereign debt rescheduling (resolution TD/AC 2/9) and, three years later, resolution 222 (XXI) of the UNCTAD Governing Body, the Trade and Development Board (TDB), agreed "Detailed Features for Future Operations Relating to the Debt Problems of Interested Developing Countries".
Over this time, the Branch continued to engage with in-depth policy-oriented research and analysis of evolving sovereign debt crises in developing countries through the flagship annual report, the Trade and Development (TDR) launched in 1981, and prepared the report by the United Nations Secretary-General on external debt sustainability in developing countries for the General Assembly since the early 1990s. The Branch also started to assist developing countries in their debt negotiations with foreign creditors. In 1975, resolution 132 (XV) of the TDB authorized its Secretary-General to provide appropriate assistance to these countries in relation to the holding of ad hoc meetings to examine debtor country requirements prior to debt renegotiations, as well as its Secretariat to participate in debt renegotiation meetings organized by the Paris Club on the same basis as other international organizations, with UNCTAD as the principal body of the United Nations interacting with the Paris Club.
UNCTAD accumulated experience dealing with debt problems and came to know first-hand the strengths and weaknesses of debt management systems in many developing countries. As a result, the Branch considered that enhancing the capacity of developing countries to manage their foreign debt would make a significant contribution to disentangling some aspects of the debt problem and in general lead to better external resource management. UNCTAD released its first version of a computer-based debt management system, known as the Debt Management and Financial Analysis System (DMFAS) in 1983 to fulfil the operational, statistical and analytical needs of debt management and external financial planning of these countries. Since then, the DMFAS Programme has established itself as one of the world's leading providers of technical cooperation and advisory services in the area of debt management.
UN (various years) Year Book. New York, USA and Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations.
United Nations General Assembly (1954) A/RES/824 (IX). International flow of private capital for the economic development of under-developed countries. Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 11 December. Available at: https://undocs.org/en/A/RES/824 (IX)
United Nations General Assembly (1952) A/RES/520 (VI) A-C. Financing of economic development of under-developed countries. Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 20 November. Available at: https://undocs.org/en/A/RES/520(VI)
United Nations General Assembly (1950) A/RES/400 (V). Financing of economic development of under-developed countries. Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 20 November. Available at: https://undocs.org/en/A/RES/400(V)
United Nations General Assembly (1958) A/RES/1318 (XIII). Promotion of the international flow of private capital. Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 12 December. Available at: https://undocs.org/en/A/RES/1318 (XIII)
United Nations General Assembly (1957) A/RES/1035 (XI). International flow of private capital for the economic development of under-developed countries. Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 26 February. Available at: https://undocs.org/en/A/RES/1035 (XI)
Our mandate derives from that entrusted to UNCTAD at every quadrennial conference, as well as at the International Conferences on Financing for Development. The last UNCTAD conference was in Nairobi in 2016, with the next conference in April 2021 in Barbados. The most recent International conference on Financing for Development (link to section below) took place in Addis Ababa in June 2015. The Nairobi Maafikiano highlighted the importance of effective macroeconomic and debt management policies to debt sustainability and economic development, and debt crisis prevention. It noted that many developing countries still have little fiscal space, and a number of African and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) are at a high risk of debt distress and highlighted the key roles of adequate regulation and supervision of financial markets, debt management, and promotion of responsible sovereign lending and borrowing to financial stability as well as crisis prevention and resolution mechanisms.
It asks UNCTAD to:
• Continue analytical work on how issues of debt and its impact on mobilization of resources can be addressed more effectively, and providing technical assistance and support for developing countries in building national capacities through the DMFAS Programme, in cooperation, where appropriate, with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and other stakeholders (paragraph 31 (c)).
• Assist the LDCs in assessing progress towards resource mobilization, economic diversification and competitiveness in support of their national development strategies (paragraph 41 (m)).
• Support the implementation of the Istanbul Programme of Action, in trade, development and interrelated issues in the areas of finance, technology, investment and sustainable development which resulted from the Fourth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries (paragraph 41 (n))
• Support, through its research and policy dialogue, efforts to improve access to finance for and delivery of financial services to SMEs, microenterprises and individuals in developing countries (paragraph 56 (d)).
This confirms the mandate of the Accra Accord, as follows:
• We recognize that mobilizing public and private financial resources for development is an integral element of the global partnership for development. We are concerned at the decline in the levels of ODA in recent years. We commend the sharp increase in ODA by a number of donor countries, and call upon all donors to honour their ODA commitments and to improve the effectiveness of ODA in support of nationally‐owned national development strategies. We also emphasize the special importance of continued work towards durable solutions to the debt sustainability and management problems of developing countries (paragraph 12).
• UNCTAD, as the focal point within the United Nations system for the integrated treatment of trade and development and interrelated issues in the areas of finance, technology, investment and sustainable development, should conduct research into and analysis of macroeconomic policies, trade, investment, finance, debt and poverty, and their interdependence. Such research should be used to help developing countries to meet their development goals, including poverty eradication, to improve the welfare of their citizens and to address the opportunities and challenges created by globalization (paragraph 35).
The Accra Accord specifically requests that UNCTAD should continue its analysis of debt and development finance issues and should maintain its capacity-building programme for public debt management. Moreover, UNCTAD should continue to provide technical assistance and support for developing countries in building national capacities through the DMFAS programme, in cooperation with the IMF, the World Bank and other stakeholders. UNCTAD should continue to contribute to multilateral processes on external debt and finance, including the “Paris Club” and the Development Cooperation Forum. Maximum synergy should be sought between analytical work and technical assistance (paragraph 40).
The Bangkok Plan of Action requires that UNCTAD should:
• Continue to provide a forum for the exchange of views and perspectives on 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. The objective of this work will be to help promote policies and strategies at the national and international level that are conducive to development. Regarding financial and monetary issues, UNCTAD work should bring in a development perspective. The focus should be on financing for development, consistent with efforts to ensure greater financial stability. Taking into account work done in other relevant organizations, UNCTAD should contribute to the debate on issues related to the strengthening and the ongoing reform of the international financial institutions, including the enhancing of early warning and response capabilities for dealing with the emergence and spread of financial crises, by continuing to provide relevant analysis from a development perspective. At the national level, UNCTAD could contribute to sound domestic macroeconomic and financial policies, administrative reforms and continuing efforts to promote a stable and transparent national legal and regulatory framework favourable to development. At the international level, this could be achieved through coherent international macroeconomic and financial policies and continuing efforts to promote stable international economic growth favourable to development (paragraph 107)
• UNCTAD analytical work related to the interdependence between trade, finance, technology and investment and to the impact of such interdependence on development should contribute to achieving coherence of global economic policy-making. UNCTAD should also continue to analyse the causes and effects of financial crises, including the serious crises in East Asia, and contribute to the debate on measures for the prevention, management and resolution of such crises (paragraph 108).
• In its work on ODA, UNCTAD should continue to analyse trends of ODA flows and their impact on developing countries (paragraph 111).
• In its analytical work on debt, UNCTAD should analyse the debt problems of all developing countries, taking into account their specificities, with a view to identifying effective, development-oriented and durable solutions (paragraph 112).
The Sao Paulo Consensus emphasizes the importance of debt sustainability and international public finance for development in paragraphs 16, 18-20 and 26, and states that at the international level, UNCTAD work should contribute to increasing coherence in global economic policy-making, particularly in terms of the interdependence and consistency of international trade, investment and financial policies and arrangements, with a view to helping developing countries to integrate successfully into the global economy and to reap greater benefits from globalization. It should continue to address problems of developing countries arising from international financial instability; the role of private and official flows in financing development; the question of debt sustainability; the impact of trade and macroeconomic policies in the advanced industrial countries on development prospects of the developing countries; and the impact of regional integration on development (paragraph 28).
• Based on its analytical work, UNCTAD should continue to provide technical assistance and support developing countries in building national capacities in the areas of debt management through the DMFAS Programme, and for their participation in multilateral negotiating processes and international decision-making. Maximum synergy should be sought between analytical work and technical assistance (paragraph 31, see also Accra Accord paragraph 40).
• The relationship between trade, debt and finance, and the relationship between trade and transfer of technology are important for developing countries. Consistent with the Doha mandates, work in these areas should continue in pursuit of the agreed objectives. This would inter alia contribute to increased technology flows to developing countries, strengthening of the coherence of international trade and financial policies, and a durable solution to the problem of external indebtedness of developing countries (paragraph 90).
• UNCTAD should contribute to the analysis of the linkages between trade and trade-related interests of developing countries, financial flows, debt relief and debt sustainability (paragraph 106).
Since the early 2000s, financing for development has become prominent on the United Nations agenda under the lead of Economic and Social Council, as the lead reviewer of the financing for development follow-up process (https://www.un.org/ecosoc/en/spring-meeting-of-ecosoc). In the first International Conference on Financing for Development, held in Monterrey, Mexico, the Heads of State and Government adopted the Monterrey Consensus (United Nations, 2002). The goal of the Consensus was to eradicate poverty, achieve sustained economic growth and promote sustainable development as the world advances to a fully inclusive and equitable global economic system. A key emphasis was placed on debt resolution, , responsible borrowing and lending, the role of debt management and improved effectiveness of debt sustainability analysis. These themes continue to be part of the Financing for Development agenda monitored by the Financing for Development Office (FfDO), established within the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) after Monterrey.
At the second Financing for Development Conference held in Doha in December 2008, Member States reaffirmed the Monterrey Consensus and adopted, by consensus, the Doha Declaration on Financing for Development. Such declaration reaffirmed debt resolution principles from the Monterrey Consensus and agreed to intensify efforts to prevent debt crises by enhancing international financial mechanisms for crisis prevention and resolution, in co-operation with the private sector, and by finding solutions that are transparent and agreeable to all (United Nations, 2008).
The third conference held in Addis Ababa in 2015 provides a new global framework for financing sustainable development, which supports implementation of the 2030 Agenda, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Agenda aligns all domestic and international resource flows, policies, and international agreements with economic, social, and environmental priorities. It incorporates all the SDGs means of implementation targets into a comprehensive financing framework, and serves as a guide for further actions by governments, international organizations, the business sector, civil society, and philanthropists. The Addis Agenda established an annual Economic and Social Council Forum on Financing for Development (FfD Forum), and called for the convening of a Inter-Agency Task Force on Financing for Development, which provides major substantive input to the FfD Forum and supports the deliberations of the United Nations High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (United Nations, 2015).
The 2030 Agenda highlights the need to assist developing countries in attaining long-term debt sustainability through coordinated policies aimed at fostering debt financing, debt relief, debt restructuring and sound debt management, and to keep supporting the remaining Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC)-eligible countries that are working to complete the HIPC process. Specifically, Goal 17 of the SDGs is to revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development as successful sustainable development agenda requires partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil society in the areas of finance, technology, capacity building and systemic issues. Within the area of finance, the Goal 17.4 is to assist developing countries in attaining long-term debt sustainability through coordinated policies aimed at fostering debt financing, debt relief and debt restructuring, as appropriate, and address the external debt of highly indebted poor countries to reduce debt distress. The 2030 Agenda states that debtors and creditors must work together to prevent and resolve unsustainable debt situations, stressing that although maintaining sustainable debt levels is the responsibility of the borrowing countries, lenders also have a responsibility to lend in a way that does not undermine a country’s debt sustainability. In this regard, the agenda takes note of the UNCTAD principles on responsible sovereign lending and borrowing and affirms the importance of debt restructurings being timely, orderly, effective, fair, and negotiated in good faith.
UN (2015) Addis Ababa Action Agenda of the Third International Conference on Financing for Development (Addis Ababa Action Agenda), Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 13-16 July 2015.
UN (2008) Doha Declaration on Financing for Development: outcome document of the Follow-up International Conference on Financing for Development to Review the Implementation of the Monterrey Consensus (A/CONF.212/L.1/Rev.1). Available at: http://www.leadinggroup.org/IMG/pdf_Doha_declaration_on_financing_financing_for_development.pdf
UN (2002) Monterrey Consensus of the International Conference on Financing for Development. Monterrey, Mexico, 18-22 March 2002. Available at: https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/generalassembly/docs/globalcompact/A_CONF.198_11.pdf
United Nations General Assembly (2003) A/RES/57/273: Ensuring effective secretariat support for sustained follow-up to the outcome of the International Conference on Financing for Development. Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 24 January. Available at: https://undocs.org/en/A/RES/57/273
Stephanie Blankenburg, Head
Penelope Hawkins, Senior Economic Affairs Officer
Daniela Prates, Senior Economic Affairs Officer
Kristine Fitzpatrick, Economic Affairs Officer
Rachid Bouhia, Economic Affairs Officer
Ngoc Nguyen, Economic Affairs Officer
Yihong Gong, Research Assistant
Ursula Moehrle, Programme Assistant
Enquiries and comments may be directed to:
Debt and Development Finance Branch
UNCTAD Palais des Nations
8-14, Avenue de la Paix
1211 Geneva 10 Switzerland
T: +41 22 917 5977