UN Trade and Development: Pioneering global economic and development thought for decades

06 June 2024

Since 1981, the Trade and Development Report has provided rigorous research and policy recommendations, catalysing new thinking on how developing countries can face up to challenges ranging from debt crises and unbalanced globalization to financial instability and climate change.

A tractor plows through a wheat field

In a fast-changing global economy, where events and policies in one country or region reverberate worldwide, UN Trade and Development’s (UNCTAD) research and analysis provide essential clarity and balanced insights.

The flagship Trade and Development Report has consistently cut through complex, systemic economic issues, offering rigorous and independent research and forward-thinking policy recommendations.

Challenging mainstream views and basing its analysis on the concept of global interdependence, the report series has spearheaded alternative perspectives focused on developing countries’ needs and challenges, considering different policy areas and how their interactions determine development outcomes.

As UN Trade and Development celebrates its 60th anniversary, we highlight how the Trade and Development Report has over time influenced economic thought, policies and development strategies worldwide.

1980s: Addressing the debt crisis and structural challenges

The change of the decade into the 1980s marked a shift in the macroeconomic policy orientation, starting in major industrialized countries. First published in 1981, the Trade and Development Report identified this change as an important element amplifying the crises in developing countries during this period, often referred to as the “Lost Decade”.

The Latin American external debt crisis initiated the “Lost Decade”, as it was coined by academics at the end of the 1980s. It describes severe economic setbacks during this period, marked by soaring debt, high inflation, and stagnant growth, leading to widespread economic hardship and financial instability, further exacerbated by a sharp decline in commodity prices at the beginning of the decade.

Consequently, Trade and Development Reports during these years focused on debt sustainability and the economic policy reforms included in the structural adjustment programmes imposed by international financial institutions on developing countries in that period. The reports flagged critical issues resulting from the combined impact of austerity measures and economic liberalization, including the design of the international trading system and the governance of the international monetary and financial system.

Warning that the results often meant reduced economic growth without really addressing underlying structural issues, the series called for a more balanced, fairer approach including debt relief and growth-oriented policies with stronger institutions and a more prominent role for the public sector to enable economic recovery.


  • The 1982 report highlighted paradoxes such as the requirement for debtor nations to honour their obligations while creditor nations restricted imports, exacerbating economic challenges.
  • The 1985 report outlined the need for a comprehensive rather than a case-by-case approach to debt relief, highlighting the need for policies that support long-term development as opposed to short-term financial stabilization.

1990s: Navigating globalization and liberalization

The 1990s marked a pivotal era of globalization characterized by trade liberalization and financial deregulation. While, on average, the decade saw global economic growth, it also witnessed worsening inequalities and instability.

The Trade and Development Report was often ahead of the curve in identifying emerging challenges.

During this decade, UNCTAD was practically the only international organization warning about the risks of countries like Mexico and Thailand rapidly opening up their capital accounts. It was also alone in flagging the possibility that middle-income countries could become trapped in low-value-added stages of international production networks, or highlighting the threat growing levels of inequality posed to economic and social stability.

Analysing the challenges of globalization, the reports emphasized the need for more strategic integration of developing countries into the global economy. They called for more robust industrialization policies, better management of capital flows and stronger social safety nets to protect vulnerable populations.


  • The 1992 report suggested sequencing trade liberalization appropriately in developing countries, carefully opening sectors to international competition and timing this with complementary industrial policies to support the learning process of companies.
  • The 1997 report highlighted the crucial role of company profits in driving growth dynamics and introduced the concept of the profit-investment nexus for industrialization.
  • The 1998 report analysed the financial turmoil sweeping across the global economy following the East Asian crisis, calling for a fresh approach to managing international financial crises, using lower interest rates, expanded liquidity and higher public expenditure to reverse economic and social collapse.

2000s: Addressing financial crises and the growing climate emergency

The 2000s were marked by major shocks, including the bursting of the dotcom bubble and the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. This decade also saw the emergence of climate change as a critical global economic challenge.

Trade and Development Reports during this period analysed the macroeconomic and financial developments leading to these shocks, stressing that global imbalances and financial globalization had paved the way to a volatile, boom-bust economy with negative outcomes, including rising inequality. They explored how the crises spread from developed to developing economies through financial flows, trade, commodity prices, remittances and external debt.

The series also emphasized the need to integrate climate change mitigation into growth and development strategies, highlighting the opportunities and challenges for developing countries in the fast-growing markets for "environmental goods."


  • The 2000 report assessed the build-up of the dotcom bubble, highlighting the role of speculative investments that later proved to be a major cause of the 2008-2009 financial crisis.
  • The 2009 report examined the ways deregulation can lead to uncontrolled financial innovations, allowing the financial sector to dominate the "real" economy and become detached from productive sectors.

2010s: Promoting balanced growth strategies and sustainability

The 2010s were characterized by the lingering effects of the trade shock and the global financial crisis, including sluggish economic growth, rising inequality and the urgent need to address climate change and promote sustainable development.

Trade and Development Reports during this decade highlighted the unbalanced and destabilizing nature of the world economy. They were an important voice arguing that post-crisis austerity measures not only worsened these issues and hit the poorest hardest but also failed to resolve fiscal deficit or stimulate growth.

The series recommended balanced growth strategies for developing countries and emphasized coordinated, expansionary, global efforts to revive demand, reduce inequality and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in 2015.


  • The 2013 report urged developed countries to address the root causes of the crisis, including rising income inequality, the diminishing role of the state, a poorly regulated financial sector and global imbalances.
  • The 2017 report probed deeply into links between inequality and instability, including the macroeconomic dynamics of gender exclusion, market power and rentier capitalism. It drew on the lessons from the 1930s to call for a global New Deal.
  • The 2019 report built on these foundations and addressed climate issues, showing how a Global Green New Deal could revive economic growth through coordinated public expenditures and developmental public institutions. It emphasized the need to address the imbalances caused by hyperglobalization.

2020s: Tackling cascading crises and building resilience

The current decade has been marked by cascading crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, an accelerating climate emergency and a looming debt crisis in the developing world.

Trade and Development Reports during this latest period have shed light on these intertwined shocks, stressing the need for coordinated global efforts to build resilience and promote inclusive development. The reports have called for a fundamental shift in growth strategies to create a more resilient and equitable world.

The central arguments to this end build around the identified need for strategic price controls, a better use of windfall taxes to support vulnerable populations, bolder reforms to the global financial architecture and tighter regulations on commodity trading and speculation.


  • The 2020 report emphasized the need to promote global cooperation and to rethink and revive multilateralism to address pre-existing conditions that the pandemic exposed, such as growing inequalities between and within nations, mounting debt burdens in developing countries and environmental degradation.
  • The 2023 report warned of the risks of a stalling global economy with divergent growth paths and a potential debt-triggered developmental crisis. It called for a balanced policy mix of fiscal, monetary and supply-side measures to boost investment, create jobs and ensure financial sustainability. The report also urged a massive scaling up and better alignment of climate and development finance.

Forward together: Evolving to meet new challenges

As the decade progresses, the Trade and Development Report will remain essential in guiding the global community through the complexities of post-pandemic recovery, digital transformation, and just, sustainable, green economy transitions.

As UN Trade and Development celebrates its 60th anniversary, the enduring legacy of the report series highlights the organization’s leading role in shaping a more inclusive and sustainable global economic system.