Is the world integrating or disintegrating?

12 September 2017

Delegates spotlight the benefits of regional and multilateral integration in turbulent times, at UNCTAD Trade and Development Board session.

Representatives from the OECD, ASEAN, the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Commission today underscored the importance of maintaining the momentum of cooperation between countries, given that it has spurred productivity and prosperity during turbulent times in international affairs.

Opening a high-level event on the second today of UNCTAD's Trade and Development Board session, Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi reminded delegates that trade can act as an engine for integration and warned how recent political events such as Brexit and the new US administration's approach to trade policy have called into question a decade of resurgent regionalism.

"It is our hope that continued dialogues with regional organizations can help to disseminate the policy lessons different regions have learned and to jointly address the policy challenges we will continue to face together," he said.

At Monday's opening session of the Trade and Development Board, Dr. Kituyi had warned against a focus in global commerce on "mercantilist self-interest rather than development-oriented mutual benefit."

The power that trade has to address inequalities within and between countries was underlined on Tuesday by OECD Deputy Secretary-General Douglas Frantz, who focused a portion of his presentation on the power of regional trade agreements to bring about integration.

"Our success depends on our ability to maintain and strengthen multilateral cooperation," he said. "The consensus among all the organizations represented here - from UNCTAD, ASEAN and the OECD - is that integration is the right path to prosperity and inclusion for the world."

Mr. Frantz also referenced analysis which concluded that there remains "considerable potential" to consolidate regional integration projects at the multilateral level, with the important caveat that governments would be key actors in activating this potential.

Delegates heard that regional integration in the ASEAN context has progressed despite the diversity of development levels and economic models in the participating counties.

As 7% of global trade happens in ASEAN countries, Secretary-General Mr. Le Luong Minh told the forum how removing barriers to regional trade has led to increased propsperity but also provided health benefits for a population which now numbers 635 million.

ASEAN, the 10-country Southeast Asian grouping that is this year celebrating its 50th anniversary, was lauded by Dr. Kituyi for its approach, as it offers powerful lessons.

"At a time of anxiety over regional integration and multilateralism, we celebrate the pragmatic approach of ASEAN - crab-walking, two steps forward, one step back, one step sideways - which seems to have served them very well. And we hope that it can inform international discourse at a time when there is so much rejectionism," he said.

The Trade and Development Board meets up to three times a year in between the quadrennial editions of the UN Conference on Trade and Development.

This session, the 64th, is taking stock of the work done since the UNCTAD XIV summit, held in Kenya in July 2016. The "Nairobi Maafikiano" report, adopted by governments there, highlighted the link between regional integration and sustainable development.

This edition also offers an opportunity to review the evolution of the world economy in 2016 and 2017 and analyze the factors that are making this recovery the longest and slowest on record.