UNCTAD at 50: A Short History

The structure of the book reflects the author’s general approach of emphasizing external rather than internal forces in the explanation of organizational change. The opening chapter asks the questions, “where did UNCTAD come from?” and “what were the forces that brought it into being?” It explores the preconditions of the organization’s coming into existence. Chapters II to VIII contain the historical narrative of UNCTAD’s activities, achievements and transformations to date.

Chapter II details the compromises that shaped UNCTAD’s establishment and its initial teething troubles, its effect in galvanizing other international economic institutions and its achievements in combating shipping cartels and other restrictive practices. Chapter III concentrates on Raúl Prebisch’s attempts to realize his substantive agenda for UNCTAD of more commodity price agreements, a mechanism for supplementary financing and tariff preferences for the industrial exports of developing countries. On the latter, success finally came in the shape of an agreement to set up a generalized system of preferences.

Chapter IV follows the continued pursuit of Prebisch’s agenda after his abrupt departure in 1969, through the more turbulent years of the 1970s, and the reasons why meagre results were harvested from these efforts. Chapter V discusses why UNCTAD’s bold strategy to give substance to the demand for a new international economic order unravelled, how the North–South dialogue finally collapsed and the effect of the debt crisis of the 1980s on the solidarity of the Group of 77. It also celebrates two successful new initiatives from UNCTAD in the face of these events – the launch of the Debt Management and Financial Analysis System and the Trade and Development Report.

Chapter VI charts a decade-long reorientation of UNCTAD’s priorities, under the pressure from industrial countries on the United Nations to reform itself. New leaders were more encouraging towards developing country participation in the Uruguay Round of the GATT. This hastened the integration of developing countries into the GATT system and weakened the unity of the Group of 77. UNCTAD eventually lost its negotiating status on trade matters and was downsized, but it found some new points of growth, including in the field of international investment. Chapter VII is concerned with how UNCTAD adjusted to the arrival on the international scene of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and undertook its positive trade agenda. While UNCTAD steadily pursued the search for consensus, disagreement, frustration and failure increasingly afflicted the negotiations in the WTO. As long as trade and development remain such contentious issues, confrontation over them will resurface somewhere in the international system.

Chapter VIII brings the story up to date. It chronicles some loss of impetus in the field of trade, the measures of rationalization and organizational streamlining flowing from the first report of the UNCTAD Panel of Eminent Persons and the changes in the tone of research and advocacy that followed the 2007/08 financial and economic crisis. The last sections of the chapter cover the difficult negotiations at the thirteenth session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, UNCTAD XIII, in Doha over the role of macroeconomics and finance in organization’s current mandate.

Chapter IX asks, “where should UNCTAD be going?” There can be no going back to the past, to the so-called “golden years” of the 1960s and 1970s that were not in fact particularly golden. I argue that UNCTAD has, in one way or another, embraced globalization right from the outset, even while – at least in some parts of the house – recognizing its shortcomings. So I speculate that its future will lie with identifying the threats to globalization arising in the trade and development area and playing an appropriate part in managing those risks. The final chapter sets out what I see as the five major risks to the project of globalization, which are all related to gaps in the international governance regime. It explores their implications for UNCTAD’s future role, while recognizing that the member States will themselves take the decisions on mandates and work programmes. Since all activities will have to be justified in competition with the claims of other international organizations, I argue that an improved system of independent evaluation will become an important competitive advantage.

UNCTAD at 50: A Short History (UNCTAD/OSG/2014/1)
05 Jun 2014