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Raj Patel © 2000


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Earlier this month, with colourful protesters, teargas, custard pies and the other accoutrements of international economic institutional gatherings, the Tenth United Nations Conference on Trade and Development summit was held in Bangkok. UNCTAD needed this conference to be a success. In 1995, the institution had seemed all but doomed, with many Northern governments, and particularly the United States, arguing that the World Trade Organisation's Committee On Development was the new and appropriate place for trade-related development concerns, and therefore that UNCTAD had outlived its usefulness. UNCTAD itself did little to dispel this impression, by holding a largely inconsequential Ninth Summit in Midrand, South Africa, in 1996. After Seattle, however, the WTO is no longer the beacon of legitimacy and hope that Northern governments would have wished, and as a result, UNCTAD has become, once again, a useful, organisation. The final document produced by participants at the Bangkok summit subtly but unmistakably indicts the Northern-led international economic experiment over the past decades. Developing countries seem to have found their forum once again. But beneath the surface, all is not well.

UNCTAD was set up in 1964 as a direct organ of the United Nations General Assembly, designed to promote the economic well-being of the newly independent and developing nations. Its work involved the creation of the Generalised System of Preferences, a system of reduced tariffs and quotas for developing countries, together with a system of primary commodity price supports. These supports were designed to nurture these developing economies, whose main source of foreign exchange lay in the export of these primary commodities. In 1974, the Group of 77 developing countries asserted the need for a more systematic approach to the integration of developing countries into the global economy. Their proposal, called the New International Economic Order alarmed many developed countries, and the launch of the NIEO, together with the isolationist response of the North to the oil shocks, and the rise of monetarist economic theory, marked the beginning of UNCTAD's decreasing usefulness.

Circumstances seem to have changed, however. After Seattle, the ball seems to be very much in UNCTAD's court. They have the legitimacy of being part of the UN system, and of arriving at decisions through processes that do not exclude the world's poorest countries. And the Plan of Action produced at Bangkok shows that there is room still within the UN system for at least a modest critique of the existing economic order.

"It is clear", says the Plan of Action "that while the rules-based system seeks to establish a level playing field, remaining barriers have a negative impact, including on developing countries". Whilst trade barriers in the main markets are now generally low for most trade of developed countries, there is a lack of equal opportunities for developing countries, exports in the present system. The Plan of Action targets high non-tariff barriers, particularly in the textile industry, and high barriers to the import of agricultural products into Northern countries as issues of particular concern. Anti-dumping measures and countervailing duties used by the US and EU are also targeted. Special attention was directed to the group of 48 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in the final document, and UNCTAD X participants urged that Northern countries make good on their commitments to allow duty free access for most commodities from LDCs.

Yet, as many commentators note, this is nonetheless a surprisingly tepid document, given the considerable heat of some of the debates in Bangkok. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the head of the Organisation of African Unity, gave a speech in which he pilloried current debt-relief initiatives, arguing that "forgiving a dying man's debt is not enough", and his speech was met with a standing ovation. Chakravarthi Raghavan, of the Third World Network, reports that it was hard to find any official delegate who, in private, did not admit to being deeply unhappy with the current international trading system. Rubens Ricupero, the Secretary General of UNCTAD himself noted that "Globalisation is not an unstoppable change sweeping inevitably across the face of the world at least in part, it is a work of deliberate construction".

These are all fighting words. But in the process from moving to rhetoric to action, something odd happened. The same Rubens Ricupero that noted the political construction of the current global economic order also called for the abandonment of extremism in economic policy by all sides,. He urged a self-censored economic policy that belonged neither to the old left or right, saying, "Let us finally put away those doctrines of economic policy that, as a matter of fact, were never economic in origin at all, but created in the heat of geopolitical conflict that is now, mercifully, concluded."

This seems to suggest that economic policy after the Cold Qar cannot be politically motivated, and that geopolitics ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. In its disavowal of politics, Ricupero,s statement is perhaps the clearest indication to date that the Third Way is not restricted to the so-called centre-(so-called)-left in the North, but is gradually spreading Southwards.

In a recent attack on the centre-left in Europe, the Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek notes a similar process. In an article on the rise of the Haider movement in Austria, published in the Suddeutsche Zeitung, he observes that in the current widespread condemnation of the Austrian Freedom Party, the centre-left

"puts forward Righist populists as [the] common true enemy, while it effectively manipulates this Rightist scare in order to hegemonize the "democratic" field, i.e. to define the terrain and win over, discipline, its true adversary, the radical Left"

In other words, the centre-left is playing a dual game. The same unity with respect to the distasteful right is used to smother radical voices who threaten both the right, and the centre-left.

The techniques of the Third Way also seem to have been present at UNCTAD. The agreement that the WTO is an unsustainable institution was simultaneous with the a call for an end to radicalism and an end to the division of left and right,. This is perhaps the most revealing indication of the depoliticisation of politics at UNCTAD. The New International Economic Order was, for instance, a deeply radical agenda, and one that caught the frantic attention of Northern countries. That it was ultimately unsuccessful has nothing whatever to do with the idea itself, but rather with the way the institutions that lobbied for it were mollified and marginalised by the North. It seems that, in order to avoid a similar fate once again, UNCTAD would rather police itself than attempt to face the structures of power which it was once designed to challenge.




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