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
"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.