Global Policy Forum

Silencing the Message or the Messenger …. or Both?

On the eve of the UNCTAD XIII conference, a host of former senior officials published an open letter of protest against the continual attempts of OECD countries to frustrate the organization’s ability to fulfill its mandate. Established as a counterweight to the pro-Western Bretton Woods institutions (IMF and World Bank) and GATT, the UN Conference on Trade and Development has a markedly better track-record at foreseeing financial and economic crises and highlighting the structurally unfair relations between developed and developing countries. According to the former officials, alternative ideas on financial and economic matters that can assume a development perspective and take sustainability seriously are imperative at this time. The further marginalization of UNCTAD must therefore be stopped.

Former Staff Members of UNCTAD
April 11, 2012

Silencing the Message or the Messenger …. or Both?


Since its establishment almost 50 years ago at the instigation of developing countries UNCTAD has always been a thorn in the flesh of economic orthodoxy.  Its analyses of global macro-economic issues from a development perspective have regularly provided an alternative view to that offered by the World Bank and the IMF controlled by the west.

Now efforts are afoot to silence that voice.  It might be understandable if this analysis was being eliminated because it duplicated the work and views of other international organizations, but the opposite is the case - a few countries want to suppress any dissent with the prevailing orthodoxy.

No multilateral institution is perfect, but UNCTAD’s track-record of analysis and warnings on global trends and problems certainly stands up to those of other organisations.  As otherwise unfavourable commentators have occasionally admitted, UNCTAD was ahead of the curve in its warnings of how global finance was trumping the real economy, both nationally and internationally.  It forecast the Mexican tequila crisis of 1994/5.  It warned of the East Asian crisis of 1997.  It has consistently sounded the alarm of the dangers of excessive deregulation of financial markets. It has stressed the perils of rapid, non-reciprocal trade liberalization by developing countries.  UNCTAD economists have not had to suffer the psychology of denial so prevalent in other organisations.

So why is the UNCTAD message so unwelcome? The fact that UNCTAD has no formal responsibility for the global management of the international economy and none of its own funds to dispense means that its analysis is free of vested interests.  No organisation correctly foresaw the current crisis, and no organisation has a magic wand to deal with present difficulties.  But it is unquestionable that the crisis originated in and is widespread among the countries that now wish to stifle debate about global economic policies, despite their own manifest failings in this area.

Because of the crisis, we do now have a better explanation of the inter-relationships between the real economy and the world of finance.  Those explanations are now a good deal closer to what UNCTAD has been saying for nigh on three decades about the dangers of finance-driven globalization.  And it is precisely in its analysis of interdependence that UNCTAD brings added value to an understanding of how the functioning of the global economy impacts on the majority of the world’s population who live in developing countries.  Given the current pressure on the organisation and its secretariat, that contribution could now be gone for good-

Why now? UNCTAD is about to have its next quadrennial conference (Doha, 21-26 April).  UNCTAD conferences are a shadow of their past, being now simply a time to agree on secretariat work programme priorities for the next four years.  But that is precisely what is at stake.

Developing countries in Geneva, again, are struggling to resist the strong pressure piled on them by OECD countries and to defend the organisation to which they had been “umbilically” tied.  They are not fully succeeding, in spite of the BRICS pledge of support manifested at its recent summit.  So the developed countries in Geneva have seized the occasion to stifle UNCTAD’s capacity to think outside the box.  This is neither a cost-saving measure nor an attempt to “eliminate duplication” as some would claim.  The budget for UNCTAD’s research work is peanuts and disparate views on economic policy are needed today more than ever as the world clamours for new economic thinking as a sustainable way out of the current crisis.  No, it is rather – if you cannot kill the message, at least kill the messenger.

All of the undersigned have worked as senior officials for UNCTAD at one time or another.  We are now all retired from the United Nations.  Individually, we may not necessarily have agreed with what UNCTAD was saying on specific issues.  We have no vested interest in this matter except that we all fervently believe in the value of maintaining an independent research capability that serves to focus inter-governmental debates on how the workings of the global economy affect developing countries.

At time when pluralism is finally being meaningfully discussed in the election of the President of the World Bank, it is ironic that OECD countries are endeavouring to stifle freedom of speech within another multilateral organization.

If those who were proud to work for UNCTAD do not speak out now, who will?


List of signatories*

Eugene Adoboli                          Manuel Agosin                       Yilmaz Akyuz  

Jamshid Anvar                           Mehmet Arda                         Gerry Arsensis

Michael Bonello                          Victor Busuttil                        Patrizio Civili

Hans Carl                                   Andrew Cornford                   B.L. Das

Ed Dommen                               Carlos Fortin                          Peter Froehler 

Thomas Ganiatsos                       Murray Gibbs                         Iqbal Haji

Khalil Hamdani                           Philippe Hein                          Ian Kinniburgh

Gloria V. Koch                             Kamran Kousari                     Roger C. Lawrence

Chandrakant Patel                       Jagdish Saigal                        Michael Sakbani

Mehdi Shafaeddin                        Jack I. Stone                          Anh-Nga Tran-Nguyen

Thomas Weiss                             Michael Zammit Cutajar

This letter in no way engages any responsibility on part of any of the organisations with which any of the signatories are currently affiliated.

Please click here for an article by Martin Khor that further explains the struggle for UNCTAD.


More from GPF




FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.