By Pradeep S Mehta
The world is heading towards increasingly uncertain times. Gains from liberalisation are being doubted, protectionism is becoming the rhetoric, inequality is on the rise and value offered by multilateral systems is being questioned.
This was the backdrop in which the 14th session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) took place in Nairobi, Kenya, from July 17-22. UNCTAD is a subsidiary organ of the United Nations, established in 1964 to promote trade, investment and development in developing countries.
The quadrennial ministerial conference is the highest decision-making body of UNCTAD. It sets UNCTAD’s mandate and work priorities. While closed-door negotiations take place between member country representatives, multiple formal and informal sessions are organised on the sidelines. This facilitates dialogue on key emerging issues, affecting the global economy, available policy options and possible formulations on global policy responses.
The 14th session of UNCTAD was the first since adoption of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and thus had to counter the multiple challenges of setting a roadmap for moving towards SDGs, while reasserting utility of multilateralism in politically uncertain world.
Thus, the conference was rightly themed “From Decisions to Actions”, i.e. moving towards an inclusive and equitable global economic environment for trade and development.
Four sub themes were identified within this broad theme:
i) Challenges and opportunities in multilateralism for trade and development.
ii) Promoting sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth through trade, investment, finance, and technology to achieve prosperity for all.
iii) Advancing economic structural transformation and cooperation to build economic resilience and address trade and development challenges and opportunities, at all levels, within the UNCTAD mandate.
iv) Contributing to the effective implementation of and follow-up to the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development, and relevant outcomes from other global conferences and summits, as related to trade and development.
Within these sub-themes, stakeholders organised seminars on different topics of interest. CUTS International organised seminars to discuss measures needed to work towards implementation of SDGs. Focused discussions were organised on concepts like People First PPPs and the African Continental Free Trade Agreement and how these can contribute to better governance, growth and sustainable development.
The role of non-state actors in mainstream development was also discussed. This includes measuring and quantifying impact of removal of non-tariff barriers and using evidence to make policy level interventions at national, regional and international levels.
Having participated and spoken at several UNCTAD conferences in past, I can vouch that this was one of the best organised. While high-level representation from developing countries (DCs) and least developed countries (LDCs) was noticeable, their counterparts from rich countries were conspicuous by absence. This best highlights the difference in value attached to the multilateral organisation by these two factions.
The rich countries have historically desired to restrict UNCTAD’s role to technical assistance and capacity building, without any mandate to research and advice on policy related matters. This is because developed countries have always taken the lead in policy-making and standard setting. Unsurprisingly, most policies and standards have been tilted in their favour, with which rest of the world was expected to comply with. Their poor counterparts suffered from limited understanding, negotiation capacity, and were not able to propose balanced policy alternatives. These countries characterised the oft-repeated proverb at UNCTAD conferences: If you are not on the table, you are on the menu.
The closed-door negotiations at UNCTAD 14 resulted in two documents. The first document — the political declaration, the Azimio, represents a broad expression of the social and economic state of the world. The second, and perhaps the more important one, the Maafikiano, is a consensus agreement that sets out the work programme of UNCTAD for the next four years.
It was agreed that UNCTAD will undertake research and analysis, provide technical assistance, and share best practices for dealing with the changing international trade landscape. It will support developing countries, upon their request, in the formulation and implementation of national trade policy and regulatory frameworks, and their integration into national development strategies.
UNCTAD is expected to work towards mobilising private capital for financing the SDGs. It will develop and promote a new generation of investment promotion and facilitation strategies, to align investment with SDGs. Furthermore, it will develop statistics and conduct research on emerging and long-standing development challenges to LDCs, and analyse national and international policy strategies and programmes aimed at their graduation and sustainable development to provide practical solutions and policy options. UNCTAD will enhance policy dialogue with LDC policymakers by disseminating research findings and policy analysis on LDCs, providing technical assistance and building their capacity.
The Way ahead
As can be deduced, the proposed increase in support by UNCTAD to DCs and LDCs is welcome. While UNCTAD will advise on shaping policies at national level, its role in shaping and guiding international policies and setting of international standards continues to be limited.
Developing countries and UNCTAD should aim to get the most out of what has been agreed. UNCTAD can do immense service by readying LDCs to negotiate and discuss international policy making and standard setting at the same level as developed countries. Such role is imperative in protecting multilateralism in an increasingly partisan world.
The author work for CUTS International. Amol Kulkarni contributed to this article.