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Bangkok is the perfect place to hold the 10th meeting of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, which convened Saturday and continues through this week. Thailand has seen firsthand the promises and the perils of globalization. The Asian financial crisis that sparked fears of a global economic collapse began there in 1997. But if participants hope that the UNCTAD meetings can shape the global trade dynamic, they are likely to be disappointed. UNCTAD has only limited influence on global-trade rules. And as the politicians and protesters talk, the process of globalization accelerates. Yet writing UNCTAD off is a mistake. The Bangkok meetings can help bridge the gaps that have halted international trade talks and create the common ground that is needed if they are to resume.

Although UNCTAD’s Geneva headquarters is only a 10-minute walk from that of the World Trade Organization, the two institutions are worlds apart. The WTO is a rule-setting and dispute-settling body. UNCTAD is designed to provide intellectual and technical assistance to developing countries. While trade, finance and foreign ministers attended the Seattle WTO meeting that ended in failure, most developed nations are sending only mid-level officials, usually development specialists, to Bangkok. Japan is a notable exception: Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi will be present, after attending a summit with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

It is a shame that leaders from developed economies will not hear for themselves the message that their developing world counterparts will deliver. Instead, the news will highlight the concern that “have-nots” have as a result of globalization. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s speech has already set the tone for much of the proceedings, and he is no fan of the existing international economic order.

The truth, however, is not that developing nations are opposed to free trade. Far from it. In fact, these days the developing world seems more committed to the idea than the developed world, the postmortems over the collapse of the Seattle trade talks notwithstanding.

The chief complaint that governments of developing nations have is that trade is not free enough. While industrialized nations demand and get unfettered access to markets in the developing world, less developed nations do not have similar access for their goods. Textiles and agricultural products are generally the areas in which developing nations enjoy a comparative advantage, yet these are the most protected sectors in the developed world. This double standard is the chief source of developing countries’ complaints about globalization — not free trade per se.

The second major complaint concerns the way trade rules are negotiated. The main talks take place behind closed doors in informal groups to which the developing nations do not belong. Draft proposals are presented to the entire body as faits accomplis, to which only minor changes can be made. That arrangement is no longer workable.

The problem is that negotiations with over 100 representatives promise to be unwieldy and inefficient. Moreover, they demand technical expertise that many developing nations simply do not have. It is precisely here that UNCTAD can provide its greatest service.

UNCTAD’s role is changing. During the Cold War, it served as a platform for rhetorical blasts against capitalism. Now, its most important function is providing resources and research that will allow poor countries to better contribute to the WTO. That, not the outright rejection of free trade, is the best way to ensure that developing nations are not exploited in the future.

The task is complicated by the growing visibility of the nongovernmental organizations. The protesters who clogged the streets of Seattle and have set up a similar presence in Bangkok demand a seat at the trade negotiations. Their call for greater democratization must be heeded; if nothing else, they are capable of marshaling political forces that will block any progress. But as last month’s negotiations over a biosafety treaty proved, bringing those groups into the discussions, and giving them a stake in the outcome, helps talks succeed.

Their presence does create another danger, however. They cannot be presumed to speak for the developing world. In reality, many of the NGO demands — such as labor and environmental standards — clash with those of developing nations, who want unfettered access to markets. In Bangkok, all the disparate voices should be heard — and registered in Geneva, where the real work has to be done.

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