Billed as the most important meeting of the new millennium, the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD X) in Bangkok in mid-February deserved its designation as “mother of all conferences.” While it might not have had the cachet of a Davos World Economic Forum, it did not lack for luster and was clearly more focused.
However, as a meeting principally of government representatives, Bangkok could not escape comparison with Seattle. Would it repeat Seattle’s failure or break new ground? The answer, for now at least, is that the battle of Seattle has given way to the truce of Thailand.
Why were delegates to UNCTAD able to reach a consensus on a draft action plan while in many cases the same delegates to the WTO in Seattle were not? Some of the more significant differences had to do with an atmosphere of constructive rather than divisive debate, the search for consensus on a set of principles as opposed to the nitty-gritty negotiation of trade agreements, inclusion of nongovernment organizations (although, frankly, they need to tone down their rhetoric and upgrade the quality of their arguments) and, last, a culture of compromise.
Indeed, after Bangkok, Seattle may not be the immovable boulder blocking the way forward that it first appeared.
Appropriately present in a listening and learning mode, WTO Director Mike Moore emphasized the need not to be hasty in embarking on a new trade round. And conference president and WTO director-in-waiting Dr. Supachai Panitchpakdi was upbeat on the prospect of complementarity between the two organizations, in which three-quarters of the membership overlaps.
Rubens Ricupero, the erudite Brazilian former finance minister and current UNCTAD secretary general, spoke in his summation of a Bangkok convergence rather than a consensus, “a work in progress” rather than a final agreement on what would have to be present to make globalization work for all and bring about what World Bank President James Wolfensohn has termed “globalization with a human face” and an effective instrument of development.
In this connection, developed countries have to be more attentive and sensitive to their immediate needs for market access, debt relief and technology transfer, committing themselves, along with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, to making priorities of the alleviation of poverty and the wider sharing of the benefits of globalization. While the 145 participating nations succeeded in hammering out a set of guiding principles, the challenge remains to implement them.
There is, as yet, no road map to follow. What exists instead is a loose set of principles centering around the need for good governance (the elimination of corruption,) capacity-building and coherence between national policies and international institutions on the one hand and the actions of international institutions among themselves on the other — lofty but abstract ideals.
Yet increasingly, institutional clutter has constricted and corroded the pipelines of development with duplication and divergence, rather than coordination and convergence, still the norm. The unfortunate reality is that the whole U.N. family of institutions was designed for a world that no longer exists. Reinvention is critical. Having embraced the goal of reducing poverty by half by the year 2015 or seeing planet-wide instability, the need is urgent.
Charles Dickens characterized an earlier era, when globalization was first beginning to make itself felt, as “the best of times and the worst of times.” The former flowed from the promise of economic prosperity, the result of trade and commerce on the near side of the English Channel; the latter from war, terror and revolution on the far side. Does this same divide not also characterize our own age — with prosperity and plenty existing side by side with poverty and political instability — but with a critical difference? In Dickens’ day, his horizon was bound by a narrow channel of water, limited to two countries — later two empires — whose respective capitals, London and Paris, furnished a fitting title for “A Tale of Two Cities.”
Today we live in an unbounded world in which the differences are all the more glaring and the stakes infinitely higher. It is a tale not of two cities, but of two worlds: the largely impoverished developing world and the glittering industrialized world that met in Bangkok. But this is also an era of creative connectivity, in which, for the first time in human history, the full potentiality of an entire planet will be “online” at the same time. Its rapid realization is the challenge of our age and the essence of the spirit of Bangkok — the creation of a world matching UNCTAD’s motto, “We are all one.”
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