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Background Note

March 2000

UNCTAD X : Assessment and Prospects


New development strategies

Integrating the civil society

Renewing confidence in the system

The texts which will govern the activities of UNCTAD over the next four years

The Bangkok Declaration

The UNCTAD Plan of Action



I. Introduction

1. UNCTAD X gathered together nearly 2,500 delegates from 190 countries in the Thai capital, for a week. Representatives of 120 NGOs from nearly forty countries were also present. It is generally agreed, that the Thai organisation was outstanding. Civil society demonstrations were less aggressive here than at the Seattle Conference and there were no excesses of a significant nature.

2. With regard to the debates and discussions, Conference participants were clearly determined to avoid a repetition of the Seattle fiasco in Bangkok, and displayed obvious signs of "goodwill"  in order to reach a consensus on all the major objectives of the meeting.

3. The tenth quadrennial UNCTAD Conference had four acknowledged aims:

  • To discuss and work out new development strategies.

  • To integrate civil society more actively in discussions.

  • To rebuild confidence in the multilateral trading system after the collapse in Seattle.

  • To adopt working documents establishing the scope of UNCTAD activities over the next four years.

II. New development strategies

4. Some highly-distinguished speakers expressed their views in Bangkok on the theme of which new development strategies to implement in the context of globalization. Among the most notable were of course the Secretary-General of UNCTAD, but also his opposite number at the United Nations, the most senior representatives of the Bretton Woods institutions, the ILO and the IDB, as well as several Heads of State and government leaders (note 1).

5. From the standpoint of both developing and industrialized countries, it can be said that, taken as a whole, the process of globalization was viewed with greater reserve than four years earlier at Midrand during UNCTAD IX. In reality, whereas in 1996 globalization still held great promise and had generally positive connotations, all parties now agree that many fears and apprehensions are associated with it, especially from the point of view of developing countries. The key message to emerge from all the contributors was the need to reflect on the appropriate action to be taken to make globalization a useful process for developing countries, rather than a movement to further marginalize them on the international economic scene. That is why they all appealed for greater account to be taken of the demands of developing countries and LDCs, whilst at the same time underlining the overriding need to strengthen globalization management structures overall.

6. Several specific ideas were put forward to encourage development, many of which resurface on a regular basis at the various forums dealing with development. Some, however, appeared at Bangkok for the first time. Among the most notable were:

  • Reducing the debt burden for the most heavily indebted countries (recurrent).

  • Attracting direct foreign investment to all developing countries (recurrent).

  • Enhancing the role of women in the political, economic and social life of developing countries (recurrent).

  • Bringing the volume of Official Development Assistance into line with the United Nations target of 0.7% of industrialized countries’ GDP, of which a target of 0.2% should be earmarked for the LDCs (recurrent).

  • Improving access to markets for LDC products (recurrent); see below ß24/3.

  • Straightforward cancellation of the debt for the poorest countries (recurrent).

  • Reforming the "international financial architecture", a new idea within UNCTAD insofar as, until now, this area was not within its remit. Henceforth, UNCTAD holds a mandate for analysing the means required to prevent the recurrence of financial crises; see below ß24/6.

  • Creating an Economic Security Council involving a significant number of developing countries and LDCs, a new idea put forward by the Director-General of the IMF.

  • Strengthening the technological capacity of developing countries, particularly with regard to the physical and human infrastructure necessary for their rapid integration into the "new economy", a new idea in response to the growing importance today of electronic commerce.

  • The overriding necessity for greater coherence and improved coordination between the large agencies providing technical assistance in the trade sector to developing countries. This point was raised by every single contributor and all the delegations, and refers specifically to the blatantly dysfunctional (to say the least) Integrated Framework project.(note 2)

To signal a note of caution however, it should be made very clear that the translation of these ideas into real development strategies with substantive programmes does not depend on UNCTAD itself, but rather on the various international institutions who hold the decision-making power and the mandate to take them on board: the WTO for questions of trade, the IMF for questions of finance, the Paris Club and the London Club for debt questions and even the G7 for the idea of an Economic Security Council, etc.

III. Integrating the civil society

7. UNCTAD planned three procedures to fully involve civil society in its discussions at Bangkok :

  • The Books of Aspirations.

  • The Meeting of MPs from national parliaments.

  • The Plenary Meeting of NGOs.

8. It is apparent that, for the time being, the Books of Aspirations, a kind of open platform provided to all citizens of the world to express their ideas on development, have not yielded anything extraordinary. However, the details and a full analysis will not be published until the end of the year 2000: let us wait and seeÖ

9. From the Meeting of MPs from national parliaments, organised under the aegis of the Inter-Parliamentary Union just prior to the opening of the Conference, came a 7-page Final Declaration (note 3) which argues mainly for a greater participation of national parliaments in the definition of development policies and calls for UNCTAD projects to be efficiently followed up. Another point to retain from this Declaration of MPs from national parliaments is the clearly-expressed wish to preserve an international trade environment free from protectionist barriers, as well as their concern for the establishment and respect for strict principles of good governance in all the countries of the world.

10. The Plenary Meeting of the 120 NGOs invited to Bangkok, also held just before the start of the Conference, for its part produced a "strongly-worded" 9-page document which reflects the accumulation of resentment felt towards globalization over the last few years. Witness this simple sentence from the third paragraph of the preamble: " [Ö] We are opposed to the usurpation of the roles of national governments and of citizens’ democratic rights by world institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO ". On the whole however, one may advance that, in accordance with statements from Martin Khor, Director of the influential NGO Third World Network, the usefulness of a multilateral trading system based on clearly-established rules is not really being challenged, even if he and his co-believers are calling for a fundamental reform of the WTO with greater transparency in its decision-making process, with a more open approach to the demands of civil society, and finally with more account being taken in multilateral trade agreements of the individual circumstances of developing countries and LDCs.

11. UNCTAD used these three procedures to display a considerably more open approach at its latest Conference, and this fact is very largely to be credited to its Director-General, Mr Ricupero. With regard to the NGOs especially, UNCTAD demonstrated great transparency by providing them with a genuine platform for the very first time. UNCTAD nevertheless remains a strictly intergovernmental organisation, whose Member States retain sole authority, and within which NGOs continue to occupy only a minor role. That is why it would now be appropriate to clarify the status of the NGOs, so as to strengthen UNCTAD in its role as a discussion forum. In particular, and without going so far as to fully incorporate them into the organisation, one could not but initially encourage the increasingly widespread practice today of officially integrating representatives from civil society, such as MPs, experts or NGO representatives into national delegations. But governments could equally, prior to determining their position with regard to UNCTAD, get into the habit of consulting broadly with their national NGOs in order to integrate their positions ahead of intergovernmental meetings.

IV. Renewing confidence in the system

12. The credibility of the multilateral trading system had suffered a serious setback following the Seattle Conference, both in the eyes of the general public and in diplomatic circles. As the first large intergovernmental meeting after the last WTO Ministerial Conference, UNCTAD X had to display encouraging signs of renewed confidence in multilateral measures governing international trade.

13. According to Secretary-General Ricupero, the multilateral trading system is now "back on track" and confidence has returned. It would nevertheless be unwise to show too much optimism about this, since it is true to say that the more controversial subjects at Seattle were barely alluded to at Bangkok (agriculture, core labour standards, environmental standards, extensions to the delays in implementation of the agreements, etc.). What is more, this issue of renewed confidence was not the subject of any formal discussions or any substantive formal pledge.

14. However, searching for encouraging signs of restored confidence in the multilateral trading system, the following three are worthy of mention:

  • First of all there are "psychological" signs, reflected above all in the general mood of the discussions at Bangkok. Indeed it must be acknowledged, as was mentioned above, that the participants at the Conference were obviously well-disposed towards reaching a consensus. What remains to be seen is whether this "positive Bangkok attitude" will last through the technical discussions in Geneva on the implementation of the UNCTAD Plan of Action on the one hand, and on the more controversial WTO issues on the other.

  • Next, it is to be noted that despite all the grievances levelled at the WTO since Seattle, not one single delegation in Bangkok called for narrowing the remit for the organisation. Quite the contrary, every one expressed the clear wish for greater participation in WTO activities, as well as rapid access to membership for non-Member States. In this sense, there is no doubt that confidence in the usefulness of the system remains intact.

  • Finally, it is appropriate to mention the unanimous declarations of the industrialized countries, who confirmed their firm pledge to consider seriously the demands expressed by developing and LDC countries to the WTO. Of course, this is clearly a consequence of the Seattle failure, as developing countries are known to have played a role in that. But these declarations were also accompanied at Bangkok by a re-stating of the initiative aimed at allowing LDC products unfettered access, free of tariffs and quotas (see below ß24/3).

15. Another measure which may well help to restore the confidence of developing countries in the multilateral trading system, is the idea, dear to the heart of Secretary-General Ricupero, that UNCTAD should officiate as a Union for developing countries. In actual fact, the "union" role played by UNCTAD in preparing the Seattle Conference under the heading of its Positive Agenda will be strengthened, insofar as the developing countries will increasingly turn to it as a way of extending their "negotiating power" in the context of a new round of trade negotiations at the WTO.

16. Although there was a fair amount of discussion surrounding a new round (be that a Millenium or a Development round), nothing leads one to predict an impending launch. Some delegations from industrialized countries certainly did appeal for a rapid renewal of negotiations, although the prickly question – which opposes the United States and the EU as much as it pits the developing and industrialized countries – of which issues to include, was only touched upon in sibylline fashion. Moreover, for the Secretary-General of the WTO, despite the emergence of encouraging signs noted recently in Geneva: " a new round of global trade talks is still a long way off " (AFP, Feb.16).

V. The texts which will govern the activities of UNCTAD over the next four years

17. On the intergovernmental level, two important texts came out of the Bangkok Conference:

  • The Bangkok Declaration: Global Dialogue and Dynamic Engagement

  • The UNCTAD’s Plan of action

A) The Bangkok Declaration

18. The Bangkok Declaration is a political and consensual document of general tenor. It consists of 13 paragraphs and is divided into three parts entitled:

  • The setting

  • A new beginning

  • Open dialogue and full engagement

19. The setting (ß1to4) draws up a concise balance sheet of the socio-economic situation in the world today. Although it is acknowledged that globalization has increased prosperity and created new economic opportunities in certain countries, the point is also made that it involves considerable dangers and creates difficulties. More specifically: " [Ö] globalization raises the risk of marginalization of some countries, in particular the poorest countries, and the most vulnerable groups everywhere " (ß2). Referring to the Asian crisis, the full force of which had struck the Conference’s host State, the document goes on to call for the setting up, on an international level, of safeguard mechanisms in the areas of trade, investment, competition and monetary stability. But the matter of each State’s individual responsibility for triggering off these crises is not overlooked, and the document insists on the need for each country to guarantee " [Ö] sound macroeconomic fundamentals, improved governance, high savings rates, investment in human resources, sustainable use of natural resources, strong partnership between the public and private sectors, and export orientation " (ß4).

20. Despite its title, A new beginning (ß5to10) in fact says nothing very new and limits itself (ß5) to drawing up a long list of oft-repeated demands favouring development (resolving the debt issue, improving the production capacities of the developing countries, supporting Official Development Assistance, attracting direct foreign investment to all developing countries, etc.). Three aspects are however given more special attention:

  • The will to pursue an "open and direct" dialogue on globalization "which takes account of the fundamental interests of all" (ß6).

  • The need for greater "coherence", between national policies and the actions undertaken by international organisations on the one hand, and between the multilateral institutions themselves on the other (ß7), see above note n°2.

  • The difficulty for the LDCs to be really competitive in export markets given "increased competition" (ß8). With that in mind, the document draws the international community’s attention to the 3rd United Nations Conference on LDCs which will take place in Brussels in 2001 and expresses the wish that all concerned will labour for its success.

Furthermore, and closely related to the activities of the WTO, the document insists (ß9 and 10) on the six following points regarding which "securing early progress [Ö] remains a matter of urgency" (ß10 end):

  • Revising the decision-making process within the WTO so as to render it more transparent, equitable and democratic.

  • Improving market access for products originating from developing countries and LDCs.

  • Resolving the implementation problems relating to WTO agreements.

  • Improving (qualitatively and quantitatively) special and differential treatment (including technical assistance).

  • Facilitating accession to the WTO for non-Member countries.

  • Insisting that any new round of trade negotiations should take account of the development dimension.

21. Lastly, the part entitled Open Dialogue and Full Engagement (ß11 to 13) constitutes the part of the Bangkok Declaration devoted to the role of UNCTAD itself. In it, it is reasserted that UNCTAD must pursue its role as a forum aimed at integrating the development dimension into international trade. The necessity to include civil society in the debates is also mentioned (ß12 end). Finally, with regard to UNCTAD’s Plan of Action, the member States consider they have included in that a range of practical solutions which should create "[Ö] a fairer and better world economic system "(ß13), which it is now necessary to implement efficiently.


B) The UNCTAD Plan of Action

22. The UNCTAD Plan of Action, a wide-ranging document of 46 pages and 171 paragraphs, composes the "constitutional" text specifying the mandate which forms the basis for deciding the organisation’s Work Programme up until the next Conference in four years' time. Although formally divided into 2 chapters, the Plan of Action is organised into 3 distinct parts:

  • Chapter I, letters A&B (ß1 to 35): is a general evaluation of the impact of globalization on developing countries (letter A) and of the results of the "major international initiatives" favouring development (letter B). This part is therefore essentially descriptive and declaratory.

  • Chapter I, letter C (ß36 to 102): spells out the actions which could or should be undertaken by the international community in order to attempt to remedy the situation described in the first part. This is dealt with from three angles: the investment angle, the trade angle and that of "other development-related issues".

  • Chapter II (ß103 to 171): gives a written mandate to UNCTAD to undertake operational programmes in the areas specified in Chapter I, letter C. This is therefore the key part of the text and effectively constitutes UNCTAD’s "Plan of Action".

23. In general, and before looking at the detail of some of the more original measures, the following five points should be noted relative to the Plan of Action:

  • UNCTAD’s role is clearly re-stated as are its traditional main lines of activity (ß103 to 105). UNCTAD thus accounts for five areas of expertise, all aimed at development, and which correspond to the internal organization of the Secretariat (ß105):

1. Globalization, interdependence and development

2. Investment, enterprise development and technology

3. International trade

4. Commercial efficiency, services and infrastructure, development of human resources

5. Least-Developed Countries.

And UNCTAD’s activities in these five areas correspond to three approaches(ß104):

1. "Consensus-building", in other words UNCTAD’s role as a forum for discussion and the exchanges of experience.

2. A research and analysis role, enabling it to make substantive scientific contributions to intergovernmental discussions. (note 4)

3. Technical assistance provided by UNCTAD to the developing countries and LDCs, in other words, the operational programmes it sets up in its areas of expertise and to which there are numerous references in the Plan of Action specifying that this should be done "[Ö] in cooperation and in coordination with other relevant organisations" (ß104/3).

  • The Plan of Action is a document which commands a very broad consensus insofar as all the participants present at Bangkok were satisfied with it overall. A proof of this is that, at the opening of the Conference, only 15 parts of the draft text still required Ministerial discussion, whereas four years earlier at Midrand, the draft Plan of Action contained no less than 650 bracketed items. It will be interesting to observe, as time goes by, whether this broad consensus survives UNCTAD’s technical discussions on the implementation of the operational programmes, particularly when questions of financing are raised.
  • Attention is drawn throughout the Plan of Action, to the preoccupations and demands of developing countries and LDCs regarding their integration into the globalization process and more specifically into the multilateral trading system managed by the WTO. This is largely due to the fact that during the course of negotiations leading to the Plan of Action, the Group of 77 played a particularly active role and put forward a draft text ahead of every other group of countries; reading the draft reveals that a very high proportion of the measures included in it were retained in the final version of the Plan of Action.
  • The Plan of Action affords a great deal of importance overall to the activity of UNCTAD in the field of international trade. Far more indeed than in the previous Plan of Action adopted at Midrand in 1996 (note 5). A quick calculation actually reveals that at least one quarter of the paragraphs of the Bangkok document are related to the field of trade and are specifically aimed at the activities of the WTO.
  • Finally, it should be noted that the Plan of Action contains several totally new measures for UNCTAD (see below).

24. When reading UNCTAD’s Plan of Action, it is judicious to dwell on the following paragraphs, in ascending order:

  • ß7, is among those that were the most actively discussed at Bangkok and states that: "Democracy, rule of law, transparent and accountable governance and administration, including combating and eliminating corruption [Ö] are indispensable foundations for the realization of people-centred sustainable development". Thus, although UNCTAD was not awarded a mandate to carry out specific studies on corruption, it was accepted in ß109/4 that the good governance dimension should henceforth be included in the various analytical tasks carried out by the organisation, which constitutes a not inconsiderable innovation.

  • ß24, which is included in the part dedicated to the LDCs, somewhat offsets the overall tone of the text which seeks to be very conciliatory towards the demands of the developing countries and LDCs. Thus it is that we find an unyielding list of eight "observations" drawn up by the industrialized countries in opposition to the national policies of LDCs. Among these eight components, reference is made, for example, to the lack of legal and institutional frameworks for the promotion of private entrepreneurship, the shortcomings of macroeconomic policy or even the serious socio-economic consequences of local or regional conflicts afflicting a number of LDCs.

  • ß58, is included in the framework of measures aimed at improving market access to industrialized countries for products originating from LDCs. Thus is the urgent necessity re-stated for developed countries to grant "duty-free and quota-free market access for essentially all exports originating in LDCs". This initiative now needs to be given substance within the framework of the WTO agreements, but by clearly reiterating the statement, UNCTAD has entirely fulfilled its "union" role of pushing forward ideas from developing countries and LDCs.

  • ß59, still in relation to the WTO, reasserts the need for the "accession process to the WTO (to be facilitated)" for developing countries and LDCs which are not yet Members, but "based on terms that take into account their stage of development and the basic principles of special and differential treatment".

  • ß100-101, for the first time in an UNCTAD Plan of Action, also clearly draw attention to the development and the importance of human resources of developing countries for the private sector. Much mention is made for example of the human endeavour required by developing countries and LDCs to adapt to the new information and communication Technologies (IT) upon which the new economy is dependent.

  • ß107 is another new departure for UNCTAD in the sense that it hands it a mandate to bring the development dimension into the debate on the reform of the international financial architecture, with the particular aim of making it better able to prevent crises whose systemic effects on developing countries have been only too apparent over recent years.

  • ß110/2 is likely to stimulate quite a lot of debate in the future, and especially the last sentence which stipulates that: "[Ö] the Secretary-General of the United Nations is encouraged to establish a new subprogramme for Africa". Indeed as things stand presently, this would result in creating a new structure within the UNCTAD framework, in opposition to what member States agreed at Midrand. Different interpretations on this piece of the text are now likely to emerge during the implementation phase of the Plan of Action.

  • ß129 to 147 form the broad mandate for analysis and assistance which is henceforth awarded to UNCTAD in relation to all the issues dealt with by the WTO, including those aspects of intellectual property through the provisions of the TRIPS agreement. More specifically, UNCTAD will have to concentrate on its analyses of the means of implementation in order to: encourage a diversification of production in developing countries and LDCs; link trade liberalization to the promotion of transfer of technology; and revise the measures for special and differential treatment in order to render them more useful to developing countries and LDCs.

  • ß146-147 refer to the "trade and environment" question and stipulate that UNCTAD, in collaboration with WIPO and the WHO, shall encourage analysis and advice on the ways of facilitating the transfer of "clean" environmentally-sound technologies to developing countries. UNCTAD is also given a brief to conduct research into the implications and effects of biotechnologies on trade, the environment and biodiversity.

  • ß148 also includes a new mandate for UNCTAD since the latter will henceforth be allowed to provide technical assistance and analysis to Member States in the field of tourism.

  • ß149/1, for the first time in a Plan of Action, recognises the development potential represented by electronic commerce for developing countries and LDCs, and authorises UNCTAD to carry out analysis and provide assistance in this area.

  • ß158 is devoted to UNCTAD’s programme on trade points and lends its support to the Secretariat’s strategy which seeks, within the next three years, to revamp the network of trade points and then to remove it from the UNCTAD umbrella in order to hand it over to a non-profit entity. This strategy adopted by the UNCTAD Secretariat is partially a response to the highly negative assessment made of the trade points programme in October 1998 (note 6).

  • ß164 to 169 are entirely devoted to technical cooperation. Overall, this section insists on the necessity of increasing the efficiency and transparency of the technical assistance provided by UNCTAD. The latter should be aimed at three priority areas (ß164/ii): assisting developing countries and LDCs to participate actively in the global economy in a manner consistent with their development  needs; helping them in their multilateral trade negotiations as well as in the implementation of the results; and promoting cooperation between developing countries. But there is also a re-statement (ß164/viii) of the pledge made at Midrand to achieve self-financing for certain programmes (note 7), and financial contributions from the countries benefiting from technical assistance programmes as soon as possible.

  • ß166 was originally intended to create an UNCTAD technical assistance programme in the area of capacity building for senior executives in developing countries and LDCs – especially with regard to new economic issues – through the setting up of a new training centre. In its final version, no new structure will ultimately be created and no new funds will be made available, even though strengthening UNCTAD programmes on this issue remains crucial in the view of the developing countries and LDCs.

  • Finally ß171, adopted at the initiative of the industrialized countries, insists on the necessity, within the context of the implementation of the whole group of measures decided in Chapter II of the Plan of Action, of setting up a control mechanism, inspired from new public management, setting strict budget limits for the programmes and clear objectives in order to render them more effective.

VI. Conclusion

25. At the close of the Bangkok Conference all the participants were, on the whole, satisfied. The Plan of Action, the key document to come out of UNCTAD X, is both balanced and consensus-based, despite being dense and awarding a considerable number of mandates to the organisation for the next four years. The UNCTAD Secretariat considers the Bangkok Conference to have been a total success and the developing countries and LDCs can take pride in having secured most of their demands. As for the industrialized countries and the fund providers within the technical assistance framework, they were also successful in having most of their preoccupations registered, particularly with regard to good governance and the financial control of operational programmes. It is now up to these three groups of actors (UNCTAD, developing countries and LDCs, and industrialized countries) to ensure that the constructive climate of the discussions at Bankok is carried through until 2004, so as to allow a real chance for all the countries and all the individuals on the planet to develop.



Note 1 : It seems appropriate at this juncture to point out that the industrialized countries did not, on the whole, send senior political representatives to Bangkok, since only the Japanese Prime Minister attended UNCTAD X. (return to text)

Note 2 : The Integrated Framework is the project which was launched following the Plan of Action for Developing Countries which came out of the Second WTO Ministerial Conference in 1996 and has as its objective to work with the 48 LDCs to coordinate the technical assistance programmes relating to trade of 6 organisations: IMF, ITC, UNCTAD, UNDP, the World Bank and the WTO. Almost two and a half years after its launch in October 1997, the results of the programme are, to say the least, mixed. On the one hand it has proved difficult to obtain precise and substantive "need assessments" from the LDCs of their priority assistance needs with regard to trade, as foreseen in the project. But in addition, the 6 agencies have not, so far, shown any genuine goodwill to cooperate efficiently (on this subject see (return to text)

Note 3 : All the documents mentioned in this Background Note are freely accessible in their English version on the UNCTAD website dedicated to the Bangkok conference at the following URL address: (return to texte)

Note 4 : Apart from the many individual studies in various fields related to development, UNCTAD produces three important yearly reports: The Trade and Development Report (TDR),The World Investment Report and the Least-Developed Countries Report. (return to text)

Note 5 : It should nevertheless be noted that the two Plans of Action were somewhat different in character, insofar as the main objective of the Midrand plan was the institutional reform of UNCTAD whereas the Bangkok plan broached the matter of the content of its activities more directly. (return to text)

Note 6 : Relating to this see: UNCTAD, 5 October 1998, In-Depth Evaluation of UNCTAD's Trade Points Programme, prepared by an independent evaluation team: PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Ms. Nathalie Floras, Mr. Alejandro Rogers, TD/B/WP/110. (return to text)

Note 7 : The Automated System for Customs Data (ASYCUDA), the Debt Management and Financial Analysis System (DMFAS) and the management of transport routes: Advance Cargo Information System (ACIS), in ß164/viii. (return to text)



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