How can the UN become a Thought Leader again?

December 12, 2018 6 By Duncan Green

When was the last time you read anything from UNCTAD? Back in the day (say, early 2000s), its annual Trade and Development Report (TDR) was one of the big annual milestones (along with the World Development Report, Human Development Report etc). They were essential reading for any policy wonk. They’re all still being published, but they make much less of a splash than they used to. Why is that and what can be done about it?

I made a nostalgic visit to the UN in Geneva last week to help the TDR team chew this over (about 20 people, Chatham House Rule, so no names/institutions, sorry). As prep, I went back to take a look at the most recent TDRs – they are beautifully written. Here’s a sample para from the latest one, on Power Platforms and the Free Trade Delusion:

‘The paradox of twenty-first century globalization is that – despite an endless stream of talk about its flexibility, efficiency and competitiveness – advanced and developing economies are becoming increasingly brittle, sluggish and fractured. As inequality continues to rise and indebtedness mounts, with financial chicanery back in the economic driving seat and political systems drained of trust, what could possibly go wrong?’

But that’s taken from a 27 page overview, with no accompanying blog, infographic or any of the other modern accoutrements. It’s like an elegantly crafted essay from a bygone era.

UNCTAD staff’s frustration is tangible: 2008 and the global financial crisis should have been a watershed moment for an organization critiquing the failings of ‘hyperglobalization’. But even though ‘all this stuff has been in the TDR since 1981, that’s not what people are talking about’. Instead of an attempt to build a more progressive international system, we are witnessing a polarization ‘between corporate cosmopolitanism and the nationalist backlash’. The good guys are left with the ‘anguish of having wasted a crisis’.

One focus for that anxiety is what is happening at the WTO. ‘The US has showed disdain for the WTO, sending junior officials, not participating, refusing to appoint new officials to the appellate body (the WTO’s court). In response, instead of criticising the US, there’s an idea that we have to appease it and by the way, we can slip in a few of our own things at the same time.’

The result is a trojan horse dressed up as a ‘modernization agenda’ that ditches many of the positive developmental features of the moribund Doha Round. In what feels like a return to the ‘rigged rules and double standards’ of the 1980s Uruguay Round, the US, EU and Japan are trying to end/severely curtail differentiation between rich and poor countries (‘special and differential treatment’ in WTO-speak). The only leeway the poor countries will get is a bit more time to implement the same things. Oh, and on agriculture, where it’s the rich countries that ‘distort trade’ with bucketloads of subsidies, the level of ambition has gone down.

So if the good guys are losing the narrative battle, what should they be doing differently?

One option is to ditch the big reports altogether –  by sucking up scarce resources for diminishing returns, the milestones have become millstones. What big report ever brought a Trump, Bolsonaro, Putin or Duterte to power?

Failing that, options that could fit pretty well within the current arrangements include

  • a High Level Commission on the future of the multilateral system, perhaps drawing on the experience of CGD to ensure that its messages resonate beyond the UN system
  • ask Ha Joon Chang and others to mount a kind of ‘magnificent 7 rides again’ effort in the WTO to explain (again) why a return to the Uruguay Round is a really bad idea. Ha Joon is unsurpassed as a debunker of ‘fake history’ in development, exposing the epic levels of historical amnesia from the rich countries, which are now once again trying to ‘kick away the ladder’ of development from the poor ones.

Going further, UNCTAD could consider an entirely different way of working, abandoning the ‘old war strategy’ of annual battles based on the TDR, for a new tactic of continuous online guerrilla skirmishing, seizing moments of opportunity rather than working to a pre-agreed timetable of publications. That is so not the way the UN rolls, that it is going to have to find lots of allies to work with. The good news is that UNCTAD has a lot of friends out there in the wonk and policy-maker ecosystem.

Here are some of the ideas (in increasing degree of whackiness) for how an UNCTAD 2.0 can move from hierarchy to network:

  • Set up a ‘Friends of UNCTAD’ (FU!) network
  • Feed it with mythbusters, positive deviants, killer facts, infographics, blogs and summaries mined from current and past TDRs and invite it to use/add to them in whatever way they find useful (advocacy, campaigns etc).
  • Include a feedback mechanism so that the FU can both say what they need from UNCTAD and vote up/down the messages they find most useful. Then UNCTAD focuses on those on social media (including podcasts, videos etc)
  • More broadly, it could team up with market researchers and test its (many) different narratives on rethinking the global system with its key target audiences (governments, academics, activists) to find out which ones are most effective.
  • How about finding a partner to produce an UNCTAD data site that people can use and adapt (think Gapminder)?
  • Or an UNCTAD-hosted dating agency linking up activist and advocacy organizations with researchers and research (UNCTinder? Datadate?)

Any other suggestions?