The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)

Posted: 6 January 2008

Set up in 1964, UNCTAD's initial brief was to help developingcountries to reverse their declining terms of trade and to link trade with development. In its early years, UNCTAD launched a number of ambitious programmes, the most significant being the Integrated Programme for Commodities (IPC) in 1976. This envisaged the negotiation of 18 specific commodity agreements that would give producers a fair return and consumers a guaranteed price. Western countries had no enthusiasm for the IPC and commodity agreements have since dwindled rather than increased.

In 1992, Western countries insisted that UNCTAD's functions be limited to "analysis, consensus building on some trade related issues and technical assistance". In this limited role, UNCTAD has still managed to perform some useful tasks, not least in helping developing countries with trade negotiations.

In its 1998 report, UNCTAD warned that developing countries need to be cautious before choosing to increase dependence on world markets for food supplies when a major part of the staple diet is food that is not traded internationally. Its secretary-general, Rubens Ricupero, has articulated concerns of developing countries. In 1999 he pointed out that despite all the promises regarding the liberalisation of trade, the reality has been very disappointing.

UNCTAD holds a major meeting every four years. The Eleventh UNCTAD, meeting in Brazil in June 2004, adopted the Sao Paulo Consensus. An important aspect of the consensus is its reference to a "policy space" for development objectives. Developing countries had called for this space to give them a better balance between development objectives and international rules, to have flexibility to carry out national development policies. Policy space has recently been constrained by the rules of international trade, they said. This is the first time that a negotiated multilateral text has made reference to policy space. The twelfth UNCTAD will take place in Geneva from 20th to 25th April 2008.