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10 May, 2009

UNESCAP fumbles opportunity to chart an alternative development paradigm

Originally Published: 10 May 2009

The 65th ministerial session of the UN Economic & Social Commission of Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) last month came at a historical juncture for the world economy and indeed Asia at large.

It ended, like most UN meetings, with a lot of rhetorical fire and brimstone in the talk-shop sessions but final resolutions and reports that do not adequately reflect the frustration and bitterness that developing countries feel in the present-day climate.

Throughout the session, speakers from various developing countries voiced exasperation at becoming the victims of problems caused, aided and abetted by the developed countries. They noted, obliquely and directly, that they are not responsible for global warming, the financial crisis, speculative pricing of energy and commodities, and the trade distortions caused by agricultural subsidies in the West.

Between the lines, they complained about the impact of unbridled globalisation as well as the continued attempts by the developed countries to avoid accountability for being part of the problem even as they continue to portray themselves as part of the solution.

On May 4, two weeks after the ESCAP meetings, the Asian Development Bank convened its annual meeting where its president called for a “new development paradigm” for the Asia-Pacific, saying that the region must rebalance its growth. The ADB responded, as it always does, by throwing more money at the problem.

What Asia really needs is not more money but new ideas about reshaping its future based on its rich past, history and heritage, as well as the lessons it has learnt by following the certifiably flawed, self-serving advice of the developed countries.

UNESCAP lost a great opportunity to take the lead in crafting a “new development paradigm”. If this is to be an Asian century, it behoves Asia to seek indigenous, grass-roots oriented, home-grown solutions that are holistic, just and broad-based.

Indeed, why shouldn’t the search for “alternative economic paths” not be pursued with the same zeal as “alternative energy sources?” Don’t the answers to both economic and ecological problems lie in the wisdom of this region’s ancient cultures?

If even the world’s sick and ailing are turning to “alternative and holistic treatments” that are designed to prevent, rather than cure, why shouldn’t an economic sickness not be similarly diagnosed, tested, analysed and treated?

Doesn’t the “doctor” need to focus on the cause, not the symptoms? Isn’t the first step towards recovery to stop doing what caused the problem in the first place?

Medical terminology was in fact used during the 1997 Asian economic crisis. The IMF’s solutions were described as “prescriptions” and the entire package as a “bitter pill” that had to be swallowed. Today, however, it would appear that Dr IMF would to have its license pulled or sued for malpractice, or both.

Even worse, the “doctors” of 1997 have caught the same “flu” as the patients in 2008-09.

Five kinds of “treatment” offer the much-needed alternatives for balanced, sustainable and just economic growth: the sufficiency and gross national happiness concepts of the kings of Thailand and Bhutan, Mahatma Gandhi’s clear demarcation between need-vs-greed, Nobel prize winner Muhammad Yunus’s micro-credit philosophy and the ethical funding concept of Islamic finance.

Some reminders of these great ideas emerged during the UNESCAP proceedings.

Indian commerce minister Kamal Nath took time to garland the bust of Gandhi which, somewhat unceremoniously, has been deposited in a distant corner of the main ESCAP conference hall foyer, almost right next to the toilet.

In his opening speech, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva cited the value of the sufficiency economy which he said is “finding increasing resonance in the West.” At the same time, the Bhutanese delegate extolled the virtues of Gross National Happiness, a theory that transcends Gross National Product by focussing on the general well-bring of its people, not the value of their output.

But that was it.

Certainly, some effort was made to do something “different.” Detailed analytical reports were produced about what ESCAP now calls the “Triple Threats” of the fuel, food and financial crises. Special sessions organised to discuss these threats allowed the developing countries to vent their frustrations. One was organised in a talk-show format, chaired by a prominent TV anchorwoman, a slight break from the monotony of ESCAP proceedings.

The Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa, Mr. Abdoulie Janneh, also attended in an effort to tap opportunities for facilitating South-South trade. Perhaps most important, NGOs were given a voice. Ministers were stunned to hear Martin Khor, Executive Director of South Centre, a Geneva-based NGO, urging them to move away from the dollar as the international reserve currency and reform the global financial architecture in a way that dilutes the influence of the companies that control it.

UNESCAP heard, but did not listen.

Few of the solutions that emerged from the ministerial session are new. For example, ESCAP’s push for more South-South trade is only a pick-up from what UNCTAD has already been promoting for years. There are calls for resistance to trade protectionism, but usually this means that only developing countries must lower their trade barriers even as developed countries maintain theirs.

And good ideas go nowhere. A few years ago, former UNESCAP Executive Secretary Dr Kim Hak-Su had proposed the creation of an infrastructure development bank that would allow Asia’s huge savings to be channelled into funding critically needed roads, bridges, seaports, railways and airports, rather than land up as U.S. Treasury bonds. This was quietly shelved.

Instead, UNESCAP has hatched a plan to create sub-regional commissions in different cities, which will do little beyond creating more unproductive bureaucracy in an organisation that needs no more.

Worse, the developed countries simply want to continue business as usual, comfortable in the fact that the developing countries are too weak and divided to hold them accountable.

Today, after 20 years of being preached to about the panacea of globalisation, deregulation, liberalisation, transparency and accountability, developing countries feel they have been conned.

Many are perched perilously on the borderline between their economic security and their national sovereignty. If that line is crossed, neo-colonialism will be back, and the backlash will begin big time. It’s called the cycle of history and it always repeats itself.

ESCAP’s 65th ministerial session was a chance to pre-empt that. It failed.