Once upon a time, and to be more precise, in the 1970s, there was the North-South dialogue which was a key feature in international relations. It was supposed to be a dialogue between the countries of the South and the countries of the North. The dialogue happened almost all the time in Geneva and New [...]

Sunday Times 2

In search of economic justice for the developing world


Once upon a time, and to be more precise, in the 1970s, there was the North-South dialogue which was a key feature in international relations. It was supposed to be a dialogue between the countries of the South and the countries of the North. The dialogue happened almost all the time in Geneva and New York, within the portals of the United Nations. The dialogue had a little bit of artificiality in it.

The countries of the North and South, apart from their foreign missions in Geneva and New York were not much involved. In Sri Lanka, apart from a few officials in the ministries of Planning and Foreign affairs and Trade, not many people had any deep impression. I would think that one reason for the failure of the North-South dialogue to obtain any genuine changes in the international economic system is this detachment of affairs in Geneva and New York from country level concerns. While there was much hot air in Geneva, and the dialogue was turning into confrontation, normal relations continued bilaterally between countries of the North and South. The Northern countries knew that the Southern developing countries had two foreign policies — one at the multilateral level arguing for various changes in the international economic system and another more pragmatic foreign policy looking after their real interests through bilateral relations.

Gamani Corea was a dominating figure in the North-South dialogue. He was appointed the Secretary General of UNCTAD in 1973 and during his 11 years tenure; he was a central, if not the central figure in those negotiations. UNCTAD was the place where the North-South debate was most articulate. Gamani Corea passed away in 2013 and this slim volume is a collection of articles which were written and speeches made on the occasion of meetings organised by the South Centre in Geneva, the Institute of Policy Studies and the Gamani Corea Foundation, both in Colombo. Many of the presentations in this volume are from those who worked with Gamani, especially in UNCTAD. Almost all of them knew Gamani personally. So, it is mostly a generation who is no longer active in international public life. (I must declare an interest here. The volume has included the tribute I paid to Gamani shortly after his death and which appeared in the Sunday Island.)

Gamani Corea’s primary interest during his UNCTAD career revolved around the Integrated Programme for Commodities (IPC) and the Common Fund (CF) which was its centerpiece. While many articles refer to this aspect of Gamani’s concerens, two articles in particular focused on IPC and the CF — those by Lakdasa Hulugalle and Saman Kelegama. Hulugalle suggests that Gamani’s interest in commodity price stabilisation derived from his experience of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the impact it had on Sri Lanka’s commodity prices and the influence of John Maynard Keynes, who produced a scheme for commodity market control. Hulugalle believes that the UNCTAD programme failed as two of its main assumptions — that there would be a collective solidarity among developing commodity producing countries and that there would be a moral obligation on the part of the rich countries to assist the poor commodity producing countries — were deeply questionable. The way Hulugalle puts it; it looks as if the CF was an idea derived from the Quakers — morality rather than markets. I would think Hulugalle is right. The article by Saman Kelegama is a fine exposition of the rise and fall of the IPC. Kelegama refers to some other influences on Gamani Corea’s thinking — the Prebisch-Singer thesis of the declining terms of trade of primary commodities and of course the OPEC action to raise oil prices just as he was taking up his job in UNCTAD. Kelegama also summarises some of the criticisms made of the CF.

Two articles by Michael Sakbani and Gerassimos D. Arsenis (they both worked with Gamani in UNCTAD) deals with money, finance and trade issues during Gamani’s time in UNCTAD. Gamani did not believe that the development of the South can be undertaken only through action on commodity markets. He attached an important role to the reform of the international monetary and financial system which was of course dominated by the World Bank and the IMF at the time. Gamani’s experience in this area arguably derived from his negotiations with the IMF and the World Bank, when he managed Sri Lanka’s economic affairs in the 1960s. That is the impression one obtains when reading his memoirs. Sakbani and Arsenis provide details of UNCTAD’s activities in money and finance during Gamani’s time. The annual Trade and Development Report of UNCTAD was started in 1981 and it is now an established and prestigious critique of the international economic system focusing on poor countries and the conditions of the poor and offering alternative insights to those of the Bretton Woods Institutions. At that time and immediately after the oil price hikes of the 1970s, most developing countries were deeply indebted, and UNCTAD played a major role in devising schemes for debt relief and these had practical and beneficial outcomes.

There are three articles — those of Godfrey Gunatilleke, Nimal Sandaratne and Jan Pronk — which deal with broader issues of development. Gamani’s thinking was not confined to commodities and he had an overarching view of what was required to ensure a more equitable pattern of international development. Gunatilleke deals with Gamani’s intellectual contribution to development thinking. Gunatilleke refers to Gamani’s critique of the working of international markets, the key role he assigned to planning and to the role of the state and the place of global institutions in facilitating international development. Gamani was concerned with the reform of the Bretton Woods system, developing systems of collective self-reliance among developing countries and also the imperative of placing environmental issues firmly in the context of development. Godfrey’s article is an entertaining contribution on Gamani’s thinking, deriving from his own personal friendship with Gamani. Sandaratne looks at Gamani’s contribution to development thinking and action in Sri Lanka and also in UNCTAD and with the South Commission of which he was a member. Pronk who was Deputy Secretary General of UNCTAD deals with the “development consensus” and its evolution. He briefly traces the history of development thinking since the 1960s. Pronk believes that there is an urgent need for another development consensus taking into account the new international economic arrangements. He says that “the divide between North and South is no longer a confrontation between countries only. About two thirds of the world’s population has in one way or another access to the world market ……. They live in rich countries and emerging economies but also in developing countries. The remaining one third of the world’s people are being marginalised. They find themselves excluded from meaningful participation in international economic relations.” A new development consensus cannot be negotiated between the North and the South.

There are many other interesting articles in this volume. The one by Michael Zammit-Cutajar is an interesting distillation of Gamani’s concerns with environment and development, starting with the Founex decleration in 1971, which led to the first world conference on the environment in Stockholm. Chakravarti Raghavan offers a personal view of Gamani’s many engagements across the development spectrum. Raghavan refers to the influence that the freedom struggle in India had on Gamani. He was particularly influenced by Nehru. Rubens Ricupero, who was Secretary General of UNCTAD in the 1990s refers to Gamani’s decision not to make UNCTAD a specialized agency of the UN (like WHO and ILO) and remain as a department of the main United Nations. UNCTAD was not an institution favoured by the West, and detaching it from the main UN would have created numerous financial problems. That was a wise decision.

The volume is an important contribution to the understanding of the North-South negotiations which dominated international relations in the 1970s. The generation which was actively involved in it are moving away. The contributors to this volume saw these negotiations at first hand, and their record of events is valuable. The South Centre has done a commendable job. One of the things missing in this volume is any kind of analysis of the political background that guided North-South negotiations. The dramatic oil price rise by OPEC to some extent triggered the North-South debate. In hindsight, one could say that OPEC pushed the New International Economic Order onto the UN agenda, to divert attention from the oil price hike which was seriously affecting poor developing countries, and promising similar action for their commodities. I saw at first hand, how Algeria (member of OPEC) used the fourth Non Aligned Summit held in Algiers in 1973 immediately after the oil price hike to demand radical action in changing its national economic order. Other developing countries were carried away by this rhetoric. OPEC never did anything for other commodity producing countries.

Another point I wish to make is about Gamani Corea himself. It is quite right that his legacy in Geneva and internationally is remembered. But there is another legacy of Gamani which is not commemorated in this volume. That is his contribution to economic policy making in this country in the 1950s and 1960s. I would think that is a more lasting contribution than his international legacy. There is a tendency for many of us to attach a higher importance to achievements on the international circuit than the achievements of a large number at the national level, and which has made a tangible difference to improving local conditions. Service with the United Nations has been given far too much importance to the neglect of much more committed and financially unrewarding service in one’s own country. Gamani’s legacy in Sri Lanka should be remembered.
(Leelananda De Silva was Senior Assistant Secretary and Director of Economic Affairs of the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs from 1970 to 1977. He handled Sri Lanka’s economic relations with the Non Aligned Movement, and with UNCTAD and with United Nations, especially on North-South issues. He was resident representative of the Third World Forum in Geneva from 1978 to 1980. He was consultant to UNCTAD from 1981 to 1984.)

Book facts
A Tribute to Gamani Corea – His Life, Work and Legacy
Published by the South Centre, Geneva, 2014, 168 pages.

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