Defending UNCTAD’s role in agriculture and food security

Defending UNCTAD’s role in agriculture and food security


UNCTAD—the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development—is holding its 13th quadrennial conference in Doha, Qatar this week (April 21–26). As South Centre Director, Martin Khor, underscored in his Triple Crisis blog last Friday, the meeting has generated considerably controversy, the first time UNCTAD has created such waves in more than a decade. Created in the 1960s as a forum for developing countries to explore global and regional macro-economic issues independently of the Western country-dominated Bretton Woods institutions, UNCTAD has never had an easy ride from the U.S., UK and other major powers. But for the first 20 or so years of its existence, UNCTAD received the resources and respect it needed to make a big contribution to supporting initiatives that supported development, from preferential trading schemes, to commodity agreements, to what were called “rules to control restrictive business practices” (today more commonly referred to as competition policy).



UNCTAD’s access to those resources and that respect from donor countries ended over the 1980s. Since the early 1990s, UNCTAD has been fighting for policy space, trying to persuade donor governments that its mission should be more than just cleaning up the mess left by the WTO (launched with much fanfare in 1995). It’s been a dogged fight, and it’s hard to say that UNCTAD has been winning. Yet the organization has gone on providing analysis and policy advice that has proved consistently prescient. As a recent open letter signed by 49 former UNCTAD staff (including former Secretary General Rubens Ricupero) says, UNCTAD has consistently warned governments about global economic and development problems in the making, from excessive deregulation of capital markets, to one-sided trade liberalization by developing countries, in particular the poorest countries. Unfortunately for UNCTAD, this analysis has proved consistently unwelcome to the major donors.


UNCTAD reviews and finalizes its four-year program at the quadrennial conference. This year, the U.S., Canada, European Union and Japan have attempted to eviscerate an already anaemic program, in what appears to be a bid to further marginalize the besieged U.N. organization. The G-77 and China (the grouping that represents developing countries as a whole) is fighting back. Civil society is, too—192 organizations and individuals have signed a protest letter.


Here is what the compromise April 4 draft text had to say about agriculture and food security:


4.         (8.)      A second challenge is eliminating hunger and achieving food security. Rapidly increasing food prices raised the issues of hunger and food insecurity since UNCTAD XII, and have since been a source of serious social and political unrest in a number of countries.  Securing access to food—one of the most basic human needs—is a priority.

The group known as JUSCANZ or JZ (Japan, U.S., Canda, Australia and New Zealand) propose to delete the paragraph. Elsewhere, the April 16 draft says:

B. (i) ((c)ter1, (c)quarter) (l)) Continuing to support commodity-dependent developing countries, particularly in Africa and LDCs, through policy reviews, dialogues and technical assistance in maximizing development benefits from commodity production and trade, including promotion of diversification and integration of natural resources policies into their national development strategies;

And (in negotiation and therefore not quite coherent as presented):

In order to achieve food security and promote sustainable economic development, it will be important to promote the sustainable intensification of bolster (G-77) sustainable (Mexico) agricultural production [capacity (G-77)], as well as facilitate (G-77) greater integration of farmers into local, regional and international markets. (JZ, Mexico, EU)

The initial G-77 text wanted something quite different. They included specific mention of initiatives of importance to developing countries, including the Hong Kong mandate for ending cotton subsidies (an outcome of the 2005 WTO Ministerial Conference). They also called for an end to subsidies. The EU, Japan and other developed countries rejected the G-77 text.

The global trade system faced a crisis of confidence in the aftermath of the food crisis. Exporters limited their exports, exacerbating the price spikes and underlining the vulnerability of poor food importers, especially least developed countries. The WTO has no answer for this crisis—it is left with an out-dated agenda, agreed in Doha in 2001, that its member governments no longer believe in. Agricultural exporting countries have refused to accept new disciplines on export restrictions, making their refusal to allow importers the policy space to better manage imports all the more egregious. This break down in international trade negotiations cries out for resolution in a space where countries can discuss and build confidence before moving to the hard work of negotiation and political compromise. UNCTAD is an obvious forum for the discussion. Yet the developed countries are seeking to confine UNCTAD’s role on agriculture to “bolstering production and export capacity.”

Civil Society released their declaration for what they think the program should be on the opening day of the conference. The language on agriculture is pulled out here, with the numbers representing paragraph numbers.

 10.      Livelihoods are further challenged by continued global food insecurity and poverty. The global food crisis was at its peak when we met at UNCTAD XII. We noted that among its multiple causes were decades of neglect in smallholder agriculture support and investment, unilateral trade liberalization in the South, increased financialization of the food and commodity markets, and monopolistic practices. Smallholder agriculture is the backbone of many countries’ economies: smallholder farms produce over half of the world’s food supply, and many families’ livelihoods depend on it. Global fuel and food price increases mean that the number of people at risk will only rise.

83.       We call on governments to pursue the scaling up of sustainable agriculture based on agroecology, and to promote locally controlled, ecologically and socially sustainable production systems, in both developed and developing countries. Supported by appropriate public goods and laws, sustainable agriculture can create resilient local economies and diversify the livelihoods of impoverished farmers. Governments should lead the move away from conventional industrial agriculture, including the phasing out of input subsidy schemes for agrochemicals. There should be a fundamental shift from mere food security to food sovereignty, which is a rights-based approach.

119.     Building on its work on organic agriculture, UNCTAD should promote increased attention to the findings of the IAASTD and encourage international cooperation on the identification, documentation, dissemination and adoption of agroecological practices and their relation to trade, finance, investment and technology.

120.     In partnership with other intergovernmental organizations, particularly the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, UNCTAD should empower regional economic and development organizations to gather knowledge on climate-change adaptation practices and foster cross-fertilization of farmers’ knowledge and experience on such practices between different agro-climatic zones.


The final work program will be announced at the conclusion of the conference. It is not likely to satisfy the CSOs. Actually, it seems the JZ countries would rather no mention of food security at all. But it would be a real waste if it did not at least satisfy developing countries clear, urgent and expressed need to put multilateral trade rules on a different basis—one that respects the obligation on all governments to respect and realize the human right to food, and that acknowledges the important but imperfect and incomplete contribution that international trade can make to the realization of this objective. 


This blog is also currently featured on Triple Crisis.