Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Mr. Rubens Ricupero
by Jean Michel Jakobowicz and Seble Demeke, UNOG
Mr. Secretary-General, on behalf of the Editorial Board of UN Special, thank you
very much for agreeing to this interview. As you have just returned from the WTO
Ministerial Conference in Cancún, Mexico, we appreciate this opportunity to discuss with
you what happened there.
What is your reaction to Cancún?
I don’t think the negotiations should be termed a failure. They were of course
dissatisfactory, in that they did not succeed in producing a consensus. But I would say that
if we can draw the right lessons, from now on we will be able to negotiate on a more
realistic basis. Nonetheless, those responsible for the content of negotiations should now
take seriously a newly emerging reality – a common stance in the developing world. There
certainly are differences in the concerns and interests of developing countries, but at
Cancún they were able to come together and present common positions, not in the form of a
declaration, but on very specific matters like agriculture.
Why a turning point at this time, after so many years?
There are many possible explanations, but I would highlight two. The first is that
the GATT gave way to the WTO, which is an organization with a vocation for universal
membership. The nature of the organization changed. In the old GATT you had about 40
member countries; now, with the accession of Cambodia and Nepal, you have 148 to150.
China is already a member; it will be followed one day by Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and
Algeria. So the organization is no longer the same. And the second explanation is that
agriculture has been marginalized for too lo ng from the system, remaining largely outside
the multilateral disciplines for almost 50 years, and the rich countries have been slow in
accepting its inclusion in the negotiating agenda. Developing countries' expectations of
some concrete progress on this were frustrated by the stance of developed countries,
particularly the Europeans and the Americans, in this field.
Were you not disappointed as well?
I am frustrated, and I am not among those who rejoice at the lack of success of the
negotiations. The fact that we are likely to miss the deadline, and that the level of
expectations has had to be lowered, is no cause for rejoicing.
UN Special, November 2003
Don’t you think that some industrialized countries might feel that the WTO is
becoming a sort of UN, where you have a group of developing countries that
can impose things – which was not the case with the GATT – and that might
be tempted to create a super-WTO somewhere else?
If you create an organization with a universal vocation, its structure must be similar
to that of the UN – not because the UN model should necessarily predominate, but because
all universal organizations are based on the notion of a democratic decision-making
process. The only exceptions I know of are the international financial organizations, the
IMF and the World Bank, where voting weight is determined by capital quota. That could
theoretically be acceptable in a bank, but not in an organization where you have to establish
rules of universal applicability. It could be argued that the weight of countries in
international trade should make a difference, which would be correct if such an
organization dealt only with trade matters. But the WTO has begun looking into areas that
had hitherto been left to the domestic sphere, such as intellectual property, investment rules,
environmental questions and labour rights. Under the circumstances, how can you deny the
principle of "one country, one vote" when your decisions affect peoples' lives?
What is the impact on UNCTAD?
There is a widespread misperception that UNCTAD was formerly a trade
negotiating body that lost its role when the WTO came into existence. But this is very
much a misperception. At the time of the GATT, what UNCTAD did was to tackle
commodities – which were never covered by the GATT. They should have been part of the
international trade organization called for by the Havana Conference of 1947-1948 but
which never came into being. Commodities were thus outside the scope of the GATT,
which is why UNCTAD took them up. But UNCTAD never negotiated trade rules. What
UNCTAD tried to do was to promote the need for a more balanced, more just trade system.
It was in UNCTAD that the General System of Preferences for developing countries was
agreed upon by the international community. Once the WTO was established, UNCTAD's
role became even clearer, that of trying to bring some ethical element into the trade system;
and this ethical element was the idea of justice or fairness. Moreover, WTO members have
agreed that we should try to bring a development element into the system, an objective
which is at the heart of UNCTAD's philosophy.
What do you want to achieve at the next UNCTAD conference?
The answer to this question is linked to the foregoing. My vision for the future is to
focus on the productive side. Why? Because I feel that the role of the trade negotiations
has been overemphasized. Although these negotiations are extremely valuable, the most
they can achieve when they are successful is to create export opportunities. What usually
happens is that a few countries are the real beneficiaries of such opportunities because they
are competitive and have a good supply capacity. Others, particularly in Africa, do not gain
very much from the negotiations, because they have only a few products in which they are
competitive. So we should help them diversify away from excessive reliance on those
products; and we must also look at the supply-side constraints, because if you don’t have
enough goods and services with the quality and the price necessary to compete in the
marketplace, then trade negotiations will not do much for you. And this is the centrepiece
of our conference in Brazil next year.
You have been heading UNCTAD for eight years. How do you assess the
results achieved by the organization during this period?
Many of the points that had previously been advocated solely by UNCTAD are now
also advocated by the World Bank. Criticizing rich countries' protectionism in agriculture
and textiles was not something the World Bank did eight years ago; but UNCTAD has been
asserting this for 30 years. Today everyone is talking about the dangers of premature
financial liberalization, but UNCTAD has been saying that far longer, and was alone in
saying it, ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Similarly, for a long time we were the only
ones to highlight the trade asymmetries affecting African countries and the least developed
Mr. Secretary-General, you have in the past, even before Cancún,
commented on agriculture subsidies in advanced countries. Do you believe
this is a crucial issue for future trade negotiations and for UNCTAD?
Although we see the point of the developing countries that want to liberalize
agricultural trade, we also see the difficulties of some developed countries that fear outright
liberalization in this field. In the case of the poor, net food- importing countries, the only
concrete proposal to have been put on the table was technically prepared by UNCTAD, and
it contained concrete ideas on how to give those countries compensations and instruments
to deal with this problem. So our role in agriculture is not one-sided. It is intended to
balance the interests of all parties, not only of those who want to liberalize agricultural
Does this mean that UNCTAD will not include agriculture in its agenda for
It is the WTO that is the negotiating forum. We can provide ideas, inputs and
suggestions as to how this can be tackled, but they have to be agreed to in the WTO.
One of the most important messages of the anti-globalization protesters in
Cancún was to "take agriculture out of the WTO talks”. Is this because it
could aggravate poverty in developing countries? What do you think of this
It would make no sense to exclude agriculture. What should be done is to
implement trade liberalization in agriculture in a way that will not crush the small farmers.
More than 80 per cent of the rich countries' subsidies go to large corporations, rich farmers,
and not to small farmers. The problem thus lies with the large agricultural companies that
are flooding the world market as a result of those subsidies.
Do you believe that globalization works for everyone?
In my opinion, "globalization" should mean more than the unification of ma rkets
and of the economic basis for investments and financial flows. It should also involve
facilitating human contacts and understanding based on progress in telecommunications,
which helps different cultures to understand one another's values. But this is not what is
happening: globalization in its current form works only for those who can take advantage of
their superiority in finance or technology.
The Doha Development Agenda – is it really a development agenda?
I understand why people use the phrase "development agenda". I have always
refused to do so, however, because I withhold judgement. I felt that the expression
"development round" was a public relations idea cooked up after Seattle, but I have always
disagreed with it and expressed that disagreement in public. I disagree because I think it can
create unrealistic expectations, and indeed this is just what is happening.
The WTO now also appears to be involved in technical cooperation, and this
is an area on which you and they have just signed an agreement. How does
this help developing countries?
There is a good division of labour on technical cooperation among the three
Geneva-based trade organizations: WTO, ITC and UNCTAD, each of us dealing with a
particular aspect. Even under its previous incarnation as the GATT, the WTO has
traditionally dealt with divulging and explaining the rules and agreements, and with how to
implement them from a legal standpoint. The ITC explains to businesses how entrepreneurs
can benefit from the trade rules. And we at UNCTAD try to help governments, particularly
of developing countries, develop local capacity to formulate trade negotiating positions.
This is something that the WTO does not and cannot do, for one simple reason: as the
organization that services the negotiations, it cannot be seen as taking sides or advising
countries on tactical moves. Whereas UNCTAD can, because we are not servicing the
I read on the WTO website that WTO Ministers approved Cambodia’s and
Nepal’s membership. They are the first LDCs to join the organization. Why
are there not more LDCs in the WTO? What is the problem with the
UNCTAD has long been alone in asserting how scandalous it is that, almost 10
years after the WTO's establishment, no LDC has been able to join, as a result of a difficult
accession process and because too many demands are being made on weak countries. The
Cambodian trade minister in Cancún told the audience about the torture his country had
undergone to achieve accession. We have been saying for years and years that new rules
would be needed. And finally, after we pointed out that the WTO would soon observe its
tenth anniversary without one LDC having joined, they decided to speed up the process for
Cambodia and Nepal. I am proud to say that both these countries were supported from start
to finish by UNCTAD and the UN system. In their statements at Cancún, the ministers of
both countries acknowledged this, naming UNCTAD as the organization that had provided
the most support.
Do you think this has opened the door for more LDCs to join the WTO?
I hope so. But as I said, this was not an easy process; it took each of the countries
five to six years. I have been in this system too long to be very optimistic.