Last week, I led the South African delegation to the Ministerial Meeting of the Group of 77 (G77) and China, which took place on the eve of the 15th Quadrennial Ministerial Conference of the United Nations Trade and Development Conference (Unctad).
The G77 and China, the largest grouping within the UN, was set up in 1962 to provide content to the aspirations of the historic Bandung Conference held in 1955, which was attended by leaders of newly independent African and Asian countries. The African National Congress (ANC) was also represented at this Conference by Moses Kotane and Maulvi Cachalia. Our late leader and the former ANC Secretary-General at the time, Oliver Tambo stated that “in the great Bandung Assembly our voice was heard, and Kotane spoke for the real aspirations of the South African people, as he had done for many years at home”.
The Bandung Conference provided impetus for the development of the core principles of global solidarity and cooperation that continue to underpin South-South cooperation while upholding basic tenets of mutual interest and respect for national sovereignty. It placed high importance on an independent trajectory for developing countries, aligned to their own aspirations and values, and not to be manipulated at the behest of major powers.
By the 1960s, a larger number of new and developing states had joined the United Nations and voiced their discontent with the prevailing international economic and social system following earlier deliberations at the Bandung Conference. These countries delivered a joint statement at the 18th Session of the General Assembly in New York in November 1963 indicating that in order to reach basic agreement on a new international trade and development policy, the General Assembly of the UN should adopt concrete measures, inter alia, for the creation of conditions for the expansion of trade between countries at a similar level of development; progressive reduction and early elimination of all barriers and restrictions impeding the exports of the developing countries; and expansion of markets for exports of manufactured and semi-manufactured goods from the developing countries.
This was the prelude to the first Unctad meeting held in Geneva in 1964 which developed key elements of a new international economic order (NIEO) that include both sovereign equality and the right of self-determination, especially when it comes to sovereignty over natural resources; the need for a new commodity order; the restructuring of international trade as a means to improve developing countries’ terms of trade, such as by diversifying developing economies through industrialisation, integrating developing countries’ economies into regional free trade blocs; as well as the reform of the Bretton Woods system, which had benefited the leading states that had created it.
Due to the diplomatic activism of developing countries, the UNGA adopted in 1974 the Declaration for the Establishment of a New International Economic Order along with its accompanying programme of action and formalised this sentiment among states. Most recently, in 2018, the UNGA adopted a resolution “Towards a New International Economic Order,” which reaffirmed “the need to continue working towards a new international economic order based on the principles of equity, sovereign equality, interdependence, common interest, cooperation and solidarity among all states”.
The 15th Quadrennial Conference of Unctad took place in the midst of extraordinary times where the world is continuing to face the persistent Covid-19 pandemic and reeling from its attendant devastating economic and social consequences, which are reversing vital gains made in human development and sustainable development goals. The pandemic has exposed the weaknesses and disadvantages of the current global economic system, whose production and supply systems are concentrated in certain regions.
Fundamental development challenges remain and are exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. These challenges include, but are not limited to, inequality, vulnerability, the effects of climate change, the unilateral coercive measures, biodiversity loss, natural and man-made disasters, escalating debt crisis, lack of competitiveness, commodity dependence, unsustainable patterns of consumption and production, less diversified production base, unemployment, food insecurity shortages of basic services and infrastructure, illicit financial flows and activities that underlie their occurrence, health-related shocks which impact trade, impede the development and livelihood of nations and individuals, and violate their right to development.
The Ministerial Declaration of the G77 and China, “From Inequality and Vulnerability to Prosperity For All”, noted with concern the uneven pace of Covid-19 vaccine roll-out and in this regard, reaffirmed the need for fast, effective, affordable and equitable delivery of vaccines for all, especially in developing and least-developed countries. This included the ongoing consideration at the WTO on a temporary waiver from certain provisions of the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (Trips) Agreement for the prevention, containment and treatment of Covid-19 and other proposals relating to the WTO’s response to the pandemic.
It once again reaffirmed the group’s relevance in the context of fundamental structural global contradictions, exacerbated by the onset and spread of the pandemic. Through its unity and cohesion, the group ensured that key development issues germane to countries of the Global South, such as debt, taxation, illicit financial flows, and adaptation to climate change were reflected in the final Bridgetown Declaration — the outcomes document of the conference.
Without doubt, the G77 and China has once more demonstrated its usefulness as a strategic centre of South-South solidarity within the UN system.
As a people and country of the South, let us preserve this important platform of solidarity and cooperation that ensures that the collective voice of developing countries is heard, and its views taken into consideration in the multilateral system. DM
Alvin Botes is SA Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation.