Fiftieth Anniversary of the G-77+China

The commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the G-77 is an opportunity for its member nations to assess the progress achieved through their joint action to redress the injustices and inequities of a world order crafted by powerful actors in the developed world to serve their own perceived self-interest.  It is also an occasion to inject new energy in our collective role at the multilateral level.

Despite their different political orientations and priorities, their varying levels of development or specific status as land-locked, least developed or middle income countries, despite some States in their midst being oil importers and others being oil exporters, 75 developing nations adopted at the United Nations General Assembly in New York in 1963 a "Joint Declaration" annexed to resolution 1897 of the UNGA prompting joint action by their delegations at the Geneva Conference scheduled for March 1964 and which was to lead to the setting up of UNCTAD.

The Bandung Asian-African Summit of 1955 and the first NAM Summit in Belgrade of 1961 laid the foundations for this collective action by developing countries in the UN to move beyond political liberation from colonization to full economic emancipation.

I remember the first session of UNCTAD when Ernesto "Che" Guevara challenged our newly liberated countries to "resist the temptation of offers made in cold blood on the heat of the moment and impose a new type of relationship" adding that if we succeeded "mankind will have taken a step forward". If not, he concluded, "The world will stay as it is".1

In the following 3 months of this long session, we were energized by the challenge to do all that was necessary so that mankind would take a step forward, as big a step as could be made through enhancing the G-77 effectiveness and discipline.

Here we were confronted by two role models hailing from Argentina: "Che" Guevara the militant and Raul Prebisch, the diplomat.  After a lot of soul-searching, and under instructions from our capitals, we acted more as diplomats, less as militants.  Both militants and diplomats, we thought, first diagnose what ails the planet.  The former then seek to "impose" their remedy on, while the latter prefer to propose it for negotiation, to the Guardians of the Temple i.e. of the existing order.  Committed militants may be ideological but committed diplomats, we believed, are idealists.  Militants may be dogmatic but diplomats have to be pragmatic.  This is how the Group of 75, who then became the Group of 77, operated in UNCTAD and in this resilience lay its strength.

Our joint endeavours brought forth the first Declaration of the G-77 which officialized our existence as a group and paved the way for the final outcome of the Conference.  That was when we parted reluctantly with a developed-country member, New Zealand, a "white gold" (dairy products) exporter so aptly represented by Ambassador Bolt and when we welcomed 3 new developing country members. Thereafter, having reached the magic number of 77, we stopped counting except for an explicit addition of China when it joined the Group in 1992.

Special tribute must be paid to the visionary leadership of the first Secretary General of UNCTAD, Raul Prebisch, the “diplomat” whose inspired guidance was invaluable in steering our deliberations towards a constructive outcome.  I remember with emotion this youthful puce-faced sexagenarian with his white crop of hair neatly combed backward, driving up to the conference hall in his two­seater convertible sports-car.  He would coax us, young diplomats, to show our mettle, diplomatic skills and specially our imaginative minds and conciliatory spirit to move the conference forward.

Prebisch passed the baton to a succession of bachelor Secretaries-General from G-77 member states whose names will remain associated with the institution's saga.  One can only regret that the geographical rotation of leadership between developing countries over the last half century, never offered a large and influential part of the developing countries, that is the Arab and the broader Islamic region, an opportunity for one of its nationals to occupy the post of Secretary-General.  While the G-77 has initially considered UNCTAD to be a transitional measure toward the creation of an international trade organization, a view opposed by OECD, a reversal of positions occurred on both sides after the creation of WTO.  The latter's long shadow on UNCTAD has unfortunately had a constraining effect on the leadership of the Secretariat during the last decade.

The G-77, after UNCTAD I, intensified its focus and expanded its scope of activity in 6 multilateral centres in different parts of the world.  Its permanent secretariat in New York has become an efficient hub to promote coordination between different chapters and is providing an institutional memory for the Group.  Ministerial conferences have been held at more or less regular intervals. After UNCTAD I, my country, Algeria, was privileged to host the first of these conferences in 1967.  It culminated in the adoption of the Charter of Algiers which became the road map of the Group for the ensuing decades.  Its contents were relayed by the NAM Summit also held in Algiers in 1973.  The latter mandated President Boumediene to call for the convening of the 6th special session on the United Nations General Assembly to enable us to plead for support to our collective aspiration to move towards a New International Economic Order (NIEO).

Later, at the suggestion of my authorities, the G-77 put forward my name to be the first Chair of the Committee of the Whole (COW) of the General Assembly in 1978.  The (unholy) COW was given this awkward procedural name because the industrialized countries opposed any mention in its title of the substance of the committee's work which was to seek common ground on some of the components of NIEO.  The second and last Chair of the COW was an enlightened Norwegian, Ambassador Thorvald Stoltenberg who was part of the much regretted group of like-minded countries of the North who worked hard at building bridges with the G-77 in times of North-South tension.  Maybe some enlightened leaders from the North will summon the courage to revive this spirit of "like-mindedness" whose benevolent action nurtured the conciliatory responses of our Group.

In those halcyon days, our countries, while weak economically were strong politically by virtue of their solidarity and also through their moral gravitas as former victims of colonial occupation and of economic exploitation.  We were thus able to have our collective say in the elaboration of the multilateral agenda.  We gained respect for our national sovereignty, extended to the control over our natural resources.  We made sure the international agenda would focus on the elaboration of more equitable international norms for trade, investment and finance by introducing a development dimension in all the debates.  Under the impetus of the G-77, the outcome of multilateral agendas was clearly transformative in the earlier phases of the life of the G-77.

However, before the process of transformative reforms of the international order had run its course, the change in the world geopolitical power balance occurred, That happened toward the end of the 'eighties of last century.  The G-77 was caught back-footed on a multilateral agenda that came to focus from then on essentially on domestic issues with some measure of incrementalism concerning ODA: Out of the 8 proclaimed goals of the MDGs, adopted at the UN Millennium Summit, 7 dealt with such internal issues while the eighth one was a mere repetition of a mantra that dated back to the 'sixties and 'seventies and that had never been implemented: increasing ODA, eradicating poverty and a watered-down commitment to the eradication  of hunger.2

More ominously at the UN Summit of 2005, a solemn declaration was adopted proclaiming the inter­linkage between peace and security, human rights and development.  This meant that ultimately it was legitimate for the Security Council to be seized of any internal policy matter of developing member-states and to make the latter accountable to it for any such policy.  It could also entail an extension of the application of hard law to development and human rights issues which hitherto were liable only to soft law.  This evolution undermines, to the detriment of G-77 nations, the principle of national sovereignty as proclaimed by the Westphalia Treaty of 1648.  Major Powers, of course, have the ability to uphold their sovereignty through their own devices and alliances or by invoking the concept of "exceptionalism".

It may be argued that the concept of sovereignty is outdated for our nations in a context of globalization as if the latter were "detached from the dominant forces actively reshaping the world, its constituent States and territories" to quote Stuart Elden from Warwick University.3

Making our States increasingly accountable to international supervisory mechanisms for internal policies is facilitated by the availability and further elaboration of norms governing individual human rights which extend to all fields of human endeavor.  Thus we witness a further roll-back from our transformative agenda of the international order to an incremental agenda mainly based on internal reforms to finally an agenda of compliance to set norms to be enforced internationally for the benefit of individuals within our borders.  The rear-guard battle in which the South is now engaged is aimed at preserving minimum “policy space” for them to protect their basic domestic interests.

This is not to say that our developing nations are blameless.  Many political systems have failed to evolve with the times.  The younger generations are calling for more employment opportunities, more accountability from their leaders who often failed to meet their rising expectations.  Our States wobble and lose the gravitas on the international scene that they previously enjoyed.  G-77 countries are made to compete with one another to improve their relative classification or "rating" in the "compliance" agenda, thus undermining group cohesion.

But we can reverse the course of events.  We can "roll-back" the roll-back we have witnessed over the past decade or so.  With our shortcomings in the field of governance, our people can benefit from added human rights pressure from outside.  So let us continue to engage constructively in the Human Rights Council but let the G-77 consider extending its scope to encompass this important multilateral body as does the EU.

But let us also push anew for the promotion of norms governing international economic and financial relations for development.  The 15 general and 13 specific principles of UNCTAD governing international policies conducive to development were a good beginning.  Let us seek to set up mechanisms to review compliance of all international actors with such collective norms which to me are collective rights no less compelling than individual rights.  Let entitlement become the guiding concern for collective as it is for individual rights.  If the term "collective rights" is not recognized by some of our Northern partners, we can refer to" compliance by States with set entitlement norms in relation to developing countries".  In short, let the G-77+China elaborate a new narrative for enhanced North-South relations which will introduce greater democracy also in international decision-making, in the election of UN system top officials, at least those who are tasked with promoting democracy in member-states, for the sake of their own credibility!

The "mother of entitlements" today springs from the recognition that while the G-77 constituted 25% of world population at UNCTAD I, it now speaks for two-thirds of humanity. The emerging countries within our Group have undergone an industrial revolution of unprecedented proportions. More than half of international trade originates in our region.4  So we are entitled to exercise our collective right to frame as equal partners the strategy for our world to be sustainable, for its climate to be enjoyable and for poverty and hunger to become history.  Sound bites or at best empty promises contradicted by policy decisions in institutions controlled by the North have so far been an apology for an international development strategy.  If goals are to be set, they must be accompanied by coherent, realistic and time-bound targets and policies for the international community to pursue. An international monitoring mechanism must be empowered to monitor implementation by all partners, not only by developing countries, of their commitments under the strategy.

In the earlier phases of the eventful life of the G-77, OPEC countries played a key role to make the voice of the Group heard by industrialized nations, if only because of the latter's heavy dependence on its fossil energy supplied by OPEC sources. Today, the energy situation is in a state of flux, what with the development of shale-oil and the emphasis on renewable energy.  Other emerging economies where industrialization has moved apace, regardless of whether they have been co-opted in the G20 or not, could take over from OPEC and become the bulwark of the G-77+China spearheading the Group's collective claims.

It is high time to hold another G-77+China Summit or at least a ministerial meeting to review those issues and take a position on the requisite international reforms before a decision is taken at the UN on the development strategy post-2015.  Thus will the G-77+China opt for the re-appropriation of its initial role as a "market-maker, as it were, rather than that of the" "market taker" it has become of late in matters relating to the international development strategy.  The UNDP Human Development Report 20135 suggests a new South Commission to re-energize our Group but of course there is no need for it as the past South Commission morphed into the Geneva South Centre which is well qualified to help empower the G-77.

Much has been said of the necessary convergence between South and North, the current division being ascribed to a bygone era. Convergence there will be as it is in the long term interest of all parties concerned.  How else could disease be cured or prevented, the global environment be truly protected, cyber-piracy be durably defeated, stability be generated or terrorism be effectively combated?  However, whether it will be convergence with a vengeance or convergence with temperance will depend on how quickly the reforms to the international system can be moved forward.  For convergence with submission will turn the wheels of history backward.  Only convergence with equity opens the gateway to a better future for all.


(1)  Quoted in Branislav Gosovic, UNCTAD: Conflict and Compromise. The Third World's Quest for an Equitable World Economic Order through the United Nations (Leiden: Sijthoff, 1972), 28. 

(2)  The 1(c) goal of the MDGs pledged to reduce by half the proportion of people suffering from hunger by 2015, taking 1990-91 as base year, that is in effect reducing the number of hungry people from 989 million  to 842 million  over 25 years i.e. by an average of 6 million a year.  If the number of hungry people is stabilized at current levels, it would take close to 150 years at this rate to eradicate hunger. Yet the UN High Level Panel of 3 Heads of State or Government considers this goal to be attainable in 15 years' time without letting us in on the secret of how the acceleration by a tenfold increase of the current pace of hunger reduction would be achieved!  One should be mindful of the fact that the World Food Conference of 1974 had already taken to little avail the decision to eliminate hunger by 1984, that is, 36 years earlier than the latest pronouncement of the High Level Panel.

(3)  Stuart Elden, "The Space of the World," in New Geographies 4: Scales of the Earth, ed. El Hadi Jazairy, No.4 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

(4)  Chris Giles and Kate Allen, "Southeastern Shift: The new leaders of global growth," Financial Times, June 5, 2013, 7.

(5) United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2013. The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World (New York: UNDP, 2013), 118.