Vignettes from my Half a Century alongside the Group of 77

How it all started

The birth of the Group of 77 was the decisive element that launched me on the course of my professional career and life mission devoted to development and the cause of the developing countries.

In 1966, as a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, I was in search of a topic for my dissertation. My advisor Professor Ernst B. Haas suggested that, while back home in Yugoslavia for the summer break, I contact and consult Leo Mates, a leading Yugoslav political figure and intellectual and one of the architects of the Non-Aligned Movement. Mates spoke to me about the establishment of UNCTAD, the birth of the Group of 77 and suggested that my thesis be on decision-making and the group system in UNCTAD.

I embraced the idea with enthusiasm for more than one reason. It appealed to me politically. Having grown up in Yugoslavia, the cause of the developing countries and non-alignment was close to my heart. The topic was new and no one was likely to have researched it. It meant focusing on the United Nations, which corresponded to my academic interest in the field of international relations and international organization. And, importantly for me, it implied strengthening formal links with my country, which was one of the prominent members of G-77. In terms of my future, it meant orientation towards the United Nations and global causes, and away from the temptation to follow in the track of an academic or government career.

The first encounter

When I landed at the Geneva Palais des Nations in April 1967 and started approaching UNCTAD delegates and Secretariat members with my questions about the group system, they looked at me with surprise and curiosity. Coming from a United States university and with my questionnaire about the group system, as a novice to the politically charged environment of UNCTAD, I must have sounded somewhat like a Northern "agent" to some. For instance, W. Malinowski, the head of the UNCTAD Shipping Division, was highly suspicious of my motives initially. Even K. Vidas of the Yugoslav delegation was not sure where I stood.

Still fresh upon my arrival, late one evening I spotted Raul Prebisch looking into a store window in a deserted street in the Geneva old town. I approached him and introduced myself. Then I asked him: "As an international civil servant, who by definition is supposed to be "neutral" between opposing parties, like G-77 and Group B, how do you reconcile your secretariat and your own advocacy of development and open support of the group of developing countries?" This, a typically Group B polemical question seemed to irritate Prebisch and he responded firmly: "Son, when you go down a street and see an adult beating a child, would you simply stand by and watch because you are supposed to be "neutral"? This first, although brief, encounter with Prebisch affected my world outlook and my understanding of the global mission of the United Nations. It influenced and shaped my work, attitude and actions in the years and decades that followed, and my life philosophy ever since.

The excitement of the early UNCTAD and G-77

Those were exciting and heady days in UNCTAD. One of the first "lessons" I received was at the Fifth Trade and Development Board. As I sat transfixed by the importance of the proceedings, Rapporteur Mateo Magarifios de Mello of Uruguay caught my attention. When I inquired about him, I was told that given his propensity for frequent and lengthy rhetorical interventions from the floor, he was appointed rapporteur so as not to intervene too often during the proceedings. Thus began my schooling in international multilateral diplomacy.

The learning was quick and eventful. At first, I interviewed delegates and Secretariat officials by asking questions about the mechanics of the group system. Soon, I realized that what was at stake was much bigger, namely the North-South confrontation over the nature of the world system and economic order. As I became savvy, both delegates and members of the Secretariat staff were more willing to talk to me. Often, I appeared to know more about the proceedings than those who led the busy lives of delegates or international civil servants. It earned me a compliment by Diego Cordovez who started calling me jokingly "Gos(sip)ovic".

The Palais corridors were teeming with activity and enthusiasm. UNCTAD and the Group of 77 were going to change the world. In the nearby pink Villa le Bocage, GATT and its Director-General Wyndham White were worried and uncertain about their future. A gallery of distinguished personalities and experts, from the North and the South, from Geneva permanent missions to the UN and from national capitals, took part in the proceedings. K.B. Lall of India, Alexandre Kojeve and Andre Philip of France, Hortencio Brillantes of the Philippines, Heman Santa Cruz of Chile, Janez Stanovnik of Yugoslavia, Richard Gardner of the United States, Paul Jolles of Switzerland, among many others, were active on the UNCTAD scene. Several developing countries played a leading role and strongly believed in the joint project of the Third World. Among others, they included Brazil, India, Algeria, Mexico, Chile, Yugoslavia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Nigeria and Ghana. These countries were the driving force of the Group of 77 and provided it with dynamism, illustrating the importance of individual countries' commitment and contribution to the common cause of the South.

Very importantly, the UNCTAD Secretariat played a leading role. It was staffed by a small Prebisch-assembled team of first-class experts and personalities, both from the South and the North. They were attracted by the new trade and development agenda, the new organization, and most of all the emergence of the Group of 77. The Secretariat worked closely with G-77 and gave it technical, logistical and political support, and indeed the inspiration. Wladek Malinowski of Poland, Sidney Dell and Alfred Maizels of the United Kingdom, R. Krishnamurti of India, Christophe Eckenstein of Switzerland and Diego Cordovez of Ecuador were among those who provided key support to Prebisch in this new, global undertaking.

My knowledge of the Group of 77, of UNCTAD and the North-South encounter taking place within its walls, and of the evolving international development agenda increased rapidly. The developed countries of the North, i.e. Group B, were hardly pleased with the emergence of G-77, the group system, UNCTAD and its Secretariat. I was often told by their delegates that the Group of 77 was an artificial creation, a motley collection of countries that had little or nothing in common and could not hold together when it came to issues involving specific national interests. They also argued that the group system was not an efficient way to conduct the proceedings in the United Nations.

As I had anticipated, at that early stage of the game, I turned out to be a "pioneer" in this specific area of research. Thus, I received financial support from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to attend the 1968 UNCTAD II in New Delhi on the condition that I write a text for publication.

I closely followed the conference proceedings and, drawing also on my research in Geneva, wrote for the "International Conciliation" series monograph No. 568, UNCTAD: North-South Encounter, published in May 1968. It was the first publication on the new organization and its controversies. On the light side, my future spouse and I stumbled on each other during this lengthy gathering, with some friends wisecracking that this was the only concrete outcome of the conference whose acronym was referred to in a local newspaper as U.nder N.o C.onditions T.ake A.ny D.ecisions.

Once back in Berkeley, I proceeded to write a dissertation, which I completed in 1970. I reworked it into the first book on UNCTAD, UNCTAD: Conflict and Compromise, The Third World's Quest for an Equitable World Economic Order through the United Nations.1 The chapters on the Group of 77 and the group system were based on the interviews and my insights into the early dynamics of G-77 and the new system of multilateral negotiations that it gave rise to.

UNCTAD and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

Most likely my research and publications were helpful in getting me a job in UNCTAD. In September 1971, I joined its Secretariat as a member of the Information Division, headed by Tibor Mende. Prebisch had left by then and Manuel Perez-Guerrero was the new Secretary-General. Brimming with enthusiasm as a Berkeley "free speech" "soixante-huitard" and a freshly minted PhD who identified with the cause of the Group of 77 and embraced the mission of global systemic change, my first assignment was to write a popular short booklet on UNCTAD's role and agenda for public information purposes. I laboured hard, but the draft wound up in a drawer and I was never asked to revise or redo it or given an explanation why it was pigeonholed. It is possible that it was too outspoken for a "neutral" Secretariat to publish?

By 1973, the routine was beginning to set in UNCTAD proceedings, and I was happy when I was given the opportunity to move to the newly established UNEP and with it to Africa and Nairobi.

The first UNEP Governing Council session, held in Geneva in 1973, highlighted the importance of the Group of 77. The Council was deciding on the new organization's programme priorities and the allocation of financial resources from the Environment Fund. G-77 had not put its act together by the time the Council met, partly under the influence of the developed countries, which argued that the group system had no place in UNEP and that the North-South divisions, such as those next door in UNCTAD, should not and did not apply when it came to environment issues. All along, however, the developed countries acted as a group and had a clear strategy of what they wanted to obtain.

Towards the end of the session, realizing that they were having little impact on the proceedings as long as their delegations spoke individually, the developing countries, prompted by some of their delegates, led by Chile, began to act as the Group of 77. This caused annoyance in the UNEP Secretariat and among the developed countries' delegations, and with reason. The outcome they were preparing and hoping for changed, as the programme priorities and the allocation of funds shifted from the assessment and management favoured by the developed countries, to the environment-development programme clusters of interest to the developing countries.

In Nairobi, G-77 did not succeed in exercising the influence it had during the first Council session. In part, this was due to the fact that there were relatively few developing countries' embassies in the city, the Group did not have a permanent base there, as in Geneva, and also because the UNEP Secretariat was not actively engaged in providing it with support. This, and sustained pressures from the key Group B countries gradually sidelined environment-development issues, which were prominent at the 1972 Stockholm Conference and later at the 1974 UNCTAD-UNEP Cocoyoc Symposium on Patterns of Natural Resource Use, Environment and Development Strategies. But, as the decades that followed showed, unresolved problems and issues cannot be simply swept under the rug and most of these early North-South controversies have resurfaced with vengeance, in particular in the climate-change nexus.

The South Commission and the South Centre

One of the reasons for the establishing of the South Commission in 1987 was to try to invigorate the Group of 77 by giving it intellectual and policy ammunition at a time when it seemed to be out of breath and growing weak after the high mark of the NIEO 1970s decade. Another reason was to catalyze the creation of a developing countries' own global organization, referred to as "Third World secretariat". Its task was to provide G-77 with an all-important policy, substantive and logistical support and thus help to overcome the institutional deficit created by the mounting pressures on the UNCTAD Secretariat to cease supporting the Group, pressures that intensified in the period following the 1981 Cancun Summit.

The Commission discussed the institutional issue at length. There were those who were skeptical about the possibility of establishing any kind of institution and finding the resources and political support needed for such a venture among the developing countries. But, there were also those who argued that such an institution was essential if G-77 was to strengthen its position and be effective in the multilateral arena. Commission Chairman Julius K. Nyerere was one of those who were convinced that an organization of the South was a must. The Commission's Report “The Challenge to the South” proposed the establishment of a South Secretariat, as a relatively modest institution in the initial stages.

While there was hope that this recommendation would be given serious consideration and implemented by the developing countries, there was also a healthy dose of skepticism in the Commission. Thus, it was decided to establish a Commission's temporary follow-up office, the South Centre, chaired by President Nyerere, which would promote the Report's recommendations, especially the one on the establishment of a South Secretariat. At the end of the Centre's two-year mandate, the former members of the Commission would reconvene to review the response to the recommendations advanced in the Report.

The South Centre's work and activities were welcomed by the Group of 77 in New York and proved useful to it. One such instance was when, on the eve of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio, Maurice Strong telephoned President Nyerere and told him that G-77 had no common position ahead of this major event. He suggested that the Centre could prove to be of help. An expert group, chaired by Gamani Corea, was assembled on short notice. The paper that it produced was presented by President Nyerere to the Group of 77 in New York. It was taken up and proved helpful in forming the Group's stance at the Rio conference, yet another instance that illustrated the importance of sustained intellectual and technical support for the Group.

The decision to extend the mandate of the South Centre and try to transform it into a permanent organization was taken in 1992, due to a lack of response to the Commission's institutional recommendation, and given the useful experience with the Centre's work. During the G-77 ministerial meeting at the UN General Assembly in 1994, 44 member states of the Group of 77 signed the intergovernmental agreement establishing the South Centre. The then G-77 Chairman Luis Fernando Jaramillo of Colombia played an important role in mobilizing the member countries of the Group to sign the agreement. In 1995, after sufficient ratifications were received, the South Centre became an intergovernmental organization of the developing countries.

Shortly thereafter, UNDP Administrator Gus Speth indicated that the UNDP could consider a South Centre project proposal designed to strengthen the G-77 Office in New York. This included the opening of a South Centre Office alongside the G-77 Office to provide the latter with substantive support.

Although the idea of the Centre's New York Office did not materialize, in part due to logistical and legal difficulties involved, the project, which was approved, made possible to engage Mourad Ahmia of the Algeria Permanent Mission as a staff member of the G-77 office, where he joined Arturo Lozano of Mexico in 1995. Today, almost two decades later, this team of two continues to provide the vital support and institutional memory needed for the functioning of the Group.

President Nyerere often lamented not having a "rich uncle" to help him finance the fledgling South Centre. In this instance, the UNDP Administrator acted as a rich uncle, illustrating the critical importance of availability of financial resources for making initiatives, actions, institution-building and functioning possible, and for securing the support of and engaging qualified and committed individuals in the collective undertakings of the developing countries.

In 2015, the South Centre will mark its 20th anniversary as an intergovernmental think tank of the South, a significant legacy of the South Commission. It does important work and performs useful functions in support of the common causes and objectives of the South and the Group of 77. It is very small and underfunded, and a far cry from a modest "South Secretariat" composed of 25 high level professionals recommended by the South Commission in its report. Nevertheless, it is a clear example of the usefulness and importance of institutional support for the group action of the developing countries in the world arena. It also offers a ready made platform for further pursuing the South-South institution-building at the global level, with a view to establishing what some continue to refer to as an "OECD of the South".

On importance of personalities and leadership

In conclusion, the importance of the role played by individuals and of leadership at the key junctures in the history of the Group of 77 cannot but be highlighted.

One can only wonder whether UNCTAD would have been born and the whole agenda of the South would have evolved had it not been for Raul Prebisch to lead the process. Had it not been for his work and experience in Latin America and later ECLA, his personal vision, charisma and dynamism, his conviction, summed up in one phrase of his 1964 Report to UNCTAD I, that it is possible "consciously and deliberately to influence technical and economic forces in the pursuit of global designs", his belief in and commitment to the South, and his willingness to champion the South's cause and stand up to the dominant North. This he did in spite of the fact that he was expected to be a "neutral" international civil servant in the ongoing North-South development confrontation.

It is just as unlikely that Prebisch would have been able to realize the vision of a UN organization devoted to trade and development without the support of committed and enthusiastic individuals, both in his Secretariat team and the delegations and ministries of developing countries.

The early experiences prompted the developed countries to carefully scrutinize and sanitize the staffing of the UNCTAD Secretariat, and also to impose given constraints on its leaders and officers. "Never again another Prebisch", or indeed "another Gamani Corea", became their unwritten guideline. This was a strategic decision, fully implemented to the present day throughout the UN system, with the objective to undermine the support for the developing countries and thus contribute to the weakening of G-77 actions and demands in the global arena.

It is equally beyond doubt that had it not been for Julius K. Nyerere, who had full political and material support of his country Tanzania, and could always count on a group of committed individuals and government leaders, including Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia and President Suharto of Indonesia who intervened at critical moments, that the South Centre would exist today as an intergovernmental organization of the South.

The Global South needs leaders of the standing, knowledge and, most of all, conviction of Julius K. Nyerere and Raul Prebisch and a major organization at the global level, which would give energy and impulse to the Group of 77 and the Non-Aligned Movement to confront common challenges in continuing their struggle for world peace, development and an equitable world economic and political order.


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