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Gamani Corea, Former UNCTAD SG, Passes Away

GENEVA, Nov 4 2013 (IPS) - Gamani Corea, 87, world-renowned Sri Lankan economist, Secretary-General of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (1974-1984), and former chairman of the Board of the South Centre, passed away after a brief illness in Colombo on Sunday, a day before his 88th birthday.

This writer came to know Corea well from about 1978. At that time, when UNCTAD was at the centre of various negotiations, with long group meetings and negotiating sessions running into the early hours of the morning, Corea would be at his desk in the secretariat or in the lounge around the meeting room, and spent time with the writer, not only discussing UNCTAD matters, but also touching on his own life and background, and discussing a range of wider issues of international political economy.

Early on, he took on hand the task of guiding this writer in some detailed reading of economics literature – classical, neo-classical and development economics, and trade, money and finance -, an almost one-to-one economics course (without having to do term papers!)

Corea was closely associated with and encouraged the founding and publication in 1980 of the Special United Nations Service – SUNS (subsequently South-North Development Monitor – SUNS).

Deshamanya Gamani Corea (‘Deshamanya’ was the title, one of the highest civilian honours of the country, conferred on him by the Sri Lanka government), as he himself narrated to this writer, was born into a well-renowned and affluent political family of Sri Lanka (his mother’s brother, Sir John Kotlewala, was a Prime Minister of Ceylon), while his grandfather, Victor Corea, was a freedom fighter.

Gamani once told this writer, who came to know him closely in Geneva from 1978, that he was an only child and the family on his mother’s side was so affluent that no one in the family thought of guiding him into any particular educational discipline or a professional career, and was thought too shy and reserved for political life.

However, by himself, he began taking an interest in the national politics of Ceylon (but not to plunge into politics), and was very much influenced by the national movement under Gandhi and Nehru in neighbouring Colonial India.

“I would get hold as a young man of every writing of Jawaharlal Nehru and read him avidly,” he once said to the writer in 1979 (at a time ironically when India was going through a phase of denigration of Nehru by his successors).

“It gave me a perspective and impelled me to take interest in politics and development, that carried over into my post-university career in the Central Bank, and then United Nations and the development aspects there,” Corea said to the writer, explaining his journey from being a conservative economist and central banker, to the UN Committee on Development Planning, involvement in the panel of experts preparing for UNCTAD-I under Raul Prebisch, and the work of UNCTAD itself where during the Prebisch era, he chaired a commodity conference on cocoa.

After an educational career in Colombo and then Oxford and Cambridge (1945-52) for a doctorate, he came back to Colombo to enter government service in the economic departments of planning, as research director in the Central Bank, and in the government as Secretary of the Department of Planning, Governor of the Central Bank, and then in diplomatic service, as Ceylon’s ambassador to the EEC in Brussels, and several UN positions, including as member of the UN Committee on Development Planning.

He was appointed in 1973 as Secretary-General of UNCTAD for an initial three-year term, when the second S-G, Manuel Perez-Guerrero, resigned to become a Minister in Venezuela.

Corea assumed the post in April 1974, and was reappointed thrice, his last term ending in December 1984. He continued in the post at the request of then UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, and then was told (indirectly) that he would not be continued (the writer was with him at his house, when the call came from the S-G’s office in New York to give him the information, but not by the S-G himself, but by one of his senior staff).

The OECD countries were by then dead set against Corea for his role in giving intellectual support for the Group of 77 efforts at restructuring the world economy and international economic system (monetary, finance and trade) for a more equitable and just order. He relinquished his post at the end of February 1985.

Prebisch, as head of UNCTAD, shaped international economic thinking in development economics and raised awareness within the UN system of the problems of development in the newly independent ex-colonies, and the special needs and problems of developing countries for development, the need for special treatment and assistance for development, such as official development aid, generalized schemes of preferences and the like.

And Corea carried forward the Prebisch outlook, providing intellectual weight and economic arguments to the secretariat documents and proposals, and with calls for restructuring the global economy and international economic relations and governance, and addressing problems of development and money, finance and trade in an interdependent manner.

He had an inner conviction and strength, a visionary and developmentalist, despite his affluent personal background, and within UNCTAD developed several programmes to help development, and remained firm in his view that UNCTAD should remain a part of the UN, an organ of the UN General Assembly devoted to Trade and Development.

While not confrontational or using harsh language, he stood up throughout his tenure to pressures and bullying tactics of the United States or European Communities and their attempts to influence senior staff appointments by planting their own men.

He also stood up to the IMF and World Bank, whose leadership attempted sometimes, as an observer at UNCTAD Board meetings, to scoff at UNCTAD views, and any alternative thinking differing from IMF/World Bank ideology and rulebook.

After retirement from UNCTAD, Corea continued in international public life, specially in the economic arena of his country, and was a member of the South Commission. He became chairman of the Board of the South Centre, assuming the post about three years after Julius Nyerere died. After the Commission wound up and the South Centre was set up in 1991, he played an important role in its work. He was trusted by South Centre Chair Nyerere, and Corea acted as the final authority and filter approving policies, documents and publications of the Centre.

According to then officials of the Centre, he was consulted on a daily basis, both while he was in Geneva (a lot of the time) and when he was in Colombo, and was one of the key persons to help put the Centre on its feet. He resigned his chairmanship after a mild stroke which impacted on his writing abilities.

Living almost in seclusion in Colombo from late 1990s, caught up in legal tangles created by some relatives with an eye on his property, he found himself physically unable to travel, and mentally and socially isolated, for a while even prevented from meeting any visitors and friends.

As he had indicated to several of his friends (including the writer) while he was in Geneva at the South Centre, in Colombo, he had created a foundation to which he willed his properties, a testament he had executed when in full possession of his abilities, a disposition that would now need to be sorted out in Colombo.

As an important member of the Centre, he participated at some of the civil society meetings in the preparations and run-up to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio (where he was present as a member of the Sri Lanka delegation).

At the time of the 1991 second preparatory committee meeting in Geneva for UNCED, it was fashionable for officials of the secretariat, including the Secretary-General of that Conference, Mr. Maurice Strong, to advise developing countries not to adopt or follow a consumerist Northern style of development.

Speaking at the civil society meeting at that time, Corea scoffed at such efforts of the North to constrain the development of the South to maintain the North’s own consumption and life-styles.

He told the NGO forum and the Group of 77, that if such an effort is made, and even if governments of the South accept at Rio such instruments to curb their development, “long before global warming, the world will be engulfed in global disorder” — an assessment that perhaps leaders of the North and South negotiating climate change issues this month in Poland might usefully bear in mind.

Corea was also present at Rio, as a member of the Sri Lanka delegation. At the end of that Rio Earth Summit, and its Declaration and the Agenda 21, in an interview with Thalif Deen for the Conference newspaper Terra Viva, he famously summed up the outcome as: “We negotiated the size of the zero.”

(* Chakravarthi Raghavan, Editor Emeritus, contributed this personal tribute to Gamani Corea)

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