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Opinion: U.N. Can Help Reform the International Financial System

Jomo Kwame Sundaram is Assistant Director General at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations headquartered in Rome.

Jomo Kwame Sundaram. Credit: FAO

Jomo Kwame Sundaram. Credit: FAO

ROME, Jul 14 2015 (IPS) - The growth in global interdependence poses greater challenges to policy makers on a wide range of issues and for countries at all levels of development.

Yet, the mechanisms and arrangements put in place over the past three decades have not been adequate to the challenges of coherence and coordination of global economic policy making. The recent financial crises have exposed some such gaps and weaknesses.

The U.N. was among the very few warning Mexico in 1994 and the East Asian countries in 1997 that excessive liberalisation threatened crisis.

Reforming the international economic governance architecture, through the United Nations system, can address these problems.

Although sometimes seemingly slow, the U.N. has a clear advantage in driving discussion on reform because of its more inclusive and open governance.

Lop-sided influence in the current international financial system is a principal reason why many countries lack confidence in the existing arrangements. Rebuilding confidence in such arrangements will require that all parties feel they have a stake in the reform agenda.

But the U.N. is also suited to drive the discussion because of its long tradition of reliable work on international economic issues.

The United Nations secretariat has developed and maintained an integrated approach to trade, finance and sustainable development, with due attention to equity and social justice issues.

The ongoing ‘secular stagnation’ has again highlighted the interdependence of global economic relations, exposing a series of myths and half-truths about the global economy.

These include the idea that the developing world has become “decoupled” from the developed world; that unregulated financial markets and the new financial instruments have ushered in a new era of “great moderation” and “stability”; and that macroeconomic imbalances — due to decisions made in the household, corporate and financial sectors — are less dangerous than those involving the public sector.

The U.N. secretariat has long doubted such arguments, and warned that any unravelling of global macroeconomic imbalances would be unruly.

Also, persistent asymmetries and biases in global economic relations have particularly hit developing countries, both emerging and least developed.

Not surprisingly, the U.N. Secretariat has also drawn attention to the close links between the financial crisis and the food and energy crises.

A more integrated approach to handling these threats is needed, particularly to alleviate the downside risks for the poorest and most vulnerable communities.

The U.N. Secretariat has a strong track record of identifying systemic threats from unregulated finance, warning against a misplaced faith in self-regulating markets and offering viable solutions to gaps and weaknesses in the international financial system.

Special drawing rights (SDRs), the 0.7 per cent aid target and debt relief, for example, were all conceived within the U.N. system during the 1960s and 1970s.

From the 1980s, the U.N. secretariat – both in New York and Geneva — have consistently warned against the excessive conditionalities attached to multilateral lending, promoted the idea of rules for sovereign debt restructuring, and cautioned that the international financial institutions were moving away from their traditional mandates of guaranteeing financial stability and providing long-term development finance.

During the 1990s, U.N. agencies warned against the dangers to economic stability, particularly in developing countries, from volatile private capital flows and the speculative behaviour associated with unregulated financial markets.

The U.N. was among the very few warning Mexico in 1994 and the East Asian countries in 1997 that excessive liberalisation threatened crisis.

The U.N. system was also almost alone among international institutions to identify growing inequality as a threat to economic, political and social stability, and insisted early on measures for a fairer globalisation.

Many of these concerns culminated in the 2002 Financing for Development Conference in Monterrey, Mexico.

More recently, the U.N. has insisted on the importance of policy space for effective development strategies and particularly on the need for macroeconomic policies to support long-term growth, technological upgrading and diversification.

Some countries have sometimes resisted such work by the U.N. secretariat.

However, the combination of a strong track record and a core secretariat steeped in its tradition of an integrated approach to policy-oriented research places the U.N. secretariat in the best position to advance current discussions to reform the international financial architecture.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

 
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