How can the UN become a Thought Leader again?

When was the last time you read anything from UNCTAD? Back in the day (say, early 2000s), its annual Trade and Development Report (TDR) was one of the big annual milestones (along with the World Development Report, Human Development Report etc). They were essential reading for any policy wonk. They’re all still being published, but they make much less of a splash than they used to. Why is that and what can be done about it?

I made a nostalgic visit to the UN in Geneva last week to help the TDR team chew this over (about 20 people, Chatham House Rule, so no names/institutions, sorry). As prep, I went back to take a look at the most recent TDRs – they are beautifully written. Here’s a sample para from the latest one, on Power Platforms and the Free Trade Delusion:

‘The paradox of twenty-first century globalization is that – despite an endless stream of talk about its flexibility, efficiency and competitiveness – advanced and developing economies are becoming increasingly brittle, sluggish and fractured. As inequality continues to rise and indebtedness mounts, with financial chicanery back in the economic driving seat and political systems drained of trust, what could possibly go wrong?’

But that’s taken from a 27 page overview, with no accompanying blog, infographic or any of the other modern accoutrements. It’s like an elegantly crafted essay from a bygone era.

UNCTAD staff’s frustration is tangible: 2008 and the global financial crisis should have been a watershed moment for an organization critiquing the failings of ‘hyperglobalization’. But even though ‘all this stuff has been in the TDR since 1981, that’s not what people are talking about’. Instead of an attempt to build a more progressive international system, we are witnessing a polarization ‘between corporate cosmopolitanism and the nationalist backlash’. The good guys are left with the ‘anguish of having wasted a crisis’.

One focus for that anxiety is what is happening at the WTO. ‘The US has showed disdain for the WTO, sending junior officials, not participating, refusing to appoint new officials to the appellate body (the WTO’s court). In response, instead of criticising the US, there’s an idea that we have to appease it and by the way, we can slip in a few of our own things at the same time.’

The result is a trojan horse dressed up as a ‘modernization agenda’ that ditches many of the positive developmental features of the moribund Doha Round. In what feels like a return to the ‘rigged rules and double standards’ of the 1980s Uruguay Round, the US, EU and Japan are trying to end/severely curtail differentiation between rich and poor countries (‘special and differential treatment’ in WTO-speak). The only leeway the poor countries will get is a bit more time to implement the same things. Oh, and on agriculture, where it’s the rich countries that ‘distort trade’ with bucketloads of subsidies, the level of ambition has gone down.

So if the good guys are losing the narrative battle, what should they be doing differently?

One option is to ditch the big reports altogether –  by sucking up scarce resources for diminishing returns, the milestones have become millstones. What big report ever brought a Trump, Bolsonaro, Putin or Duterte to power?

Failing that, options that could fit pretty well within the current arrangements include

  • a High Level Commission on the future of the multilateral system, perhaps drawing on the experience of CGD to ensure that its messages resonate beyond the UN system
  • ask Ha Joon Chang and others to mount a kind of ‘magnificent 7 rides again’ effort in the WTO to explain (again) why a return to the Uruguay Round is a really bad idea. Ha Joon is unsurpassed as a debunker of ‘fake history’ in development, exposing the epic levels of historical amnesia from the rich countries, which are now once again trying to ‘kick away the ladder’ of development from the poor ones.

Going further, UNCTAD could consider an entirely different way of working, abandoning the ‘old war strategy’ of annual battles based on the TDR, for a new tactic of continuous online guerrilla skirmishing, seizing moments of opportunity rather than working to a pre-agreed timetable of publications. That is so not the way the UN rolls, that it is going to have to find lots of allies to work with. The good news is that UNCTAD has a lot of friends out there in the wonk and policy-maker ecosystem.

Here are some of the ideas (in increasing degree of whackiness) for how an UNCTAD 2.0 can move from hierarchy to network:

  • Set up a ‘Friends of UNCTAD’ (FU!) network
  • Feed it with mythbusters, positive deviants, killer facts, infographics, blogs and summaries mined from current and past TDRs and invite it to use/add to them in whatever way they find useful (advocacy, campaigns etc).
  • Include a feedback mechanism so that the FU can both say what they need from UNCTAD and vote up/down the messages they find most useful. Then UNCTAD focuses on those on social media (including podcasts, videos etc)
  • More broadly, it could team up with market researchers and test its (many) different narratives on rethinking the global system with its key target audiences (governments, academics, activists) to find out which ones are most effective.
  • How about finding a partner to produce an UNCTAD data site that people can use and adapt (think Gapminder)?
  • Or an UNCTAD-hosted dating agency linking up activist and advocacy organizations with researchers and research (UNCTinder? Datadate?)

Any other suggestions?

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6 Responses to “How can the UN become a Thought Leader again?”
  1. It is not clear for me from this piece why UNCTAD is (still) needed and why other UN orgs, Thinks Tanks, academics couldn’t do the work. It is completely unrealistic to imagine an un-bureaucratic UN org so why not set up a couple of research units affiliated to universities or thinks tanks that have access to ‘thought leaders’, (PhD) students for data work and more experience with 21st century communication? I think that there a couple of small UN orgs in Geneva that simply run out of stuff to do. And please, stop with the ‘flagship report’ stuff…

    • Duncan Green

      Good challenge Tobias. I think the weakness of thinktanks is that, partly due to their funding model, they are forced to hop from issue to issue. The UN can build up a body of work that challenges the orthodoxy (think ‘Structural Adjustment with a Human Face’ – UNICEF in the 1980s). But I agree with the cultivation of more nimble arm’s length relationships – hence the Friends of UNCTAD suggestion. Tend to agree on flagship reports though!

  2. Hernan

    Duncan, I tend to more or less disagree with your first para. I think the TDRs are potentially one of the best reports that are published every year. This year’s was good, but last year’s was tremendous, including sections on Inequality and exclusion, trade, technology and jobs, distributional effects of the technological change, power and politics, a whole chapter on gender and inclusion/exclusion, market power and inequality, etc. Let’s not forget as well the World Investment Report and, of course, that the UNCTAD is still the most reliable source on FDI data or, at least, the first one anyone mentions. It is true that the format could be more user-friendly and their comms strategy should be more sharpened. However it’s relevance content-wise (isn’t that what counts at the end?) is huge.

    For me the key issue is the agenda that the UNCTAD has been pushing, one highlighting global imbalances, the structural nature of geoeconomics, etc. Let’s not forget that its founding-secretary was Raul Prebisch known for his dependency theories (though he resigned frustrated by UNCTAD’s lack of power). Leading developing countries’ agenda means you are fading away little by little. Hence, I absolutely agree with you that we need to revamp its role and forge constructive and active alliances with it.

    Beyond what you suggest, another idea would be for the UNCTAD to host a CSO conference on global development (or strategic working days). Not only would host us, but could also offer its research services to the agenda that arose from that meeting. I am sure some interesting things would pop up. Maybe the big CSOs working on global development coud also make an effort to look more to UNCTAD instead of OCDE, WB and the likes. Organisations biased by default.

    Finally, it’s great to publish a report with the back-up of some academics, but publish it jointly with UNCTAD could be even more powerful. They could provide the academic strength and rigour sometimes critics highlight, and we could provide the more 21st century PR/comms/advocacy/strategic component. I think it could be a win-win.

    Last but not least, some years ago a Campaign to Reform Global Institutions was making some noise. It placed the UN at its center, and UNCTAD was place as the center of trade. Sounds utopian, but seeing how the world is moving it could be a crucial campaign to move our world where we would like to.

  3. Lots of suggestions! 🙂 Many of them are listed in a report ( ) for the Secretary-General which I contributed to last year, on how technology can help the UN improve its effectiveness and reputation (blog post ). The report’s public engagement recommendations are very practical with a common thread involving harnessing technologies to provide both wider and deeper engagement – empowering audiences to both input into and communicate the UN’s work and mission. Examples include a digital first strategy, stronger authentic social media engagement by officials, a more transparent process for S-G selection, crowd sourcing of solutions, digital platforms for policy debate, chat-bots to enhance audience engagement and democratisation of user generated content to empower citizens, activists and campaigners in the digital space.

  4. Peter

    As someone who has a stake in the ‘UN flagship report’ game, I have to say that there is a lot of truth to what you say about communications. The content of the TDRs and other UN reports is excellent, the problem is attracting attention in a saturated media landscape. As comparators look at the Banks’ World Development Report and Doing Business Report and the IMF’s World Economic Outlook. They get lots of attention – but in my determination that is down to investment in the communications. The UN is not free or nimble to make such investments – its budget is intricately negotiated by Member States and its communications/press liaison staff focussed on peace, security and human rights issues and not economic ones. Changing this would require movement in the internal bureaucracy which has no incentive to be responsive to the UNCTAD TDR writing team or the teams writing over reports at the UN.

    I think it is also worth pointing out that – as Duncan well knows – that change happens not because of one single report but because of a constellation of actors moving in the same direction. That includes intellectual exercises and policy development, in rough concert with political forces & interest groups working both internally within governments and externally in opposition to them. No Bolsanaro did not produce one report and become president… but we know that free-market ideologies recently in ascendance were built on intellectual work in think tanks, political parties and amongst ordinary people. Likewise, the rising nationalist xenophobic tendencies have been built on a configuration of (pseudo-)intellectual work, political organising, and non-traditional and traditional media – especially those focussed on fear. Those with a development interest should learn lessons from how these groups built popular support, not just dismiss them as reactionary. UNCTAD TDR certainly has a place in such a broader configuration of progressive forces.

  5. At the risk of being tangential, I’d like to point out that UNCTAD lacks a freedom of information policy.

    Not alone among UN agencies, as my recent research shows. “Three out of five United Nations agencies, including the UN Secretariat, have no policies on access to information, according to an survey.”

    UNCTAD has a Communication Policy that was reviewed in 2014