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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 34, August 10, 2013

R. Krishnamurti: The UNCTAD Man

Monday 12 August 2013, by Muchkund Dubey


Rangaswami Krishnamurti, a renowned international civil servant who had his longest innings of service with the UNCTAD, expired at the age of 95 on July 18, 2013, in Columbus (USA). He leaves behind his wife (Meenakshi), daughter (Indira), two sons (Raju and Mahesh) and six grandchildren. Two of his grand-daughters work in the UN system, representing a continuation of Krishna’s abiding faith in multilateralism under the United Nations as the harbinger of world peace and prosperity.

Krishna, as we used to call him, is remem-bered principally for the role he played in the establishment of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and in nego-tiating the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP). All these institutions have been of immense signifi-cance to developing countries. The UNCTAD was a historic move towards the transfor-mation of the global economic order in order to make it just and equitable. The ADB has advanced to Asian developing countries loans and grants running into billions of dollars. The GSP has provided preferential access for the exports of manufactured goods developing countries in the markets of developed countries for more than four decades now. Though the more developed among the developing countries, like India, have been phased out of it, the GSP is still of considerable importance to the trade of the less developed countries, mostly in Africa.

After a stint as an economic journalist, Krishna joined the then Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE) and rose to the position of the Chief of its International Trade Division. It was in this capacity that he along with some other luminaries of Asia mooted the idea of creating the ADB and worked behind the scenes to bring it about. By the time the United Nations General Assembly, at its 1962 session, adopted the resolution for convening the UN Conference on Trade and Development and set up a Preparatory Committee, under the leadership of Dr Raul Prebisch, the then head of the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA), for this purpose, Krishna’s reputation had travelled to the United Nations Headquarters and beyond it to those of the UN Regional Economic Commissions, including the ECLA. He was widely known in these quarters for his deep knowledge of the procedures and rules and regulations of the United Nations system and for his astute understanding of the functioning of the group mechanism inside it. That is why Dr Raul Prebisch invited him to join, on depu-tation from ECAFE, his eight-member steering committee to prepare for the Conference. Krishna, the only Asian member on the committee, was put in charge of the delicate issue of the creation of a new institution which everyone expected to emerge from the Confe-rence. In the steering committee, Krishna was in the distinguished company of such eminent and committed economists and international civil servants as Sydney Dell and R. Manilowski. Krishna was also a member of the team accompanying Prebisch during the Asian part of his 13-nation tour, in September-October 1963, to build worldwide support for the Conference.

The Conference was held in Geneva from February to June 1964. Towards its closing stage, when it seemed to be on the verge of collapse due to disagreement on the institutional issues, Prebisch invited eight selected delegates for informal negotiations in his apartment in Geneva. This negotiation lasted for ten days. The only one aide that Prebisch decided to have by his side was Krishna who has been very aptly described by Edgar J. Dosman, Prebisch’s biographer, as “infinitely discreet” and “master of UN institutional intricacies”. Dosman further writes that Krishna had also the advantage of having worked with C.V. Narisimham who was the Executive Secretary of ECAFE when Krishna served with him, and later became Secretary General U Thant’s chef-de-cabinet. This was of some importance because ultimately U Thant had to approve and commend to the General Assembly the institutional arrangement to emerge out of these negotiations. After the initial round of negotiations, Prebisch submitted a working paper, the so-called Prebish Paper, in the drafting of which Krishna played a key role.

The compromise that was agreed upon, largely based on this Paper, envisaged the regular convening after every four years of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and the creation of an executive body called the Trade and Development Board in which different regional groups would be proportionately represented with weightage given to Group B (developed market economy countries) which were expected to bear the main burden of making adjustments in their trade and development policies. The compromise also envisaged the creation of a Secretariat which would have a separate budget and enjoy full autonomy. The head of the Secretariat, that is, the Secretary-General of the UNCTAD, would be appointed by the UN Secretary-General with the approval of the General Assembly. The former would report directly to the UN. Secre-tary General and the General Assembly. Another innovation was the institutionalisation and legalisation, through a formal resolution of the UN General Assembly, of regional groups within the UN system. These were, apart from Group B already referred to, Group A (consisting of Afro-Asian countries), Group C (consisting of Latin American countries) and Group D (consisting of the centrally planned economy countries). A last-minute insertion in the compromise text was a reconciliation provision in the decision-making process in the Trade and Development Board, which could be availed of by any country or group before the Board resorted to voting on any provision that might “substantially affect” the financial and economic interest of particular countries.

These ingenious institutional devices had a decisive influence on the institutional evolution of the UN system in the development field. New organisations, like the UNIDO and UNEP, dealing with specific development issues, were created by the UN General Assembly. They all reported directly to the General Assembly. Reporting through the Economic and Social Council was a mere formality. The composition of the subsidiary bodies of these organisations was based on Group representation. Decisions on substantive matters in all these organisations followed a prolonged process of consensus- building and were almost invariably taken without dissent.

Krishna terminated his lien with the ECAFE in November 1964 by which time the UNCTAD as an institution had been firmly established in Geneva. He served in the UNCTAD as the Director of the Manufactures Division, chef-de-cabinet to the Secretary General and the Head of the UNCTAD Office at the UN Headquarters in New York. After his retirement, the Krishnamurtis stayed in Geneva for several years before moving to the United States to be near their children who are all settled in that region.

I used to meet Krishna frequently when he was serving in the UNCTAD Secretariat and be his dinner guest each time I visited Geneva from Delhi. In our dinner meetings, after a brief exchange of information on the welfare of the members of our respective families, we used to plunge into a serious discussion of the world economic and political scenarios, conditions prevailing in India and the goings-on in the UNCTAD, particularly the play of power politics in that forum. In these discussions, Krishna’s remarkable understanding of the developments in the world economy and policies of major economic powers and his sharp analytical skill were in full display. Both of us had an idealistic approach to bringing about changes in the world economic order. But he was always cons-cious of the realistic possibilities. And the solutions offered by him generally used to be practical and pragmatic.

He would brief me on what the different groups of countries were up to and what initiatives India should take to advance the common cause and its own interest. But those were his personal views. In the discharge of his duties as an international civil servant, he was always objective and non-partisan. He was also very circumspect and discreet in expressing his opinion. This enabled him to enjoy the confidence of both the developed and developing countries.

He ideally combined his objectivity as an international civil servant with a deep commit-ment to the cause of the developing countries. He was acutely aware of the inequities and injustices inherent in the world economic order, and worked quietly and assiduously to remove them to the extent possible.

In spite of having spent the best part of his working life outside India, particularly in the West, Krishna was deeply rooted in the Indian culture and tradition. In this, he was ideally complemented by his wife who is the embodi-ment of the finest in Indian culture.

It is often asserted that the UNCTAD was created to function as the secretariat of developing countries, analogous to the OECD which functions as the secretariat of developed countries. This notion is based on a complete misreading of the essential characteristics of the UNCTAD, the context in which it was created and the manner in which it has been functioning. The UNCTAD is a part of the UN system which has universal membership, whereas the OECD belongs exclusively to the group of developed countries. The developing countries have no place or role in the OECD. They can at best knock at its door which often elicits no response. On the other hand, being a UN body the UNCTAD represents both the developed and developing countries.

The UNCTAD was created out of a global consensus that whereas development is the primary responsibility of the developing countries, it is also the concern of the entire international community. Therefore the developed countries played an extremely important role in the creation of the UNCTAD and critically influenced the outcome of the first UNCTAD. They have been a party to all the decisions taken in the UNCTAD forum which have been adopted without dissent. The UNCTAD has undertaken studies on behalf of both the developed and developing countries which have exposed the anomalies and injustices embedded in the global system of trade, transport, money, finance and transfer of technology, and have recommended measures to remove these deficiencies. This is on the assumption that in the long term a just and equitable world economic order is as much in the interest of the developed countries as that of the developing countries. Therefore, people like Prebisch, Krishna and Sydney Dell, who worked in the UNCTAD as international civil servants, advanced the interest of the entire international community.

The author is the President, Council for Social Development, New Delhi, and a former Foreign Secretary, Government of India.

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