CONCEIVED by the Brandt Commission as a face-to-face forum for world leaders this October’s summit in Mexico has undergone a chameleon-like change.
Rather than a frank discussion of Brandt’s recommendations, the main concern now seems to be patching up the widening cracks between the US and the Third World.
The normal breach widened last year during the Global Round of Negotiations in the United Nations when the Carter administration gave a terse ‘No’ to the core proposals for a New International Economic Order.
The Reagan administration has been even more blunt, flatly rejecting any moves to restructure the IMF and the World Bank or to explore agreements to give Third World countries stable returns for their exports of basic commodities. Instead of working through the UN system, President Reagan has decided to negotiate on a one-to-one basis with poor countries — promising investment and aid to those that ’oppose tyranny and support freedom’. Reagan has outraged the Third World by relapsing to the primitive capitalist ethic that if nations are poor it is because they are basically shiftless.
As a result it appears the summit is little more than a public relations exercise for Mr Reagan to regain some of his lost image. Attempts by the French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson to address the problems of the Third World or even the proposals of the Brandt Commission which are the raison d’etre for this meeting in Mexico were brushed aside by the US.
According to one Mexican official quoted in the New York Times, these ideas were dropped ‘to accommodate the United States’ and ‘to ensure Reagan’s attendance.’ So the conference is as informal as possible — without preparatory documents, fixed agenda or final communique. The US delegation will hear 14 well-modulated monologues from Third World moderates.
But whatever emerges from this ‘meeting of minds’ in Mexico the Third World’s drive for a New Intemational Economic Order will go on. Now, it seems the impetus will come from Newly Industrialised Countries (NICs) like Brazil, South Korea, the Philippines and India.
The West has tended to cast these countries as moderate pragmatists, more reasonable than ‘radicals’ like Tanzania’s Nyerere or Jamaica’s Michael Manley. But the global recession has forced the NICs on the offensive in the North-South dialogue.
The trend to protectionism in the North, under pressure from trade unions, is cutting into Third World manufactured exports. Previously, it seemed the NICs would take their place in a new intemational division of manufacturing planned by multinational corporations. The North would move up to technologically-sophisticated industries (computers, communications etc.) letting a handful of Third World nations move into the areas vacated (textiles, chemicals, food processing, electronic assembly).
According to noted economist Samir Amin there is a logic for continuing solidarity of the South. The union is brittle with a wide divergence of political and economic views. But in the long term a commonality of interests will override short-term differences.
For example, Third World exporters of manufactured goods want to buy their raw materials cheaply. But they also need the moral support of the rest of the developing world to penetrate Westem markets. When the NIEO was devised it was reasoned that Third World manufacturing nations would support the demands of poorer raw material exporters in retum.
It is often argued that the area of greatest potential conflict is between OPEC and the least developed, oil-importing nations. Indeed, last year the US did attempt to split the South by emphasizing the crippling burden of OPEC prices on the poorest Third World Countries. But the effort fell flat when the Carter administration froze Iranian assets in the US and unwittingly encouraged Southem solidarity.
As prospects for North-South collaboration fade the South is moving slowly towards economic self-reliance or ‘South-South’ co-operation. Joint industrial ventures between India and Malaysia, construction work by India and South Korea in the Gulf states, industrial activity by Brazil in Africa are conspicuous examples. Joint ventures in insurance, shipping and aviation are beginning — spurred by the fact that South-South co-operation increases the region’s bargaining power with the North.
However, there are limits to this co-operation which are either blurred, underestimated or ignored. The mainspring of economic activity in much of the South is the maximisation of profits. There may be more state enterprise and control of the ‘commanding heights of the economy’ like banking, transport and energy.
But in most of the South private enterprise is paramount. Like the European Economic Community regional co-operation in the Third World is determined by economies of scale and opportunities for greater profit in what is basically a capitalist system. As a result, rivalries often stymie attempts at South-South co-operation in the transfer of technology.
The South is also wracked by its past Residual boundary disputes, for instance, often erupt in wars and set limits to co-operation. In South Asia, flood prevention in Bangladesh, Nepal and India requires joint control. Rivers which rise in China run through Tibet and north-east India and pour out through Bangladesh into the sea. But India sees itself as the great power in the sub-continent and is against any co-ordination of efforts by the four nations.
National hostilities have also held up the Mekong River project which could bring prosperity to much of Indochina and Thailand. Similarly, regional co-operation in Africa — East, West and North — is frustrated by competing and hostile nationalisms.
Possibly the biggest barrier to South-South economic co-operation is rooted firmly in colonial history: the pervasive fear that regional co-operation may create new and equally crippling dependencies.
Denzil Peiris is an editor with South magazine.
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