Here is a blog I wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian after attending the UN Conference on the Global Economic Crisis in New York last week....
Maybe I was being a naïve activist, but I thought I would be covering an important and consequential event. The world is facing a devastating economic crisis, accompanied by a toxic mix of crises of climate chaos, food prices and even flu outbreaks, so surely the world's eyes would be on the UN as 192 nations gathered this week to supposedly develop a smart, effective response to these pressing and interconnected issues.
Yet, here I am on the second day of the UN conference on the Global Economic Crisis and its Impact on the development, and for the press it is as if the meeting did not exist. Until Michael Jackson’s death, the latest dull exploits of US celebrity misfits Jon and Kate - famous mainly for their ability to reproduce- were the only stories staring out at me on most front pages.
So I decided to do some investigation. Perhaps it’s just the nature of the United Nations. It certainly doesn’t have a great reputation for effective and efficient responses to crises. The labyrinth of corridors and tired-looking peeled-paint walls seem to be a good metaphor for the UN’s reputation as a bureaucratic institution that had its heydays several decades ago. At times in my vain attempts to find the press room, I became convinced that I would, along the lines of the surreal John Malkovich film, find the 7th and a half floor in Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s brain.
Yet it was also clear that there is still no other institution that can tackle the global crisis. Whilst it might have started in Wall Street, the crisis is only starting to be felt in places like Nairobi or Jakarta. The World Bank this week said the crisis would be deeper than expected with more than 1 billion people pushed into hunger into 2009. Martin Khor of the South Center reported that many financial ministers of developing countries are desperate. They face plummeting trade and investment incomes and rising costs and exports of capital. But they dare not say how bad the situation because that would guarantee financial meltdown.
It is not just that the crisis has had global impacts. It is also undeniable that despite its flaws, the UN made up of 192 countries has a lot more legitimacy than the self-appointed G20 group of nations who have unilaterally appointed themselves as the global crisis repairmen. As the charismatic President Correa of Ecuador put it in one of the main forums: “How can the G20 argue that they represent the world? We cannot entrust the authors of the crisis with finding the solution. They created a situation where you could say anything no matter how stupid in support of free movement of capital and it would be accepted.” He argued that the crisis provided the opportunity to develop new ideas and fresh thinking based on the values we want represented in the economy.
It soon became apparent that the real reason why the UN conference has received no attention was exactly because of the difficult questions posed by people such as Correa. In fact it turns out that industrialised countries like the US, European Union, Japan and others systematically blocked the conference firstly by trying to ignore it, then by smearing some of their opponents, and finally by outright opposing any demands that threatened any real change.
The international press has been happy to follow the priorities set by the rich country governments - and have consequently ignored the conference's existence.
Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, the avuncular Nicaraguan priest and elected President of the General Assembly of the United Nations received the brunt of attacks. Brockmann had dared to inject huge energy into the process by pulling together a high level UN commission chaired by Nobel Prize heavyweight Joseph Stiglitz and calling for radical changes in the institutions and rules that led to the crisis. Western diplomats were soon briefing journalists that Brockmann was a “radical socialist” trying to impose its vision on the world community.
Then when it became clear that the largest block of countries, the misnamed Group of 77 (in fact made up more than 130 nations) was also pushing forward many of the same ideas, the rich countries played down the importance of the conference and refused to send high-level representation. Finally the rich countries went through the G77 declaration and removed anything that entailed any reform to either the institutions (such as the IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organization) or the international rules and laws that enabled the crisis to spread and deepen. The result was an anaemic final UN document that does little to tackle the root causes of the financial crisis.
The breaking news this week that staff at Goldman Sachs bank look likely to receive the biggest bonus payouts in the firm's 140-year history typifies the desire by rich countries to return to the pre-crisis world of bumper profits and deregulated chaos. Meanwhile across the US, unemployment, budget cuts are causing ever more economic and social distress. Most analysts say that even if economic growth recovers it will take several years before employment catches up. Moreover if necessary changes are not made to the system that created the crisis, it will almost certainly reoccur.
“We cannot allow business to continue as usual. Those most affected by the crisis must have a voice in how it is resolved,” concluded D’Escoto Brockmann. “The poor is tired of financing the rich and paying for their excesses. We need a new vision that involves the whole community, that expresses what we want this world to be and to look like.” His voice was echoed by community organizer Tanya Dawkins of Miami who said “These fights are about power –and the need to shift power back to where it belongs, with the people.”