UNIDO at 40

30 November 2006 at 22:27 | 577 views

by Sierra Leonean academic
Dr. Abdul Lamin of the
Department of International Relations
at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa,
on the occasion of the
United Nations Industrial Development Organisation’s
40th Anniversary and African Industrialization Day
28 November, 2006.

Programme Director, Mr. George Djolov,
UNIDO Resident Representative,
Mr. Stefano Bologna,
Honourable Minister of Trade and Industry of South Africa,
Mr. Mandisi Mphalwa,
Member of the Diplomatic Corps,
Government Officials,
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,

Allow me to start off by congratulating UNIDO as it celebrates 40 years of existence. In many ways, the history of UNIDO reflects that of the international system, a system which has in the past four decades, also gone through different phases of transformation, designed to keep pace with contemporary trends and thoughts. In the 1960s for instance, the debate about development was couched in the language of dependency, a theoretical construct that underlines an unequal relationship between the developed north and developing south.

Beginning in the 1990s however, development is now largely debated in the context of globalization, a concept that is still being unpacked and analyzed, to fully understand its impact-positive and negative-on economies of the global south. In such a constantly changing environment, it is clear that UN specialized agencies such as UNIDO need to also constantly review their activities, reform their structures-both institutional and operational-and refine their alliances and partnerships, to fulfil their respective mandates.

That UNIDO has come of age, four decades after its birth, and continues to be a leading force for positive social change in the world, is a tribute to all the men and women who have dedicated their individual and collective intellectual energies to the organization during this period. One can only therefore say that you have indeed earned your place in history, but always remember that this comes with huge responsibilities that transcend mere dedication, as the challenges of the 21st century continue to unfold.

Program Director, Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, when I received the invitation to speak at today’s event, I thought hard about what my contribution would be. Specifically, I asked myself whether it was wise on my part to have accepted an invitation to speak at an event discussing industrial development, a field that I wasn’t particularly an expert in. What does “African industrialization” mean, I thought? Can industrialization be exclusively African, I pondered? Needless to say that I am not going to even venture to get into those debates this evening, because doing so would be stretching the limits of my technical competence and hence risk exposing my ignorance on these matters.

What I would rather do, is to attempt to locate the evolving development debate within the context of our changing conceptions of security, an area that I am more comfortable, as a political scientist, to speak to. In doing so, I will also identify a number of opportunities and highlight a few challenges that UNIDO and its partners within the UN system and the wider international community will face in the coming years, as they seek to remain at the cutting edge of shaping and influencing our collective thinking on development.

Security, like many other concepts in international relations has evolved both in terms definition and conception, particularly since the end of the cold war. For too long, security was conceptualized solely through the lenses of the state, narrowly focusing on “hard” militaristic and territorial matters. Until quite recently, very little thought was given to the idea of incorporating “non-traditional” or “soft” issues of development into our broad understanding of security. As a result then, security and development have historically been treated as separate and distinct areas of intellectual inquiry and policymaking.

However, the rapid transformation of the geopolitical landscape in the wake of the cold war, has led to gradual paradigmatic shifts in our conception of security. It is now widely acknowledged for instance that development and security are two sides of the same coin and therefore requires us all as policymakers, development practitioners, academics and civil society leaders, to adopt a much more comprehensive approach in addressing the socio-economic challenges facing our world.
What this means in real terms today is that a development paradigm that emphasizes economic growth without a corresponding effort to translate that growth into an improvement in the living standards of the poor, is not sustainable. It also means that a development paradigm that does not prioritize the education of young people is bound to create large polls of unemployed urban youth, whom as we have seen in recent times have been used by warlords and governments alike in armed conflicts in Africa and elsewhere. It further means that a development paradigm that does not seek to alter patterns of engagement between the global north and south, whether it is in the field of international trade, or information and communications technology transfers, is bound to reinforce an unequal world with significant long-term implications for global peace.

In essence then, our approach to development in the 21st century must be one that takes into account a human dimension. We must always be guided by the impetus to serve the needs of human beings, as we formulate policies, design strategies and build institutions and structures, to implement our priorities. After all, development, as Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, has noted, is a “freedom” that all peoples of the world are entitled to. Or, as Dr. Kandeh Yumkella, the Director-General of UNIDO, said in his acceptance speech to the UNIDO General Conference in December, 2005: “poverty is about real people, real flesh and blood” and thus requires us to “go beyond theoretical concepts and fixed paradigms of the world and face the realities of poor people in the regions where they live.”
It is instructive to note that this thought was expressed almost about the same time that the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Outcome Document, in the aftermaths of the 60th Summit of September 2005. The Outcome Document, among other things, unequivocally emphasizes the links between security and development, and hence advocates a more comprehensive and holistic approach to dealing with the challenges of poverty, marginalization, underdevelopment and so forth. Indeed, this is also a reflection of the vision of outgoing UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, embodied in his reform agenda, which culminated in the publication in March 2005 of his report to the General Assembly titled, In Larger Freedom: Towards Security, Development and Human Rights for All.

Program Director, Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, having sketched the geopolitical landscape, allow me at this point to now identify some of the opportunities available to UNIDO, as well as to reflect on the challenges ahead, as the organization celebrates 40 years of incredible achievement. Perhaps before I do that though, I should say a brief word about African Industrialization Day. As you may very well know, when the UN General Assembly declared November 20 as African Industrialization Day in 1989, the intention was to use this day to “mobilize the commitment of the international community to the industrialization of Africa.” It is safe to say that almost two decades since the General Assembly’s proclamation, that goal remains even more relevant today than ever before. There can be no disagreement over the fact that for African economies to become critical players in the global economy, the modernization and industrialization of their development architecture is a major prerequisite. The debate therefore is no longer about scepticism over whether Africa should industrialize but rather what mechanisms need to be in place to achieve that goal. That clearly requires a critical analysis of the opportunities at the disposal of specialized agencies such as UNIDO, as it mobilizes resources to assist African states achieve the transformation of their respective economies. I will therefore identify three such opportunities.
First, the transformation of the normative landscape in international political and economic relations, particularly in the last decade and half should be seen as an opportunity that would allow an agency such as UNIDO effectively utilize its comparative advantage to promote sustainable development. The gradual shift in thinking from a “pro-growth” to a “pro-poor” economic paradigm provides UNIDO and other like-minded agencies an opportunity to utilize and consolidate their comparative advantage in areas of poverty reduction, trade and industry, energy security and so forth.

Second, the emergence of new players in the global economy, namely; China, Brazil, India, South Korea, South Africa, and Malaysia, among others, provides an opening for UNIDO and other international agencies to assist the developing south craft strategies to enhance partnerships and alliances that can constructively engage the broader international community in shaping the course of globalization. In other words, UNIDO is well placed to serve as a platform for sharing experiences in an effort to promote diverse perspectives and policies on the content and substance of globalization. While generally acknowledging the positive aspects of globalization, this phenomenon has also brought along negative consequences for developing countries. Put simply, the positive gains of globalization must be balanced with its negative consequences and to do so, requires a new thinking and approach. Fortunately, we should note that the vision of UNIDO’s Director-General, of promoting south-south cooperation is a clear recognition that our approach to development need not necessarily be pigeon-holed in the lexicon of “traditional allies and relationships.”
Third and finally, with specific reference to Africa, the reformation of the political and economic spheres of public life, at national, sub-regional and regional levels, provides UNIDO and others with an enabling environment to assist in promoting sustainable economic development that celebrates growth, but equally takes into account the need to adequately distribute resources in a fair and equitable manner. Here, the political reform process that Africa has embarked upon in the past decade or so, coupled with the vision of promoting economic development through initiatives such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), serves as the basis for new partnerships and engagement.
Before I close Programme Director, ladies and gentlemen, please allow me reflect a bit on three key challenges that will continue to call for attention, as UNIDO seeks to exploit, in the coming years, the opportunities identified above. First, while acknowledging a healthy political climate in most parts of Africa today, relative to what we had say two decades ago, the constant challenge of consolidating those gains and institutionalizing best practices, particularly where governance is concerned, will remain an ongoing challenge for UNIDO’s work, especially in the field. The entire project of promoting a peaceful and stable African continent remains a work in progress, with many of the structural problems that breed conflict and political upheavals still largely unaddressed. As UNIDO navigates this landscape therefore, it is crucial that it engages a wide range of stakeholders to better appreciate these challenges and find strategies to overcome them.

Second, the challenge of defining and properly contextualizing the state, as a central player in promoting the developmental aspirations of the poor will remain an area of critical importance to UNIDO’s work in the coming years, particularly in Africa. With the international system still largely a state-based system, in spite of the efforts over the past decade or so to “humanize” the debate, African states are increasingly losing their capacity to deliver quality and efficient services to their people, which in turn has undercut the legitimacy of many, both domestically and internationally. The challenge then is what role if any, does the state have to play in engineering development in Africa. Some have made an argument for a “democratic developmental state” while others continue to emphasize a market-oriented system where the forces of demand and supply reign, with little or no direct role for the state. Wherever one stands on that debate, is in some way immaterial. What is instructive though is that, as the world becomes more and more globalized and new actors intensify their competition with the state, it is going to be unavoidable for UNIDO and other development actors to avoid this issue. The challenge obviously is how to engage in that debate without fundamentally compromising principles and radically deviating from its founding mandate.

Finally, the challenge of negotiating the interests of multiple stakeholders in the international community will remain an area of concern for UNIDO, as it seeks to consolidate a development vision that promotes industrialization as a vehicle to assist the poor in maximizing their potential. Here, the debate around adopting a global trade regime that is both fair to the developing south but also accommodates the interests of industrialized north; the impact of agricultural subsidies to US and European farmers on their counterparts in the developing world, especially Africa; will constantly be call for attention in the coming years. As an organization placed at the cutting edge of the industrial development, UNIDO will be faced with the challenge of addressing this issue. Fortunately, the organization has a distinguished record of strong partnerships with sister agencies such as the UNDP, WTO, FAO and other development partners that should serve as the basis to constructively address this process.

Program Director, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I want to close by thanking UNIDO for inviting me to share some thoughts on one of the fundamental debates of our time. In particular, I am grateful to Stefano Bologna and his colleague Lorance Ansermet of UNIDO’s Southern Africa regional office for having confidence in my ability to contribute something to this debate, even if I have not done so in the technically sophisticated language of industrial development practitioners. I should also say that notwithstanding my initial apprehensions about accepting the invitation to speak, on second thought, I did so knowing that at the helm of this organization today, is a distinguished countryman of mine, Dr. Kandeh Yumkella, whose election by the UNIDO General Conference in December 2005, as the sixth Director-General of the organization made us all proud as Sierra Leoneans. Indeed, as Dr. Yumkella said in his acceptance speech to members of the General Conference, if he can lead such a major international organization, given where he comes from, then the world must understand that “there are Africans with PhDs, MBAs from the top universities of the world” who can lead, and in the process influence the course of history.

I want to therefore publicly pay tribute to Dr. Yumkella on his achievement, and remain confident that the vision set out in his paper titled Towards Pro-Poor Sustainable Industrial Development: A Shared Vision for UNIDO, presented to the Industrial Development Board of UNIDO in June 2005, is a good foundation upon which to build lasting partnerships with developing countries, particularly those in Africa, as they seek to realize their dreams of industrialization. I thank you very much for your attention.

Photo: UNIDO boss Dr. Kandeh Yumkella.