The UN Takes Charge

NEW YORK – While discussions about economic “green shoots” continue unabated in the United States, in many countries, and especially in the developing world, matters are getting worse. The downturn in the US began with a failure in the financial system, which quickly was translated into a slowdown in the real economy. But, in the developing world, it is just the opposite: a decline in exports, reduced remittances, lower foreign direct investment, and precipitous falls in capital flows have led to economic weakening. As a result, even countries with good regulatory systems are now confronting problems in their financial sectors.

On June 23, a United Nations conference focusing on the global economic crisis and its impact on developing countries reached a consensus both about the causes of the downturn and why it was affecting developing countries so badly. It outlined some of the measures that should be considered and established a working group to explore the way forward, possibly under the guidance of a newly established expert group.

The agreement was remarkable: in providing what in many ways was a clearer articulation of the crisis and what needs to be done than that offered by the G-20, the UN showed that decision-making needn’t be restricted to a self-selected club, lacking political legitimacy, and largely dominated by those who had considerable responsibility for the crisis in the first place. Indeed, the agreement showed the value of a more inclusive approach – for example, by asking key questions that might be too politically sensitive for some of the larger countries to raise, or by pointing out concerns that resonate with the poorest, even if they are less important for the richest.

One might have thought that the United States would have taken a leadership role, since the crisis was made there. Indeed, the US Treasury (including some officials who are currently members of President Barack Obama’s economic team) pushed capital- and financial-market liberalization, which resulted in the rapid contagion of America’s problems around the world.