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Ahead of the Curve: Ideas that Changed the World

Spotlight on UN's Intellectual History Project

“Ideas matter, people matter” – and powerful ideas “become embedded in institutions” said two authors of the United Nations Intellectual History Project series, Sir Richard Jolly and Thomas G. Weiss, at a meeting at UNCTAD’s headquarter this month arguing that the UN, despite its shortcomings, has had a massive positive influence on the world.

A UNCTAD information note

 

Sir Richard Jolly, Honorary Professor and Research Associate of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, and Thomas G. Weiss, Presidential Professor of Political Science at the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York (CUNY), were key speakers at an UNCTAD public debate on the topic of "UN ideas that changed the world."

* Large UNCTAD theme songs

The Intellectual History Project has so far produced 17 books, and is an attempt to provide a balanced accounting, Weiss said. He added that the Project is funded independently of the UN and is impartial in its findings. Three or four of the books "have large UNCTAD theme songs," Weiss said. These include Trade, Finance and Development (2004) and The UN and Development: From Aid to Cooperation (2009).

UNCTAD was the intellectual brainchild of Raul Prebisch, UNCTAD's first Secretary-General, Weiss told the meeting. Prebisch’s central thesis – the systematic bias in world trade against commodity-producing developing countries – is reflected in many of the UN’s economic ideas, including those developed by UNCTAD. Those ideas – which Sir Richard Jolly said “have often differed from the World Bank’s and the IMF’s” – include fairer international economic relations; the establishment of national development strategies; and development goals, on all of which UNCTAD has produced an important body of research and analysis. Many of UNCTAD’s ideas were subsequently taken up by the academic community, according to Rubens Ricupero, another former Secretary-General of UNCTAD.

Sir Richard Jolly cited nine prominent UN ideas that changed the world: human rights for all; gender equality and women's rights; development goals; fairer international economic relations; strategies for accelerating development in poorer countries; priorities for social development; environmental sustainability; peace and human security; and human development. He termed the concept of human rights for all “the boldest step of all.”

“It is important that an organization sticks with ideas until they begin to have an effect,” he said. “It is also important that these ideas are moulded and modified – that they develop.”

* Challenges to orthodox thinking

Opening the meeting, UNCTAD Secretary-General Supachai Panitchpakdi said the UN had a history of “innovative, ahead-of the-curve thinking.” The Intellectual History Project “explains much of what happened, explains some of the challenges the UN made to orthodox thinking; it reflects the fact that in some cases, orthodox thinking was not achieving the results everyone wanted. Some of these ideas, dating from the 1970s, are still valid today.”

As an example, Supachai referred to the New International Economic Order, a concept calling for greater global economic governance that was first posited in the 1970s. “This is still pertinent today,” he said. “It was ahead of the curve; it's worth thinking about how the world would look today if the global economic regulation discussed then had been established.” Similarly, he said, the term “globalization with a human face”, also discussed in decades past, “has resurfaced today.”

“It always takes a couple of decades for ideas to be accepted, to become established,” the Secretary-General explained.

Gabriele Koehler, Chief of the UNCTAD Communications, Information and Outreach Unit, who moderated the session, termed the topic of UN ideas highly pertinent: “The economic and social crisis has put everyone into a mode of reconsidering economic and development models. And there is a paradigm shift under way towards equitable development.”


(Posted: 4 March 2010)

Recommended citation: UNCTAD information note (2010) 'Ahead of the Curve: Ideas that Changed the World', World Economy & Development In Brief, Luxembourg, 4 March 2010 (www.wdev.eu)

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