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Mukhisa Kituyi to Head the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)

Containers are seen in this general view of the port of the northern city of Haifa (REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun).

The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has appointed Dr. Mukhisa Kituyi to be the next secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). An UNCTAD press release on May 16, 2013 stated that Dr. Kituyi will serve a four-year term beginning September 1, 2013. Dr. Kituyi has held several senior positions including Kenya’s minister of trade from 2003-2008. He is currently a nonresident fellow in the Africa Growth Initiative (AGI) at the Brookings Institution and was a resident scholar in 2011. Dr. Kituyi is well versed in the global trading system and, in the past, was considered a potential candidate to head organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and UNCTAD, but instead opted to join politics. A dynamic politician and intellectual, Dr. Kituyi is an excellent choice to head UNCTAD.

For AGI, the appointment of Dr. Kituyi is significant not only because he is one of our fellows but also because AGI has been emphasizing the need to increase informed African voices in global governance. We believe that African interests are not effectively represented in major global institutions, and this deficiency has contributed to the broader marginalization of the continent in global affairs. Dr. Kituyi should be an effective voice in representing Africa and other developing countries. And, as I know him, I believe this is one informed voice that the international community is unlikely to ignore.

But it will not be a smooth ride for the new secretary-general; a host of challenges await him in Geneva. First, more than in most global organizations, UNCTAD requires effective management and intellectual leadership. An internal report published last year—the Joint Inspection Unit Report—showed that UNCTAD has been suffering from a lack of effective governance. It is important that Dr. Kituyi focus on raising the bar in terms of professionalism at UNCTAD. This task will require looking into the recruitment and promotion of employees strictly based on merit. Dr. Kituyi will need to carefully evaluate personnel issues and provide the necessary motivation to ensure that the organization delivers on its mandate. Most importantly, he will have to steer the organization towards more transparency, rewarding performance instead of simple loyalty to senior management. The new secretary-general will also need to offer the intellectual leadership necessary to guide the institution through a time of major global economic change and a shifting of economic power to the South. He must therefore lead intellectually in offering alternative ideas to those emerging from traditional development institutions.

An even a more daunting challenge that the new secretary-general will face is to ensure that UNCTAD remains relevant and credible. Over the past few years, questions have been raised as to what should be the institution’s focus. Some have gone to the extent of insisting that UNCTAD should not be involved in macroeconomic and financial areas. But as its name suggests, UNCTAD was created to deal with issues relating to trade and development with a particular emphasis in developing countries. There is no doubt, therefore, that macroeconomics and finance squarely fit in the institution’s mandate. Indeed, UNCTAD used to be the forum where these issues would be negotiated in order to ensure some balance in the global economy. However, since the creation of the WTO, UNCTAD has experienced a progressive erosion of its voice. It will be the responsibility of Dr. Kituyi to reverse this trend so that UNCTAD can play its rightful role in the global economic policy scene. The new secretary-general must also position UNCTAD to better address the imbalance and unfairness in the multilateral trading rules that have shaped globalization. In UNCTAD, it is often the case that developing countries feel bullied by their developed country partners. It will be imperative for Dr. Kituyi to identify the best way to navigate issues that have come to divide developed and developing regions.

The secretary-general must also position UNCTAD so as to assist developing countries in seizing the opportunities presented by the global economy. With all the changes taking place in the world, UNCTAD has to focus on how developing countries can reap the benefits and minimize the negative effects arising from trade and globalization. This focus requires that UNCTAD take on the hard topics that are of particular interest to developing countries, including investment policy, trade in services and commodities—which it has always done—but it should also come out clearly on what path developing countries should follow. Likewise, we are likely to see an acceleration of regional trade arrangements. Most challenging are agreements involving Northern and Southern partners who cannot be considered equal partners when they negotiate. The jurisprudence on the rules governing such agreements is not commonly agreed upon. Hence, there is a need for UNCTAD to demonstrate, based on evidence, how to ensure that balanced development is achievable, especially in respect to North-South agreements.

With an incoming director general at the WTO and Dr. Kituyi at UNCTAD, the global environment offers an opportunity for the two institutions that drive trade and development to establish the missing dialogue. For this to happen, UNCTAD needs to be credible when articulating its voice in this changing global economy. This is the greatest challenge that Dr. Kituyi faces.

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