Too little, too late? The UN and the global financial crisis

Alison Evans Dirk Willem te Velde
23 June 2009


The title of the summit being held at the United Nations in New York on 24-26 June 2009 - the United Nations Conference on the World Financial and Economic Crisis and Its Impact on Development - suggests a large ambition that some observers already think is misplaced. Their argument is that it has already been overtaken by events. After all, the global financial crisisis already almost two years old. The problems in the United States housing market emerged in Augu st 2007, in banks and financial institutions (such as Bear Stearns and Northern Rock) by early 2008, and the implosion of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. The crisis is, in this perspective, well into its third wave. A summit held now to pinpoint the action needed to ease its impact, particularly on the most vulnerable, seems - at first sight - "too little, too late".

Alison Evans is director of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI)

Also by Alison Evans in openDemocracy:

"Financing development: from Monterrey to Doha" (26 November 2008) - with Simon Maxwell

Dirk Willem te Velde is a research fellow at the International Economic Development Group (IEDG)

There are arguments to the contrary - status (it is being attended by heads of state and government, as mandated in December 2008 at the Financing for Development conferencein Doha), timing (it comes neatly between the G20 summit in London on 2 April 2009 and its follow-up in Pittsburgh on 24-25 September), and reach (this, unlike the G20 discussions, is a meeting of the entire UN membership - the most wide-ranging and inclusive body able to reflect seriously on the scale of the global financial crisis and its impact on development). The last point in particular should in principle be the summit's strength; but it could also be its weakness.

The context

The context of the summit is sobering. Developing countries are being hit by falls in trade, private-capital flows, remittances and (possibly) in the value of official development assistance (ODA). Research by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and developing-country teams have provided new evidence on these transmission-belts in ten poor countries. Moreover, the predicted effect of these trends is a rise in poverty levels, social unrest and even conflict.  The much-discussed recent "green shoots" are at best showing only some levelling off in the heavy losses to date.

The groundbreaking ODI research into ten developing countries shows how high the economic and human costs of the crisis already are. Some countries may see the strong positive economic growth that lasted into 2008 sink into negative growth in 2009. There is no doubt too that jobs are being lost, with some sectors being especially hard hit. The garment industry in Cambodia, for example, employed around 350,000 people, but saw approximately 51,000 people - many of them women - laid off between September 2008 and March 2009.

The implications for poverty are alarming. The crisis is likely to push many households into poverty, far more than would otherwise have been the case: as many as 650,0o0 in Indonesia, for example; 300,000 in Bangladesh; 233,000 in Uganda; 230,000 in Ghana; and 110,000 in Cambodia. Behind these numbers are countless human miseries: illnesses acquired and untreated, children unable to go to school, families broken or degraded. What is more, the research suggests that poorer countries have been hit even harder than initially expected, and that the worst is yet to come. This sentiment is echoed in the World Bank's prediction in June 2009 of "multiple waves of economic stress", and in the fear of eminent economists such as Paul Krugman of a lost decade ahead.

The G8 ministers of finance may talk about "exit strategies" and the need to shore up confidence to pull their countries out of the recession. But from the perspective of poorer countries, for whom "monitoring and coping" remains the mantra, this is to say the least premature.

The opportunity

Does all this indeed make the United Nations summit "too little, too late"? There are certainly real concerns about the role and effectiveness of the UN in the global financial and economic crisis. A dominant view is that the UN as a whole is hobbled by its internal divisions and bogged down in opaque, bureaucratic procedures and processes of consensus-building that make it look bloated and inefficient to the outside world. By contrast, the smaller "clubs" of the international system that operate independently of the UN - the G8, G8+5 and G20, for example - have less legitimacy but are able to agree on things and deliver accordingly.

At the time of the G20 summit on 2 April 2009, the ODI's former director Simon Maxwell noted that the United Nations Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc) - the UN body established to take the lead on global economic and financial issues - "has played no part yet in solving the current financial crisis". 

But it would be "too much, too early" to give up on the UN. Rather, this crisis provides two strong spurs for UN reform that if pursued would establish once and for all its role in leading global debate on issues of worldwide concern.

The first spur relates to the impact of the crisis on the global political order;  in particular, the damage that has been done to the reputation of OECD economiesand the longstanding belief that "the west knows best". It is now not only donors who are asking for clean governments - politicians in Cambodia, for example, are asking that the west be held to account for its financial "crimes".

The second spur lies in the attention now being given to the need to refurbish global governance.

The G20 may have allocated most of its "crisis resources" to the international financial institutions (IFIs), but the UN will remain a crucial part of any long-term governance solution. The IFIs too lack the UN's legitimacy; and in any case the draft report prepared by a commission of experts (headed by Joseph Stiglitz) for the 24-26 June summit highlights the failures of the IFIs rather than seeing them as an immediate solution to the crisis. The UN has a pivotal role to play in monitoring the crisis, especially its impact on the poorest and most vulnerable groups. But to fulfil this, it must be stronger in coordinating dialogue on country-development models, and facilitating this process at country level.

The UN is already expanding its own monitoring work, in cooperation with others. The Overseas Development Institute has worked with Unicef to look at how the crisis might affect children, for example. If the summit in New York achieves just one thing, it should be to agree on the monitoring role of the UN. This could turn out to be its greatest strength. A UN that works "above" the smaller groupings with their specific agendas and vested interests, is the body best placed to pioneer the monitoring of this systemic global crisis, and to host the global dialogue on how to respond both now and in the future.


openDemocracy writers on the world economy and the poor:

Michael Edwards, "A world made new through love and reason: what future for 'development'?" (25 April 2007)

Paul Collier, "The aid evasion: raising the ‘bottom billion'" (11 June 2007)

Robert Wade, " The financial crisis: burst bubble, frayed model" (1 October 2007)

David Held, " Global challenges: accountability and effectiveness" (17 January 2008)

Ann Pettifor, " The week that changed everything" (22 September 2008)

Andrew Shepherd, "The anti-poverty relay: a progress report" (24 September 2008)

Godfrey Hodgson, "The week that democracy won" (29 September 2008)

Will Hutton, "Wanted: a fairer capitalism" (6 October 2008)

Anita Sharma, "The core crisis: standing with the poor" (30 October 2008)

Paul Rogers, "A world in flux: crisis to agency" (16 October 2008)

Krzysztof Rybinski, "A new world order" (4 December 2008)

Simon Maxwell, "Global development: Barack Obama's agenda" (20 January 2009)

Sue Branford, "The G20's missing voice" (25 March 2009)

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