United Nations official Supachai Panitchpakdi is not your average bureaucrat. Far from succumbing to the complacency which plagues most monolithic organisations, Mr Panitchpakdi remains a reformer. In fact, one of his first moves on becoming secretary-general of UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) in 2005 was to form the Panel of Eminent Persons, an independent body of crossborder government representatives with a mission to strengthen the organisation’s impact.
In June 2006, the panel made recommendations for enhancing UNCTAD’s primary goal of integrating developing countries into the world economy, many of which were consequently endorsed by the intergovernmental process of the organisation. “UNCTAD’s role in relation to other economic organisations such as the World Trade Organisation, Bretton Woods institutions, as well as the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] should be defined,” he says.
Plans to reform the WTO, where Mr Panitchpakdi served as director-general for three years before moving on to head UNCTAD, are also on the agenda. “I hope we will look at reforming the WTO because is it really acceptable to the international community to be having discussion rounds that last eight to 10 years each time?” says Mr Panitchpakdi, whose preference is for a system of ongoing meetings. A clearly defined remit for global development organisations is vital if they are to work together effectively. “There is no way to address protectionism from advanced nations through the WTO, as investment is not part of the discussion at the moment,” says Mr Panitchpakdi. But the perceived fear that emerging economy investors may use funds to gain political leverage is considered enough of a threat to global investment flows that the G8 has mandated UNCTAD and the OECD to work together on establishing a set of best practices for investment policies. “I hope there will be a transfer of knowledge to OECD members who can then help to reduce fear around investment from developing countries,” says Mr Panitchpakdi.
“We are trying to raise awareness and make sure people understand there is a new wave of FDI emanating from the south, which includes sovereign wealth funds, something the world should welcome, not least because it can help ailing financial institutions in advanced countries with supplementary funding.”
Investment from emerging economies can connect countries with more markets abroad and will become part of an integrated network of production, according to Mr Panitchpakdi. He adds: “Wal-Mart invested in China only to export manufactured goods back to the US – now Asian economies are doing the same to service their own growing marketplace.”
Challenges lie ahead
But despite great strides in the global trading system, the biggest challenge to world trade still lies ahead, according to Mr Panitchpakdi. “The emergence of non-tariff-based issues will be a key challenge and we are already seeing this in the trade and environment discussion – they used to be separate issues but from now on there will be lot of integration of climate policies into trade regulations, for example.”
Streamlining the 5000 or so existing cross-border investment agreements is another task that Mr Panitchpakdi has resolved to tackle. “We need to rationalise investment policies to eliminate the multiplicity of complex investment agreements, which are not benefiting either the investor or the host country,” he says.
While reforming investment agreements can improve efficiency, UNCTAD is also working to forge new crossborder agreements. He says: “We would like to improve links between investment and technology developments, particularly in the ICT sector, as well as more south-south co-operation. We have contributed to successful investment links between Asian investors into Africa, which we would now like to extend to agreements between Latin American and Africa.”
2002World Trade Organisation
2001International Institute for Management Development, Lausanne
1992Government of Thailand
Deputy prime minister