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Nomination to Lead the UN’s Trade Agency Provokes a Power Play


Rebeca Grynspan, a Costa Rican economist and former vice president of her country, heads the Madrid-based Ibero-American General Secretariat. She has been nominated by UN Secretary-General António Guterres to lead the UN Conference on Trade and Development in a controversial move.

The proposed selection of Rebeca Grynspan, a Costa Rican economist and former vice president of her country, to head the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development was made without consulting the core of the agency — the Group of 77 and China, comprised of 134 countries from the Global South.

The nomination for secretary-general of Unctad, announced by the Costa Rican government on May 25 and reported by the local newspaper La Nación, was apparently backed by the United States and its European allies with the tacit approval of Secretary-General António Guterres. His spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, did not confirm the decision in a media briefing this week.

Instead, Dujarric said on May 26 in response to a reporter’s question about the nomination that General Assembly Resolution 1995, authorized in 1964, states that the secretary-general of Unctad “shall be appointed by the Secretary-General of the United Nations and confirmed by the General Assembly.” He added, “In accordance with past practices, we are informing regional groups of the Secretary-General’s intentions and we will subsequently have more information when the Secretary-General sends a letter to the General Assembly.”

Grynspan’s nomination therefore must be approved by consensus by the 193 member states. According to diplomats, Guterres and Grynspan will have to make big concessions to the G-77 and China to secure their support before presenting her candidacy formally in the General Assembly.

A similar situation arose in 2005 when a Thai economist, Supachai Panitchpakdi, was nominated as head of Unctad by then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan without the backing of the G-77 and China. Supachai was proposed for the job after leading the World Trade Organization, which promotes deregulation of the global economy and was criticized at the time for not delivering on its promise to ensure that free trade would accelerate economic growth while reducing poverty and inequality. He led Unctad from 2005 to 2013.

Grynspan, 65, now leads the Madrid-based Ibero-American General Secretariat, an organization that coordinates summit meetings of the countries of Latin America and the Iberian peninsula. If she is approved by the General Assembly, her support by the US and Europeans, some experts say, could further undermine the original mission of Unctad, which was created to address the asymmetrical relationship between the Global South and the North but has moved from that goal, these experts say.

Grynspan previously worked at the UN as associate administrator of the UN Development Program, from 2010 to 2014, at its headquarters in New York City. The organization promotes technical and investment cooperation and provides expertise to help developing countries increase their ability to provide good governance and expand the private sector of their economies. Its mission does not include dealing with the global political economy — the intersection of economics, politics and international relations.

Grynspan was told in 2013 by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the time that she would be named the executive director of UN Women, succeeding Michelle Bachelet of Chile. A sudden switch to give the job to Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka of South Africa surprised Grynspan, who left the UN in 2014.

The UN trade conference, established in 1964, has been an outlier in the UN system, offering alternatives to the neoliberal policies promoted by the multilateral development architecture of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Unctad was deemed an important advocate for independent nations emerging from colonialism, most notably in Africa and Asia, and it acted as a think tank for poor countries while offering technical support and analysis.

At the start, the newly forming G-77 nations plus China provided its foundation, with help from rich nations. As a caucus, the G-77 holds a solid majority in the UN General Assembly.

But the Geneva-based Unctad has been plagued with criticism and deeper troubles in recent years. The previous secretary-general, Mukhisa Kituyi of Kenya, a former parliament member and trade minister under President Mwai Kibaki at the time, was nominated for the Unctad position, African media reports have said, but not by the full regional group. Instead, he clinched the nomination through President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, with whom he had investment discussions in the past. African nations, acting in solidarity, went along with Kituyi’s nomination. He took office at the UN agency in 2013 and was elected to another four-year term in 2017.

In February 2021, Kituyi resigned before his term ended, reportedly to run for president of Kenya in 2022. The deputy secretary-general of Unctad, Isabelle Durant of Belgium — a development policy expert appointed by Guterres in 2017 — was named acting secretary-general. She has not been considered for the top job because it is Latin America’s turn, based on the principle of geographical rotation.

Despite their shared interests with some of the overarching goals of Unctad, the G-77 and China were not consulted during the selection process for the next leader. In a letter to Guterres in May, the Geneva chapter of the G-77 and China said that “given its mandate, our Group considers itself to be the main stakeholder in UNCTAD.”

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by PassBlue, added that the head of Unctad should have “a track record of approaching those questions [on development] from the perspective of the Group of 77 and China and developing countries more broadly.” Signed by Nasir Ahmad Andisha, the permanent representative of Afghanistan to the UN in Geneva and chair of the Geneva chapter of the G-77 and China, the letter reiterated the concerns sent in a Feb. 1 missive.

The G-77 and China wrote in the recent letter to Guterres that after “having received very limited official information from your Office, member States currently rely on incomplete information and mostly on elements provided by countries that are supporting specific candidates.” According to an Unctad official who asked to remain anonymous, Guterres did not reply to the letter.

Grynspan’s nomination was announced first by the foreign minister of Costa Rica, Rodolfo Solano. The government “provided all the support and the determined diplomatic accompaniment that is required for this type of process,” the foreign ministry wrote in its official Twitter account on May 25.

Solano’s announcement came one day after he met with Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, who led a US presidential delegation to Quito, Ecuador’s capital, for the May 24 inauguration of President Guillermo Lasso, a conservative ex-banker who ran for his country’s right-wing party in what Thomas-Greenfield called a “free and fair” election in a follow-up media briefing.

This week, the foreign ministry of Costa Rica also announced that the country had been accepted as a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or the OECD, consisting of the world’s largest economies and whose commitments and interests generally run counter to the G-77 and China.

In addition, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that he was traveling to Costa Rica from June 1-2 to meet with President Carlos Alvarado and Solano to discuss, among other concerns, regional migration; 30,000 Venezuelan refugees are now living in Costa Rica, the State Department said in a May 27 media briefing. Blinken is also attending a meeting of the Central American Integration System group of countries. He will meet with “senior leaders” from Central America, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, as well as “Costa Rican government officials and civil society” at the gathering.

While in Quito, Thomas-Greenfield met not only with President Lasso but also with the heads of state of the Dominican Republic and Haiti and the foreign ministers of Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica and Guatemala. The inauguration was also attended by some of the most prominent conservative leaders in Latin America, including Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Iván Duque of Colombia and Sebastián Piñera of Chile.

According to two diplomats interviewed by PassBlue, seven candidates were nominally considered for the Unctad job. Among them were the Colombian economist José Antonio Campo, a professor at Columbia University and a former head of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (Eclac); and María Fernanda Espinosa, a former foreign minister and defense minister of Ecuador and president of the 73rd session of the General Assembly, a yearlong post, from 2018 to 2019.

Given Guterres’s professed commitment to gender equality, Espinosa was a strong runner-up for the position, according to diplomats. Her fate, however, was sealed by President Lasso, who did not endorse her candidacy. Espinosa served first as defense minister and then foreign minister for the leftist President Rafael Correa and afterward as foreign minister for the most recent president, a moderate, Lenín Moreno.

Relatedly in Ecuador, a former short-lived president of the country, Rosalía Arteaga, announced her candidacy to run for UN secretary-general in April, but since she did not have a national endorsement, she called herself a “civil society” nominee. Her candidacy was not publicly recognized by the respective presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council, including by the US, and she told PassBlue that Moreno was ready to back her in his final days as president, but she told him to not do so.

Grynspan’s appointment will have to win consensus by the General Assembly; if she succeeds, she will chair the 15th quadrennial conference of Unctad, scheduled from Oct. 3 to Oct. 7 in Barbados. The meeting is the highest decision-making gathering of the organization, where member states assess trade and development matters and form global policy responses. The conference also sets Unctad’s priorities for the next four years.

One of the first achievements of the agency in 1964 was an understanding that exports from the Global South would need tariff concessions if trade was to be used to foster development. The body was marked by its first secretary-general, the Argentine economist Raúl Prebisch, who devised the highly influential dependency theory, which states that without a coordinated international intervention, resources flow from a “periphery” of poor and underdeveloped countries to a “core” of wealthy ones, enriching the latter at the expense of the former.

Grynspan’s appointment, some diplomats say, could be viewed as a path to stifling criticism of neoliberal policies from within the UN system. If that is the case, Unctad could become an extension of the UN Development Program, they suggest.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Maurizio Guerrero is an award-winning journalist who for 10 years was the bureau chief in New York City and the United Nations of the largest news-wire service in Latin America, the Mexican-based Notimex. He now covers immigration, social justice movements and multilateral negotiations for several media outlets in the United States, Europe and Mexico. A graduate journalist of the Escuela de Periodismo Carlos Septién in Mexico City, he holds an M.A. in Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies from the City University of New York (CUNY).

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