UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)

UNCTAD XV quadrennial conference took place on October 3-8, 2021.

Developing countries have been devastated economically by the COVID-19 crisis, in many cases far worse than they were hit by the global recession of 2008, and without the massive financial support mobilized by developed countries to protect their citizens from the economic damage caused by COVID-19.

This was the message from the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), as governments from around the world gathered, virtually and in Barbados, October 3-8, 2021, for the institution’s fifteenth conference. UNCTAD plays a unique role in the international economic governance ecosystem as the focal point for trade and development, acknowledging that trade doesn’t occur in a vacuum. The interrelated issues of finance, technology, investment, and sustainable development must also be addressed in a holistic manner for countries to be able to benefit from integration into the global economy and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

At the conference, member states finalized negotiations on the mandate of UNCTAD’s next four years. OWINFS is worked in collaboration with the Financing for Development CSO Group (FfD CSO Group), the Third World Network (TWN), and the Third World Network - Africa to organize CSO advocacy towards UNCTAD XV.

Even though UNCTAD is designed to focus on trade for development, all UN countries can be members. And unfortunately, at every turn during the last year of negotiations, the EU delegation sought to diminish, constrain, or limit the ability of UNCTAD to assist developing countries in adjusting to the multiple crises and in transforming the current system.

The final Bridgetown Covenant assesses the major global challenges of growing inequality and vulnerabilities, including high levels of unsustainable debt; accelerating climate change and environmental degradation; and the widening digital divide and uneven speed of digital transformation. It identifies four major transformations needed to move to a “more resilient, digital and inclusive world of shared prosperity: transforming economies through diversification; fostering a more sustainable and more resilient economy; improving the way development is financed; and revitalizing multilateralism.” The Covenant then details how each transformative strategy can be realized and mandates UNCTAD to play a role through its analysis, capacity-building, and consensus-building pillars to achieve these strategies, toward achieving the SDGs.

In the end, thanks to the hard work of some negotiators in the G77 and China, the agreement preserves UNCTAD’s mandate on key issues, and particularly those advocated for by civil society, such as its work on debt, IFFs, and taxation, which will be essential for developing countries to recover from the COVID-induced economic crisis.

The Civil Society Declaration for UNCTAD XV provides a blueprint for a much stronger vision for UNCTAD moving forward across a broad range of economic issues.

Way Forward

Now that the negotiations on the mandate are concluded, it will be up to the incoming secretary-general, Rebeca Grynspan, and her staff to oversee its implementation. SG Grynspan is off to a good start in recognizing some of the most important issues to developing countries, such as SDRs; debt sustainability analysis and restructuring; stemming the hemorrhaging caused by illicit financial flows such as was revealed in the Pandora Papers; and recognizing the importance of research and evidence-based policies to inform the technical cooperation and consensus-building pillars, especially in UNCTAD’s work on trade and technology. She also seems to be breathing fresh air into UNCTAD’s collaboration with civil society, which will benefit members’ ability to access their expertise.

The world needs UNCTAD now more than ever. Civil society is poised to work with the institution to transform global finance and trade regimes. Governments and CSOs must work together with UNCTAD to provide developing countries the tools — and the transformed governance regimes — they need to “build back better” through these challenging and difficult times.

Recent updates from Third World Network

UN: World economy in dire straits, need for a “new paradigm” – UNCTAD, by D. Ravi Kanth. (6 October 2023)

UN: UNCTAD backs G90 proposal for more policy space, upholds S&DT, by D. Ravi Kanth. (6 October 2023)

Trade: UNCTAD issues “positive” trade & environment agenda for BRICS, by D. Ravi Kanth. (2 October 2023)

UN: Global FDI falls in 2022 due to poly-crisis, says UNCTAD, by Kanaga Raja. (10 July 2023)

UN: Developing countries face “lost decade” & deepening distress – UNCTAD, by D. Ravi Kanth. (14 April 2023)

UN: Global trade growth slows in last half of 2022, says UNCTAD, by Kanaga Raja. (28 March 2023)

Trade: UNCTAD’s TDR offers “positive” trade & environment agenda, by D. Ravi Kanth. (3 February 2023)

UN: Global FDI momentum weakened in 2022, says UNCTAD, by Kanaga Raja. (19 January 2023)

UNCTAD XV (2021)

Trade and development backstory: The struggle over the UNCTAD 15 mandate, by Deborah James. (10 November 2021)

UNCTAD calls for transformative green development policies at Glasgow, by D. Ravi Kanth. (29 October 2021)

UN: UNCTAD-15 closes after adopting a covenant & political declaration, by Kanaga Raja. (13 October 2021)

UN: G77 reaffirms UNCTAD's role as focal point for trade & development, by Kanaga Raja. (7 October 2021)

United Nations: UNCTAD-15 conference gets underway in Barbados, by Kanaga Raja. (6 October 2021)

Letter from Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and Mark Weisbrot, Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Washington D.C. to UNCTAD Member States urging them to mandate UNCTAD to expand its work on financial and trade-related unilateral coercive measures. (4 October 2021)

Letter from Public Services International (PSI) Global Union Federation of more than 700 trade unions representing 30 million workers in 154 countries, to UNCTAD member states, urging them to strengthen UNCTAD’s mandate on tax, debt, finance, and trade for development. (3 October 2021)
Similar Letter from PSI and EPSU to UNCTAD European member states. (3 October 2021)

UNCTAD calls for taking "data flows" out of trade negotiations, by D. Ravi Kanth. (1 October 2021)

Civil Society Declaration for UNCTAD XV, Bridgetown, Barbados. (30 September 2021)

Letters from the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) to Members of the European Parliament of the International Trade Committee; and to Madelaine Tuininga at the Directorate-General for Trade of the European Commission. (30 September 2021)

UNCTAD CSO Forum Agenda. (22-24 September 2021)

Letter on Trade, Investment, Digitalization, Climate Issues in the UNCTAD mandate, by CSOs, coordinated by OWINFS. (23 September 2021)

Letter on UNCTAD mandate language on data flows, by IT for Change. (18 September 2021)

Gender Justice Requires a Broad Mandate for UNCTAD, by the Gender and Trade Coalition. (17 September 2021)

The Assault on UNCTAD’s Mandate Must be Reversed, statement on research pillar, trade, technology, climate, Palestine, taxation, Financing for Development (FfD) and debt issues by CSOs, coordinated by OWINFS: pdf. (15 September 2021)

Letter from CSOs to UNCTAD Secretariat: pdf. (6 April 2021)

TWN Brief on key issues for developing countries while negotiations continue on UNCTAD XV. (March 2021)

The crisis in multilateralism: Solutions for inclusive and sustainable growth, WTO Public Forum event with Richard Kozul-Wright, director of the division on Globalization and Development Strategies of UNCTAD, October 4, 2018. Full clip here and edited TV coverage here.


Over intransigence of rich countries, developing countries win mandate on trade for development (Huffington Post, 23 July 2016)

Speech at the Committee of the Whole, UNCTAD XIV, Based on the CSO Forum Declaration. (18 July 2016)

Declaration of Civil Society to UNCTAD XIV. (18 July 2016)

Attempted Hijacking: Trade for Development! (Huffington Post, 18 July 2016)

Letter from 331 civil society organizations (CSOs) including trade unions, farmers, development advocates, and public interest groups from over 150 countries wrote an urgent letter to members of UNCTAD to express concern regarding the current negotiations towards the quadrennial mandate of the agency during the UNCTAD 14 Conference which starts July 17th in Nairobi, Kenya. (Media release, 14 July 2016)

Letter from 331 Groups of Global Civil Society on UNCTAD’s Role and Mandate towards UNCTAD 14: English, Spanish, French. (14 July 2016)

Reclaim UNCTAD to Uphold Africa’s Structural Economic Transformation: An African Civil Society Call to Governments at UNCTAD 14. (June 2016)

Global civil society letter to UNCTAD Secretary General on investment issues. (15 October 2014)


Victory at UNCTAD XIII. (Huffington Post, 29 April 2012)

The debate around mandate is the developed countries’ refusal to acknowledge the roots of crises and the ways forward. (Civil Society Press Release, 25 April 2012)

Who should run the global economy? (Al Jazeera, 23 April 2012)

Civil society groups in UNCTAD XIII call for a paradigm shift to address multiple crises with a strengthened UNCTAD at the forefront. (Civil Society Press Release, 22 April 2012)

Strengthen, don’t weaken, UNCTAD’s role in global governance: Towards sustainable and inclusive development, not more crises: English, Spanish, French, Portuguese. (Letter from 203 CSOs from around the world, 22 April 2012)

Some key documents from UNCTAD

Reforming the international trading system for recovery, resilience and inclusive development. (UNCTAD Research Paper No. 65, April 2021)

Research paper: Joint Statement Initiative on E-Commerce (JSI): Economic and Fiscal Implications for the South, February 2021.

Growing Trade in Electronic Transmissions: Implications for the South. (UNCTAD Research Paper No. 29, February 2019)

UNCTAD Trade and Development Report 2018: Power, Platforms and The Free Trade Delusion: English, Spanish, French. (September 2018)
→ Chapter III: Economic Development in a Digital World: Prospects, Pitfalls and Policy Options: English, French.

Report: Rising product digitalisation and losing trade competitiveness, November 2017.