North-South at UN: a failure to communicate

It has taken an extra week of round-the-clock haggling, but as the United Nations special session on global economic issues draws to an ambiguous end, the industrialized nations and the less developed countries (LDCs) have made little headway in renewing North-South dialogue.

There was little optimism to start with and there were no surprises at the lackluster affair, though the fate of billions of people hangs in the balance.

"How can we have a dialogue," says one third-world diplomat, "when we don't really speak the same language." The meeting sought to devise a development strategy for the 1980s and a framework for global negotiations on energy, trade, finance, and monetary reform to begin in January.

While progress was made on the development strategy -- a list of goals such as percent of aid envisioned from the North, industrialization targets, and a 7 percent annual growth rate for poor countries -- there remains a calculated ambiguity on the global round of negotiations to determine economic reforms.

The third-world bloc, known as the "group of 77," wants the negotiations centralized at the UN. The developed nations of the North want them focused in specialized agencies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which they dominate. At bottom it is a question of power.

US Secretary of State Edmund Muskie's speech on the first day of the conference made it clear that the US and most of its Western allies, confronted with their own economic woes, were not prepared for any major overhaul of the global economic system. Instead, the developed nations, while conceding the gravity of the situation, urged the poor countries to "be realistic" and accept the modest expansion of present institutions such as the World Bank.

On the other hand, the LDCs see the deck as being stacked against them and feel the only way to narrow the growing rich-poor gap is to dramatically change the rules of the game. They persist in their call for a "new international economic order" that demands higher prices for their raw materials; revising the monetary system to cancel much of their massive $350 billion debt; easier terms for loans, and more than doubling foreign aid. But such goals are nowhere on the horizon.

Ironically, one of the few things both rich and poor nations agree on is that the newly rich members of the Organization of Petroleum Countries should do more to help their oil-importing brethen of the third world. The South rejects the North's view that OPEC is the source of the present crisis and views the oil exporters with a qualified admiration. The initial hope that OPEC's clout would spearhead far-reaching economic reforms has long faded. But in recent years a "South- South" dialogue between OPEC and oil-importing poor countries has emerged.

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