For 30 years, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development published papers, held conferences, and served as a platform for poorer countries seeking an advocate in an international trade system that marginalized them.
Now, eclipsed by the World Trade Organization (WTO), which was formed early last year, and facing a changing global trade order, UNCTAD is going through some heavy soul-searching.
The Geneva-based organization's raison d'etre is the main topic at its ninth conference, held April 2 to May 11 in a cavernous hall outside Johannesburg. One of the largest-ever UN meetings in Africa, it boasts 2,500 delegates from 188 countries.
South Africa, which has taken over UNCTAD's four-year presidency and is paying $4.2 million to host the conference, is determined that concrete results will emerge and that fatigued donors will be convinced of the group's relevancy.
"This conference has to address the new trade regime," says Alec Erwin, South Africa's trade minister. He adds, "We don't want any bits of paper. That won't help anything."
Critics say that with the creation of the WTO, which is a legally binding organization regulating world trade, UNCTAD has become a mere talk shop that produces little except paper. Cuts in the number of its officials from 480 to 420 is not sufficient, they contend.
"Its political heritage is obstructing its work. Cost-cutting is a good start, but not enough," one Western diplomat says.
'Wasteful' overlap decried
"It's ridiculous and wasteful that UNCTAD and the WTO have two separate offices near each other in Geneva. UNCTAD resources should be hived off and brought under the WTO card," adds a European diplomat.
Among major UN organizations, the trade group is one of the first to come under pressure by donor countries to reform. UNCTAD leaders want to present a convincing case at a coming summit of the Group of Seven leading industrial nations.
WTO and UNCTAD officials publicly insist their organizations are complementary, with the WTO taking care of the contractual side of trade and UNCTAD providing useful analysis and guidance to developing countries.
UNCTAD is most lauded for its ability to train officials to carry out more efficient trade and its wealth of knowledge about issues such as customs and clearing.
To stress their solidarity, the heads of the two organizations launched a joint initiative last weekend, including pilot technical assistance for eight African countries - Benin, Kenya, Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Ivory Coast, and Tunisia.
David Woods, a WTO spokesman, says the creation of WTO was positive for UNCTAD because it forced the UN organization to correct its inefficiencies.
Defenders see a mission
Mr. Woods denies there is an overlap between the groups, explaining, "You can not imagine a situation where there won't be need for the contract system of the WTO and the thinking analysis of UNCTAD."
UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali insists that UNCTAD continue to be the advocate of the most disadvantaged countries, telling the conference, "No other institution can fulfill this function."
Mr. Erwin of South Africa sees a need for rich and poor nations to forge a new partnership, foster regional trade blocs in the developing world, and lend more assistance, especially in Africa - which includes 33 of the world's 48 least-developed countries.
But, as in most UN organizations, a divide has emerged in UNCTAD between the developed and developing countries, with richer funding nations, including the United States, pushing for major streamlining.
Even a so-called consensus document, presented to delegates for discussion at the start of the conference, has big gaps on major topics, underlining the minimal agreement so far on a span of themes.
One of the major points of contention is whether the trends of globalization and trade liberalization that have picked up pace across the globe during the past decade are marginalizing poorer countries. These nations argue they need to protect their meager markets.
A group of aid agencies and nongovernmental organizations called the Third World Network says the global market and free trade are not curing the woes of poorer countries.
UNCTAD's secretary general, Rubens Ricupero of Brazil, admits that the real problem of globalization is one of competition - not everyone is on equal footing.
But Mr. Ricupero notes that annual economic growth in developed nations is only about 2 percent, versus 8 to 9 percent in Asia. With a bit of help, from UNCTAD in particular, the poorest of the poor could begin to catch up, he says.
"I am convinced a partnership is possible," says Ricupero. "Not out of altruism, but because industrialized countries are no longer the locomotives of growth in the international community. It is not a matter of virtue. It is a matter of necessity."