Barbados will be writing its name on history’s page this week as it becomes the smallest nation and first Caribbean country to host the 15th session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD 15) on October 3-7, 2021. In normal times, this week would have seen an influx of thousands of delegates into the island to participate in the negotiations and meetings, as well as the various side events. This would have been a much-needed shot in the arm for our tourism sector and wider economy. However, the Conference, which had been postponed from 2020 due to the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, is being held virtually.
But in every challenge, there is opportunity. The conference’s virtual nature opens it up to the general public in a way that previously might not have obtained, allowing anyone interested to register and follow the open sessions. A small contingent of high-level delegates, however, are on island. The most notable include the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, UNCTAD Secretary-General, Rebecca Grynspan, Commonwealth Secretary General Patricia Scotland and CARICOM Secretary General, Dr. Carla Barnett.
As I had noted in an article I wrote shortly after the exciting news of Barbados’ successful bid in 2019 to host the conference, the success of our island’s bid is a significant achievement for several reasons. Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, UNCTAD is the United Nations’ main subsidiary organ dealing with trade and development matters. Barbados will be the first Caribbean country and first Small Island Developing State (SIDS) to host the quadrennial conference, which is UNCTAD’s highest decision-making body which sets that organisation’s mandate and priorities every four years. The first quadrennial was held in Geneva, Switzerland in 1964 and the 14th Conference was held in Nairobi, Kenya in 2016.
Despite being held virtually, this conference gives Barbados – a country of just 166 squared miles and a population of 287,000 (World Bank 2020 data) – unprecedented international exposure on the world stage. In a virtual way, it exposes the world to our music, our country and reiterates the Barbados brand as a voice for small States, and wider development issues. Indeed, Barbados has always sought to be a thought-leader and global voice championing the issues affecting small States not only with regard to trade, but also climate change. For example, in 1994, Barbados hosted the UN Global Conference on Sustainable Development for Small Island Developing States, out of which had come the Barbados Programme of Action. Barbados’ ability to pivot from planning for a physical conference to a virtual one cements our country as a logical choice for conference tourism and a perfect venue to host high-level conferences on the world stage.
Although the World Trade Organization (WTO) has increasingly incorporated development into its work, its main role is to serve as the global body for setting the rules of the multilateral trading system. The Geneva-based UNCTAD was born in 1964 following concerns about the need for a special conference to address the place of developing countries in international trade, and amidst the belief that the GATT (the precursor to the WTO) was not sensitive enough to the needs of developing countries. UNCTAD serves as an important forum for world leaders from both developed and developing countries to put their collective wisdom together to treat to the most pressing trade and development issues confronting us in a multilateral setting and for the sharing of best practices. The UNCTAD Secretariat also produces high-quality research and policy analysis on a variety of trade and development issues. I am a particular fan of their research work on investment law and policy, which is one of my research areas. It also provides technical assistance to developing countries to assist in making trade and investment have a greater development impact.
Hosting the UNCTAD Quadrennial gives Barbados the opportunity to have a strong imprint in setting UNCTAD’s trade and development mandate and work priorities for the next now three years. This is even more pertinent now given the multiplicity of global issues whose disproportionately sharp impact on SIDS has been given greater focus and encapsulated in the conference’s theme “from inequality and vulnerability to prosperity for all”. These challenges include not just climate change, but the COVID-19 pandemic which has struck a hard blow to the tourism industry of many SIDS and also further worsened these countries’ debt profiles at a time when many have been rendered ineligible for most concessional financing due to income per capita considerations. Already Barbados’ hosting of UNCTAD15 has led to the first UNCTAD Gender Forum, one of several pre-events which were held in the weeks leading up the conference.
While many Barbadians feel a strong sense of pride at our country’s hosting of this event, for those not in the trade or development spaces it is not always easy to appreciate what this means for the ordinary man or woman on the street. Like most SIDS, Barbados is a small open economy, which is highly dependent on international trade. From the clothes we wear, most of the food we eat, the cars we drive, all of them are reliant on trade. In the midst of this pandemic, we can appreciate even more the importance of trade and efficient supply chains in order to get access to medical equipment and personal protective equipment (PPE), items which we do not manufacture ourselves. We all benefit from trade in some way, but this does not negate that trade produces both ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and while it can empower, it can also negatively impact marginalized groups in the absence of sound development policies. How can we ensure that trade takes into account its gendered impact or that youth are empowered to participate more in trade? How can we ensure that other countries’ protectionist policies do not block our access to food stuffs or much needed medical equipment? How can trade help with the achievement of the SDGs by the 2030 deadline? These are all issues which world leaders will discuss and it will be incumbent on all of us, the youth, civil society, to ensure that they follow through with their commitments.
At the opening ceremony held October 4, Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley of Barbados was formally elected as the President of UNCTAD’s 15th session, which she will hold for the next three years.
The outcome document of the conference, which will be the work programme for UNCTAD for the next three years, is expected to include many issues impacting SIDS. As a young trade and development professional and as a Barbadian, I am truly proud of my country for rising to the occasion to host this important event. While the more sensitive negotiating sessions will be closed, I look forward to following the open sessions throughout the week and seeing the final outcome document Members agree to.
Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. All views herein expressed are her personal views and should not be attributed to any institution with which she may from time to time be affiliated. You can read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.