Rangaswami Krishnamurti passed away in his sleep on July 18. He was 96 years old. His name will mean little to most people. As he put it to me a few years ago, most people “would never have a chance to know me. Such was the obscurity of my working life.” Behind the scenes, Krishna was an institution builder, mainly at the United Nations where he was one of its most illustrious officers.
Krishna’s career began in 1943, where at the age of twenty-six he was hired by Dr. P. S. Lokanathan to join the staff at G. D. Birla’s Eastern Economist. Edited by Devdas Gandhi, the Eastern Economist was one of the most important journals for policy makers both amongst the colonial administration and the nationalist elite. Struck hard by the enormity of the Bengal Famine (1943), Krishna wrote passionately about the “monumental incompetence if not cruel callousness” of the colonial administration. “To build any conclusions on the basis of the available statistics would, to say the least, be highly problematic,” he wrote. Matters were much worse than what the numbers revealed.
Krishna cut his teeth on policy debates with a series of articles on the Bombay Plan (1944) and on the question of sterling balances that accumulated in the Reserve Bank of India during World War 2. These impressed Lokanathan, who, when he was offered the top job at the UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE), took Krishna with him. At ECAFE, Krishna worked to build regional ties in Asia alongside such dynamic economists as Ashok Mitra (later Finance Minister of West Bengal). Krishna worried that “my own credentials as an economist are perhaps non-existent,” but that did not stop him. He was an analytical thinker and an institution builder, heading ECAFE’s International Trade Division. At ECAFE’s 1963 First Ministerial Conference for Asian Economic Cooperation, Krishna urged the creation of an Asian Development Bank (ADB). When the idea seemed to go no-where by early 1964, it was Krishna who contacted Saburo Okita, his former ECAFE colleague and then Director General of Japan’s Planning Bureau, to take the idea forward. Two years later the ADB was launched (Krishna wrote its history as ADB: The Seeding Days, 1977).
Krishna’s remarkable success at ECAFE brought him to the notice of Raúl Prebisch, the titan of development economics and head of the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America. When the developing world put pressure on the UN to form a secretariat on trade and development issues, UN Secretary-General U Thant asked Prebisch to take charge of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). The point of UNCTAD was to provide a secretariat to fashion policy suggestions on issues of development broadly but more specifically on trade and commodity prices, aid and development finance, transportation and technology. The Global North dominated the extant institutions (the IMF and the World Bank), and they had their own secretariat (the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD, formed in 1961). The Global South required a similar structure under UN auspices.
Prebisch invited Krishna to join an informal steering committee in 1964 (Krishna often insisted that the group abjure the austere UN cafeteria and go to New York’s two decent Indian restaurants, Tandoori and Madras). Prebisch found that the Group B (Global North) countries were disposed to scuttle UNCTAD’s mandate. As Krishna remembered it, “the big western powers, particularly the US, had accepted the creation of UNCTAD, and of a separate UNCTAD secretariat, with great reluctance and were very concerned that the secretariat could become a powerful driving force, a strong support to the developing countries which had emerged as a militant group at and after UNCTAD 1 in 1964.” UNCTAD would have sunk without a trace in its early years without “the infinitely discreet Krishnamurti, master of UN institutional intricacies,” wrote Prebisch’s biographer Edgar Dosman. Krishna’s leadership steered through one of UNCTAD’s most important achievements, the Generalised Systems of Preferences, which allowed developing countries special access to the markets of the developed countries for specific industrial and agricultural goods.
Krishna worked behind the scenes to set a course for UNCTAD and to mollify the petulance of the Group B countries, notably the United States. No wonder that by 1975, a secret US cable from its Geneva mission to the Department of State mentioned that the potential appointment of Krishna as head of an “Industries Section” at UNCTAD was “still desired.” He was a man who, despite his strong opinions, was able to befriend all sides. During his time at UNCTAD, Krishna worked closely with a number of Indians, notably Dr. Manmohan Singh (during his time at UNCTAD and then at the South Commission), Chinmaya Gharekhan, Muchkund Dubey and Prakash Shah (all India’s representative to the UN in Geneva), S. P. Shukla (India’s Ambassador to GATT) and Chakravarti Raghavan (the veteran PTI editor and SUNS).
After his retirement from UNCTAD, Krishna kept his eyes on developments at the agency. In 1984, Krishna wrote to UNCTAD head Gamani Correa warning him to beware of interference by the US, in particular, on the UNCTAD mandate. The US Congress had called for an investigation of UNESCO, and the international agency had allowed for an audit. Krishna noted that the US had begun to pressure his former agency as well, “to make UNCTAD more amenable or pliable.” A UN agency should be under the authority of the UN Secretary-General and the General Assembly, and it “seemed an extraordinary procedure for a single member government to conduct an investigation into the affairs of an international organisation.” When the Group B countries tried once more to constrain UNCTAD’s role in 2012, Krishna was alert. He wrote several times to me, eager to hear what was going on at the Doha conference for UNCTAD XIII, writing, “Hopefully the various groups of the South will stay united and strong, not becoming weak due to strong western pressures.”
In the past few years Krishna remained positive, watching the rise of Asia and the BRICS, the regionalism in Latin America and the Arab Spring. Yet, he worried about rising rates of inequality. “Free market economy and ‘democratic capitalism’ are the order of the day,” he noted, and ideas of his generation for planned development and social justice “are irrelevant and obsolete.” This was not a nostalgic judgment, but a cri de coeur for concepts of equality and horizontal development.
Vijay Prashad is the author of The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South, New Delhi: LeftWord, 2013.