Master of the U.N.

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Infinitely discreet:R. Krishnamurti.
Infinitely discreet:R. Krishnamurti.

angaswami Krishnamurti (October 4, 1917- July 18, 2013) was one of the United Nations’ most illustrious behind the scenes officers, building the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and designing the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Krishna’s career began in 1943 at G. D. Birla’s Eastern Economist . Struck hard by the enormity of the Bengal Famine, 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 and on the question of sterling balances that accumulated in the Reserve Bank during World War II. These impressed the U.N. Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE), which hired him. 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 the ADB. When the idea seemed to go no-where, it was Krishna who contacted Saburo Okita, his former ECAFE colleague and 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 success at ECAFE brought him to the notice of Raúl Prebisch, the head of the U.N.’s Economic Commission for Latin America. When the developing world put pressure on the U.N. to form a secretariat on trade and development issues, U.N. Secretary-General U. Thant asked Prebisch to take charge of UNCTAD. UNCTAD became 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 IMF and the World Bank, and they had their own secretariat (the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). The Global South required a similar structure under U.N. auspices.

Prebisch invited Krishna to join an informal steering committee in 1964 (Krishna often insisted that the group abjure the austere U.N. 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 U.S., 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.” UNCTAD would have sunk without a trace in its early years without “the infinitely discreet Krishnamurti, master of U.N. 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 access to the markets of the developed countries for specific industrial and agricultural goods.

Krishna remained wary of Group B interference into UNCTAD’s mandate. In 1984, he wrote to UNCTAD head Gamani Correa warning him not to mimic UNESCO, which had buckled before a U.S. Congressional inquiry. A U.N. agency should be under the authority of its Secretary-General, 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 at its Doha Conference, Krishna wrote to me, “Hopefully the various groups of the South will stay united and strong, not becoming weak due to strong western pressures.”

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 the world he had tried to build.

(Vijay Prashad is the author of The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South, New Delhi: LeftWord, 2013.)

In remembrance of Rangaswami Krishnamurti, an institution builder— the man behind the scenes at UNCTAD and one of the designers of the Asian Development Bank