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The Group of 77 at 50: Worth Celebrating?

zondi15 June 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the Group of 77, which is now known as the G77 plus China, an important milestone at which to reflect on the significance, successes and difficulties facing an organisation of this nature. The organisation marked its jubilee by holding a major summit in Santa Cruz, the Plurinational State of Bolivia, on 15-16 June, at which it recalled some of its historic decisions and policy positions as still relevant in the pursuit of its vision of a fair, just, democratic and equitable world. The question is what is the state of the G77 today and implications does that have on the agency of the global south in international development?

It is the inherited structure of the modern world system marked by the prosperity of former colonial empires and the underdevelopment of former colonial territories, that made necessary the concerted efforts of peripheral areas, the developing world, to push for the reform of the world system towards a true common humanity marked by prosperity for all. Developing countries shared a determination to exercise their own responsibility in bringing about the change they desired both within developing countries and in the world system broadly. Formed during the first session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the G77 (whose members later increased from 77 to 130) developed a strong interest in matters of international and national economic development during the period when the countries of the global north, developed countries, championed an economic growth agenda underpinned by the neoliberal Washington Consensus for cuts in social spending, increase in market control of development outcomes, privatisation of assets and services, and so forth.

They would thus stand opposed to market fundamentalism, preferring a balanced development models that emphasised full access to basic services, social equity, full employment, environmental protection and social harmony. It would provide a platform for small and otherwise marginalised areas to articulate their economic and social interests in an international framework dominated by a few powerful states and their corporations. Using their numbers and unity of voice, they got the United Nations General Assembly to take important positions in favour of reform such as the 1974 Declaration on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order, common positions on sustainable development, food security and socio-economic rights. Such decisions forced onto the international agenda issues of particular interest to the developing world.

The G77 Declaration on the Right to Development in 1986 set in motion discussions that led to the general acceptance of development as a human right and therefore a major obligation of the international community to achieve. Seeing development as a right helped to give it political significance in a world that was seeing a rise of conservative economics thanks to the influence of the UK under Margaret Thatcher and the US under Ronald Reagan.

This innovation lies at the heart of major advances in international discourses on development in the past 30 years or so, principally the re-centering of the UN in international development, the human development index, the improved understanding of human security, the push for transformation of development cooperation and the idea of sustainable development. In all this, the G77 played the role of a caucus for the developing world during crucial international negotiations and a significant voting bloc during international decision making. This political clout increased further when in 2000 the G77 elevated to the level of heads of government its interface with China.

Nowhere is its influence more visible and consequential than in international multilateral trade negotiations under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) where the G77 has pursued development outcomes and transformation of the unbalanced world trading system. It has successful built a credible voice of the developing world.

While the G77 has tended to leave purely political questions to the Non-Aligned Movement and regional negotiation blocs, it has consistently taken positions opposed to military solutions to political problems, thus positioning itself against the imperial reasoning that sees violence as a solution to world problems. It has repeatedly argued for peaceful and negotiated settlement of political problems. It has been opposed to the idea that gained ground in the 1990s that democracy can be imposed on others by military campaigns either by individual major powers or their military alliances like the NATO.

It is often stated that the G77 plus China is weak because of its size, which impacts negatively on its ability to act swiftly on international issues. This is part of the onslaught on multilateralism generally, perhaps out of genuine concern for speedy action, but also because of deeper-seated aversion to consultative international politics, a position that favours the anti-democratic unilateralism of major powers. Complemented by the mini-multilateralism of regional negotiation forums in the UN system and diplomatic clubs, the G77 remains a crucial component of global south agency in international relations.

The Santa Cruz Summit re-affirmed the commitment of member states to the G77 plus China because the rationale for the forum's establishment 50 years ago remains valid as developing countries remain haunted by the legacy of poverty, underdevelopment, unemployment and structural inequality. It therefore re-visited its consistent positions on a new international economic order, inclusive economic growth, economic justice, social equity, and sustainable development on the basis of south solidarity, and the recognition of the sovereign right of developing countries to choose their development path as part of their self-determination.

This will test the group's ability to maintain a united position in the face of ever growing efforts to divide the south, to create stronger links with mini-multilateral formations like the BRICS, IBSA and BASIC and its ability to strengthen intra-G77 cooperation to increase policy space for countries to decide their future development paths. Its success is also linked to its promotion of positive political and economic policy behaviour among its member governments.

Dr Siphamandla Zondi is the director at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA.

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