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Whither the Non-aligned Movement?

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-09-08

A few days ago, Mr K. Natwar Singh, India's Minister of External Affairs, made an intriguing statement. The Non-aligned Movement (NAM) was never more relevant, he said, and it was time that its 116 members - representing most of the Third World's 135 countries - injected the body with a new agenda.

What new agenda? The usually garrulous Mr Singh did not say, but implicit in his words was the widely held contention among Third World countries that the emerging villain of the post-Cold War era is the United States. The US, of course, isn't a newly minted villain for poor countries: it's just that since the disintegration of the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1991, it remains the only global superpower.

The US is therefore an inviting target for countries with complaints ranging from perceived interference with their sovereignty to drought. And however inept the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has showed itself to be in situations such as Iraq, the espionage organisation continues to be considered a malevolent force in the Third World, at least.

I have followed the evolution of NAM virtually since its founding in 1961 as a force designed to withstand the attempts of both the US and the Soviet Union to extend their influence in the Third World.

From the very beginning, it was clear that NAM's hidden agenda was to squeeze as much aid and as many arms as possible from the two global rivals. Third World giants such as India's Jawaharlal Nehru, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, Indonesia's Sukarno, Yugoslavia's Josip Tito Broz, and Tanzania's Julius K. Nyerere, cleverly played one power against the other, in the processing obtaining vast subventions for their countries and for other territories that were entering the post-colonial age.

It now turns out that NAM countries largely wasted the aid -more than US$3 trillion from the US, the Soviet Union, and other wealthy countries. To put it more bluntly, their leaders engaged in massive peculation (correct), draining their treasuries and diverting huge sums into personal bank accounts abroad. It also turns out that the American and Soviet arms were used mostly to suppress domestic opponents, or to embark on senseless military adventures against neighbours.

It also turns out that figures like Nehru, Nasser, Sukarno, Tito and Nyerere, set back economic growth in their respective countries by promoting Statism instead of opening up their economies to free enterprise. What do most NAM members have to show for four decades of slavish adherence to socialism? Their cohort of poverty is increasing, their collective debt to Western governments and commercial banks exceeds US$2 trillion, their infrastructures are deteriorating, and their institutions of governance are riddled with corruption and mismanagement.

And an examination of NAM's historical record indicates that it was anything but "non-aligned." Indeed, various Singaporean foreign ministers warned at NAM summits that the movement was in danger of sailing into Soviet harbours. But, of course, few Third World countries took such warnings seriously. Most of them, after all, were deeply enamoured of socialism, if not of communism.

So what happens to NAM now? The movement holds extravagant summits every three years; the last jamboree was in Durban in 2003 under the chairmanship of President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa; that gabfest cost more than US$25 million to stage. In 2006, NAM will meet in Havana under the sponsorship of that most non-aligned leader, Mr Fidel Castro.

The movement shouldn't meet at all. It's time for it to be disbanded. The international community doesn't take NAM seriously because it has no powers of enforcing its warm, fuzzy resolutions of global equity and economic progress. It has no secretariat. It has no independent resources other than what the current chairman-country deigns to offer. It has few leaders whose voices carry moral authority.

Moreover, NAM is redundant in a world overloaded with regional and ideological groupings. At the United Nations, for instance, there's the Group of 77 - whose actual membership of Third World nations is 110 - and there are other units such as the Group of 20, and the Group of 14, and the African Union, and so on. Their agendas often overlap, their rhetoric is drawn from the same boilerplate, and their collective objective is common: to persuade the rich countries to give more aid.

But those days when NAM members could invite aid simply by insisting on it from the US and the Soviet Union are long gone. The wealth of the industrialised countries has been significantly affected by the recent - and continuing - global recession. Few mandarins in the chancelleries of the West wish to open their wallets to pay to hear the same old tired rhetoric of Western hegemony and Third World victimization.

So, enough. There's nothing that NAM can do to expedite economic growth and facilitate free trade, the two most vital elements needed to transform poor countries into prosperous ones. There's nothing that NAM can do to mobilise grassroots resources for accelerating sustainable development.

What NAM can do, and should do, is to depart from the international scene with dignity. It's time for it to go.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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