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TAKING STOCK: Nonaligned Movement has become increasingly irrelevant

Published by Newsweek on 1998-08-01

When the 103 countries of the Nonaligned Movement gather this weekend in Durban, South Africa, for their triennial summit, they will welcome their 104th member, Belarus, with warm felicitations as well as rhetoric of reminiscence. After all, Belarus' former landlord--the now eviscerated Soviet Union--was one of two global giants with whom NAM supposedly stayed neutral during the four heated decades of the Cold War (the other, of course, being the U.S.S.R.'s rival, the United States). The summit will be hosted by President Nelson R. Mandela of South Africa in his last formal role as maestro of an international conference before he leaves office next April. Mandela will no doubt recall the glory years of the movement--the 1950s and 1960s--when titans such as India's Jawaharlal Nehru, Indonesia's Sukarno, Egypt's Abdel Gamal Nasser, and Yugoslavia's Josip Broz Tito, sought to create a third center of political and economic power consisting of the emerging nations of the natural-resource-rich developing world.

NAM summits have always tended to embroider the past. President Mandela is unlikely to acknowledge that, despite its founders' soaring ambition, NAM seldom succeeded in making a meaningful impact on the global polity. The vast majority of NAM members never fulfilled the promise of rapid economic development, with many states slipping into levels of poverty worse than what existed when NAM's members were chattels of colonial powers. They were mostly dismissed in the chancelleries of Moscow and Washington--and, indeed, much of the West- as shrill ideological wannabes who made outrageous demands for foreign aid, trade concessions and transfers of technology. In exchange, NAM members offered Moscow and Washington two precious items: commodities at preferential rates, and the opportunity to enjoy political influence over valuable real-estate in areas that East and West coveted geopolitically.

It's understandable if Mr. Mandela and his fellow NAM leaders fulsomely praise their institutional history: It's traditional that at such summits, departed icons are properly garlanded, and their ideas, however ill conceived, appropriately feted. But the Durban summiters would be better advised to focus on NAM's current malaise, and to transform the loosely knit institution into another, more action-oriented, kind of entity. With the end of the Cold War and a new era of technology-focused globalization, NAM--which is still mired in the calculus of a speedily receding past--has become irrelevant. Here's why:

_ Outdated agenda. NAM stalwarts continue to talk about pressuring the rich countries to give more aid to the developing world. Their magic mantra: "Aid should be 0.07 percent of GDP." Only the Netherlands and a couple of Nordic countries have delivered on such aid pledges. The overall foreign-aid figure of $50 billion, has been declining at the rate of 10 percent annually; foreign private-sector investment in poor countries has scarcely made up for the shortfall, and domestic mobilization of funds for much-needed economic growth has been slack. NAM members need to fashion more sophisticated mechanisms for cooperating with the private sector; these mechanisms would include creation of new safeguards against the endemic corruption that plagues so many developing countries and turns off potential investors. It is also futile for NAM to hammer the industrialized nations on trade issues: if they want the rich to open their doors more to developing-country goods, trade barriers in the poor nations simply must be eliminated. But NAM, rooted in the socialism of Nehru and Nasser, has never been known for championing the competition of the marketplace.

_ Overlap. NAM may be one of the oldest developing-country groupings, but it's not the only one. There's the G-77, consisting of China and 131 other countries. There's ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. There's SAARC, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. There's the 49-member Commonwealth, the former colonial territories of Britain. Each grouping has its regional or thematic agendas, and virtually all enjoy the benefit of capable secretariats that lobby hard at forums such as the United Nations. NAM has no secretariat, and thus it lacks the institutional ability to develop and distribute timely positions on global issues. Couldn't NAM be converted into a think-tank for developing country concerns, tapping into the formidable intellectual resources of many members? The paucity of well thought-out positions has often hurt NAM's standing at international conventions on subjects ranging from human rights to population to economic development to health to gender issues. As a result, NAM is forced to lamely--and resentfully--follow the lead of better-informed Western representatives. It's not that Westerners are necessarily smarter; it's that they're usually equipped with better tools for global diplomacy.

_ New issues. NAM needs to focus more creatively on themes such as nuclear nonproliferation, particularly in rogue states; the exponential growth of technology; unsustainable population growth in poor countries; AIDS and other health issues; the exploitation of child labor; the abuse of women; international terrorism that often strikes out from developing country havens; streamlining of domestic bureaucracies; incentive for private-sector investment. This requires not only willingness to jettison the political liturgy of the past; it needs discussion and dissemination of fresh ideas and proposals--and a mechanism within NAM, perhaps a permanent secretariat that is savvy in the ways of an increasingly interdependent global community.

_ New leadership. The men and women who run NAM countries do not spring from the ethos of the movement's early years. The founding giants are all gone now, dead or deposed. And yet, the current crop of developing-country leaders have demonstrated little by way of bold initiatives to recharge NAM. The outgoing chairman, Colombia, failed conspicuously to provide leadership on ongoing global issues such as nuclear nonproliferation, economic disparities, narcotics trade, and refugees. The Africans are reported to disagree with Asians on economic and social issues; the Latin Americans want to focus to debt, which isn't always the priority of other regions. Fiduciary participation remains a problem: Not long ago, NAM members governments declined to contribute $1,200 each to convene an informal session. Maybe President Mandela's designated successor, Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, will provide a new sense of purpose and fresh direction to NAM as South Africa takes over the chairmanship for the next three years.

It is tempting to argue that, with the end of the Cold War, the very notion of nonalignment is not only outdated, it is absurd. But it may not be politically convenient to dismantle a five-decades-old grouping. The Durban summiters could serve their constituents--the overwhelmingly poor citizens of NAM countries--well by energizing their institution's commitment to accelerated alleviation of their most pressing problem: degrading poverty that threatens to keep NAM nations in permanent hopelessness.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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