Malaysians know Professor Jomo Kwame Sundaram
as a vocal critic of the local political
But the academic, who has taught in Harvard
and Yale as well as Malaysian universities,
has been paying more attention to international
over the past 10 years.
That focus will become a full-time job
with his appointment as Assistant Secretary-General
for Economic Development at the United
Before moving to New York next month to
begin the two-year term, Jomo talks to
CINDY THAM about the UN, development issues,
affirmative action, and missing Mahathir.
with the United Nations on different occasions,
as a consultant or board member on issues
relating to social and economic development.
While working with international organisations
like the UN, World Bank and the OECD [Organisation
for Economic Co-operation and Development]
is not entirely new to you, how do you view
your latest appointment as Assistant Secretary-General
for Economic Development in the Department
of Economic and Social Affairs?
I think, most importantly, working as
an academic and a consultant, you have
a great degree of freedom, where one comes
in and does one's work on a very specific
task. And you have a choice whether you
want to take on the consultancy, whether
it interests you or doesn't interest you.
You have certain degrees of freedom.
I think one of the big challenges for
me personally is working essentially as
a bureaucrat, as an international civil
servant if you will. And this, of course,
is complicated by the fact that the stakeholders
involved are multiple and varied.
You are obliged to be responsible to about
200 member governments of the UN system.
In addition, there are a great number
of expectations from civil society and
so on, about the UN.
This is a completely new position, one
of the few new positions which have actually
been created in the last few decades because
the UN has been cutting down or trying
to trim down [its costs].
So this is a new position, partly because
the UN has lost considerable ground over
the last two, three decades ... Many people
comment quite correctly that the last
elections in the US reflected a very divided
If you think about the world society,
it's even more divided in many ways. This,
I think, will be a huge challenge, trying
to bridge gaps and trying to achieve certain
things in common.
I think the most important thing in the
world today, as I see it, is trying to
restore the basis for continued and sustained
economic growth, on the one hand, as well
as creating conditions for far greater
economic justice, both at the national
as well as at the international levels.
We all talk about globalisation but perhaps,
there is limited attention [being paid]
to this and there is almost the assumption
that somehow or other, greater international
economic integration will somehow magically
achieve growth and justice.
There is very little evidence that this
has happened, and there's no reason to
assume that this is going to happen.
And so, there is much to be done in terms
of creating such conditions. And I do
believe it is possible to begin to move
in that direction but, of course, it requires
a great deal of coordination among many
of the different stakeholders at the international
And the conditions for creating that..
are quite absent, in the sense that there
is no international government, as we
all know. And achieving coordination is
Even in Europe, the institutions are still
very fragile. If you think [about it]
at the global level, the institutions
and mechanisms are almost not there in
And so, one has to think very, very creatively,
on the one hand, but also create the conditions
for achieving this. And whether we like
it or not, the UN is probably the only
forum which allows this to happen.
The Bretton Woods institutions, the IMF
[International Monetary Fund] and the
World Bank, are organisations which have
basically assumed a particular approach
in handling and addressing world economic
And despite the great deal of criticisms
and debate over the years, there has been
relatively modest movement, the record
of the last two to three decades is quite
It is precisely those who have perhaps
been least inclined to follow the prescriptions
of the Bretton Woods institutions who
have, in a sense, made the most progress
in terms of growth pace.
Countries like China and India are notoriously
closed economies, where the government
still has a huge role. And you contrast
that with other economies where you have
had all these liberalisations, leaving
it to market forces and so on and so forth,
the records are much more dismal if you
think about Latin America, if you think,
especially, about Africa. They've been
sold a lot of snake oil, as the Americans
to your appointment, you said that the UN
has lost a lot of its influence in the global
development debate. Can you elaborate on
think three things basically happened.
There's a recent intellectual history
of the UN's role in economic affairs.
The glory days were the '50s and '60s,
which are associated with what is called
the "Golden Age", when there
was relatively rapid growth at the global
This period was associated with what some
people referred to as "Keynesianism",
the government had a significant role
and the economic performance was really
This was the time when Europe was catching
up, recovering from the war, and Japan
was rebuilding and really catching up.
And growth rates, not only there but in
the former colonial [countries] in Africa
and Asia, were very impressive. Inequality
at the world level actually went down
very briefly after increasing tremendously
since the early part of the 19th century.
So, this was a period where the UN can
claim [to have had] some influence, contributing
to this. Because many of the developing
countries ... for example, when you got
rid of the colonial masters, you basically
often didn't have any people who were
trained or prepared.
So, very often, it was the UN who provided
people who came with ideas. Likewise,
the ideas, which were associated with
the UN, had a certain degree of legitimacy
and were very influential.
So, I think it'd be fair to say that this
was a period when the UN and the economists
associated with the UN had tremendous
But this period, unfortunately, came to
an end basically in the '70s as three
things happened. The role of the government
came under severe attack during the '70s,
culminating in the rise of people like
[Margaret] Thatcher and Ronald Reagan,
and the demise of the so-called Keynesianism...
It was the moment of the high tide for
the developing countries, in terms of
the establishment of the new international
economic order, commodity prices went
up and so on and so forth.
And although the rich countries were having
severe economic problems associated with
so-called stagnation, the developing world
was doing very well in the second half
of the '70s.
Then all this came to an end when the
US became increasingly dominant, Paul
Volcker [former US Federal Reserve chairman]
raised interest rates, international financial
liberalisation had grown and the US and
Europe especially, but also Japan, increasingly
put their money with the institutions
where they were more influential, namely
the Bretton Woods institutions.
This was a time when a lot of member governments,
especially from the rich countries, refused
to pay their subscriptions to the UN.
So you undermine the UN on the one hand,
and you boost the financing as well as
the prestige and influence of the Bretton
And of course, there were other things
which were happening. With financial liberalisation,
generally, there's a lot of pressure to
roll back the role of government to check
inflation and so on and so forth.
So, the effect is that macroeconomic policies
tended to be much more deflationary in
impact. And so growth rates fell all over
the world, not just in the developing
world but even in Europe and Japan.
All these created a ... new atmosphere,
people talked about what you call "neo-liberalism",
other people called [it] the "Washington
Consensus", and it's essentially
a consensus between the leadership of
the US government on the one hand, the
White House, legislature, and so on, plus
the Bretton Woods institutions, the fund,
The last quarter of a century has been
... a period when the UN had lost its
influence, and the US particularly, but
the UK as well, have become increasingly
influential not only in political affairs
but also in economic affairs.
Essentially, if you look at governments
in the developing world, especially, what
happens in the UN is left to the foreign
ministries. And the foreign ministries
are not where you have tremendous economic
And so, the IMF and [World] Bank would
influence people in the finance ministries
and sometimes the trade ministries, the
WTO would have influence on the trade
But the foreign ministries, you influence
them on economic ideas, it doesn't really
matter. There's no impact on policies.
This was a huge step back in terms of
the influence of the UN.
So it's a combination of factors. I'm
not suggesting any big conspiracy or anything
|So you think
the UN has lost a lot of clout ...
they never really had clout. It was the
power of ideas really ... [With] the World
Bank or the IMF, [it's if] you don't do
this, we don't give you money.
But the UN doesn't have anything like
that. So it's just the power of ideas.
This is what is likely to happen if you
do this, and so on and so forth. So the
UN was influential mainly because of the
people who worked for the UN.
There were many dedicated people. Now
they have nothing else to offer in terms
of money, for example. And it continues
to be a tremendous disadvantage, but,
hopefully, if you change the international
economic discourse, you get people to
question things, it can have a tremendous
Just to give you an example, a couple
of months ago, before the US elections,
Paul Samuelson, who is sort of the guru
of American economics, many of us grew
up studying Samuelson's textbooks... he
said, you know, this business about globalisation
necessarily making people better off isn't
|Now he says
To be fair, he has never made very strong
claims but his students have been making
strong claims about all the wonders of
globalisation. So, he said, you know,
well, it's not really the case, and he
wrote an academic paper where he shows
under what conditions this might not be
Now many of us from developing countries
sort of say, "Come on lah, we knew
this all along."
But, you know, we are nobody as far as
those guys are concerned. So all his students
suddenly no longer dismiss this idea,
as they had been doing for decades before
and writing it off as so-called anti-globalisation
Previously, they could just dismiss all
these people. Now, they are forced to
sit up and sort of say that, well, what
Professor Samuelson said is theoretically
possible but unlikely to happen because,
you know ... So they can't just dismiss
Likewise, if you have much more work of
that kind by people who are much more
balanced and are not basically public
relations agents for globalisation, for
example, then we might have a much more
People will say, "Yes, this is possible,
but this is also possible." They
have a much more balanced understanding
of things and we will have much more pragmatic
policymaking. And this is how, if the
UN is going to influence policy, this
will have to take place.
But this will also mean that the UN has
to deal directly not just with people
in foreign ministries all over the world
but with a whole range of policymakers.
|How do you see
your role in this?
frankly, the UN is in a situation where
its budget is being cut every year. You
have all kinds of budgetary constraints,
you have resource constraints.
And if you look at some of the recent
controversies the UN is involved in, there
seems to be some fat in the system, which
doesn't really make it lean and meanÉ
and very productive or efficient.
So, these are things that one hears about
from reading the media. One has to really
make an assessment of what is available,
what is possible, before I make any grandiose
claims, you know, and then one year later,
you make me eat my words [grins].
It'd be quite silly. So, I think it's
important to be realistic about this...
With the best of intentions, you can make
a mess of things, you know.
|But are there
any issues that you're personally interested
in, or hope to pursue through the UN?
have lots of ideas of my own and I can
assure you that many friends and well-wishers
have given me hundreds of ideas to pursue.
Certainly, they are not all pursuable.
I think one has to make a serious and
careful assessment of the situation [first]...
But what I would hope to be able to achieve
is to have a much higher profile and influence
for the UN's work, because the UN significantly
dissents from many others.
It dissents, to some extent, on some issues
with other international institutions.
It also dissents from what some member
governments might think. It also dissents
from what people in the so-called market
think, people in Wall Street or elsewhere.
So, one has to tread very carefully because
these are all stakeholders who can thump
the UN on the head for saying something
which you think is honest but they think
is inimical to their interests. So, one
has to be extremely mindful of all these
But I do think that the unfortunate and
sad experiences of the last few decades
have created a situation where there are
many people who are looking for an alternative.
You know, previously, I think many people
were resigned to what is called TINA,
there is no alternative. And people have
sort of given up, thrown up their hands
in despair. But now, I think there is
recognition that we live in a world where
there are alternatives and we must seriously
explore those alternatives.
you will be chief economic adviser to Dr
Jose Antonio Ocampo...
Antonio Ocampo is an under-secretary-general
in charge of the Department of Economic
and Social Affairs, which has 10 divisions
He's a very eminent economist. He doesn't
need my advice [laughs], I think. He's
a very highly respected economist. He
also, about 13 years [ago], became a politician
and he has served as an agriculture minister,
planning minister and finance minister
Later on, he became the secretary for
the Economic Commission for Latin America
and the Caribbean. I see my relationship
with him as a collegial one, where we
will be working together.
I expect to have certain responsibilities
in some of the divisions and to work with
him as well as with the people in the
different divisions ...