Isabelle Durant: We have to make the difference between protection and protectionism

Isabelle Durant, acting secretary general, UNCTAD. (Photo by UNCTAD staff Henrique Pacini)

Isabelle Durant has an enviable view from her spacious office on the top floor of one Palais des Nations’ soon-to-be refurbished buildings. The large windows look out onto a serene vista of Geneva, the lake and the panorama of mountains behind.

Inside, however, it has been anything but for Durant, who took over as acting head of the United Nations Conference for Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and its 450-plus staff in February after predecessor Mukhisa Kituyi stepped down to pursue a place in the next Kenya presidential elections.

Though less known than its more prominent UN counterparts, the Geneva-based body has been busy behind the scenes providing technical assistance around trade to developing countries reeling from the economic impacts of Covid-19. “With the pandemic, and all that is happening as well as the socio-economic consequences which are devastating for many developing countries, we have a lot on our plate,” she says.

A former nurse turned Green politician who has served as vice prime minister of Belgium and as vice president of the European Parliament, Durant was appointed as deputy secretary general of UNCTAD in 2017.   A legacy perhaps of her days in politics, Durant is forthright and personable. She’s well-known for advocating issues such as gender equality, which includes striving for more female economists at the UN, and has also pushed for a greener and more inclusive international trade - the subject of this week’s UN Trade Forum – and an area she believes UNCTAD can play a bigger role.

“Climate change, biodiversity, green exports and all those issues is something that we have been working on for a long time, but I would like that we really do more, for instance, organising trade and climate assessments by country and exploring what are the problems,” she says.

“If you are in a subtropical region with a coast, it's not exactly the same if you are a landlocked country in Asia, for example. How they have to adapt, the production, agriculture, adapting the route for trade because that will also change in the future. Mitigation adaptation is also important because trade at plus two degrees is not the same as trade 10 years ago.”

The G7 meetings of trade ministers leading to this weekend’s summit underscored how efforts to tackle climate change and drive a green recovery are slowly changing perceptions about trade policy, but also raising questions around new sensitive issues such as subsidies or carbon border levies, as proposed by the EU and decried as protectionist by several countries.

“There are some aspects, which could be perceived as barriers for export. It means it's important because we have to make the difference between protection and protectionism. Protection is to protect nature, protect biodiversity, or trying to find nature-based solutions, protect against waste, or plastic and, so forth.”

“Protectionism is another thing. It’s really to privilege some producers above all others”, she adds. “That’s exactly what we’ll discuss [this week at the UN Trade Forum].”

In just a few months Durant will hand over the reins to her successor after UN secretary general Antonio Guterres appointed Rebeca Grynspan, a Costa Rican economist and former vice president to her country, to become the next head of UNCTAD. Staying in the role was not an option because it is the turn of the group of Latin American and Caribbean Countries (GRULAC) to field a nominee.

It’s still too early to determine what Durant’s next step will be. Would she be willing to resume her role as second in command? Durant says, "yes",  if Grynspan proposes, and  “if the collaboration is good”.

In the meantime, there’s UNCTAD’s fifteenth quadrennial conference to plan for. Taking place in October in virtual form but officially hosted by Barbados, it’s the meeting of the highest decision-making body, when member states will identify priorities and set the mandate for the next four years. It’s also the occasion to review UNCTAD’s modus operandi and to question  – as is being done at World Health Organisation and other multilateral institutions – whether it is in need of reform.

Repurposing the tool box

“Whatever the reasons may be for this perception or lack of knowledge, the fact remains the general public are either indifferent to, or unsure about what UNCTAD does.” This is a quote taken from a report prepared by its secretariat in 2006, though it still stands in large part today.

The Conference was founded in 1968 after calls by developing countries emerging from colonialism, and disillusioned with the international economic regime at the time, for a universal forum to articulate their interests on trade and development-related issues.

Today it assists developing countries with trade, economic and sustainable development concerns through research and analysis, policy recommendations and technical assistance.

In recent years, it has faced criticism over its direction and competence, triggering internal investigations. Today, however, Durant stands by the firm belief that UNCTAD remains as relevant as ever in assisting developing and least developed countries in, among other many other examples, bridging the digital divide, confronting the economic impacts of Covid-19 and climate change.

“The relevance of UNCTAD is, without any doubt, important but it has to be adapted to the 21st century,” she says.

“What we have to do over the next decade is to fight, with the same rules and the same will, against inequality and to have a bigger voice for developing countries but also to realise that development is in motion. A lot of things are changing and we cannot consider the same things the way we did 20 years ago. That’s why we have to call for new tools and instruments, but it doesn’t mean the we have to abolish previous ones.”

The classification and treatment of different trading partners, what it means to be included in the G77 for example, is one area that needs to be reviewed, Durant adds. “Today, everybody in the UN is agreed on the fact that sometimes it's better to stay a least developed country (LDC). Because you receive some advantages that you could lose as a middle income country.”

UNCTAD foreign direct investment figures showed some middle income countries were worst hit than LDCs by the economic fallout from Covid-19. “It’s why those categories were relevant in the past, but probably we have to adapt and look at what can be done in order to be fair and to be sustainable.”

With the World Trade Organization also stepping up its engagement on issues of sustainability and trade, Durant says that there are opportunities for the two organisations to work together and does not see competition concerning their respective tasks.

“The WTO is supposed to be a rulemaking organisation. We are not but we can do a lot before the rules are adopted into the WTO and after,” she adds. For example, in helping countries to apply any fisheries subsidies treaty if and when it is adopted later this year.

Modern multilateralism

Returning to UNCTAD’s major conference, the theme “from vulnerabilities and inequality to prosperity for all” she admits is broad. More specifically, member countries will try to tackle what are the biggest vulnerabilities that need to be addressed at a national and regional level in a post-Covid-19 world.

Tied to that, members will also brave the perennial question of what a “new multilateralism” means today. The topic is one that crops up at almost every meeting and conference, but still has to be redefined and adapted from the model of multilateralism that was created after the Second World War, says Durant.

“There are a lot of forces in the world, some formal, informal, some social movements, and of course, different economic powers. When you look at the biggest technology giants, for example, they have more power than some nations. So we have to think about multilateralism differently, keeping in mind the same goals but adapting the form of multilateralism.”