The vision for a ‘New International Economic Order’ (NIEO) was first articulated as we understand it today by Global South nations in 1972 at the third conference of the UN Conference on Trade and Development in Chile, emerging from the experiences of decolonization after the Second World War. 2022 marked the 50th anniversary of that occasion. Although anti-colonial freedom struggles had achieved political independence for new nations, there was a palpable sense that their de jure political colonization ended only to be replaced by a de facto economic colonization. The NIEO involved a set of proposals by developing countries to confront this economic colonialism and structural dependency through a new, interdependent world economic order. Some central themes of the NIEO included sovereign equality and the right of self-determination, particularly over natural resources and land. Guiding principles included, for example, equity, sovereign equality, interdependence, common interest, cooperation, and solidarity among all States (UNGA Res. 3201).
The need for a new commodity order through international agreements and a common fund for commodity price stabilization was iterated, and the importance of restructuring international trade by addressing developing countries’ unequal terms of trade was advanced. Central elements of structural policy and paradigm change in the NIEO included diversifying developing economies through industrialization, reducing developed-country tariffs and other obstacles to free trade, expanding generalized trade preferences, and restructuring the international economic system, including by reforming the rich country-led Bretton Woods Institutions. One particularly bold element of the NIEO is the acknowledgement that colonial domination created an international racialized hierarchy that structures the global economic order; and that decolonization involves a multiplicity of political projects that lead to global justice (Ibid). If the nation state is a postcolonial construction, characterized by the divisive and arbitrary features of colonial rule, then anticolonial worldmaking entails dispersing and delegating sovereignty beyond the nation state. This involves demanding redistribution of the wealth the Global South produces for the Global North, redressing an exploitative international and sexual division of labor, democratizing decision making and increasing the bargaining power of the Global South on the world stage.
Rich forms of imagination folded into postcolonial worldmaking in the newly independent era, and diverse notions of freedom animated these visions. Its architects created shared and public visions of a political future, fusing cultures and traditions of the South into a ‘worldmaking’ project (Getachew 2019). This worldmaking vision urgently needs to be revived today in a context of intensifying structural inequalities between and among nations. At the current inflection point of a half-century since the NIEO was conceptualized, the South is struggling with a continuing health pandemic and multiple intersecting global crises from debt to climate change to exogenous shocks such as food and fuel price inflation in a context of tightening monetary policy. In fact, it can be argued that in the last five decades new and greater challenges for the South have emerged from global realities such as neoliberal financialization, legally binding investment agreements, climate colonialism and the debt-to-austerity paradigm many parts of the Global South are structurally limited by (UNCTAD 2020, Harvey 2005). Wealth inequality, both within and between nations, has surged. Since the financial crises of 2007-08, the top 1 percent owns half the world’s total household wealth (Credit Suisse 2015). The state of play of the world economy calls for an effort to reconceptualize and reclaim a renewed vision and analysis for an NIEO II.
A vision and plan for structural policy change and systemic transformation through an NIEO II needs to, at the outset, confront the logics of colonialism and capitalism that endure to this day, in the current form of neoliberal financialization. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to elaborate on the innumerable pathologies involved, three key aspects can be highlighted. First, the inseparable intertwining between profit-making – or the accumulation and expansion of economic profits, wealth and consequently political power – and relations of inequality among human groups as well as nations, created by processes of exploitation, expropriation, and expulsion (Byrd et al 2018). Second, the misdirection of the role of the state to serve the interests and priorities of global financial markets, corporations, and global to local elites, rather than to fulfill the economic, social and human rights of its people by strengthening social fabrics and investing in public systems and services (Slobodian 2018). Third, the economic processes by which both unequal race and gender hierarchies, although constructed centuries ago, are perpetuated through discrimination, segregation, and subordination on multiple scales. In this sense, profit-making, unequal human hierarchies and the complicity of the state are mutually constitutive, forming a structured web of accumulation and inequality within and among nations. The emergency of climate change is at the center of these logics, and must be traced not only to fossil capitalism, where a handful of European and North American geographies account for the vast majority of carbon emissions and attendant harms, but also to a longer durée of ecological colonialism that foisted fossil fuel industries and extraction- and deforestation-based economies onto former colonies (Adelman 2020).
In this sense, the 20th century may have dismantled colonialism’s juridical-political institutions, but its colonial logic and organization of governance and unequal power relations not only prevail but reproduce themselves in increasingly sophisticated forms (Ling et al 2018). A decolonial foundation to revive the NIEO is necessary to move beyond merely the technocratic policy surface and to, instead, expose and ultimately transform the historically rooted political logics that shape and govern enduring inequalities. In this pursuit, I explore three distinct yet interdependent channels through which an endeavor to reclaim the NIEO can be explored:
First, the sharp ascent of the structural power of finance, exemplified by the surge of creditor concentration over the last two decades and the influence they wield over states and policymakers. Second, historicizing and politicizing the world economic order through colonial logics allows for a process of exposing the narratives and techniques that constructed the beliefs, structures and institutions that facilitated colonial and capitalist power over a long durée. Third, a dual delinking process that encompasses both structural and epistemic delinking. The former creates policy space and economic autonomy for the South to reorient policy agendas from the disproportionate influence of financialization to the rights and needs of people and environment. The latter entails a shift from Eurocentric knowledge systems to forms and practices of knowledge rooted in non-Western worlds. However, a program of dual delinking to embark on a resurgence of worldmaking is only possible through thriving civil society and social movements that can exercise their rights to participation, accountability, transparency, and agenda-setting processes.
The structural power of finance today is rooted in an international architecture of money, debt and currencies that has congealed since the inception of the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944, including the throning of the US dollar as the world reserve currency. While the examples are innumerable, three aspects can be highlighted: the phenomena of international financial subordination, the rise of ‘creditor cartels’, and the internalization of fiscal consolidation and debt repayments.
First, international financial subordination, expressed in and through money and finance, is a fundamental driver of persistent global inequalities (Alami et al 2022). It is inscribed within the free movement of capital, in particular speculative portfolio capital, and the currency hegemony of the US dollar. Financial norms such as convertible exchange rates, lucrative interest rates, low inflation and deficit targets defined by the Maastricht Treaty, and investment-friendly deregulations illustrate how developing nations at various economic scales internalize the costs associated with attracting investors and creditors. As such, financial subordination penalizes the South disproportionately, is directly implicated in the geographical transfer of value across the world market, and involves domination and vulnerability exercised through the structural power of wealthy nations, currencies, capital flows, and interest rate regimes. At the core of the phenomenon of financial subordination are the narratives, imaginaries, representations, knowledges and technologies necessary to construct the South as investment destinations, which are embedded in the longue durée of race, colonialism, and empire (Bhambra 2021).
Second, the rise of ‘creditor cartels’ has occurred through a number of channels. The consolidation of the world’s top five banks unfolded through a mushrooming of their joint assets from 17% of global banking in 1970 to 52% in 2020 (Roos 2019, 63). This was accompanied by a centralization of global credit markets, seen by the share of loans made and number of assets held by a decreasing amount of financial institutions. For example, while there were 14,434 banks in the US in 1980 – approximately the same number as in 1934 – this number halved to 7,100 by 2009 (Haldane 2010). Meanwhile, the creditor composition of sovereign debt has made a sharp turn over the last few decades from official bilateral creditors, nearly all of whom were Paris Club members, to commercial creditors as well as non-Paris Club bilateral creditors. Consequently, by 2021, low- and middle-income economies owed five times as much to commercial creditors as they did to bilateral creditors (World Bank 2022). The sovereign bond market is characterized by a range of factors that generate systemic risk in the debt profile of developing countries, such as high and variable interest rates, foreign currency denomination and the lack of enforceability over private lenders to ensure a fair burden-sharing in debt restructuring exercises.
The scale of private bondholders is illustrated by the fact that the top 25 investors in sovereign bonds, led by US-based asset managers such as BlackRock, PIMCO, and AllianceBernstein, have a total of $42.7 trillion in assets, generating an outsized disparity in the availability of financial, legal, and technical resources that advantage creditors over and beyond sovereign debtors (Munevar 2021). In the context of restructuring sovereign debt, the structural disadvantage of debtors is explicit, reinforced by the lack or absence of rules, standards, and authoritative bodies to renegotiate debts with multiple parties, including bilateral, multilateral, and private (UNCTAD 2021). At the same time, indebted states often borrow fresh loans to service interest and principal payments falling due. This debt-generating cycle of lending and borrowing has created a symbiotic relationship between domestic political and financial elites and global finance. Consequently, the state’s autonomy from finance weakens. Meanwhile, debt servicing today amounts to approximately 25% of total government spending across the South, a scale equivalent to approximately twice that of education spending and 9.5 times that of health spending (Martin and Waddock 2022).
Third, the internalization of debt repayments and fiscal consolidation is enacted as an outcome of the emergence of private creditors as a second constituency alongside national citizens, exercising unprecedented political influence, and importantly, structural power, over the state. In turn, the debtor or borrower state must “take care to gain and preserve [the financial market’s] confidence by conscientiously servicing the debt it owes them and making it appear credible” (Streeck 2011, 27). As Ostry et al. admitted from within the IMF, “it is surely the case that many countries … have little choice but to engage in fiscal consolidation, because markets will not allow them to continue borrowing” (2016, 40). While the reference here is to states that are defaulting on their debt, or in the throes of debt crises, the expectation to maintain the general trajectory of ‘fiscal discipline’ through fiscal consolidation and monetary tightening, among other measures, permeates beyond recurrent inflections of debt distress.
As the annual surveillance reports of the IMF illustrate, even in the absence of signs pointing to debt distress, namely the core statistic of national debt-to-GDP ratios, the Fund’s macro-policy advice to most South nations is to keep budgets in line by ensuring “sound and macroprudential indicators” (IMF 2015). The implicit understanding is that maintaining good standing in the omnipresent eyes of finance requires an internalization of macroeconomic policy choices that serve the interests of creditors and markets, such as low fiscal deficits and inflation levels, and the prioritization of debt repayments. With or without the presence of conditional IMF loans, the aggregate effect is a compliance across many parts of the global South toward reigning in public expenditure, tightening monetary policy, promoting privatization and, importantly, prioritizing the repayment of debt over and above domestic expenditure and national investment priorities (Kentikelenis and Stubbs 2021; Ortiz and Cummins 2019).
A reclaiming of a decolonial NIEO is in recursive dialogue with the continuum of history — not to revert ‘back’ but rather to comprehend the history and politics of global inequalities today in order to strategize the way forward. This involves unearthing the logics, narratives and techniques that constructed the beliefs, structures and institutions that facilitated colonial and capitalist power over a long durée, so as to better understand and respond to our present. In this vein, climate change is not merely a consequence of industrialization, but also that of ecological colonization, where centuries of commodity extraction in cotton, timber, sugar and spices across colonies damaged ecologies well before the advent of fossil fuels.
To take another example: drawing on nearly two centuries of data on tax and trade, economist Utsa Patnaik (2018) calculated that the British Empire drained nearly 45 trillion GBP from India between 1765 to 1938. In perspective, 45 trillion (in current pounds) is 17 times the GDP of the UK today. This is not simply a historical travesty. This wealth transfer diffused capital and resources across Europe, North America, and other settler colonies, creating the very conditions for industrialization and economic power. In the present day, empirical research conducted in 2018 quantifies that financial drain from the global South through unequal exchange since 1960 amounts to $62 trillion, and, when accounting for lost growth in the South, almost $152 trillion (Hickel et al 2021). The UN reports that corporate tax evasion and avoidance results in a loss of $500-600 billion a year from developing countries (UN FACTI 2021). Most critically, the African continent incurs losses of approximately $90 billion a year through tax evasion and other forms of illicit financial outflows (UNCTAD 2021).
In this sense, various aspects of the current world economy are characterized by a thread of continuity to the era of direct colonial rule. This act of tracing the continuity from colonial past to present counteracts the institutionalized colonial amnesia in the practice and pedagogy of economics and development (Rutazibwa 2018). Colonial theorists contend that this colonial amnesia is not simply a fortuitous forgetting of the colonial past, but rather an active process of ‘dismembering’ and an ‘occlusion of knowledge’ (Stoler 2016). This allows for not only the material and technological superiority of the global North and the legitimacy of its status as aid donor, rather than reparations debtor, but also leaves its public face of morality and historical inculpability intact.
Colonial narratives and strategies involved civilizing missions and disciplinary mechanisms, among many other political rationalities. Disciplinary techniques are imbued within the governance frameworks that have dominated international development and global governance, in particular the Washington Consensus and its recursive iteration in the good governance agenda (Gill 2008). The discipline imposed by global governance paradigms is enacted through surveillance, ranking and rating mechanisms. These disciplinary mechanisms possess the explicit function of allowing or barring Global South nations’ access to international capital, and determining the terms of that access. They include, for example, the risk ratings produced by the three global credit rating agencies (Moody’s, Fitch, and Standard & Poor), the IMF’s macroeconomic surveillance reports, and the World Bank’s Doing Business Indicators.
Such mechanisms construct a constellation of ratings, rankings, and assessments that create a disciplining effect of compliance within Southern states and signify an augmented level of supranational authority over states. Policymakers perform ‘good financial citizenship’ in obeisance to the asymmetries of financial subordination outlined above. This compliance is enforced by market reactions to information routinely generated by the financial surveillance complex, such that countries, banks, and firms which comply more with financial norms gain better access to and terms of finance, investment and trade, among other perks. The concentration of creditor power intensifies the ‘herding’ effect of financial market participants, thereby increasing the volatility and pro-cyclicality of international capital in the South. A key feature of the rating and signaling mechanisms is the act of depoliticization through technocratic formulations of problems that are attributed to the nation-state, rather than to systemic international dynamics and structures (Ferguson 1990). This act ensures that solutions require external expertise and hegemonic (one-size-fits-all) policy fixes.
The civilizing mission exercised by neoliberal governance frameworks thus maintain and reproduce structural dependence, inequality and loss of autonomy, underpinned by the aggregate scale of the coloniality of power in pedagogy and epistemology as well as practice and policy. Interventions to address the structural violence and inequity baked into the global economy need to be systemic, iterative and reparative in scope, healing unequal relations and erasure of epistemologies, while simultaneously altering policy formulations by transforming the ideologies that uphold them.
First articulated in the school of dependency theory, Samir Amin proposed that delinking from the unequal global production system is a prerequisite for economic sovereignty, in that the South must reorient itself from continual adjustment to the North by compelling the international economic system to meet their needs (1987). Delinking does not require cutting all ties to the global economy; rather, it opens some space to reorient national development strategies away from the imperatives of globalization to that of economic, social and ecological priorities, and interests of people. The aim is to reconstruct the global economy so that the South – even with its divergences and differences in resources, access and interests – can meet their needs rather than having to unilaterally adjust to the needs of a global system overpowered by a handful of wealthy countries and regions. For this objective of greater agency, argued Amin, nations of the South need to strengthen their own productive systems in ways that prioritize the rights of people rather than the demands on international capital. Amin stressed that not only would strong domestic support be required to delink from unequal terms of integration in the global economy, strong South-South cooperation and alternative institution building are also critical (1987, 25-35). As the world grows more interconnected, possibilities for delinking become more challenging.
A key point within the strategy of delinking is that the specific conditions that allowed for the advancement of capitalism in Western Europe in the 19th century are not necessarily possible to reproduce elsewhere (Chang 2009). A reclaiming of the NIEO towards an equitable, rights-based and climate-just world economy needs to be shaped by models and ideas that transcend neoclassical economic theory or the imperatives of financialization. Epistemic delinking entails a democratization of knowledge systems toward engaging with a pluralism of economic knowledge, methods, and praxis (Quijano 2007; Mignolo 2009). At least nine major schools of economics and various other smaller schools can be considered as alternatives to the dominant approach, including feminist, ecological, Marxist, Keynesian, developmentalist and structuralist (Chang 2018). Neoclassical economic theory says that societies are made up of rational and selfish individuals; risk is calculable; choices, exchange and consumption are most important; and the free market will automatically correct inefficiencies. Structural, feminist and development economics say that societies are composed of gender unequal class structures; the world is complex and uncertain; the most important domain of economies is production and human welfare, including the care and informal economies; and the state must use active fiscal policy to redistribute income to the poor, diversify economies, create jobs and protect local and small businesses.
However, inclusion alone does not necessarily pivot from Eurocentric positionality and origins. For example, heterodox and Keynesian economics often assume points of origin within advanced industrial economies, whether in arguing for countercyclical macroeconomic policies or in explaining employment based on bargaining power and inflation (Alami et al 2022). While neo-Marxist and dependency theories integrate Southern geographies, they remain infused with a productivist bias toward industrial growth and productivity enhancement as a path to self-sufficiency and autonomy. A decolonial NIEO would intentionally employ South-centric texts and frameworks to understand the origins of ‘international development.’ For example, instead of starting with Truman’s 1949 speech on aid and poverty as a watershed moment for the creation of international development, the NIEO may assess the creation of development through Aimé Césaire’s 1955 Discourse on Colonialism. Cesaire’s text exposes how the concept of international aid is rooted in colonial rationalities such as the civilizing mission, and illustrates what a non-Eurocentric engagement with the world might look like in practice. It is not the absence of Europe or its thinkers in the narrative, but a de-centering of the white European vantage point as the only experience from which to perceive reality (Rutazibwa 2018).
A case of colonial economic epistemology is the reified goal of economic growth, not merely as one potential outcome or even byproduct of the fulfillment of human needs, but as the objective-in-itself (Sachs 1992). The dominance of metrics, such as per capita production of material goods, export revenue, capital inflows and foreign direct investment, in both policymaking and thinking overshadows the calculus of income, wealth and asset distribution, public service and goods provision, and access to universal social protection, nutritious food and clean water, decent work opportunities, living wages, and adequate housing. The singular objective of achieving and maintaining economic growth, which institutions like the IMF clearly state as their purpose, takes place at the expense of the social and political, leading to the reproduction of inequality and climate change producing extraction and accumulation. A decolonial economic project engages with forgotten or occluded economic knowledge across geographies, while simultaneously transgressing the economic canon to include other disciplines also constructed by colonialism, such as anthropology and sociology (Kvangraven and Kesar 2021). Unsettling the throne of neoclassical economic growth and financial power may well require removing the superior pedestal on which economics is placed. A pluralistic view of economics could locate it within a broader social and cultural field, where economic well-being occurs alongside social, ecological, spiritual, and existential processes, for example.
At its 50th anniversary, the central ethos of the NIEO to confront economic colonialism and structural dependency through revamping the world economic order is as urgent and relevant as it has ever been. Indeed, its enduring relevance is both a testament and a tragedy, in that not enough has changed toward realizing genuine economic sovereignty of formerly colonized regions. Reclaiming the NIEO today is admittedly a far more challenging exercise. The world economy has become exponentially more complex through global finance, big data and climate change. Solidarity between South nations is fissured by greater variance in economic wealth and vested interests with financial-political elites in the North. For the majority of the South, national economic, trade and investment structures are inseparably intertwined with the global architecture.
Steeped in these difficult realities, a resurgent NIEO must not limit itself to incremental reform; rather, it must reimagine multilateralism and reformulate the world economic architecture through a multiplicity of spaces, places, and actors, from governments to social movements, and from the UN and IMF to the streets of Jakarta and Cairo. The Group of 77 (G77), comprising 134 South states in the UN General Assembly in New York, remains the largest official coalition of the South today. Supported by global tax and debt justice movements, the G77 has, in recent decades, fought for an intergovernmental tax body within the UN to address corporate tax evasion and avoidance that has for centuries generated a net transfer of resources from South to North. It has also articulated the need for a multilateral debt workout mechanism for debt crisis resolution that addresses unsustainable and illegitimate debt and provides fair restructuring of sovereign debt, including debt cancellation, in a process convening all creditors.
Within the context of global trade, South coalitions have called for flexibilities in intellectual property rights, as witnessed by the South African and Indian proposal to waive them for vaccines to deal with the pandemic. And within climate change, there are numerous demands, from climate finance to reparations and technology transfer. However, far more political will and consensus-building is required in confronting the systemic inequality of money and finance, such as currency hierarchy and free capital flows. In the wake of the global financial crisis of 2007-8, some momentum was created, but was not sustained, for financial regulations, in particular to regulate the destructive volatility of free capital flows, where sudden outflows can wreak havoc on South currencies and financial stability.
Each of these calls for change and action – involving states, social movements, advocates and others – represent parts of the NIEO ethos today. A resurgent NIEO could organize each governance reform call into a coherent and charter, one that builds a vision capable of uniting geopolitical divides within the South. Such a charter could be strengthened with a commitment and consensus toward scaling up South-South solidarity and partnerships across various terrains of economy and finance, as well as trade and investment. Accountability over the state, where political-financial elites are all too often in seats of authority, is critical. Social movements and civil society must be given participation, voice, and transparency at all levels of state decision-making. With such a charter, legitimized with grassroots power, it may even be possible to envision a ‘Bandung Woods’ conference, where the current international financial institutions of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are re-made, re-named, and re-purposed to meet the needs, priorities and rights of people and communities who have always been on the frontlines of inequality and injustice. Such a revamping of the institutions that govern global economic practices could employ a decolonial foundation that commits to delinking from Eurocentric knowledge systems, dismantling colonial logics, overturning financial subordination, and rendering not only small doses of policy space but genuine economic sovereignty to envision, design, and implement a world economic order that would truly offer something new: equity.
Bhumika Muchhala is a political economist and senior policy advisor on global economic and financial governance at the Third World Network.