Eleven students of the International Economic Law and Policy (IELPO) Master's programme at the core Vi member in Spain, the University of Barcelona, came to UNCTAD February 23, as part of a study visit to Geneva-based international organizations.
The students, many of them lawyers, come from 11 different countries in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia, attended two interactive presentations given by UNCTAD experts.
Hamed El-Kady, from UNCTAD's Division on Investment and Enterprise, introduced them to the complex world of international investment rules, a maze of more than 2800 bilateral investment agreements, over 300 economic cooperation agreements with investment provisions, and regional integration agreements containing investment chapters.
"The large number of investment agreements makes it very difficult for developing countries to monitor their international investment commitments," El-Kady said. "The absence of a multilateral agreement on investment (unlike on trade) and of a global body administering investment regulations also make them more vulnerable to the bargaining pressure from stronger partners."
The increase in the number of International Investment Agreements (IIAs) has been accompanied by an increase in investor-State dispute settlements. Developing countries often lack human resources not only to negotiate investment agreements, but also to handle investment disputes. This can have negative repercussions on them due to the high cost of procedures, financial losses in arbitration awards and deterioration of their reputation as investment locations.
"Investment policies should however not only protect investment, but also channel it into sectors creating jobs, bringing new technologies, etc. Foreign Direct Investment is not only about numbers, but about how it works for development", he concluded.
In the second part of the visit, the students, were exposed to an economic issue par excellence, the recent financial crisis.
David Bicchetti, from UNCTAD's Division on Globalization and Development Strategies, explained that the "myth of decoupling," i.e. that the crisis would remain contained to developed countries only, proved soon to be wrong, and that the crisis had global implications, and went into detail the causes and the subsequent unfolding of the crisis.
"Was the crisis a surprise?" he asked. "There were certainly some new elements like financial deregulation and the increasing use of financial derivatives. However, financial markets are unstable by nature and bubbles are a natural part of their functioning."
"Some experts and institutions (such as the UN and the Bank for International Settlements (BIS)) were warning about the risks of a crisis, but nobody listened to them. Faith in the efficiency of deregulated financial markets created an illusion of risk-free profits, and financial markets predominated over real economy."
The students took the opportunity to raise a variety of questions with UNCTAD experts, such as about the impact of IIAs on investment flows or the relationship between IIAs and Agreement on Trade-Related Investment Measures (TRIMS). An extensive discussion developed about the (in)evitability and predictability of economic crises and why the last crisis was allowed to happen or was not avoided.
The group included three students who are working at or have recently graduated from Vi member universities in China (Shanghai Institute of Foreign Trade), Ethiopia (Jigjiga University) and Kenya (University of Nairobi). In the framework of cooperation with the Vi and the WTO Chairs Programme, the University of Barcelona granted them a waiver from tuition fees. Additionally, the Vi, with funding from the Government of Finland, co-sponsored the participation of the Ethiopian student (university lecturer).
The lecturer from Ethiopia particularly appreciated that IELPO encourages the students to "look at economic aspects of legal concepts and definitions." For the Chinese participant, it was the "new educational style, which is interactive," that differentiated the programme from his previous educational experience. The students from Ethiopia and Kenya aim to continue their studies by getting onto PhD programmes, while the student from China intends to obtain a post in the trade ministry of his country.