Ironies of the NAM Summit

Once again, heads of state and senior officials from various developing countries around the world are converging for another Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit. This time the location is Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, and representatives from over 118 countries as well as the Secretary General of UN Ban Ki-Moon are present. Like all summits held in the past twenty plus years, the same questions remain on the table: Is NAM still relevant? What role can NAM play in today’s world? How can NAM solve its internal contradictions? The fact that most NAM summits nowadays are dominated by the existential question of whether or not NAM still has any role is the biggest proof of its irrelevance to struggles within the global South. Aside from Raul Castro it is difficult to find one head of state in the summit who is not quite aligned, starting with the host. In fact there are several glaring ironies in today’s summit that help illuminate the sad state of NAM and the need for an alternative.

The first irony lies in the location itself. Once upon a time, Egypt was a leading force in the Third World Movement . Gamal Abd al-Nasser, Egypt’s President (1956-1970) was a co-founder of NAM and one of the most charismatic and popular advocates of the Third World movement. The nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 (followed by the joint British, French, and Israeli war of aggression) remains one of the most pivotal events in post-War history. More damming from the perspective of the West was that Nasser was also a leader of an Arab nationalist movement that was perceived as a grave threat to the United States oil interests and an even greater threat for the oil Kingdoms of the Arabian Gulf (because it held that Arab oil wealth is for all the Arabs and should be used to fund industrialization). Saudi Arabia fought Nasser tooth and nail at every corner, and the increased reactionary use of oil money leaves a legacy from which the Arab nation (and indeed the world) still suffers from today.

Within a few years of Nasser’s death Egypt’s role as a leader within the global South came to an official end with the signing of the 1979 Camp David agreement with Israel which resulted in the official condemnation of the treaty and near expulsion of Egypt (at the request of other Arab countries) from NAM at the Havana summit later that year.

Egypt practically violates all the requirements of NAM as outlined in its original charter (independent policy; support of movements of independence) although it is not unique in that respect. What is unique about Egypt is the damaging role it plays in one of the few issues that became “depressingly predictable ” in NAM summits: recognition of Palestinian rights, including the right of return, and the end of the Israeli occupation of all Arab land.

How ironic then, that the summit is now being hosted by the country who’s army virtually acts as the guardian of the Israeli southwestern border. During (and after) the most recent massacre in Gaza, Egypt’s government has been fulfilling its aligned role quite well, with a complete blockade of the Gazan border, despite the catastrophic humanitarian crisis still unfolding there.

Egypt’s farcical role as the host and next Head of NAM is not the only irony however. The summit comes in the midst of an international financial crisis that had its origins in the global economic changes which took place shortly after the effective end of NAM and the Third World movement in general.

In his speech to the NAM delegates, Raul Castro argued for a “urgent construction of a new international financial architecture” (Granma International July 15, 2009) as a response to the crippling crisis. The disasters of neo-liberal economics are related to NAM. In fact, the rise of the Washington Consensus and the WTO in the 1980s are the flip side of the death of the Third World Movement in the late 1970s. Few people remember, but in 1973 in the Algiers summit, the NAM unveiled a comprehensive proposal to restructure the world-economy called the New International Economic Order which called for, among other things, a) democratizing the World Bank and IMF; b) more control on multinational corporations and foreign investors; c) institutionalized price stabilization for primary products; and d) technology transfer and industrialization in the developing world. A year later the NAM proposals were adopted at a special session of the General Assembly through the pressure of the Group of 77. The G-77 was a bloc within the United Nations that often advocated policies first formulated in NAM and played a key advocacy role for developing country issues (the creation of UNCTAD is another example). In fact, so successful were developing countries in putting their economic issues on the UN agenda that the G-7 itself was formed in 1975 to provide a forum where rich countries can discuss world affairs away from the obstreperous South.

More important than the actual achievements of developing countries (if achievements are measured in concrete economic results or the creation of certain institutions) were the role they played in “institutionalizing radicalism,” to borrow a phrase from Balakrishnan Rajagopal’s excellent book International Law from Below. According to Rajagopal a key achievement of the Third World movement was in terms of “occupying and politicizing the space of international law” as well as making international institutions “terrains of struggle and resistance” rather than simply organizations that need to carry out a certain mandate . The only similar example of such actions in the neo-liberal age has been in recent WTO summits where developing countries are increasingly reverting to “Third Worldist” blocs and negotiating tactics . Today, NAM is a vacuous shell of such politicization; an organization sleep walking through time.

However, the internal contradictions of NAM, in particular the increasing alignment of the non-aligned with the “Great Powers”, were slowly suffocating the movement. The debt crisis of the 1980s was a dramatic shift in global bargaining power back toward the Industrialized countries and a crushing blow to the global South and Third World solidarity in particular. Shortly thereafter the West starting pushing for the WTO whose mandate effectively represents a movement in the opposite direction of almost every single aspect of the NIEO. The so-called Grand Bargain that the global South accepted was nothing more than a unilateral surrender on promises that had fueled the Third World Movement from the beginning: economic development and convergence. The debate within the Third World itself had shifted. While the Third World movement developed a radical critique of the world economy as a precursor for developmentalist demands, in the aftermath of the debt crisis the neo-liberals gained the upper hand. While from the 1950s to the early 70s the spectrum was from the radicals to the developmentalists today that entire spectrum has shifted from the developmentalists to the neo-liberals.

Returning to our original question: does NAM have a role to play in today’s world? Yes and no. Yes, a South-South movement seeking to represent common interests of the countries does have a role to play, and yes, this movement can even be consummated at the state level, given that international trade negotiations are determined there. However it is increasingly obvious that NAM as an organization cannot play this role. The biggest favor NAM can give to the global South is to dissolve itself immediately and a new bottom-up inter-regional movement needs to take its place.

Omar S. Dahi is an assistant professor of economics at Hampshire College. He can be reached at:



See Vijay Prashad’s The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (2007; The New Press) for more on the goals, trajectory, and failures of the Third World movement

Prashad (2007) p. 221

Rajagopal Balakrishnan International Law from Below: Development, Social Movements, and Third World Resistance (Cambridge University Press: 2003).

Scholars such as Diana Tussie and Amrita Narlikar emphasize the role of negotiating strategies in the success or failures of South based negotiating blocs and argue that a key failure of Third World movements was in their confrontational zero-sum negotiating tactics. For an article on the more recent coalitions within the WTO, see Diana Tussie and Amrita Narlikar’s article “The G20 at the Cancun Ministerial: Developing Countries and Their Evolving Coalitions in the WTO” in World Economy, 2004.


Leave a comment