Chakravarthi Raghavan was one of the few men who did make a difference in the world armed only with knowledge and the strength of his moral commitment.
“A typewriter in hand and an idea in mind” is an apt description of Raghavan: a man armed with the idea that development should be promoted through fairness, justice and balance in economic relations.
When I first arrived in Geneva in November 1987 as the new Brazilian Ambassador to the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) forum, I immediately found out that, printed on golden yellow paper, Raghavan’s daily SUNS (South-North Development Monitor) column constituted the only source of honest and unbiased assessment of
events free of the hegemonic intellectual dictatorship of triumphant globalization’s pensée unique.
It is hard to imagine in our days how isolated developing countries’ negotiators found themselves at the start and during most of the duration of the GATT’s Uruguay Round of multilateral trade talks. None of the myriad NGOs that now devote their activities to various aspects of trade negotiations existed at the time, or if they had been in existence like Oxfam, they had not discovered trade’s central importance yet.
China was very distant from acceding to the GATT. Even the most important and active developing countries were far from mustering the intellectual resources that advanced nations’ negotiators received from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and numerous think-tanks.
Prestigious Nobel Prize winners such as Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman had not yet seen the light on their roads to Damascus. We were decades away from the moment when some in the Bretton Woods institutions would reluctantly and partially recognize what UNCTAD had been repeating from Raul Prebisch’s time in the early 1960s:
that the multilateral trading system was imbalanced and unfair, that its rules and proceedings tended to perpetuate a situation detrimental to the trade interest of developing economies, and that trade rounds had been putting off for more than 30 years the “unfinished business” of development-friendly negotiations.
In other words, the asymmetry in economic and political power that already made a level playing field a hopeless proposition for developing countries had been further aggravated by the imbalance in the power modality that comes from information and knowledge.
Thus, the most pressing and fundamental function performed by Raghavan’s writings was simply to demystify, to deconstruct the counterfeit stuff, laying bare the economic sectoral interests hidden behind apparently objective data and research. This he did superbly, through his masterful command of contemporary economic and
international history, bringing to readers’ attention the precedents in the discussions of similar problems or comparing the OECD’s arguments with independent researchers’ findings.
In an age when no major project or work can be financed by the World Bank without a prior environmental impact assessment, it is really astonishing that commercial negotiations that deeply overturned countries’ employment prospects had to be conducted with no evaluation of their likely social and economic consequences for the people concerned.
Raghavan tried to fill the information gap as completely as he could. At the release of the major reports of international organizations, voluminous studies of hundreds of pages that overworked negotiators had no chance of reading, he would have ready for dissemination clear, remarkably precise and concise summings-up of what
was being circulated. From time to time, there would be special articles on the subjects under negotiation and interviews with independent experts. SUNS became a permanent platform for the expression of alternative views from the dominant and suffocating orthodoxy.
But what proved most crucial in his contribution was the exacting, meticulous chronicle-cum-analysis of daily negotiations during the Uruguay Round. For most of the duration of the Round, that is, until 1991, there had been no less than 15 different negotiating groups on the most diverse and complex subjects. It was almost
impossible, except for developed countries’ delegations, to follow each and all of these groups. That was the moment when Raghavan’s SUNS saved the day for most of us. To this day, I do not know how he was able to perform such a miracle of accuracy and comprehensiveness in covering negotiations where he could not enter
To the despair of official spokesmen intent on making sure that the press corps would quietly swallow the conventional truths, Raghavan was always present at the press conferences at the GATT or at the Palais des Nations (the UN offices in Geneva). It was not without trepidation that the audience would impatiently wait for
the conclusion of the introductory remarks just to hear the first and biting question from the SUNS representative. He set for himself the most demanding moral and ethical standards as a citizen not only of his native India, but as a truly universal citizen of the South and of the world. To be a journalist is by no means to be neutral in relation to moral values and to stay indifferent in the face of violations of justice, fairness and freedom.
Despite the disproportionate imbalance in human and material resources, Raghavan did ultimately prevail. Not in the sense that he succeeded in changing the dynamics of negotiations, a goal that has always been much beyond his reach or the reach of any disarmed prophet. Negotiations of any kind are in all cases a game of power,
of power defined in terms of interests.
A journalist’s victory should be defined in terms of being right in finding out the facts, in telling things as they are and extracting the correct conclusions from the facts. In other words, journalists are the historians of the present time, of contemporary life. Their vindication should come in the form of history confirming their perceptions and informed predictions.
Raghavan’s reward lies in the gratitude, admiration and esteem of those, among whom I count myself, who owe him the gift of recovering “the knowledge we had lost in information and the wisdom we had lost in knowledge”.
Revised and adapted by Rubens Ricupero from the foreword written for C. Raghavan’s 2013 collection of writings titled The Third World in the Third Millennium CE Vol. 1.
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