The Non-Aligned Movement: renewed relevance in a time of crisis

As poor countries are disproportionately affected by the financial, food, climate and security crises, the Non-Aligned Movement's call for greater international cooperation must no longer be drowned out by the rhetoric of the G8 and the G20, argues Rajesh Makwana.

A debilitating global economic downturn, ongoing regional conflicts, and growing levels of inequality and hunger have seriously undermined any notion of the G8 as ‘guardians’ of international economic policy. As the elite group’s rhetorical commitments to development and climate change appear increasingly irrelevant, renewed hope for political decision-making surrounds the more representative groupings of nations working through the United Nations. One such body, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), met in July 2009 to support a range of progressive reforms that have the potential to re-establish a much-needed economic, social and political balance in international affairs.

This year marked the NAM’s 15th summit, and unsurprisingly the leaders and ministers present at the Egyptian town of Sharm El Sheikh were preoccupied with two pressing themes: peace and security – with a particular focus on the Israel/Palestine issue - and the global financial crisis. Both issues highlight major structural problems within international relations and global governance that have concerned the movement since its establishment in 1961.

In the early years of its inception, the movement wanted to ensure independence and protection from the two opposing Cold War powers. The concept of ‘non-alignment’ was first introduced by the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1954 as part of his five principles of restraint, which formed the basic tenets of India’s foreign policy. Nehru’s principles gathered momentum at the Bandung conference in 1955, where 29 governments discussed the role of the ‘Third World’ in the Cold War era, and strengthened cooperation towards peace, development and decolonisation.

The historic outcome of this meeting established the Bandung Principles, which were reiterated again in the NAM’s outcome document, released soon after this year’s summit. The principles promote the role of the United Nations (UN) in international affairs, national sovereignty and non-intervention, equality and human rights, and economic development through greater international cooperation. Parties at the Bandung conference also agreed to promote nuclear disarmament and to work toward a fairer representation of African and Asian countries in the Security Council.[1]

The Bandung meeting was the direct pre-curser to the establishment of both the NAM and the Group of 77 as intergovernmental groupings of developing states looking to pool their advocacy potential on economic, security and development issues. The NAM was formally instituted in September 1961 at a conference in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and is now widely regarded as one of the key political voices of the developing world.

A Renewed Commitment

The latest summit was the fourth in a series of high-level political meetings this year, following the G20 and G8 meetings, and June’s UN Conference on the World Economic Crisis. Much like the scant coverage of this crucial UN conference, the mainstream media largely failed to report on the significance of the NAM summit. This lack of exposure was compounded by the usual criticisms from commentators in the leading industrial nations over the movement’s apparent irrelevance in a post Cold War and largely decolonised world.

This perceived illegitimacy was a theme tackled directly by leaders at the summit who urged members to redouble their efforts in influencing policy, particularly through the United Nations, in this time of escalating crises. As the outgoing Chair, Cuba’s president Raul Castro, stated in his opening remarks, “We are convinced that a better world is possible and that NAM has an essential role to play in its conquest...We have an invigorated movement that will carry on playing the major role expected of it...”[2]

The movement’s growing popularity in the Global South further dispels doubts over the solidarity and strength of purpose embodied by NAM members. The movement has seen membership rise from a small gathering of 25 in 1961 to the 2009 membership level of 118 member states - which represent 55 percent of the world’s population. Of these, over 107 member states attended this year’s Summit including over 40 Heads of State.

The reasons for its burgeoning popularity largely stem from the important role the movement plays in demanding a more democratic and inclusive economic and political system. The urgent need for such advocacy has steadily heightened given the disproportionate influence leading industrial nations have over international trade, finance, peace and security, and development policies. It is largely this imbalance, according to many within the movement, which contributed to the ‘perfect storm’ of financial, food, environmental and security crises – all of which are already exacting a disproportionate impact on NAM member states.

Despite the gravity of these converging crises, there is also widespread outrage that the ‘leading’ industrialised nations are doing little to mitigate the negative impacts on the developing world. April’s G20 statement merely highlighted the elite group’s competitive, pro-market stance; and the subsequent G8 communiqué was yet another reaffirmation of existing commitments within an essentially neoliberal context of increasing access to emerging markets and ensuring a stronger role for the private sector.

Speaking at the Summit on behalf of Latin American countries, President Ferdinand of the Dominican Republic reminded delegates that the US$20 billion in aid recently pledged by the G8 “is negligible compared to the US$18 trillion they used in bailing out financial institutions, which is more than the GNP of the USA and of all African and Latin America countries combined."[3]  Using this to highlight the prevalence of self interest and injustice in international relations, he went on to question whether even this pledge would be met in light of the historical failure by developed countries to donate the long-agreed 0.7% of their GNP in aid.

In sharp contrast to the watered-down ideological appeasements of the G8 and G20, the NAM summit ended with a comprehensive agreement on how to reform global governance, finance and security policies to adequately represent the needs of an increasingly marginalised developing world.

Egypt’s President Mubarak, the incoming Chair of the NAM, stated in his opening remarks that “We call for a new international political, economic and trade order that is more just and balanced, that is above selectivity and double standards, that considers the priorities of developing countries, that institutes democratic interaction between rich and poor nations, and realizes balanced representation in international organizations and international economic decision-making mechanisms”.[4] Over the course of the summit, NAM leaders proceeded to agree on a range of far-reaching and robust policy resolutions and advocacy positions that broadly followed this ideal. 

In line with their usual position since the end of the Cold War, NAM members advocated for an end to domination by more powerful countries. Such hegemony, as repeatedly highlighted by several leaders in attendance, is epitomised by Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, a concern that warranted its own six-page special declaration. An additional declaration was issued specifically in support of immediately ending the 50 year embargo of Cuba by the United States – another widely criticised unilateral aggression.

Strengthening the United Nations

Long seen by NAM members as outdated and undemocratically influenced by the economic and military powers, Security Council reform has been central to the NAM’s advocacy efforts since its inception. At this year’s summit, leaders expressed their concern over the encroaching of the Security Council on matters that, according to the UN Charter, the General Assembly should have jurisdiction over. The reforms proposed by the movement were generally geared towards its expansion in a bid to strengthen multilateralism within the Council. The strong feelings within the NAM for Security Council reform were echoed by President Gaddafi, current chair of the African Union, when he submitted a proposal to establish an alternative security council within the NAM framework.

As a globally representative organisation, the United Nations’ main goals include establishing a democratic international political framework and solving ‘problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian character’.[5] Given the NAM’s mainly ‘developing world’ constituency, it is not surprising that the summit’s outcome document strongly supports the UN framework. In addition to reiterating a historical commitment to the UN Charter, the movement declared ongoing support for a number of other intergovernmental agreements and resolutions, including the declaration for the establishment of a New International Economic Order (1974), the Earth Summit’s Agenda 21 (1992) and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992). The heads of state and government also “reaffirmed the need for a New Global Human Order aimed at reversing growing disparities between rich and poor, both among and between countries, through the promotion of poverty eradication, full and productive employment and decent work, and social integration”.

Perhaps most significantly, as the first NAM summit since the onset of the recent financial crisis, this year’s outcome document had a particular focus on the role of reforming global governance to mitigate the effects of the crisis and prevent future repeats. Member states recognised that the crisis is the major impediment to creating a just and equitable world and is likely to increase poverty and deprivation – particularly in the Global South.[6]

The outcome document revealed little ambiguity about the factors escalating the crisis, with member states agreeing that it is the process of economic globalisation that has “made the developing countries more vulnerable to the adverse impact of the financial and economic crises, climate change, food crisis and energy prices volatility”. The document goes on to state that unless the process of globalisation can be made more “open, equitable, non-coercive, rule-based, predictable and non-discriminatory” it will perpetuate the “marginalisation of developing countries”. 

Economic Globalisation is also widely accepted as causing the phenomenal rise in inequality - both within and between countries - over recent decades.[7] As explained in the outcome document not only does ‘rising income inequality represent a danger to the social fabric as well as economic efficiency’, inequality is also expected to further increase as the financial crisis unfolds.[8]  The growth in poverty and inequality is further compounded by the escalating food crisis and climate change - which remains a major obstacle in North - South negotiations.[9]

As often re-iterated by the NAM, a small group of economically dominant nations are largely responsible for these crises through their disproportionate influence over negotiations over international economic policies. The prevalent ideology of the rich, industrialised countries continues to favour deregulation, liberalisation and an imbalanced finance and trade architecture. The policy framework propagated by these nations has largely been created without appropriate representation from the developing world, through the agency of the IMF, World Bank and WTO. Unsurprisingly, many in the movement see this neoliberal policy framework as preserving the dominance of the already advantaged nations.

The increasingly prominent role of these international financial institutions has paralleled the progressive marginalisation of the United Nations, thereby reducing its ability to regulate globalisation by ensuring that development is balanced and inclusive. It is perhaps for this reason that another key point of advocacy for the NAM remains the reform and strengthening of the UN system. In particular, the outcome document stressed the importance of reinforcing the UN’s role as the main forum for international cooperation for economic development. The declaration proposes that the UN system should be made more responsive, effective and efficient in its support for pro-poor development, and that all outstanding payments to the UN, particularly by major contributors, should be immediately made available to support this goal.

The outcome document also pays special attention to the need for strengthening the role of the General Assembly to render it the chief deliberative, representative and policy-making organ of the UN. Highlighting the movement’s more holistic approach to governance, the impact of socio-economic factors on peace and security was also given due consideration. The NAM asserted that the UN should have a more integrated and comprehensive approach to preventing conflict by taking into account development goals, human rights, and international law. As well as strengthening the role of The Economic and Social Council of the UN as the chief organ responsible for social and economic cooperation, the movement expressed support for expanding the role of NGOs and civil society within the UN framework.

Towards Democracy

Whilst obviously progressive, the movement’s positions on peace and security, social and economic development, human rights and international law are far from radical. These proposals are, however, rooted in a historically pro-poor framework that draws heavily upon the Charter of the United Nations and numerous political processes, declarations, and resolutions aimed at rendering global governance more representative. In many ways, the latest summit reflects an ongoing cycle of high-level advocacy by the Global South in an attempt to create a more equitable economy within the context of a nuclear weapon free, peaceful world.

Even with such a profoundly reasonable set of demands, the voice of the NAM – like many of the resolutions it draws upon, has been drowned out by the noisy rhetoric of very small groupings of countries that still hold the political and economic reigns in international relations. The unwillingness to relinquish this concentration of power in global governance goes against the principle of democracy that this elite group otherwise advocate.

Moreover, any criticisms of the movement’s modern irrelevance in a uni-polar, decolonised world are largely unwarranted given its growing popularity in the Global South and among civil society organisations. Not only does the movement have an ever more pressing mandate, it purveys the overarching consensus of the developing world whilst promoting the founding principles of the United Nations. In this period of escalating crises, it is time that the self-appointed bastions of the global economy paid heed to the urgent calls of the majority world for inclusive representation, peaceful conflict resolution and greater economic cooperation.


[1] Egyptian Ministry of Information, Non-Aligned Movement: New Century, Changing Global Conditions, State Information Service, July 2009.

[3] Martin Khor, Summit reaffirms Non-Aligned Movement’s Role, South Centre Bulletin Issue 39, 10 August 2009. 

[4] President Mohammed Husni Mubarak, Opening Speech for 15th Non-Aligned Movement Summit,11 July 2009.

[5] United Nations, Charter of the United Nations, Article 1, United Nations, 26 June 1945.

[6] Share The World’s Resources, Global Financial Crisis Pushing Millions into Poverty in 2009, STWR, 16 February 2009.

[7] Share The World’s Resources, Key Facts on Poverty and Inequality, STWR.

[8] International Labour Organisation, World of Work Report, Academic Foundation, 2008.