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  • Writer's picturePooja Ambala

Economic and social development

Updated: May 12, 2022

Article 55 of the UN Charter, which deals with international economic and social cooperation, calls on the UN to promote higher living standards, full employment, and economic and social progress and development conditions. The charter's goal of promoting economic and social development, on the other hand, was just one of several, and it received no special attention. The League of Nations and the International Labour Organisation in the beginning were primarily concerned with defensive or protective action, such as protecting countries from diseases that might cross international borders, preventing international traffic in women and children and illicit drugs, and protecting workers from unfair and inhumane working conditions. Such early economic and social action was taken in a mindset that hardly recognized the concept of economic and social development.

However, by the middle of the twentieth century, the concept had established itself as a primary goal of international cooperation. The UN and its specialised agencies' primary goal in the economic and social fields had become promoting the development of less developed countries.


The United Nations' preoccupation with development is linked to its membership division between rich and developing countries. The Secretary-General has repeatedly been identified as a significant long-term threat to world peace and security.

This sharp dichotomy could not be drawn in 1945 when the United Nations was founded. War's ravages had squandered Europe's wealth. Only the United States could say that they are wealthy, and even then, with the Great Depression still fresh in the minds, it could not be confident of long-term prosperity. The fast pace with which the countries of Western Europe recovered their wealth and went on to achieve higher levels of economic and social well-being than they had ever experienced made the development challenges central to the thinking of every aspiring country. Meanwhile, economic growth continued apace in the more prosperous countries that had not been directly affected by the war—the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. And, within a few years, Asia's miracle of recovery and growth had caught up to Europe's post-war performance.

There was nothing comparable among colonial and previous colonial peoples. Tropical Asia, Latin America, and Africa had been cultivated in previous generations primarily as appendages to industrial Europe and North America, providing essential primary commodities not commonly found in temperate regions on the one hand and profitable markets for consumer goods produced in the soft areas on the other. In the post-war era, the people of these economically underdeveloped areas made rapid political progress. A number of these countries made significant economic progress. By the late 1950s, it was considered polite and proper to refer to them as "developing" rather than "underdeveloped" countries. However, the temperate zone industrialised countries, which we're finding the post-war era to be the most favourable in history for their development, far outpaced the developing countries in economic growth. Before the UN had finished its first 15 years, it was clear that a troubling gap had opened up between developed and developing countries. Despite significant foreign aid efforts, the gap was widening year after year.


The international community quickly recognized the political and economic risks that such a disparity in national wealth posed. The General Assembly pleaded with the Economic and Social Council to study ways and provide advice to nations seeking assistance in developing their resources as early as 1946 when "recovery" rather than "development" dominated UN economic thinking. As a result, the UN launched its first technical assistance programs in collaboration with the UN system's specialised agencies.

The principles and targets of the UN development effort are described in this chapter. It also

summarises the work of the regional commissions. It discusses some of the factors influencing development, such as science and technology, the role of transnational corporations, and the utilisation of natural resources. The UN and its related organisations' technical cooperation programs are described in the chapter on Technical Cooperation Programs. In contrast, social and humanitarian assistance programs are described in the chapter on Social and Humanitarian Assistance. The work of the specialised agencies in assisting with economic and social development is detailed in their branches.


The General Assembly declared the first UN Development Decade in December 1961. It urged all member states to step up their efforts to rally support for policies to help developing countries achieve self-sustaining economic growth and social advancement. The goal would be a minimum annual growth rate of 5% in aggregate national income by the end of the decade, with each developing country setting its target.

The economically advanced countries were urged to pursue policies that would allow developing countries to sell more of their goods at stable and remunerative prices in growing markets, allowing them to fund more of their economic development, as well as policies that would ensure that developing countries received an equitable share of earnings from the extraction and marketing of their natural resources by foreign capital. Industrialised countries were also urged to pursue policies to increase development resources flow and encourage private money to develop countries on mutually beneficial terms. According to the United Nations General Assembly, international capital and assistance to developing countries should account for about 1% of the combined national incomes of economically advanced countries.

Global Mansion

During the 1960s, however, the growth rate in economically advanced market economies accelerated, and the gap between developing and developed countries' per capita incomes widened. Two-thirds of the world's population lived in less developed areas, with less than a sixth of the global revenue. Annual per capita income in those regions was $136 in 1962, compared to $2,845 and $1,033 in the economically advanced market economies of North

America and Western Europe, respectively.

Secretary-General U Thant noted in a report issued in 1969 that slower development had been accompanied by the emergence or aggravation of significant imbalances that jeopardised future growth. The necessary conditions for stable economic and social development could hardly be said to have been created without more substantial progress in food production and more effective control of infectious diseases. At the same time, the Secretary-General noted that the experience of a few countries had shown that "given a favourable constellation of situations and policies, an adequate and sustained pace of development can be achieved."

That acceptance of development as a fundamental goal had gradually wrought a desirable change in developing countries' attitudes and modes of action. Public decisions were no longer made solely for the sake of expediency, and policies and programs that had previously been decided in silos were gradually being integrated and harnessed to a common goal. The Secretary-General noted that creating bodies like the UN Conference on Trade and Development and the Committee for Development Planning had significantly strengthened the institutional machinery for reviewing and advancing international policies at the international level.

The first UN Development Decade came to an end in December 1970, with one of its significant goals, achieving a 5% growth rate in developing countries, remaining unmet. Those countries had an annual rate of increase in their total domestic product of about 4.6 percent from 1960 to 1967, but their per capita gross product only increased by about 2 percent due to population growth. According to the General Assembly, one of the reasons for the slow progress is the lack of an international development strategy framework.


The General Assembly adopted a resolution outlining an international development strategy for the second UN Development Decade, the 1970s, at its 25th session in 1970. The plan's main goals were to promote long-term economic growth, especially in developing countries, ensure a higher standard of living, and make closing the gap between developed and developing countries easier. The United Nations General Assembly declared that developing countries bear primary responsibility for their development but that their efforts would not be without increased financial aid and more favourable economic and commercial policies from developed countries.

The General Assembly stated in the second decade's goals and objectives that the average annual rate of growth in the gross domestic product of developing countries should be at least 6%, with the possibility of achieving a higher rate in the second half of the decade. Such a growth rate would imply a 4% annual increase in agricultural output and an 8% annual increase in manufacturing output.

The General Assembly also said that it was critical to achieve a more equitable distribution of income and wealth to promote social justice and production efficiency; to significantly increase employment; to achieve a higher level of income security; to expand and improve educational, health, nutrition, housing, and social welfare facilities; and to protect the environment. As a result, qualitative and structural changes in society should accompany rapid economic growth, and existing disparities—regional, sectoral, and social—should be significantly reduced.

The United Nations General Assembly believed that developing countries should bear the brunt of the financial burden for their development. They were tasked with pursuing sound fiscal and monetary policies and removing institutional barriers through appropriate legislative and administrative reforms. At the same time, each economically forward country was urged to commit to providing annual financial resource transfers to developing countries of at least 1% of its gross domestic product (GNP). Official development assistance should account for a large portion of financial resource transfers to developing countries.

The General Assembly reviewed the progress made during the first half of the decade in 1975. The gap between developed and developing countries had widened alarmingly during the first half of the decade. Still, it found one bright spot: countries still under development had emerged "as a more powerful factor, as a necessary after math of the new and growing perception of the reality of interdependence." The General Assembly also discovered that some of the ten-year strategy's aggregate targets had been met or exceeded, "owing primarily to developing countries' efforts and, to a lesser extent, external factors such as the commodity boom" (a short-lived rise in commodity prices between 1972 and 1974). On the other hand, those aggregates did not reflect the wide range of achievement among developing countries, as many performed far below the average. Agriculture was a significant area of the shortfall, with developing countries as a whole achieving less than half of the target rate of 4% annual growth.

The General Assembly also noted that in absolute terms and as a percentage of GNP, the net flow of financial resources from developed countries in the form of official development assistance had decreased. At the same time, developing countries' debt service payments have continued to rise in proportion to their export earnings.


The Arab petroleum-exporting countries met in Algiers in September 1973 to discuss the potential use of oil as a political weapon. When a new Arab-Israeli conflict erupted on October 6, Arab countries cut off oil supplies to Europe and Japan and halted exports to the US, the Netherlands, and Portugal. After a new regime instituted a policy leading to independence for African territories under Portuguese administration in 1974 and 1975, the embargo against the United States was lifted in March 1974, the one against the Netherlands in July 1974, and the one against Portugal August 1974. The actions taken by the petroleum-exporting countries, on the other hand, marked a turning point in the global economy. Members of the Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (OPEC) conducted a long-term study of collective oil price-fixing and increased prices regularly afterward.

On January 31, 1974, Algerian President Boumediene requested a special session of the United Nations General Assembly to address the issue of all raw materials and relations between developed and developing countries. In less than two weeks, 70 countries had endorsed his proposal.

There were many more decades of development and different unions organised for the world's social and economic order, such as the sixth special session of the UN General Assembly, the charter of economic rights and duties of states, the seventh special session of the UN General Assembly, the third and fourth UN Development Decades, the Earth Summit Agenda 21, and so on!

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