In its name, the Group of 77 is a pickled embryo. The 77 recalls its natal weight, when it was conjured up to help developing countries forge common negotiating positions, initially on trade and development, and later on almost every issue except the purely political. It was a bit like the Hindu goddess Durga, brought into being by the other gods to take on an opponent none of them could face alone. However, unlike Durga, who was vested by her creators with their power, the G-77 distilled the collective frailties of its members. It never therefore became the force it might have been.
When it emerged in 1964, the year that André Courrèges brought forth the miniskirt, with which the G-77 is coeval, both were declarations of independence, challenges to the established order and signs that, as Bob Dylan sang the same year, the times they were a-changing. 

The G-77 was established to speak for all developing countries. However, New Zealand signed on but left. China was not a member and for quite some time had very little to do with it. The formation of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the massive rise in oil prices in the 1970s also meant that while developing countries suddenly acquired a leverage they did not have before, their interests started to diverge from those of the oil-importing countries. G-77 solidarity was often strained, but compromises were made, acknowledging OPEC as a segment of the membership with special needs, the obverse of those who were least developed. In this, the G-77 simply mirrored their societies, where the poorest required special attention and the richest received it. While the least developed countries (LDCs) did not negotiate as a sub-group within the G-77, either for the first decade or thereafter, OPEC did on key issues. When the General Assembly Special Session in 1980 tried to pin down an agreement on global negotiations relating to international economic cooperation for development, the final abortive discussions, held in the Secretary-General’s chambers, were between the G-77, which India chaired that year, the United States, the former Soviet Union, the European Commission (EC), China and OPEC, which was represented separately.

Developing countries had scant leverage. Most of their economies were fragile, they competed with each other as commodity suppliers to the North, and were coerced by donors to soften their demands in multilateral forums. It was therefore an achievement in itself that the G-77 did not die out. That was perhaps because its members saw some strength in numbers, though the confidence it gave them was more in their minds, a placebo rather than a cure. It could be argued that if it had succeeded, most developing countries should by now have left its ranks. Such an assessment, however, would also be unfair to the G-77, because the success or failure of its members was not entirely in its hands. Poor domestic governance along with a flawed international system failed most of its members, who are and remain developing countries.

Members of the G-77 did, however, recognize that they had to take responsibility for their future, adopting the Caracas Programme of Action to promote economic and technical cooperation among themselves. This was meant to be a potent weapon, a trident in their mailed fist. Firstly, a High-level Conference on Economic Cooperation among Developing Countries (ECDC) recognized that the G-77 was not selling enough to each other. Instead, its members were reinforcing colonial patterns of trade. Secondly, the Conference agreement on Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries (TCDC) recommended that some of the technology and training sought unsuccessfully from the North could be provided by its members. Thirdly, the more interdependent and self-reliant the South became, the less it would need the North, which would then, in its own interest, be more forthcoming. 

These were logical propositions but they were not universally welcomed. Not least, there were reservations about having a permanent secretariat run this programme, since for many in the G-77 it was primarily a negotiating forum of governments, which met as needed. It became clear, however, that it would be impossible to run ECDC and TCDC, even with support from the United Nations and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), without a semblance of institutional supervision from the G-77. A 1982 compromise was to establish a Core of Assistants to the Chair of the G-77 in New York, with a country from each of the regional groups seconding and paying for one of its officers to work full-time on the Caracas Programme of Action.

Bangladesh was Chair when this experiment was launched; Venezuela, the Philippines, Nigeria and India provided the first four Assistants. I was fortunate to represent my native India on the Core of Assistants, which was set up in a bare room in the rafters of the United Nations Secretariat building. We had as colleagues, deputed by the UN, two remarkable, charismatic and indefatigable women, Rubina Khan and Karina Gerlach, who embodied all the ideals that the UN stood for. They drove us and the experiment forward. Together, we tried to scrounge for the basic information without which we could not even begin to set up a database from which members could match their needs with the necessary expertise. Information now available at the click of a mouse had to be prised out of reluctant Governments. Ultimately, though, it has to be confessed, this experiment failed. 

This was also the period when growth became frenetic in several important developing countries and regions. As they started to play a larger role in the international economy, they were offered formal, structured dialogues with their counterparts in the North, and launched similar forums with each other, relying much less on the G-77. The bulk of its membership, excluded from these discussions, became marginalized. 

The 1990s, therefore, saw the G-77 at its nadir. On some issues regarding Africa and Latin America the Group worked as a collective of sub-groups with overlapping memberships—the least developed, the landlocked and the developing islands. Asia rarely participated as a group, but comprised the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC). It was hard to bring interests so divergent into coherent negotiating strategies. The opening gambit of the G-77 represented the lowest common denominator.

At some point, during that brief interregnum when the world spun on one pole after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the G-77 succumbed to the argument of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that decisions on economic strategies should always be made by consensus. At one stroke the Group disempowered itself, surrendering its greatest strength—the ability, after fair discussions, to have decisions adopted through the democratic principle of a vote. With the same practice applied in its own counsels, it  became hostage to the extreme views of minorities or special interests, finding it almost impossible to reach consensus on a sensible middle path. 

As the group drifted into irrelevance, others realized that it could be bypassed with impunity, and if radical, liberal measures were being proposed, it would be prudent to do so. In the burst of evangelism, spread by Western non-governmental organizations (NGOs), that drove the UN to try to set new norms on a range of issues in the 1990s, all the groundwork was done outside its institutions, in discussions among small groups of the like-minded, which brought far-reaching agreements, cobbled together for the UN to endorse. The G-77 was often trying to fend off the argument that what was a draft represented an agreement that could only be changed by consensus, to which its authors would of course not agree.

On social issues, however, this quickly led to a backlash. It occurred in a period when the clash of civilizations, posited by a few, seemed to have become a self-fulfilling prophesy. The G-77 could not override the views of the reactionaries in its ranks, some of whom joined their counterparts across the ecumenical aisle in blocking or diluting agreements. The negotiations at the end of the decade that led to the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) would have been the group’s finest hour in its first avatar. In 2000, however, the lack of ambition in the MDGs, the absence of accountability, the cavalier attitude to human rights, all of which the G-77 not only accepted but often connived in, showed how far it had fallen. 

There was one final problem that ambushed the G-77 in the 1990s, comprising the complexity of the issues on which negotiations were being held, such as climate change or biodiversity. While OECD delegations would field teams of experts in a range of disciplines, the G-77 would be represented by diplomats, usually one from each country, swamped and unnerved by the flood of arcane arguments thrown at them by specialists. It was impossible for many members of the G-77 to send experts to these meetings as many simply had no such expertise. Their negotiators often did not know if what was put to them was a fair compromise or a concession which they were being inveigled into making. Rather than evoke criticism by agreeing, members of the group who were unsure of themselves would simply stall. With mutual trust eroded, the G-77 could rarely compensate as a group for the lack of preparation or expertise of its members. It became less and less useful to itself and its interlocutors.

It fell back, sadly, on polemics and posturing at its annual ministerial meetings. Through the rest of the year, walking into a working meeting of the Group could be a surreal experience. Most members would be absent, with the few present comprising a bored audience, while a handful with incessantly active tongues prepared the group and themselves to grapple with others. In a world in flux, where many of its members needed it more than ever, the group expanded into an audible nothingness. In 1964, it was 77. In 2014, it is barely more than a cipher. That is a great pity.