The primary objective of UNCTAD is to formulate policies relating to all aspects of development including trade, aid, transport, finance and technology. The conference ordinarily meets once in four years; the permanent secretariat is in Geneva.
One of the principal achievements of UNCTAD (1964) has been to conceive and implement the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP). It was argued in UNCTAD that to promote exports of manufactured goods from developing countries, it would be necessary to offer special tariff concessions to such exports. Accepting this argument, the developed countries formulated the GSP scheme under which manufacturers' exports and import of some agricultural goods from the developing countries enter duty-free or at reduced rates in the developed countries. Since imports of such items from other developed countries are subject to the normal rates of duties, imports of the same items from developing countries would enjoy a competitive advantage.
The creation of UNCTAD in 1964 was based on concerns of developing countries over the international market, multi-national corporations, and great disparity between developed nations and developing nations. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development was established to provide a forum where the developing countries could discuss the problems relating to their economic development. The organisation grew from the view that existing institutions like GATT (now replaced by the World Trade Organization, WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and World Bank were not properly organized to handle the particular problems of developing countries. Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, UNCTAD was closely associated with the idea of a New International Economic Order (NIEO).
The first UNCTAD conference took place in Geneva in 1964, the second in New Delhi in 1968, the third in Santiago in 1972, fourth in Nairobi in 1976, the fifth in Manila in 1979, the sixth in Belgrade in 1983, the seventh in Geneva in 1987, the eighth in Cartagena in 1992, the ninth at Johannesburg (South Africa) in 1996, the tenth in Bangkok (Thailand) in 2000, the eleventh in São Paulo (Brazil) in 2004, the twelfth in Accra in 2008, the thirteenth in Doha (Qatar) in 2012 and the fourteenth in Nairobi (Kenya) in 2016.
Currently, UNCTAD has 195 member states and is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. UNCTAD has 400 staff members and a bi-annual (2010–2011) regular budget of $138 million in core expenditures and $72 million in extra-budgetary technical assistance funds. It is a member of the United Nations Development Group. There are non-governmental organizations participating in the activities of UNCTAD.
The lists, originally defined in 19th General Assembly resolution 1995 serve to balance geographical distribution of member states' representation on the Trade Development Board and other UNCTAD structures. The lists are similar to those of UNIDO, an UN specialized agency.
List A (100 members): Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, Bhutan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Brunei Darussalam, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, China, Comoros, Côte d'Ivoire, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Fiji, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kenya, Kuwait, Laos, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Marshall Islands, Mauritania, Mauritius, Micronesia, Mongolia, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Qatar, South Korea, Rwanda, Samoa, Sao Tome and Principe, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Togo, Tonga, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, Tanzania, Vanuatu, Viet Nam, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe.
List B (31 members): Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Holy See, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States.
List C (33 members): Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay, Venezuela.
List D (24 members): Albania, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, Poland, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan.
Not assigned countries (6 members): Armenia, Kiribati, Nauru, South Sudan, Tajikistan, Tuvalu.