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Reflections on the OECD Forum 2012

“Create jobs and find a new sustainable type of economic growth that works for everyone – while at the same time reducing public debt and tackling inequality. A tall order, but it can be done if governments and citizens work together. OECD Week 2012 is a chance to do just that.”


Last week I had the chance to volunteer for OECD Week, which is hosted annually at the organization’s headquarters in Paris. Several hundred speakers from both member and non-member countries were invited to take part in panel discussions addressing topics such as new economic and societal approaches, inequality, and education. This year the Forum was entitled “From Indignation and Inequality to Inclusion and Integrity,” referring to the social consequences of the financial crisis and the need for sustainable and inclusive economic growth. The event brought together various ministers, academics, labour union representatives, entrepreneurs, CEOs, journalists and activists.

OECD Week is an opportunity for the international organization to raise its profile, in the eyes of both its members and the public. The Ministerial meeting, which follows the two-day long Forum, is an occasion to receive “high-level support for the future direction of the organization’s mandate,” according to Greg Cristofani, an expert in the Budget and Finance service at the OECD. The Forum, on the other hand, is a “politics-free discussion on issues that are central to the OECD’s thinking”. The OECD’s ultimate goal is to have an impact on domestic and international policies, but the event is mostly about “profile-raising and showcasing our relevance,” says Mr. Cristofani. Accordingly, during the Forum, the organization launched its semi-annual Economic Outlook publication. This publication is widely cited by the international media, and the current eurozone turmoil magnified its importance. In their speeches, Angel Gurria (the Secretary General of the OECD) and Pier Carlo Padoan (Deputy Secretary General) both focused their attention on the European context. In recent months the OECD has explicitly turned against the austerity framework put forward by Germany, calling instead for rebalancing efforts from all countries in the eurozone, with more structural reforms and a bolder action by the ECB.

Throughout the event there was a clear emphasis on the use of modern technologies and communication devices. By actively spreading quotes on twitter and posting interviews on youtube, the organization made the Forum more accessible and entertaining. Clearly, the organization has understood that social media is essential to target a broader audience, and consequently, to have a greater influence on policy debates.

A New Paradigm

A striking aspect of the Forum was the diverse range of speakers. Among the most noteworthy were Queen Rania of Jordan, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, and Pascal Lamy, Director-General of the WTO. Economists included James K. Galbraith, Robert Johnson, Stewart Lansley and William White. Ellen MacArthur, who inspired millions with her record-breaking sail around the globe in 2005, was there to speak about her Foundation and discuss the topic of entrepreneurship. Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, voiced the concerns of workers. The younger European generation, which is currently suffering from sky-high levels of unemployment, was represented by members of the European Youth Forum, a member of Occupy London Stock Exchange, and the co-director of Intern Aware, a campaign that promotes fair access to internships in Great Britain.

This pluralism is a testimony of the changing nature of public policy debate. Ever since the financial crisis, we find ourselves in an intellectual crisis: the economic models on which developed countries based their growth for decades are now obsolete, undermined by the endemic presence of debt. Technology has changed the way societies work by empowering new groups and reinvigorating the force of democracy. Thus new policy frameworks are needed. From witnessing the Forum it appeared to me that even at the highest level of international debate it is acknowledged that finding the solutions to current problems will necessarily imply a diverse range of actors and inputs from a variety of fields.

Trust, Sustainability, Cooperation

Three key words come to mind when looking back on this event. “Trust” within our societies has been shaken by the crisis and must be restored. This applies to the relationship between societies and politicians, and the relationship between the real economy and the financial sector.

Secondly, “sustainability”, in its broad sense, should be the main guideline for implementing new policies. A more sustainable economy should be less reliant on excessive credit; have a regulated financial sector; and reduce inequality and environmental costs.

Finally, “cooperation” will be essential. Whether it is macroeconomic policies, labour market reforms, food policy, or financial regulation: success in each of these efforts hinges upon international cooperation, with states bringing their ideas and acts together.

To be sure, despite their different backgrounds, there was a lack of diversity in opinions among different speakers. In most cases, in fact, there was a consensus on what should be done. As economist William White argued, we are often constrained at the could (legal) and would (political) phases. But as Mr. Cristofani added in a final remark, “politics responds to momentum”. Let us hope that the new paradigms that are being developed will provide such a momentum; towards a more inclusive, stable, and trustworthy policy direction. For at the end of the day, as Secretary General Angel Gurria often stresses, it is policies that really matter.


– William Debost


Photo credit: Andrew Wheeler/OECD. All rights reserved. Copyright OECD.



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