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OECD forum spotlights ‘what brings us together’ as a response to rising populism

  • The OECD seeks to promote democracy and the market economy among its members and partners, establishing international standards and formulating best practices.
  • Thousands of officials, have convened in Paris for the annual summit of the OECD, a 35-nation intergovernmental economic body dedicated to promoting trade and economic progress.
  • The week's panels span a range of topics related to development and economics, from AI and gender and LGBT rights to preserving the environment and the future of work.

Thousands of officials, civil society leaders, private sector players and economic experts have convened this week in Paris for the annual summit of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a 35-nation intergovernmental economic body dedicated to promoting trade and economic progress.

Guests arrive at the presentation of the candidacies for the 2020 World Expo, at the OECD headquarters on November 27, 2013 in Paris, France.
Antoine Antoniol | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Guests arrive at the presentation of the candidacies for the 2020 World Expo, at the OECD headquarters on November 27, 2013 in Paris, France.

Much like the World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos in January, the OECD is forwarding its vision of a more inclusive world, with a market-based system that promotes democratic values and sustainable growth.

And it's a vision that both organizations seem to fear is under threat against a rising tide of populism, where nationalist political parties and policies have seen a series of victories across Western nations in the past two years — from Brexit in the U.K. to the election of Donald Trump and, most recently, the Italian elections.

A message of unity and common bonds, the OECD appears to hope, will drive home the message that there are alternatives to anti-immigrant, anti-globalist and protectionist agendas. The theme of this year's summit is "What brings us together."

This theme, the OECD's website says, will focus on "moving from diagnosis to action, and shaping solutions to build these much-needed bridges," by highlighting key concepts like inclusive growth, international cooperation and digitalization.

The week's panels span a range of topics related to development and economics, from artificial intelligence (AI) and gender and LGBT rights to preserving the environment and the future of work.

What is the OECD?

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) General Secretary Angel Gurria gestures as he addresses a meeting at OECD headquarters in Paris on June 7, 2017.
ERIC PIERMONT | AFP | Getty Images
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) General Secretary Angel Gurria gestures as he addresses a meeting at OECD headquarters in Paris on June 7, 2017.

Founded in 1961, the OECD seeks to promote democracy and the market economy among its members and partners, establishing international standards and formulating best practices. It grew out of the Organization for European Economic Cooperation, which was created in 1948 to administer the Marshall plan, America's aid program for war-battered Europe. Headquartered in Paris, it has 2,500 staff and a budget of 374 million euros ($435 million).

Most of its 35 member states are high-income countries with a high Human Development Index, and together they comprise more than 62 percent of global nominal gross domestic product (GDP) — that's GDP adjusted for market fluctuations — and 43 percent of GDP at purchasing power parity, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The OECD also has official United Nations observer status, meaning it can work with the UN General Assembly. It publishes hundreds of books and research reports each year.

The organization also oversees numerous partnership and subcommittees focused on specific areas like business — through the Business and Industry Advisory Committee (BIAC) — and trade, via its Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC).

Its work extends to emerging economies through entities like the Africa Partnership Forum and the Sahel and West Africa Club, as well as the OECD's Eurasia Week, which works to address challenges in Eurasian economies.

This week will see the accession of two new member states: Colombia and Lithuania. Its broader engagement initiatives will also include the signing of a memorandum of understanding for a new Thailand country program, the expansion of OECD-South Africa Cooperation, and the establishment of an OECD Istanbul center.

'A rich man's club'

Criticisms of the OECD include perceived narrowness of its membership; it excludes major market players like China, and critics point to an overarching like-mindedness of its members as hindering more effective outreach and engagement.

Some call the OECD a "rich man's club," although it has succeeded in bringing once-undeveloped countries under its umbrella, including South Korea, which went from having a GDP equivalent to Ghana's in 1965 to becoming one of the most advanced economies in the world. Part of its mandate is bringing more of these success stories to fruition.

It's also facing competition from other monitoring and governance bodies, including the Financial Stability Forum, the G20, the World Bank and the WEF. The OECD operates by consensus of its members; while this means a more equitable decision-making process, it also means policy decisions are made much more slowly.

But it has produced important work on issues like corruption, civil liberties, consumer protection and responsible mining, among other things, its supporters point out. Its reporting on tax avoidance and rankings on educational standards have pushed members to pursue better policies on those fronts, and its work is fully-funded by its members.

While "reflecting on the complexity of shaping policy in a post-truth world," as its website says, the nearly 60-year old organization faces a new set of challenges in the form of growing trade protectionism and a shift toward illiberalism among some of its member states.

It will also have to balance policy in a world of global growth recovery paired with emerging, idiosyncratic risks. These fast-growing trends will test the effectiveness and relevance of the organization and its ability to bring the world back to its core values of liberal democracy, globalization and free trade.