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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 April, 2003, 23:05 GMT 00:05 UK
What is the OECD for?

By James Arnold
BBC News Online business reporter

OECD Forum 2003
All talk and no action?

For the man in the street, OECD is just another of those irritating sets of initials that the world seems so full of these days.

Readers of the business pages may know, at least, that those initials stand for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

They may even have some idea that the OECD has something to do with the world economy.

But as the organisation gathers the economic jetset this week in Paris, a lot of the talk on the fringes of the conference is about what that "something" is supposed to be.

A sense of self

To its credit, no one is more aware of this image problem than the OECD itself.

OECD member countries
Czech Republic
New Zealand
South Korea

A useful booklet handed out at this week's meetings begins with a suitably apologetic tone.

The OECD, it says, "has been called a think tank, a monitoring agency, a rich man's club and an unacademic university.

"It has elements of all, but none of these descriptions captures the essence of the OECD."

That essence, argues Donald Johnston, the OECD's secretary-general, is to be "a steering group for the world economy".

Rather than lending money with menaces, like the International Monetary Fund, or chewing over the woes of the rich world, like the G8, the OECD sees its role as the dissemination of free-market ideas and sound regulatory policies.

The OECD does not concern itself with the grand themes of global macroeconomics, instead pondering unglamorous but worthy subjects such as agricultural reform in China, or educational development in Denmark.

Out of time?

Someone has to do this sort of thing, presumably.

But there seems to be a growing body of opinion that the OECD may not be the right agency to do it.

Donald Johnston
We still matter, insists Mr Johnston

The OECD was born in the early Cold War, as a means of distributing American cash and economic wisdom to war-weary Europe.

As Europe boomed, the OECD seemed to have a coherent identity as the rich countries' club.

Now, though, that identity is looking dangerously blurred.

The OECD has admitted as members a host of distinctly unrich countries - including Poland, Mexico and Turkey.

And while the OECD says its members account for two-thirds of global economic output, poor but important nations such as China, Russia, India, Brazil and Indonesia are outside the tent.

"The OECD isn't a rich countries' club, and it isn't a poor countries' club - it's just a club for some countries," says one delegate

"And what's the point of that?"

Join the club

The OECD, understandably, insists that it still matters.

"I think it is very clear that we have a greater role now than at any time in the past 30 or 40 years," says Mr Johnston.

"What we do is unique, and I can't see that any other agency - the United Nations, for example - could do it instead."

Behind closed doors at this week's meetings, OECD ministers are starting to discuss what people call the "modalities" of allowing in more members - Russia, for instance, which has submitted a formal membership application.

This may take time: members acknowledge that achieving consensus among 30 fairly like-minded countries is hard enough - expanding membership to tough customers like the Russians or Chinese could gum up the decision-making machinery completely.

But Mr Johnston says the mere fact that countries are keen to sign up is positive.

"No one wants to join a club that's going out of style."

Where's the beef?


Certainly, this week's Paris meetings demonstrate the OECD needs to do something to build up its muscles.

In an innovation of Mr Johnston's, Wednesday's ministerial meetings were prefaced by a two-day forum, an occasionally surreal event bringing together pressure groups, charities, company bosses and others on the fringe of the policy-making world.

The ministerial meetings themselves may achieve something of substance in reforming the OECD, but their other discussions have been curiously news-free.

Most countries, it seems, see the meeting as a nothing more important than a handy get-together ahead of tough world trade talks later in the year.

The Germans sent no-one higher than a junior foreign minister; the beefiest American was trade ambassador Robert Zoellick.

Leaving time for lunch

From the inconvenient vantage point of the press centre, the sense of ennui is palpable.

Italian and Japanese journalists have turned out mob-handed, as they always do at such events, but what might be called the Anglo-Saxon media is less than enthusiastic.

Lacking even a final communique summing up business done, the meetings ended languidly at lunchtime - a sharp contrast to the nail-biting pre-dawn finales at more substantial summits.

"Plenty of time to finish your story, and then go out to booze it up," says one cynical official.

As if journalists really needed an excuse to do that.

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