OECD: From economic NATO to epistemic influence

Today’s post is from Professor Aynsley Kellow of the University of Tasmania School of Government, who with his colleague Professor Peter Carroll of the Business Faculty, has just published The OECD: A Study in Organisational Adaptation in which they present a critical examination of the trajectory of the OECD, from its origins in the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC) to the present day.

Peter and I both had the experience of looking for a definitive book on the OECD to tell us about its structure and operations. We found no such work.

Shorter treatments told us little. A chapter on environmental policy in the European Union and the OECD devoted about twenty pages to the EU and around four to the OECD.

The OECD was a neglected topic. It is no longer quite as neglected, with a book by Richard Woodward published recently. Our book coincides with the OECD’s 50th Anniversary, though that was not our intention: we would have gladly finished it sooner!

Our book represents the fruits of more than five years of research. It reflects many days in the Archives of the OECD in Paris and the archives at the European University Institute in Florence, which holds the earliest documents, and in national archives in Canberra, London and Washington.

We traced not only the development of the OECD, but the development of information technology at the OECD: from grainy microfilms to electronic forms of documentation. We were as pleased when we reached the electronic system OLIS as the Members and the Secretariat must have been.

But we also supplemented the documentary ‘fossil record’ of the OECD with interviews, of around half the Ambassadors and many members of the Secretariat. We also conducted interviews with present Secretary-General Angel Gurría, past Secretary-General Donald Johnston, and numerous past senior officers with long experience with the OECD, such as Kumihara Shigehara, David Henderson and Ron Gass.

We have tried to explore all aspects of the OECD, and the theme that emerges is one of adaptation — of an organisation has been remarkably successful at adopting to new demands and challenges and continuing to provide value. The OECD — and its work programs — today would be barely recognisable to those present at its birth in 1961. It has spread beyond its origins as a kind of ‘economic NATO’ to encompass Eastern Europe and the Asia-Pacific among its membership and it now actively engages with India, China, and the other so-called ‘BRICS’ countries. And its work programs have changed as some have dropped off the table to be replaced by environment, information technology, e-commerce, and so on.

While it has encountered some bumps along the road, the OECD has continued to adapt and to demonstrate its continuing value to its member. It is not universally understood or appreciated. It is often dismissed as a ‘mere think tank’, often by international lawyers, concerned that it neither delivers programs nor produces and supports a significant number of international treaties.

It does, of course, produce Council Acts — both Recommendations and Decisions, but there are few sanctions and no real enforcement mechanisms beyond peer review.

This legalistic approach misunderstands the OECD and its influence. We found the OECD to be widely influential, but often in non-obvious ways. Its influence is largely ‘epistemic’. Its influence arises from the quality of its work — often better than that produced in legally-binding arenas, where states are less willing to engage in free-ranging debate because they tread more carefully. For example, the Trade Committee of the OECD remains important for the WTO, which is larger and more heterogeneous in membership (less ‘like-minded’) and highly legalistic.

Thus OECD products are less likely to take the ‘lowest common denominator’ character one finds in many multilateral arenas. Even recalcitrant Members can come on board later, so the ‘convoy’ does not have to limit its speed to that of the slowest boat.

And because the products are developed in committees and other subsidiary bodies where those from national offices are involved, there is often better ‘buy-in’ at the national level, because the very work methods help create whole-of-government coordination and both commitment and international networks of national experts.

These mechanisms by which the OECD adds value are subtle and require some appreciation. While the OECD is not without its limitations (which we discuss in the book), our work suggests that — as it turns 50 — the OECD merits at least two resounding cheers.

If it didn’t exist, an overly legalistic observer might not feel compelled to create it  — but that would miss the point, and the world would be a poorer place.

OECD at 50

Guest author

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