Learn languages and… expand your own being (among a few other things)

Today’s post is written by Anne-Lise Prigent, the editor in charge of education publications at OECD Publishing.

Click to see the book on OECD iLibrary

Brittany, 1689. Voltaire describes how a trilingual Huron arrives on board a ship and is invited to supper by the town worthies. When asked which of his three languages he prefers, the man picks Huron. “Is it possible?” cried Miss Kerkabon. “I always thought French was the first of all languages, after Lower Breton.” “The company speculated a little on the multiplicity of languages; and all agreed that had it not been for the unfortunate affair of the Tower of Babel, all the world would have spoken French.”

Following in Voltaire’s footsteps, Dave Barry stated in 1991 that: “Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages”.

Beyond the satires about universal ethnocentrism lies an essential issue. What is at stake when we learn non-native languages and why should we bother to learn languages at all? Languages in a Global World: Learning for Better Cultural Understanding (which cites the above) explores these issues. This bulky (470-page) OECD publication is the fruit of close co‑operation with Harvard University Graduate School of Education where the man behind the project, our OECD colleague Bruno della Chiesa, also works.

The scope of the book is breathtaking: it explores language learning all across the globe, in countries ranging from Canada to Tanzania and from France to Kazakhstan. It goes well beyond (applied) linguistics to deal with history, sociology, ethnology, psychology, neuroscience, music, philosophy and ethics. For those who think that OECD publications are dull, think again. This book is witty, irreverent – and thought provoking.

Why do we learn other languages? In our globalised world, learning languages is more crucial than ever. In fact it’s vital. For a job-seeker, mastering only one language could be a drawback. Writing in The Guardian, Will Hutton points out that “In the UK, the unemployment rate for language graduates is extremely low. The labour market values them. The economy needs more people who can speak foreign languages. This is a valuable skill, whether you’re part of the global scientific community or the world trade system.”

At the country level, mastering languages can also become a competitive advantage. Look at Canada for example. Its multicultural and bilingual policies seem to give the country a competitive edge.

The world’s seven billion people speak about six thousand languages – there are over 30 times as many languages as there are states – and speaking more than one language is quite normal, with around two-thirds of the world’s children raised as bilingual speakers. Yet, some countries tend to be more monolingual than others. Why is that? Could this possibly turn into a competitive disadvantage, even when the country’s language is today’s lingua franca, English? Could it be that power (both in its present and past – colonial – form) lures nations into believing that they (still) don’t need to speak foreign languages?

English is spoken as a first language by only 7% of the world’s inhabitants. It replaced Latin as the international tongue with the rise of the British Empire and US economic expansion. Could it be overtaken in turn by the language of today’s emerging economic powerhouse, China?

By examining what is at stake in language learning, Languages in a Global World goes to the heart of what is often the subject of intense ideological debate. Language is inseparable from cultural identity. Our motivation to learn languages is driven by values and beliefs.

Is one’s national identity soluble in foreign languages and cultures? The good (or bad?) thing about language learning is that it brings awareness – of oneself, of the other, local and global awareness. You may study the world in your native language (only). Or you may live it, think it and feel it as people who speak other languages do. The real thing. The music of Shakespeare, Cervantes, Rimbaud, Musil etc. As Goethe said, “those who do not know other languages know nothing of their own”.

We can only understand the importance, richness and specificity of language and culture if we are familiar with other languages and cultures. Lorca’s amazing “duende” sounds more miraculous in Spanish than in any other language. And some (culturally resonant) words lose something when they are translated: “accountability”, “gobbledygook”,  “tartle” (Scottish), “saudade” (Portuguese), “laïcité” (French), “Torschlusspanik” (German), “hyggelig” (Danish), “mamihlapinatapei” (Yagan – Tierra del Fuego), “Iktsuarpok” (Inuit) etc.

Learning languages unveils new worlds. We not only learn how to speak but also how to relate to people in brand new cultural contexts – at subtle levels of perception, cognition and emotion. This gives a new perception of one’s self, of one’s identity and culture.  “If you don’t have another language, you are condemned to occupy the same positions, the same phrases all your life. It’s harder to outwit yourself, harder to doubt yourself in just one language. It’s harder to play” as Michael Hofmann argues.

Learning languages helps us expand our own being and be in tune with the world, or to put it another way, to truly address the other. In that respect, Languages in a Global World is reminiscent of Levinas’ philosophy of responsibility and ethics: our response to another’s face is language. It is the beginning of intelligibility and understanding. Language as an ethical commitment.

Could peace only be a few languages away? Language learning and global understanding go hand in hand. By not speaking other languages, we isolate and impoverish ourselves – economically and humanly. We lose a precious opportunity of becoming open and curious, receptive and creative. We don’t fulfil our potential and just shut up. “Drawing on my fine command of the (…) language, I said nothing.” As Robert Benchley said.

Useful links

OECD work on education

Understanding the brain: the birth of a learning science

Bad, boring or bonkers? Science and policy making

Ahoy there, matey. How can we help?

France fought to get the “exception culturelle” recognised by the GATT,  the forerunner of the World Trade Organization, in particular to protect its own cinema against Hollywood. So it’s all the weirder that French movie distributors insist on translating titles from English into er, English. Wild Things, for instance, becomes Sex Crimes. It’s even weirder when the original uses a word of French origin in the title. Triage with Colin Farrell becomes, for French audiences, Eyes of War. However, the French are not alone, as I learned on reading this article by Quentin Cooper on the BBC website. Quentin wonders why the latest Aardman film The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists has been rebranded as The Pirates! Band of Misfits in the US.

The quick answer is that to many people, the subtitles are synonymous, and this isn’t surprising given the way science and scientists are often presented. You either get a man in a white lab coat staring intelligently at some exotic glassware full of scientific-looking liquid, or a wild-haired eccentric solving mile-long equations but incapable of posting a letter.

Scientific issues are regularly sensationalised, trivialised, or misunderstood by the media, with basically three types of story: breakthrough, silly or scare. Scare stories give a poor image of science, reinforcing the stereotype of the mad scientist whose research is dangerous for human health or the environment, with “Frankenstein” being used to label practically any product of genetic research for instance, even ants.

Trivia such as the scientific formula for how to make toast or write a sitcom present scientists as eccentrics and their research as futile.

Breakthrough stories give an image that is positive, but just as inaccurate as scares and trivia, ignoring the way ideas and intuitions emerge, are formulated as hypotheses and then tested, vindicated, revised or rejected over a period of time. Look at any health breakthrough article and if the full story is given, chances are that the researchers have come up with something that will take years to influence treatment, if it ever does.

At the same time, scientists must take their share of the blame too. Ananyo Bhattacharya, chief online editor of Nature argues here that if reporters wrote stories the way some scientists seem to want, few people would read science coverage. Both sides have to make an effort because an understanding of science and technology is necessary not only for those whose career depends on it directly, but also for any citizen who wishes to make informed choices about controversial issues ranging from stem cell research to global warming to genetically modified organisms to teaching the theory of evolution in schools. And new issues are bound to emerge in the years to come.

But could science do more than provide the knowledge needed to understand natural processes? A symposium organised by the Global Science Forum (GSF) at the OECD today explores new science-based tools for anticipating and responding to global crises. The premise is that new types of scientific inquiry, and new modes of science-policy interactions, are emerging based on the ability of researchers to analyse and to make reliable forecasts about policy-relevant phenomena that have, until now, been seen as lying outside the scope of useful scientific analysis.

Typically, these are systems and networks consisting of vast numbers of individual elements that interact in complicated ways, such as ecosystems, financial markets, energy networks, or societal phenomena such as urbanisation and migration.

In one sense, the symposium will simply be trying to bring policy makers up to date with developments since the last time they adopted a new set of scientific tools in the 19th century. The social sciences that now form a natural part of government decision making were only emerging, and borrowed much of their metaphors and terminology from the existing sciences, especially physics.

We still talk about flows, masses, equilibrium and so on (there’s actually something called a “gravity model” of trade, for example). But these terms are rooted in “classical” physics, developed before relativity and quantum theory. The GSF has been working for several years now to show how the new sciences of complexity can provide insights into systems that operate not just as series of actions and reactions, but with feedback, non-linearity, tipping points, singularities and so on.

We’ll report back on tools for anticipating and responding to global crises once the summary of today’s symposium is available. In the meantime, we laugh in the face of danger!

Useful links

Global Science Forum:  “Applications of Complexity Science For Public Policy: New Tools for Finding Unanticipated Consequences and Unrealized Opportunities

Future Global Shocks: Improving Risk Govenance

The symposium marks the 20th anniversary of the Global Science Forum and the 100th meeting of the OECD Committee for Scientific and Technological Policy

War or Peace in Heglig, South-Sudan?

They're right to be worried

Today’s post is from Erwin van Veen of the International Network on Conflict and Fragility, established in 2009 as a subsidiary body of the OECD Development Assistance Committee and Ann Fitz-Gerald, a senior academic with Cranfield University’s Department of Management and Security.

The excitement in Juba when South-Sudan declared its independence in 2011 has given way to anxiety now that the two Sudans seem close to falling into the “conflict trap” where countries with recent experience of conflict are more likely to fall back into conflict. On April 10, the South Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) took control of Heglig, an oil town on the border between Sudan and South-Sudan. It is unclear whether this is another incident in a long series, or the spark that will explode the powder keg. But it is urgent to assess whether anything can be done to prevent a slide back to violent conflict.

The natural response of the international community when faced with such escalations of violence is to call for restraint and dialogue, which is precisely what the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, the US government and the African Union’s mediator Thabo Mbeki have done. However, to assess whether this call for dialogue is likely to be heeded, at least two questions need to be answered.

First, how much pressure is the international community willing and able to exercise? This is difficult to assess from the outside, but it is likely that key global players such as the US and UN may prioritize Syria and Iran over Sudan. Regionally, the situation is hardly more favourable with Kenya and Ethiopia embroiled in Somalia and Egypt focused on domestic issues. Libya’s chaos ensures a ready supply of highly mobile manpower and weapons, as evidenced by the situation in Mali. Calls for dialogue may sound louder than the pressure and support the international community can actually generate.

Second, is dialogue welcomed by participants? Political dialogue requires a sufficient degree of commitment from both parties to have a chance of success. Several considerations must be taken into account here. To start with, the trail of broken agreements and promises between Sudan and South-Sudan is a long one and mistrust runs deep.  Recent analysis suggests that the SPLA has been stockpiling weapons and that both the SPLA and the Sudanese Armed Forces are arming South Sudanese rebel militia groups. However, little reliable analysis is available on what exactly is happening in the contested border areas. One also needs to take into account that South-Sudan has limited diplomatic capacity to tell its side of the story. Publicly, however, both sides state they welcome dialogue, which the international community can capitalize on. Yet it is also clear that they are gearing up for other scenarios.

In addition, South-Sudan may well take the view that it now must defend its hard-won independence. The country took a drastic step in January by shutting down its oil production in protest over transit fees, and escalation may well be one of its few strategic options left. The South has proven before that it can survive with food distribution lines cut off and oil wealth denied – large parts of its territory have no electricity anyhow – but its leaders would have to make radical political and financial decisions and be accountable to their people for the ensuing hardship. South-Sudan’s domestic peacebuilding and statebuilding agenda would certainly suffer setbacks, its recent commitment to the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding notwithstanding.

And yet, on the face of it, there seem to be sufficient common interests to provide a basis for dialogue.  For one, the human suffering and economic damage of renewed conflict will be huge. Collier and Chauvet have conservatively estimated the domestic and regional cost of a civil war to amount to about $85 billion. Two thirds of the economic damage resulting from states descending into conflict accounts for external spillovers that hurt neighbours. This is the figure against which Sudan, South-Sudan and their neighbours must gauge their appetite for dialogue and war.

In short, the signs are not hopeful that calls for dialogue can or will be heeded. What can the international community do to help prevent another war? Three lessons stand out from the international intervention in the FYR Macedonia in 2001, one of the most successful examples of conflict prevention.

Co-ordinated, fast action between the OSCE, NATO and EU proved critical for an integrated political-security response that was sufficiently context specific. In the case of Sudan, it would be easy to argue that UNMIS and the AU need to swiftly deploy peacekeeping troops into disputed areas like Heglig and that their mediators must immediately commence facilitating a longer-term process to resolve the range of outstanding issues.  However, a lesson from the last few years is that third party intervention, of the UN in particular, has not always been welcomed by Sudan. Moreover, President Kiir stated on April 12 in the South-Sudanese parliament that he had rejected calls from several international leaders, including Ban Ki-Moon, to pull his troops out of Heglig. Hence, a leading UN role near the contested border seems unlikely. In keeping with the model which kept the pre-Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) talks on track, an alternative option could be that the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) partners’ forum steps up and provides an AU-led initiative with logistical, financial and advisory support. The UN could consider supporting this quietly from behind the scenes.

Strong leadership is essential. Kenya kept the many pre-CPA talks on track and helped realize several goals towards the CPA, such as the Machakos protocol of 2002. Such leadership was also a key ingredient of the successful international intervention in FYR Macedonia, where Mr Van der Stoel, personal envoy of the OSCE chair, enjoyed the confidence of all parties. Kenya may not be able to fulfil this role again at this point. In that case, Ethiopia remains one of the few parties trusted by both sides. If it could convince the presidents of Sudan and South-Sudan to work towards a political agreement, the tide might be turned and Ethiopia would render the region a very valuable service. Given the trail of broken promises, however, the conflict must be addressed at the highest levels, and it would help if both sides could refrain from any aggression towards Ethiopian peacekeepers patrolling Abeyei.

Finally, the intervention in FYR Macedonia showed that confidence building is vital. This could begin with credible and verifiable information being collected and shared from the conflict-affected border area. Rumours spread quickly, feeding distrust and possibly catalyzing ill-considered action. An international monitoring mission, possibly IGAD sponsored and AU-supported, might be a way out of this conundrum – but speed will be of the essence.

Useful links

OECD work on peacebuilding, statebuilding and security

Getting to the heart of service learning

"Anyone can slap paint on a wall..."

In the second of two postings, regular Insights blogger Brian Keeley looks at the benefits and challenges of service learning.

If you follow education, you’ll know that somebody somewhere is always banging on about The Next Big Thing. It’s easy to become sceptical – I mean, how did any of us ever learn to read or write before the invention of the Smart Board?

That’s why I was a little worried when, in a previous posting, I noted that service learning – which combines academic learning with volunteering – is  “one of the fastest growing educational initiatives”. Might it be just another new fad? Probably not. For one thing, service learning isn’t really all that new – the idea’s been around since at least the early 20th century. And even though the last few years have seen a big upsurge of interest in it, that enthusiasm appears to be based on solid experience of its usefulness in education. As Andrew Furco noted in a recent OECD report, even though academic studies in this area are still relatively limited, there’s evidence to show that young people really do gain from service learning in terms of their educational, social and intellectual development.

At one level, applying knowledge learned in the classroom to real-world challenges can help students to appreciate that what they’re learning “has meaning and relevance to their lives outside school,” as Andrew notes. Studies show other benefits, too, including increased motivation for learning, fewer disciplinary problems, better attendance and lower drop-out rates.

But before getting too excited about all these great results, it’s important to note a few qualifiers. Firstly, simply launching a programme – any programme – is no guarantee of success. “As some scholars have suggested, it is the overall quality and meaningful character of the experience that matters most,” writes Andrew.

“Quality” covers a wide area, including the duration and intensity of programmes; the establishment of real partnerships with local communities; and the balance between the “service” side of activities and the “learning” side. If it’s to bring these two sides of the equation together, service learning needs to be more than just a synonym for “volunteering”. Instead, it needs to coherently integrate service with academic learning. For example, designing a school garden can draw on academic subjects like engineering and human and plant biology; delivering the garden’s produce to people in the community can involve civics, social studies and even economics.

Ensuring that programmes are meaningful to students is also a challenge. One person with plenty of experience in this area is Annabel Smith, who has worked in service learning around the world. She readily acknowledges that programmes can fail to connect with students: “If you don’t do this properly, you can make kids not want to engage,” she told me when I met her at Mara-a-Pula in Botswana, a school with a long record in service learning. “It’s better not to start if you’re not going to do it properly.”

She believes it’s essential that schools communicate that they’re serious about service learning to students. “Young people are very astute about what adults really attach value to,” she says. In response, schools need to apply long-term thinking to the design of programmes, and how students progress through them; otherwise, she says, “there’s a danger of ‘hit and run’”.

She’s critical of some of the approaches to record keeping in service learning: “Don’t count hours!” she warns. Instead, she says, schools could ask students to keep “experiential passports” that record not how much they’ve done but what they’ve done. Students, she believes, also need to be given space to reflect on what they’re learning. One reason for closely tying service to learning is that it allows discussion to go beyond simply bemoaning the plight of the poor and instead provides a “knowledge framework to hang feelings on”.

Indeed, Annabel sees discussion and reflection as being at the heart of service learning: “Anyone can slap paint on a wall, and there’s probably no shortage of workers who’d happily be paid to do just that,” she says. “What is valuable about these programmes is not the product, not the paint on the wall, but the conversation that emerges over that paint.”

Find out more

The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice (OECD, 2010)

OECD work on education

OECD educationtoday blog

In praise of conflict

Sometimes, conflict is inevitable

Today’s post is from  Brad Allenby, Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics and Professor of Law at Arizona State University

Absent the occasional nihilist, anarchist, or arms dealer, it is hard to find anyone sane who wishes conflict well.  The human costs of war, from Afghanistan to the Congo to the Balkans, are all too real; the backdrop of a century of global conflict all too recent.

At an individual level, few people seek increased torment and conflict in their personal lives.  Activists and experts in domains from sustainability to Marxism to various religions seek the balm of peace: surely as a species we can finally craft the simple principles that eliminate conflict and lead us forward to the Golden Age that is our due?

Striving for peace, the absence of conflict, is not a bad thing, and most folks that do it are also realistic about the need to keep one’s guard up in a dangerous world (as Trotsky is reputed to have growled, “you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”).  But there is perhaps a more important nuance, as pointed out by those eminent social critics, The Jefferson Airplane: “Soon you’ll attain the stability you strive for, in the only way it is granted, in a place among the fossils of our time.”  Less poetically, the obvious costs of violence and war tend to blind most people to the importance of conflict to innovation and creativity.  Elizabethan London, the Athens of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Renaissance Florence, the chaotic Spring and Autumn Period of Confucius in China, the India of Gandhi – none of these highly creative periods were stable and peaceful.

But there is constructive conflict – the conflict inherent in trading cities as different cultures meet, for example – and there is destructive conflict.  What we have now in many places is the latter, either as physical conflict – war – or, more widely, as destructive conflict over foundational values.  Ethics, morality, and values are usually at play in various political environments, of course, and the dialog among them can be an important source of cultural evolution.  But a different dynamic begins to dominate when conflict over moral absolutes gains ascendancy over the usual political arguments.  Constructive conflict can be resolved through traditional rational discussion and dialog, political solutions which spread benefits among constituencies, and the like; destructive conflict is phrased in terms of moral absolutism, of good and evil.  The latter is accordingly far less amendable to rational discourse and compromise.  I can talk to you about different ways to raise taxes; I can’t talk to you about taxes when to you they represent primordial evil.  I can talk to you about ways to manage climate change; I can’t talk to you when anyone who doesn’t accept your perspective on the phenomenon is the equivalent of a Nazi.  The tactic of terrorism is ineffective, indeed fails dismally, in an environment of constructive conflict; it is a signature activity of destructive conflict.

The apparent shift towards destructive conflict may be partially illusory, but there are some reasons to suspect it may not be.  We are, after all, in a period of unprecedented technological change across essentially the entire technological frontier, as a result of accelerating evolution in nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and communication technology, robotics, applied cognitive science, and similar technology systems.  Technological change at this scale causes accelerating social change; the flexible thought necessary for success in high technology environments undercuts traditional social norms and practices.  And, of course, how do individuals react to a complex and unpredictable world if they are left behind, baffled and unable to cope, as technological and social change continues to accelerate and a global technocratic elite increasingly captures economic and political power?  They retreat to belief systems: they’re simple and provide psychological refuge, and, equally important, because they rely on faith rather than reason, they are resilient against scientific and policy discourses that are complex and demand unpleasant change.  Destructive conflict is thus a predictable outgrowth of modernity.  Conditions favor not the creative interplay of pluralistic democracy creating adaptability and flexibility in the face of an uncertain future, but retreat to simplicities that are both enormously powerful and yet profoundly dysfunctional when deployed against irreducible complexity.  Creationists are not arguing the factual basis of evolution; rather, they are rejecting a fundamental tenant of modern science and Enlightenment rationality, and they are doing so for very real and important reasons.

So at a social and cultural level, we should not wish for peace (although, in the interests of generating the pluralism that must underlie social wisdom, we should support institutions and individuals that do so).  Conflict cannot be avoided and, in the age of the complex and anthropogenic Earth, that would be a dysfunctional goal in any event: we need if anything to accelerate the social and cultural innovation that constructive conflict generates.  Rather, our challenge is to learn to incent and protect constructive conflict, while at the same time reducing destructive conflict before it overwhelms us.  So perhaps somewhere in the Department of Defense we need the Institute for Creative Conflict, a necessary oxymoron for the challenges of our complex modern world.

Useful links

OECD work on conflict and fragility

EU public procurement: Opening markets by example, and if that doesn’t work…

Today’s post is from Karel De Gucht, EU Trade Commissioner  and Michel Barnier, EU Commissioner responsible for internal market and services

How do you open markets world wide, to the benefit of European consumers, companies and jobs? Europe’s answer to that question is equally short: we lead by example. We are the world’s largest single market, and our foreign trade policy is actively focused on further liberalising trade through both multilateral and bilateral negotiations. But what happens if others don’t follow our example? What incentives do our partners have to open their markets to our businesses when their own businesses have full access to ours? As negotiators, that’s a question to which there are no short and simple answers.

 Take public procurement, a sector of major economic importance. In the EU, purchases by government correspond to around 19% of GDP and companies whose business directly depends on procurement represent over 30 million jobs. It is also a booming sector in emerging economies and one in which European companies are very competitive.

The European public procurement sector is the most open in the world. Outside contractors are able, welcome even, to compete on our market, subject to the same conditions as European companies. Between the EU’s 27 member states procurement markets are also liberalised. And rightly so: this has driven down prices, increased the competitiveness of our companies and offered more value for money to authorities and tax payers across Europe.

And yet, we are far ahead of other countries in this approach. Other economies, though they enjoy access to the EU market, are far more reluctant to open their own markets to the EU. While some €352 billion of European public procurement is included in the WTO agreement on government procurement (GPA) and therefore open to bidders from member countries of the GPA, the value of American procurement offered to foreign bidders is just €178 billion, for Japan that figure is only €27 billion. China and India have not yet committed any part of their fast growing procurement markets and currently, EU business wins only a fraction of the Chinese and Indian procurement contracts.

Whatever the overall economic merits and flaws of this situation, this is increasingly hard to explain to our businesses, who see foreign competitors actively engaging on our markets while they are barred from doing the same elsewhere.

This undermines the legitimacy of our open markets. It hampers the pro-active trade policy we want to pursue.

At the end of last year, the EU was at the forefront of efforts to renegotiate the WTO Government Procurement Agreement. We were happy to come to a new deal among the 15 WTO members that are party to the agreement to improve the disciplines for this key sector of the economy and expand the market access coverage with up to 100 billion euros a year. There can be no doubt about our free market credentials. But we cannot accept that imbalances grow ever larger between those that push for market opening and those that refuse to do so to.

For that reason, we have devised an instrument that will, if approved by EU Member States and the European Parliament, allow us to tackle imbalances in international public procurement markets. Through this procedure, contracting authorities in Member States may exclude bidders for large contracts who use goods and services mainly originating in a non-EU country that upholds a high degree of closedness of their procurement markets. They will need a green light from the European Commission to do so, which will only be given if these goods and services are not subject to any agreement the EU has signed up to, or part of serious negotiations on such an agreement.

And we have built in a threshold below which third country bidders cannot be discriminated against so that the new regime puts pressure on foreign companies and governments without leading to unnecessary bureaucracy. In case of serious and repeated discrimination, the Commission may start consultations with the government in question and, if that government continues to bar European companies from its market, the Commission may close a certain sector of the procurement market of the EU as a whole. Naturally, if the EU has taken a legal commitment to the third country in the WTO GPA or a free trade agreement to keep its market open, it will fully honour its commitments.

The measure is designed to be used as a carrot, rather than as a stick, but we should not be afraid to brandish it if need be. In this way we are confident to strengthen our negotiating position when discussing access to third country public procurement markets. Only in this way can we make foreign companies aware that they cannot continue to enjoy the benefits and the opportunities offered by our open markets while their home governments continue to close theirs . Our proposal will also clarify the rules of access to the EU’s public procurement market, and in doing so bring more legal certainty for both international suppliers and public entities that need goods or services. It will confirm that the EU market is basically open, and that we want to keep it that way.

But the door of free trade has to open both ways – otherwise public demands to shut it altogether will gather strength.

Useful links

OECD statistics on international trade in services

OECD work on integrity in public procurement

Chapter 3 of OECD Insights: International Trade discusses trade in services

Development aid drops for the first time in 15 years

Components of net ODA from OECD Development Assistance Committee countries

Figures just published by the OECD show that major donors’ aid to developing countries, known as Official Development Assistance or ODA, fell by nearly 3%  to 133.5 billion in 2011 compared to 2010, the first drop since 1997 when debt relief figures are not included.

This global average hides even worse news. Within total net ODA, aid for core bilateral projects and programmes (in other words, excluding debt relief grants and humanitarian aid) fell by 4.5% in real terms and by 8.9% for flows to the Least Developed Countries.

In 2011, the largest donors were the United States at $30.7 billion (a fall of 0.9%); Germany ($14.5 billion, up 5.9%); the United Kingdom ($13.7 billion, -0.8%), France ($12.9 billion, -5.6%); and Japan (10.6 billion, -10.8%).

Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden continued to exceed the United Nations’ ODA target of 0.7% of GNI.

In real terms, the largest rises in ODA was registered in Italy at 33%, while Greece showed the sharpest drop, at -39.3%.

The recession and sovereign debt crisis certainly played a large role but they don’t explain everything when you look at the national-level data. Spain’s ODA fell by almost as much as Greece’s (36%) but Portugal’s aid was down by only 2.8%. OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría warned that “the crisis should not be used as an excuse to reduce development cooperation contributions”.

Governments are however under pressure to reduce aid spending in line other cuts, and the OECD-DAC Survey on Donors’ Forward Spending Plans for 2012 to 2015 suggests that global country programmable aid (CPA, one measure of receipts by developing countries) may rise  by 6% in real terms in 2012. However, this is mainly because of expected increases in soft loans from multilateral agencies funded from capital replenishments during 2009-2011. From 2013, global CPA is expected to stagnate, and could confirm earlier findings such as those of the 1996 Development Cooperation Report that it takes several years from the onset of a recession for the full impact to be felt on aid flows.

Apart from calls to help combat the effects of the crisis at home before spending money abroad, there is a more general criticism of aid, claiming that it has not only failed to do its job, but has held back development and helped keep corrupt regimes in power. Brenda Killen of the OECD Development Co-operation Directorate answered these arguments in the latest OECD Yearbook, and concluded that aid is needed because “in our highly interdependent world, what happens with the economy, security, climate and health of any country affects us all”.

DAC Chair Brian Atwood, a regular contributor to the Insights blog, echoed this in a statement to the press when the figures were released, saying that while he was “disappointed that some countries have failed to maintain their commitments, the overall level reflects the growing awareness that global challenges… cannot be resolved without development progress.”

Aid is a small part of financial flows to developing counties, behind investment and remittances from workers living abroad, but it is still a vital tool in the fight against poverty. Everybody would like to see its role diminish, and even disappear because it was no longer needed.

Useful links

Click here to see Annex Tables and Charts covering:

  • Net official development assistance from DAC and other OECD Members in 2011 (Preliminary data for 2011)
  • Net official development assistance from DAC Members in 2011 by volume and as a percentage of GNI (Preliminary data for 2011)
  • Components of DAC Donors’net ODA
  • Gross official development assistance in 2011 (Preliminary data for 2011)