OECD Forum 2013: jobs, equality trust

Forum 2013

The OECD Forum starting today will bring together around 2000 people in over 20 sessions, but the main question will be how to make sure the economy is a firm foundation on which to build our societies’ goals.

As OECD data on rising inequality show, the benefits of growth do not automatically trickle down to generate more equal societies. The most immediate challenge is to ensure that growth benefits everyone – women, men, children, the elderly – providing not just income, but access to the goods and services such as housing, health care or education vital to personal well-being and development.

That means we need to adopt a new, inclusive approach that looks at the social as well as the economic aspects of growth. “Inclusive growth” is already happening at the level of national economies, with countries linked together by global value chains (GVCs). And not just in the OECD area. One of the most striking features of the 21st century economy is how the economic centre of gravity is shifting towards Asia, and surprisingly for many, Africa, home to six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies in Africa.

These trends make old ideas of development partnerships obsolete. Large emerging economies now have their own international aid programmes. The private sector is funding major global health, education and other projects. Civil society is increasingly shaping policy and not just working in the field.

However, government policy has not always kept up with the deepening and widening of globalisation and the pace it’s happening at. For example, some multinationals may pay as little as 5% in corporate taxes in a given country when smaller businesses are paying up to 30%. But this is perfectly legal, and exploits the fact that tax systems are still essentially nation-based and were designed for the “old” economy.

Even so, public opinion and the media are outraged, especially given the efforts demanded of ordinary citizens to help cut budget deficits, and the suffering caused by austerity programmes in certain countries. There is a feeling that tax is not the only area where businesses are not acting ethically. Banks manipulating interest rates or food manufacturers deceiving consumers about the ingredients in their products destroy confidence and reinforce mistrust. Government responses to these issues are often perceived as too lenient, and encourage the feeling that there is one law for the rich and powerful, another for the rest.

Many are saying that the social contract – the agreement between citizens and their government, defining the rights and duties of each – is now broken. In the face of unprecedented unemployment levels, governments have cut expenditure.  As a consequence, more and more people cannot afford health care, and many young people in particular are giving up trying to find jobs or investing in further education. This is a personal tragedy, and it also weakens social cohesion and the future prospects of the economy, given the growing need for workers with new skills.

The ability of advocacy groups like unions to protect core rights and promote social change is in question, especially if they neglect newer forms of informing, mobilising and campaigning around issues such as social media. At the same time, there are doubts as to whether “social media based” movements are anything more than a passive expression of opinion, and whether protest groups that reject the usual structures of leadership and policymaking can stay together long enough to bring about lasting change in the face of opponents organised in a more traditional way.

There is consensus though that access to information and the ability to exploit it will play an increasing role in the economy and society in the future, with both benefits and dangers. Business models and personal behaviour and attitudes are already changing. But once again, policy is not evolving as quickly as the trends and technologies it is supposed to respond to, or even guide. Massive amounts of personal data are being collected, often with little or no consultation or consent, or debate as to who has the right to know what.

The fact that so many of the phenomena being discussed are immaterial (data, intellectual property, the financial system) can blind us to the fact that we still depend on physical, material, resources to live full lives. Beyond the immediate and pressing concerns linked to the situation today, we have to look to the future. Growth will come to a halt if it destroys the very natural bases on which it ultimately depends.  And growth as such will not solve our problems if it is not sustainable as well as equitable and inclusive.

The links below are grouped around the main themes of the Forum. Click to read an article presenting the topic itself, and giving access to dozens of articles providing background data, analysis and opinion.

Useful links

Promoting inclusive growth
Rebuilding trust
Fostering sustainability

OECD Forum 2011. Work and family – a tough balance to strike

Cherie Blair offered some insights into the battle to balance work and family life during a session at the OECD 50th Anniversary Forum. Ms. Blair has a unique perspective – she’s a leading barrister in the United Kingdom and, of course, spent a decade in 10 Downing Street as wife of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair. 

She recalled that back in the 1970s, both she and her husband were competing for the same job in a legal firm. “They took Tony because they thought he was a better bet,” she said. “Seven years later, he left that job and hasn’t been a lawyer since; 35 years later I’m still a lawyer.” The incident underlined what she felt was the danger of employers failing to take a long-term perspective: Over the course of a career, she said, maternity leave took women out of the workplace for only a relatively short time, and it should not be seen as a barrier to hiring. 

Ms. Blair also emphasised that parental rights were not just a woman’s issue: Men, she said, needed to assert their right to be caring parents. Women, she said, did twice as much childcare as men, and three times as much housework as men. While Tony had done his share of childcare, she told the audience, he had slipped behind on the housework. She said also that there could be cultural obstacles to men performing their parenting role. In some companies there was also an attitude that “real men don’t take parental leave.” Those attitudes needed to change, she said: “A distant absent father is not good for society.”

In Japan, fewer than 2% of men took paternity leave, said Yoshinori Suematsu, a Japanese Senior Vice-Minister. The rapid ageing of the Japanese population meant it was important to get as many women as possible into the workforce, he said. Japanese needed a new system of childcare so that women could work outside house and not worry about childcare. 

Changing attitudes wasn’t easy, he admitted, but, as Carlos Mulas-Granados, Executive Director of Spain’s IDEAS Foundation, pointed out, they can be changed. The decision to appoint equal numbers of women and men as ministers in the Spanish government had helped shift how women were viewed, he said, especially the sight of a woman defence minister going about her duties. “A pregnant woman reviewing the troops was a very powerful image,” he said.  

Ms. Blair agreed that women in government could serve as important role models. She recalled a story she’d heard from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected woman president in Africa, about touring a school in Liberia. As the tour went on, the children grew tired and restless, and one little girl found herself being ticked off by a teacher: “Be careful what you say to me, Sir,” the little girl replied, “because one day I could be president.”  

Useful links

OECD work on families and children  

Babies and Bosses  – an OECD study on reconciling work and family life

How to create an international movement for gender equality

8 March is International Women’s Day. This year, we mark the occasion with a series of blog posts about initiatives to strengthen gender equality worldwide. In this post, Jenny Hedman from the OECD DAC Network on Gender Equality talks to colleagues from the Netherlands about their fund for women’s organisations.

A few years ago, when the Dutch learned that funding for organisations supporting women’s rights was declining internationally, they decided to do something about it. “We felt more action was needed to achieve equality between men and women” explains Robert Dijksterhuis, who leads work on gender equality at the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs. An additional reason to make an extra effort was that gender equality and women’s empowerment is one of the 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that world leaders have set out to achieve by 2015. (more…)

Where is the best place to live if you’re a woman?

What do Iceland, Jamaica, Slovakia and the Maldives have in common?  They are among the countries with the highest possible ranking in educational attainment for women in the Global Gender Gap Report 2009 recently released by the World Economic Forum.  This is just one of many sources of pertinent info that can be found on wikigender,  a site started by the OECD Development Centre to facilitate exchange and improve knowledge on gender equality-related issues around the world.

Have we really made progress in closing the gender gap?  How do countries compare in women’s economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment, health and survival?  Have a look at the report and send us your reactions.  You can post them to the blog or send directly to [email protected]