What is key for the OECD in 2017? An open economy perspective

Noe van Hulst, Ambassador of the Netherlands to the OECD

As we start a year that Ian Bremmer (President Eurasia Group) has coined as entering ‘the geopolitical recession’, it is worth asking what the OECD focus could be in 2017. I see two key issues worth highlighting in this context. First: Escaping the Low-Growth Trap. Escape games are popular nowadays, but this one is of eminent importance to all of us. In the latest Economic Outlook (November 2016) the OECD has aptly demonstrated how we got stuck at 3% per year for the last five years. How can we get out of this low-growth trap? Now that extraordinary accommodative monetary policy has reached its limits, the OECD recommends a more balanced policy set with a much stronger role for collective fiscal action and for more inclusive structural and trade policies.

Although the Economic Outlook makes a passionate case for a more expansionary fiscal stance in many countries, the reality is that this is unlikely to happen. Partly because some countries are cautious in the light of a heavy public debt burden. Partly because they are already growing at or above potential growth, as we heard from Prof. Christoph Schmidt (Chairman of the German Council of Economic Experts) a week after the publication of the Economic Outlook. The reason that potential growth is so low has, of course, everything to do with the productivity slowdown that was – very appropriately – the main topic of the OECD Ministerial Council Meeting in June 2016. Against this background, I think we will find more common OECD ground in 2017 if we focus strongly on boosting smarter structural policies as the main avenue to get out of the low-growth trap.

Let me mention just two concrete examples. The first one is harvesting the great potential of the digital economy, both a priority of the German G20 presidency and a promising new horizontal project within the OECD. The second example is inclusive structural reforms, particularly in product markets potentially delivering short-term benefits in terms of output, investment and employment. Making reforms more inclusive is also about exploiting benefits of complementarities between product and labour market reforms, synergies (growth & equity objectives) and designing policy packages to help vulnerable groups or mitigate trade-offs.The launch of the 2017 OECD Going for Growth publication is an excellent opportunity to highlight this key point. Reinvigorating good-old competition policy will also reinforce stronger and faster diffusion of new (digital) technologies from frontier to laggard firms and hence boost average productivity. Let’s not forget that structural policies are a traditional OECD strength, an area where the OECD holds a strong comparative advantage and rightly enjoys high international credibility.

What about inclusive trade policies? Well, that is my second key issue to focus on in 2017. Global trade growth has been very weak relative to historic norms for five years. The general consensus is that the relationship between trade and GDP growth is undergoing a fundamental shift. In the ‘good old days’ we enjoyed trade growth at a rate of twice global GDP growth and now trade barely makes global output growth. According to OECD analysis this also contributes to the productivity slowdown. So what exactly is going on with trade? Is low trade growth somehow intertwined with the general global growth malaise? To what extent is this due to global value chains contracting, as reflected in OECD analysis? Is the current slowdown in global trade only natural and should not be a major concern? In any case, it is clear that the rise of trade restrictions in G20 countries, still continuing in stunning contradiction to countless G20 communiqués, surely are not helpful. Deeper OECD analysis is required to pin down more precisely how the different factors contribute to the trade slowdown. And how trade impacts labour markets and economic growth in different regions within countries.

Deeper analysis, however, is not enough. We definitely need to ask ourselves some tough questions about where the public backlash against trade and globalisation is coming from and what went wrong. And even more importantly, what we can and should do better. One area is the need to rebalance our trade and investment policies, towards a more fair, sustainable and inclusive system. Making the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises the centerpiece of trade and investment policies would be a concrete step. Another area is more effective complementary domestic policies to help people deal faster and more successfully with trade-related job losses if and when they occur. Ideally, this entails not only effective ‘safety net’ policies but also so-called “trampoline” policies offering a tangible springboard to new jobs.

In any case, it is obvious that trade and trade policies are politically more under fire now than I can remember – and I am not young.  As Martin Wolf wrote in the Financial Times “The era of globalisation under a US-led order is drawing to a close…the question is whether protectionism and conflict will define the next phase”. For very open economies like the Netherlands it is of critical importance how this ‘next phase’ will shape up in 2017 and beyond. At this juncture, the Dutch economy is growing at a solid 2% per year (in 2016 and 2017) with unemployment coming down rapidly to 5%, but the downside risks are all related to where the global economy is heading. Many other OECD member countries have a similarly high exposure to shifts in the global economy. According to Open Market Index data from the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), more than two-thirds of OECD countries have an above average openness, as measured by observed openness to trade, trade policy, Foreign Direct Investment openness and infrastructure for trade.

The OECD has a crucial role to play, in cooperation with other international organisations, in clearly demonstrating the adverse impact of rising protectionism, in monitoring what’s happening in trade and stimulating policy dialogue on better alternatives that help global growth.  In this light it is very fitting that the OECD Ministerial Meeting in June 2017 will focus on the theme of making globalization work for all. Let’s try to come up with concrete policy improvements that can help us preserve a well-functioning open global economy.

Useful links

OECD Global Economic Outlook, November 2016

Prospects for Global Governance

NAECRon Gass, former OECD Director, based on a paper prepared for today’s NAEC seminar on The Creative Society and Technology

A world society is emerging where nation states are dominant, but in a complex, multi-polar world in which the poles – including business, civil society, and multilateral agencies – are developing various forms of power through alliances and shared objectives (or even common enemies). In the global system that is emerging, economic growth and the technological advances that underpin it have to be geared to meet human ends. Global governance has to be built on three pillars which reflect this complexity: political vision; realistic goals; and operational strategies.

This is the sense of the UN Human Development approach, the OECD Better Life Initiative, and the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda to which the G20 Hangzhou consensus lends support. Is the vision of global leadership as expressed by these bodies adequate to steer the world community out of the enduring crisis?

The 2030 Agenda implies a new relationship between the economy, nature, and society, and as such it has caught the mainstream political parties off balance. The Right is mainly on the economic leg; the Left on the social leg; the Greens on the ecological leg. The result is that the policy-making institutions, politically neutral, have a special responsibility. The OECD, in the nascent coalition of multi-lateral agencies, has the advantage of having pioneered its triangular policy paradigm almost since its foundation. This is now becoming a tripod, with governance at its apex.

The heart of the policy problem is that the economic, social and ecological systems have different logics. This means that policy coherence is both increasingly important and increasingly difficult. It has to be sought at all levels of decision-making, right down to cities and local communities where it is easier to achieve concertation between the stakeholders. At the level of the macro debate, policy coherence is complicated by the fact that the policy sciences are, by their very nature, silos. Economic, ecological, and social theory do not readily mix. Policy-makers can only get at the massive structural problems of today by systemic reforms which cross the boundaries of ministerial departments and the policy sciences. That is why systems thinking is needed for policy coherence.

This mutation in policy-making will not succeed if it remains the affair of a policy-making elite. Already, something like a popular movement appears to be building up. Way ahead of the policy-makers and the academics, people in cities, towns, and villages across the world are responding to the sustainability movement. For necessity is the mother of invention – as reflected in protest movements to avert climate disaster and to resist expropriation from historic “commons”.

Given the complexity of the goals of global governance, the leadership needs to explore the implications of alternative scenarios (futures) as a guide to today’s decisions. In that sense it has a pedagogical role, even rhetorical, since it engages in a “conversation” in and around possible decisions. Given the turbulence of the geo-political and geo-economic scene, its role is likely to become more important as predicting the future becomes more difficult while creating it becomes more necessary. And faced with the complex web of interactions between the SDGs, the context in which policies are formulated is vital. Success will depend on the extent to which, for example, “centres of government” are willing to collaborate.

There are two consequences. First, certain “chunks” of the SDG map are forced onto the policy agenda by the geo-political and geo-economic context. This is the case of the impressive commitments made at the G20 Hangzhou Summit, for example with regard to “a globally fair and modern international tax system”, green financing, energy collaboration, climate, inclusive and interconnected development, and illicit financial flows.

The second contextual reality is the need to pursue action in real-world decision-making contexts, national and sub-national. This is where the OECD can make a considerable contribution, because of its long-standing tradition of peer reviews, now extending down to the city, regional and local levels of public policy. The Multi-Dimensional Country Reviews of the OECD Development Centre are of particular interest in this regard.

Given the long and rocky road to the SDGs, regular monitoring of achievements and failures will be vital. This involves the publication of statistical indicators, an area in which the OECD has an important role to play. But more is at stake because sustainable development reflects a shift in opinion across the world. Policy-makers and citizens are in effect learning their way into the future, and emulation is an important stimulant for progress.

Progress is linked to security. After World War II, NATO and the OECD were the two arms of the Western strategy to provide security and prosperity. European economic and social progress was seen as the bulwark against Soviet communism, and the Marshall Plan was the instrument. Progress and security were thus linked. Today the progress-security nexus is quite different. The challenge of world progress – reconciling economy, nature and society – is much more complex. The security threats are more diffuse, ranging from nuclear conflict to climate change and terrorism.

The people of the world are now faced with living together on a finite planet, in an ever-expanding universe that they are beginning to explore. The fundamental challenge facing global governance is whether security risks and threats will undermine and overwhelm the immense power for progress that the new technological revolution brings. The SDGs can be part of the response if sustainable development, the Brundtland vision, becomes a popular movement. So too can the Hangzhou consensus, if the commitment of the major G20 powers to the SDGs extends to peace and security aspects of the UN 2030 Agenda.

The hope that this will be the case depends on whether, despite a certain amount of sabre rattling, a complementary force to economic interdependence is on the move. The great historical civilisations now appear to be embarked on a global process of convergence/competition. Interaction and mutual fertilisation in philosophy, culture, sport, education and travel are all everyday realities for the connected peoples of the world. On this fertile soil, a new global humanism could, in the long run, be the best shield against xenophobia, populism, and terrorism.

Useful links

The creative society and the new technological revolution Issues paper by Ron Gass

50 Years of reconciling the economy, nature and society Ron Gass, OECD Yearbook 2011

NAEC and the Sustainable Development Goals: The Way Forward Mathilde Mesnard, OECD Insights

It’s not just the economy: society is a complex system too Gabriela Ramos, OECD Insights

The rise of the G20 and OECD’s role

G-20 Summit in Antalya: Turkish PM Erdoğan and OECD SG Gurria
G-20 Summit in Antalya: Turkish PM Erdoğan and OECD SG Gurria

Noe van Hulst, Ambassador of the Netherlands to the OECD

With the eyes of the world on the G20 summit in Antalya, we are reminded how G20 has become a well-established ‘brand’ in the global governance landscape. Yet, it’s only as recently as 1999 that the G20 was created as an informal platform of “systemically significant countries” in response to the financial crisis in Asia and on the initiative of the US and Canada. For many years, the G20 remained below the radar screen, working quietly but effectively at the level of Ministers of Finance and Central Bank Governors, e.g. in the area of countering the financing of terrorism, which is still a very relevant topic. This situation changed completely in 2008 when the global financial crisis hit us all. On the initiative of French president Sarkozy and UK Prime Minister Brown, US president Bush called for the first ever G20 Leaders meeting to fight the crisis in a coordinated way and to avoid a global economic depression. What started as a one-off crisis summit, however, soon became a permanent tradition. In 2009, under the presidency of US president Obama, the Group declared that the G20 is henceforth “the premier forum for international economic cooperation”. Attention gradually shifted from fighting the crisis (2008-2010) to structural policies for a sustainable and balanced recovery of global economic growth. Although the legitimacy of the G20 as a ‘self-appointed club’ is periodically questioned, the G20 is today well-established as the only global forum where advanced and emerging economies cooperate on an equal footing.

Since 2010 the G20 agenda started to broaden to topics beyond strict financial and economic policy issues: e.g. agriculture and food security, trade, investment, employment, taxation, anti-corruption, energy, climate, SMEs. In parallel, we are witnessing a wider range of G20 Ministerial meetings beyond just Finance: Labour, Agriculture, Trade, Foreign Affairs, Tourism and under the current Turkish presidency recently the first ever Energy Ministers meeting.

What about the effectiveness of the G20 so far? On this key question, opinions among analysts differ. Most people agree that the G20 has been successful in tackling the global financial and economic crisis, with coordinated policies on aggregate demand, more stringent financial regulation and restraining protectionism. However, it is proving to be tougher to make significant progress on the more structural policy areas which often require sensitive domestic policy changes. A good example is the implementation of the Brisbane Growth Strategies, where the OECD Secretariat, in a joint report with IMF and World Bank Group for the Antalya summit, found that less than 50% of the policy commitments encapsulated in the National Growth Strategies have been fully implemented, raising G20 GDP by 0.8% by 2018, while the target is 2.1%. So much more needs to be done, as G20 Leaders acknowledge in their communique.

Although the G20 emphasizes its flexible and informal nature, we do see a certain degree of institutionalisation with (sous-) sherpas, working parties and expert groups. Furthermore, a growing group of stakeholders is trying to influence the G20 agenda. This group ranges from business (B20) to trade unions (L20), NGOs (C20), youth (Y20), think-tanks (T20) and since the Turkish presidency also women (W20).

The G20 doesn’t have a permanent Secretariat and instead relies on the support of established international organisations. Slowly but surely, the OECD Secretariat has evolved into what is increasingly referred to as the “quasi-Secretariat” of G20. To a certain extent, this is a natural development since the OECD has widely acknowledged strong competences in data collection, benchmarking and solid, evidence-based economic analyses in areas that are closely aligned with the broadening G20 agenda. Many of the other international organisations have a more limited mandate and competence base. Hence, OECD is uniquely positioned to make significant contributions to the G20 work on issues like (green) growth, financial regulation, climate finance, agriculture and food security, anti-corruption, employment and inequality, (green) investment and trade. The same applies to the IEA in the important field of energy which of course is closely linked to climate change. For non-G20 OECD countries, the OECD and IEA roles in the G20 provide a very important window of information and a channel for constructive engagement.

A great example of OECD’s important role in supporting the G20 work is the Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) project. Mandated by the G20, OECD and G20 countries worked jointly for two years on an impressive set of new international tax standards and measures, addressing issues like preventing treaty shopping, country-by-country reporting, fighting harmful tax practices and many others. The final package has just now received the strong endorsement by G20 Leaders in Antalya. In my view the BEPS project is a game-changer because of the unprecedented process in which OECD and G20 countries worked on the development of new international tax standards on an equal footing. This has proven to be a very effective and inclusive way of dealing with a highly complicated and controversial topic. Even though the initial drive came from the G20, the technical work in an extended OECD Committee (with emerging and developing economies participating on an equal footing) created the necessary co-ownership from countries outside the G20. This may well provide an excellent best-practice model of how to proceed in equally complicated policy issues outside the tax area.

Turkey’s presidency of the G20 has consistently pursued the 3i’s of “Implementation, Investment, Inclusiveness”. The Antalya final communique is a clear testimony to this.

On a personal note, I want to thank the Turkish presidency warmly for including our Minister of Trade & Development Ploumen in the G20 Trade Ministerial meeting in October. As we are looking ahead to the Chinese presidency of the G20 in 2016, it seems that trade and investment cooperation will be one of the top priority areas. In the light of the worrying projections on trade growth in OECD’s latest Economic Outlook, this is highly appropriate and very welcome indeed. Surely, the OECD Secretariat can play a key role here in supporting the G20 to make tangible progress in boosting global trade and investment, which is so critical to restoring healthy growth of the global economy.

Useful links

Read the Ambassador’s blog (in Dutch)

OECD and the G20


Can cross-border co-operation be a tool for the stabilisation and development of Mali and its northern regions?

Photo courtesy of Yann Arthus-Bertrand

This post, by Laurent Bossard, Director of the Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC) Secretariat, is published to coincide with the International conference for the economic recovery and development of Mali at the OECD today. French President François Hollande, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría will open the conference at 9:30-10:15 am Paris time. The event is not open to the public but you can watch the live webcast of the opening session.

Mobile populations, transhumance and nomadic herding, a valley at the interface between the desert and the savannah, cultural diversity between Arab-Berber and sub-Saharan worlds, everything in northern Mali reminds you that this area is a transition zone between Mali and Algeria.

This characteristic that for centuries underpinned the prosperity of the Saharan-Sahelian areas has not been perceived as an asset, either under colonisation or since independence. Sahelian and West African countries look “to the south” when thinking of their development (raw material exports, consumer goods imports) while the Maghreb, Algeria in particular, turns to the Mediterranean and Europe.

For over a century, the regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu have no longer been considered integrated parts of this mobile space rich in connections. They are simply “the north of a country”, contained within a border.

Trade continues to thrive however, anchored on a grid of trans-Saharan roads largely inherited from the distant past. But these activities are for the most part illegal, sometimes even serious crime.

Is it imaginable that one day trans-Saharan trade will be revived, restoring to the north the role it has always played; giving it the chance to change status from a marginal area to one of dynamism and linkage? Cross-border co-operation may be the first step towards achieving this goal.

Mali is one of the pioneers of cross-border co-operation in Africa. In the late 1990s Malian President Alpha Oumar Konaré imagined an Africa where “the concept of border would give way to that of ‘border area’, a place of bonding, sharing and exchange, where populations on both sides of the border share common schools, security posts, markets and health centres… In this way, border areas can escape the absurd colonial geometric layout and become areas of movement and solidarity for people who often share the same language and the same culture[i].”

This approach was taken up by Mali’s National Directorate for Borders with even more conviction than the 1992 Constitution, which stipulates in Article 117 that “The Republic of Mali may conclude with any African state agreements of association or community, including partial or total surrender of sovereignty in order to achieve African unity.” On the Algerian side, a December 1994 decree authorises and provides a framework for border barter trade with Niger and Mali in order to “normalise a legitimate practice based on traditional trade links between Algeria and West Africa whose habits and customs predate colonisation.”

Across the great Sahara-Sahelian areas, the concept of trans-border must be adapted. It is not a question, as in densely populated areas, of supporting and strengthening co-operation based on close proximity, but rather based on roads and markets.

CBC-triangleOn the Malian side, Gao (90 000 inhabitants) is the “metropolis” of the north. Sitting on the “hinge” that is the river, it is located 500 km from the border, as the crow flies. Kidal (30 000 inhabitants) is the last real town before the Algerian border more than 350 km away and itself located 500 km from Tamanrasset (100 000 inhabitants) in southern Algeria. These long distances do not prevent trade that binds these communities as surely as if they were neighbours.

To be useful, cross-border co-operation should, as much as possible, address “real” spaces. That is to say, it must confirm to the dynamics on the ground shaped by social and economic networks. In terms of history, socio-cultural links and trade, Tamanrasset looks as much to Niger as to Mali. Agadez (120 000 inhabitants) is the third apex in a grand triangle of cross-border co-operation. The city is located 400 km as the crow flies from the Algerian border. In between is Arlit (80 000 inhabitants). Another smaller triangle can be drawn with Tamanrasset, Kidal and Arlit as the vertices.

It is for the relevant authorities to define what could be the focus of a cross-border co-operation programme within one or the other of these spaces.

Consider hypothetically the livestock and meat sector, already at the centre of strong informal cross-border dynamics. Southern Algeria largely depends on Mali and Niger for its supplies of sheep and camels. The sale of Sahelian cattle is banned in Algeria, yet illegal importation is common. Pressures on the price of beef in the Tamanrasset market are becoming more frequent. Speaking on the subject, the President of the Tamanrasset Chamber of Agriculture said in July 2010: “Neither Mali nor Niger has slaughterhouses of the standard that could possibly supply Tamanrasset, not to mention the north. Right now, only a few butchers are engaged in live cattle trade between the two friendly countries and Algeria. But the quantities they bring are only enough for the towns of Tamanrasset and In Salah. Yet the cattle potential in these two neighbouring countries is impressive, and if investors get involved in that niche, particularly investing in abattoirs that conform to health standards, fresh beef would sell at a quarter of its current price.”

There is here perhaps is a starting point for reflection among national and local authorities in the three countries concerned, with the knowledge also that very many herders of Algerian nationality live and raise their herds in Mali and Niger.

Useful links

This article is based on The Malian regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu: National and regional perspectives (in French). Executive summary available in English and French.

International conference for the economic recovery and development of Mali: Northern regions at the heart of reconciliation and peace consolidation OECD, Paris, 22 October 2015. The conference brings together the Mali government and civil society, international partners, investors and diaspora, to discuss together the economic recovery and development of Mali.

[i] Cited by Adame Ba Konaré in his preface to the Jeune Afrique Atlas of Mali

Taxpaying made easier

How do you spell it?

Prawo Jazdy was the most reckless driver Ireland had ever known, travelling at unlawfully high speed around the country, pausing only to park illegally. And yet despite getting caught innumerable times, he avoided prosecution simply by changing address. Then one day a particularly gifted member of the Garda began to wonder if it all might not be a hideous mistake and looked up the Polish bandit’s name, not in the Interpol database, but a dictionary. Imagine his surprise when, as the Irish Times relates, he learned that Prawo Jazdy means “driving license”. Case solved.

Here we’re talking about minor traffic offences committed by people who were actually cooperating with the police and not trying to avoid paying, and yet the basic information wasn’t getting across. A few studies published recently deal with the far more complicated and expensive business of international tax paying, or tax dodging, depending on how you look at it.

The Tax Justice Network estimates that individuals hold about $21 trillion of unreported wealth offshore, the equivalent of the combined GDP of the US and Japan. They think the figure may be even higher ($32 trillion) but even a previous, far lower estimate of $11 trillion still represents around $250 billion dollars in lost tax revenue each year – five times what the World Bank calculated was needed to address the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving world poverty by 2015. The usual term for these places offering low or zero taxes is tax haven, but TJN thinks that “secrecy jurisdiction” is a better description, since they provide facilities to get around the rules of other jurisdictions using secrecy as their prime tool.

The core of the problem is that taxes are a national affair while finance is international. The OECD has been working for years to help tax administrations cooperate across borders and the OECD Model Tax Convention serves as the basis for the negotiation, application, and interpretation of over 3000 bilateral tax treaties in force around the world, and its Commentaries have been cited by courts in virtually every OECD member country, as well as in many non-OECD countries. The Convention has just been updated to allow tax authorities to ask for information on a group of taxpayers without having to name them individually, as long as the request is not a “fishing expedition” launched in the hope of netting a few tax dodgers in a batch of honest citizens.

These are so-called targeted requests, but the OECD is also looking at how to make automatic exchange of information more efficient (some countries call this “routine” rather than “automatic” exchange). This is the systematic and periodic transmission of “bulk” taxpayer information collected by the source country to the country of residence concerning income from dividends, interest, royalties, salaries, pensions, and so on.  Denmark has the most relationships of this kind, sending information to 70 other countries.

According to a survey carried out for the OECD’s Centre for Tax Policy reported in Automatic Exchange of Information: What It Is, How It Works, Benefits, What Remains To Be Done the sums represented range from a few million to over 200 billion euros. Automatic exchange seems to work both to detect tax evasion and as a deterrent. EU experience with the Savings Directive suggests that without automatic exchange, over three-quarters of taxpayers may not have complied with their tax obligations in their country of residence. Denmark helped 440 of its absent-minded citizens to remember foreign income after the tax administration carried out 1000 audits and sent out 1100 letters announcing that it received automatic information from abroad.

Automatic Exchange contains plenty of practical advice on implementing agreements. For instance, as Prawo Jadzy shows, it’s essential to get the basics right by using a standard format to make sure each side of the exchange understands what it’s looking at in different languages, when multiple first names and family names may be involved or addresses may include both flat number and street number.

Information on taxes is sensitive, and Keeping it safe: the OECD guide on the protection of confidentiality of information exchanged for tax purposes sets out best practices related to confidentiality and provides practical guidance, including recommendations and a checklist, on how to meet an adequate level of protection.

I to by było na tyle. Jedź ostrożnie!

Useful links

OECD work on exchange of information for tax purposes

OECD Centre for Tax Policy and Administration

Lessons in service

Beijing student Rebecca Liu (right) samples service learning in Botswana

In the first of two postings, regular Insights blogger Brian Keeley reports from Botswana on service learning.

Classes end early at Maru-a-Pula school in Gaborone. But as students spill out into the intense heat of the African afternoon, their day is far from over.

After eating lunch, they get to choose from the sort of activities found in most schools – sport, music, art and so on.

But on at least a few afternoons a week, the students also take part in “service learning” – in other words, helping out in the school or local community.

For some students, that can mean cleaning out science labs or covering books in the library. Others leave campus and head off to help out in care homes for the disabled or to a nearby village, where they run education and food programmes. The scale of the school and the students’ commitment is impressive: at two o’clock, buses line up to take the youngsters to their projects. Once there, they all pitch in and may take on relatively demanding duties, such as working with children with severe disabilities.

Service learning isn’t a new idea. At Maru-a-Pula (or MaP), for example, projects have been running since the school opened its doors 40 years ago. Nevertheless, in recent years the concept has really taken off, as Andrew Furco noted in a recent OECD report: “Service-learning is one of the fastest growing educational initiatives in contemporary primary, secondary and post-secondary education.”

Cynics might suggest that this is because universities now routinely expect to see signs of extra-curricular life in college applications. But there are also sound educational reasons for asking students “to study real problems in real time for real people,” as Andrew puts it.

I had a chance to see some of those benefits when I traveled recently to MaP with a group of students from Beijing. Young people in China are technically required to do some sort of community work, but the requirement can usually be met with a spot of sweeping around the school grounds. Indeed, there’s a lingering suspicion of service learning in China. In part, that’s a legacy of the Cultural Revolution, when universities and colleges were shuttered and at least 12 million students and young people were sent down to the countryside to “learn from the peasants”. But it may also reflect a belief that “real” learning only happens in the classroom – a belief that is surely not restricted to China.

Once you see service learning in action, however, it’s hard not to feel that such thinking misses the point. Academic work matters, of course, but it’s not the only way to learn. By asking kids to step out of their comfort zones, service learning can confront them with sometimes difficult truths about both themselves and the wider world. One of our students admitted that before embarking  on the projects, he had felt that he knew just about everything he needed to know. “But now,” he said, “I realize I’m just a silly little boy.” He was being a bit hard on himself, but his statement acknowledged the way that service learning can pose questions that simply can’t be asked in the classroom.

But for all the current interest in service learning, there are inevitably going to be objections – isn’t it too expensive, too time-consuming, a waste of scarce school resources? Can it be made to work in a regular curriculum? And, fundamentally, does it work? I’ll come back to look at some of these issues in the very near future.

Find our more

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

OECD work on education

OECD educationtoday blog