The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently announced its intention to open membership negotiations with Chile, Estonia, Israel, Russia and Slovenia. In addition, enhanced engagement with a prospect of membership will be offered to Brazil, India, Indonesia, China and South Africa. Finally, it confirmed that candidates for future enlargement include the remaining EU members: Bulgaria, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, and Romania.
The OECD is an international organisation of those developed countries that accept the principles of representative democracy and a free market economy. It originated in 1948 as the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC), led by Frenchman Robert Marjolin, to help administer the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe after World War II. Later its membership was extended to non-European states.
This is an important shift in global politics, for those of us who still thought that the rise of the rest – in the words [PDF] of Alice Amsden – was going to leave the world unchanged. The OECD plays an important role in setting standards and norms amongst the world’s most powerful nations. Just like those Old Boys’ Clubs in London, where deals are struck amongst oversized men in suits over glasses of port, it offers one of those informal settings where politicians and businessmen can engage without the pressures of the media and of rioting crowds outside their windows.
Away from the public spotlight, and cocooned by their privileged status, OECD members have so far been able to reach important agreements on various political and economic issues, confident in their shared beliefs in the power of the market and of democracy. These informal agreements norms have – no doubt – framed the way other, more important decision were taken inside the WTO, UN and other multilateral bodies. Those left outside the club have had little choice but to grin and bear. But what happens when the club of the world’s super-rich opens its doors to countries until yesterday listed as ‘developing’?
Sure enough, by most standards these countries are not the Congos and Burmas of the world, but rural poverty, primary education, public health services, infrastructure and many other human and economic development indicators are still significantly lower than those of Western Europe and North America. Indonesia, for examples, ranks 108th in the UN Humand Development Index, below a country like Turkmenistan. Yet, there is no doubt that – from an economic perspective – the OECD’s decision was correct: these are the countries that will dominate the economic landscape of the XXI century.
But what about the political perspective? An incongruence jumps immediately to the eye. The OECD is committed to the principles of representative democracy and free market economy, yet it is opening membership negotiations with a country like Russia and laying the ground for similar talks with China, neither of which can be said to hold these two principles too close to their hearts. Is the OECD ready to betray its mandate to ensure the nouveau riches don’t start another club on their own? Or are the new entrants underestimating the efficacy of soft power and normative-compliance pressure in institutional settings? Hard to say, at this stage. But surely one prediction is easy to make: the OECD won’t be a quiet gentlemen’s club for much longer. Expect rowdy meetings in the years to come…