OECD turns into ‘do-tank’


The Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Eco­nomic Co-op­er­a­tion and Devel­op­ment, de­rided as a “rich na­tions’ club” that veg­e­tated in its Parisian chateau for decades, has re­de­fined it­self as the go-to re­source for eco­nomic anal­y­sis.

“When I started my ca­reer (at the French fi­nance min­istry) in 1996, they sent me to visit the OECD. I said to my­self, ‘God, I hope I don’t end up here!’” said Pas­cal Saint-Amans, re­call­ing his im­pres­sion of the in­sti­tu­tion as “sec­ond tier.”

But Saint-Amans, a grad­u­ate of France’s top ad­min­is­tra­tion school, did in­deed wind up at the think-tank, join­ing in 2007 af­ter the group had, in his words, “taken off.”

To­day he heads one of the body’s big­gest units, the crime­bust­ing Cen­tre for Tax Pol­icy and Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Many at­tribute the turn­around to An­gel Gur­ria, who took over as OECD sec­re­tary gen­eral in 2005.

The worldly Mex­i­can econ­o­mist has just em­barked on his third six-year man­date af­ter the OECD’s 34 mem­ber states unan­i­mously re-elected him last week.

He plays host Tues­day and Wed­nes­day to the OECD Fo­rum, an an­nual get-to­gether with an A-list of guests who will in­clude French Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande.

When Gur­ria took the helm, the OECD was a stodgy con­sul­ta­tive body, an out­growth of the Mar­shall Plan for the re­con­struc­tion of Europe af­ter World War II and strongly as­so­ci­ated with the West­ern side of the Iron Cur­tain.

Gur­ria, Mex­ico’s fi­nance min­is­ter from 1998 to 2000, had made a name for him­self by ably rene­go­ti­at­ing his coun­try’s debt with sup­port from Wash­ing­ton, by far the big­gest fi­nan­cial con­trib­u­tor to the OECD.

A decade later, he joined in with the min­is­ters of the Group of 20 lead­ing economies to tackle the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis.

Jovial, multi-lin­gual and te­na­cious, Gur­ria has criss-crossed the world, tot­ing all man­ner of re­ports — eval­u­a­tions of na­tional school sys­tems known as PISAs, stud­ies on binge drink­ing among young peo­ple, black lists of tax havens, analy­ses of in­come in­equal­ity, eco­nomic growth fore­casts...

‘Bet­ter iden­ti­fied the sub­jects

that in­ter­est our mem­bers’

“To­day the OECD is more rel­e­vant and has a greater im­pact, per­haps be­cause we have bet­ter iden­ti­fied the sub­jects that in­ter­est our mem­bers,” Gur­ria told AFP.

“We are not a think-tank, we are a ‘do-tank’, which means that the re­search we do is aimed at public pol­icy-mak­ers, not seminars or po­lit­i­cal de­bates,” he said.

Gov­ern­ments have be­come keen con­sumers of Gur­ria’s rec­om­men­da­tions, al­ways de­liv­ered with a smile and no obli­ga­tion.

When things got es­pe­cially tense in Greece late last sum­mer, its bailout cred­i­tors took refuge at the OECD’s el­e­gant head­quar­ters in west­ern Paris for their de­lib­er­a­tions.

In Fe­bru­ary, when the rad­i­cal left Syriza gov­ern­ment came to power in Athens, it con­sulted with the OECD.

Greek Prime Min­is­ter Alexis Tsipras said he felt com­fort­able with the in­sti­tu­tion, even if it favours busi­ness-friendly poli­cies such as a flex­i­ble job mar­ket, bud­getary rigor and com­pe­ti­tion.

“The or­ga­ni­za­tion has not be­come a Trot­sky­ist lair,” joked Saint-Amans. “The ba­sics re­main lib­eral, but there is an ac­knowl­edge­ment of is­sues such as tax fair­ness and in­equal­i­ties.”

The in­sti­tu­tion, which had a bud­get of 357 mil­lion eu­ros (US$389 mil­lion) in 2014, has be­come a vir­tual re­cruit­ing agency for con­sul­tants.

It of­fers lu­cra­tive short-term projects such as a stint for an en­ergy pol­icy an­a­lyst with three years’ ex­pe­ri­ence paid at up to 6,800 eu­ros per month — tax free.

The OECD, cham­pion of tax fair­ness, it­self en­joys tax-ex­empt sta­tus like other in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions.

It is not se­cre­tive about its salary scale, re­veal­ing that it pays its boss a base salary of 200,000 eu­ros.

It has also be­gun open­ing up to mod­est and emerg­ing economies, wel­com­ing the likes of Es­to­nia, Chile, Is­rael and Slove­nia into its membership.

Colom­bia will join soon, while Brazil, China and In­dia en­joy “en­hanced en­gage­ment.”

But the “world ac­cord­ing to the OECD” is not ev­ery­one’s oys­ter.

Its Pro­gramme for In­ter­na­tional Stu­dent As­sess­ment (PISA) eval­u­a­tions are con­tro­ver­sial, for ex­am­ple. Last year, aca­demics from around the world signed an open let­ter in the Bri­tish daily The Guardian say­ing that the tests are too quan­ti­ta­tive and util­i­tar­ian.

“We fail to un­der­stand how your or­ga­ni­za­tion has be­come the global ar­biter of the means and ends of ed­u­ca­tion around the world,” rather than the United Na­tions or its chil­dren’s agency UNICEF, they wrote.

The OECD’s spear­head­ing of in­ter­na­tional ne­go­ti­a­tions against tax fraud and eva­sion has also been called into ques­tion.

“The process is biased” in fa­vor of wealthy coun­tries, said Manon Aubry of Ox­fam France. “De­vel­op­ing coun­tries are not in­volved in the ne­go­ti­a­tions, and when you are not seated at the ta­ble you wind up on the menu.”

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