They are key drivers of the economy, combining capital, innovation and skills, while serving consumers and channelling their capital and expertise into larger enterprises, in many cases internationally. So, if only policymakers could do a little more to help them out.
Such was the objective in Bologna, Italy, in June 2000 when the OECD organised the first-ever major international ministerial conference on SMEs. Under the theme “Enhancing the Competitiveness of SMEs in the Global Economy: Strategies and Policies”, it was a rare opportunity to identify public and private sector action that might help SMEs develop their local strengths, while capturing the benefits of globalisation.
A key outcome of the conference was the adoption of the Bologna Charter on SME Policies by the governments of almost 50 countries, including all the OECD countries, plus several large developing countries like Brazil, China and South Africa, as well as smaller ones like Costa Rica and Uzbekistan. The Bologna Charter provides a frame of reference for countries concerned with improving the efficiency of policies directed at fostering entrepreneurship and assisting the development and competitiveness of smaller firms at the local, national and international levels. It calls for policy dialogue and co-operation between international organisations and institutions, and recommends such concrete initiatives as helping SMEs gain access to national and global innovation networks and to public R&D programmes and procurement contracts, for instance.
The conference gave rise to the Bologna Process, by which the OECD brings together over 70 countries and more than 50 international organisations, institutions and NGOs. The objectives are threefold: to foster an entrepreneurial agenda and SME competitiveness at the global level; to provide guidance to governments that will help entrepreneurs and SMEs worldwide reap the benefits of globalisation; and to further deepen and improve the high-level dialogue on SME policies among policymakers, business, national and international organisations and other institutions.
A second major OECD ministerial conference on SMEs will be held in Turkey on 3-5 June 2004 on the theme of “Promoting Entrepreneurship and Innovative SMEs in a Global Economy”. It will provide another much-needed opportunity for policymakers to take the kind of action that can help SMEs stay smart in today’s world. After all, healthy, thriving SMEs are in everyone’s best interest.
OECD (2002), OECD Small and Medium Enterprise Outlook, Paris
©OECD Observer No 238, July 2003