Leading the way

Secretary-General of the OECD

The global political calendar for 2004 appears unspectacular compared with recent years. No Monterreys, no Johannesburgs, no Cancúns, no summits on water or the information society. Yet, like all calm waters, looks can deceive.

In fact, it is precisely in such years of doing, rather than talking, that leadership is required. We have made commitments, and now we must work hard to keep them.

Leadership is required in several fundamental policy areas, like employment, science and technology, education, environment, health and international trade, without forgetting, of course, the world economy. So, it is not surprising that OECD ministers have chosen the year under way to exercise their leadership and, by drawing on the resources of our organisation, make real progress for our societies.

Unemployment continues to be far too high in the OECD area, with older workers, migrants, ethnic groups, aboriginal populations, persons with disabilities and disadvantaged youth being the hardest hit, not to speak of women, only half of whom of working age have a job. And so it was in September 2003 that OECD employment and labour ministers, under the chairmanship of François Fillon, France’s minister of social affairs, labour and solidarity, asked the organization to assist them in the task of designing and implementing a comprehensive strategy for more and better jobs, including reassessing the OECD Jobs Strategy.

When OECD science ministers met in January this year, under the chairmanship of Australia’s minister for science, Peter McGauran, frank exchanges took place on a variety of critical subjects, not the least of which is the dearth of young people going into science and engineering studies. Again, ministers invited the OECD to help them by developing its activities in areas like the science-innovation interface, human resources in science and technology, and biotechnology.

We are looking forward to the education ministers meeting in Dublin in March, when they will address ways to improve the quality and equity of education systems. As the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA 2000) shows, some countries are doing well on both counts, but other countries are not. Many face huge challenges, with teacher shortages, difficult social conditions and increasingly diverse student populations. Then in April OECD environment ministers will meet. A major agenda item will be the need for further urgent action to implement the OECD Environmental Strategy.

May will see the first ever meeting of OECD health ministers, which will consider the results of the OECD’s three-year health project. With health costs rising rapidly and tomorrow’s health systems likely to become even more costly, political leadership will again be necessary to achieve and maintain high performance in health care.

This meeting will take place at the same time as the annual OECD Ministerial Council where we will be seeking to inject fresh momentum into the Doha Development Agenda and sustain the recovery in the world economy. A vital engine for economic health is the small and medium-size enterprise sector, whose challenges will be the subject of another key ministerial meeting in Istanbul in June.

I very much enjoy these ministerial meetings, particularly on specific policy issues where participants are thoroughly immersed in the subject matter, knowledgeable of the issues, and able to engage in productive and informed dialogue and debate with colleagues. More importantly, the political leadership they bring to bear is necessary for the implementation of OECD policy recommendations, and to receive guidance on how the OECD can help governments in the period ahead.

Furthermore, I find myself concluding that there is one central, fundamental area of public policy which runs through all our work. It brings to mind an old saying on real estate, namely that there are three things of importance: location, location, location. In our knowledgebased society, what is fundamental? Education, education, education! Of course, education has always been essential for economic success and social progress. But, in today’s world, education is key to more and better jobs, effective science systems, environmental management, preventive medicine and a healthy population, investing wisely in financial markets and benefiting from multilateral trade and investment. Surely, all of this points to the need for massive and effective investment in education. The Bill Gates of tomorrow could be languishing in a world bereft of opportunities. Can we afford to waste that potential?

This year’s “bumper crop” of OECD ministerial meetings is timely at this moment when political leadership is so necessary. But it is also critical in helping us see through the maze of policy analyses and recommendations. Each meeting will deal with important questions confronting societies within and beyond the OECD. But they all hang together on one common theme – education.

Forthcoming events

Environment ministerial web site, April 2004

OECD Ministerial Council, May 2004

OECD Forum, May 2004

OECD Health Ministerial Meeting, May 2004

SME Ministerial Meeting, June 2004

For OECD upcoming events, see http://www.oecd.org/news

Final communiqués

Education ministerial meeting, March 2004

Science and technology ministerial meeting, January 2004

Employment ministerial meeting, September 2003

For more on the OECD Jobs Strategy, search on www.oecd.org

©OECD Observer No 242, March 2004

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