Interview with Donald J. Johnston

OECD Observer

At the end of the 2006 Ministerial Council Meeting (MCM), Donald Johnston will complete his second 5-year term as the fourth secretary-general of the OECD and will formally hand over office to Angel Gurría, who was nominated by OECD member countries last November. A former lawyer and minister in the Canadian government, Mr Johnston took over the reins from Jean-Claude Paye in 1996. We asked the outgoing secretary-general for his reflections on what has proved to be a period of great change in the global economy.

OECD Observer: You are stepping down in May 2006 after two terms as secretary-general of the OECD. What particular memories will you bring with you?

Donald J. Johnston: I have so many wonderful memories gathered over a ten-year period that it is impossible to single out a favourite. On the other hand, one memory in particular is inscribed forever in my mind which could be described as my least favourite, namely the catastrophic events of 9/11.

When it occurred, some of us were in a meeting. Caio Koch Weser of Germany, my neighbour at the table, asked if I had seen the plane hit the World Trade Tower. CNN was being screened live in the entrance of our building. I stepped out since the meeting was just beginning, to see one tower belching smoke, and returned to the meeting table concluding that there had been an accident, just as I recalled a military aircraft hitting the Empire State Building when I was a child. Little did we realise how the events of that brief period on the morning of 11 September would change the course of history.

What do you consider the biggest achievement during your mandates?

There are so many accomplishments by the OECD team over ten years that to single out some would be unjust to many others. However, I would say that the globalisation of the OECD over the past decade is a major achievement. We have global relationships and are active in important country programmes in China, Russia, Brazil and hopefully soon in India, where we are embarking upon a first-ever economic review. Indeed, through regional and global fora we now engage with more than 70 non-OECD economies.

Also, I cannot resist saying that the launching of the new site project to renovate the OECD headquarters in Paris is a major achievement, which will contribute to the working environment and productivity of the organisation for many years to come.

Any regrets?

Of course I have regrets. I suppose there are a considerable number. But my most significant is not having been able to bring the member countries to grasp the necessity of enlargement for the organisation and its role in helping to shape globalisation for the benefit of all humanity. This requires abandoning the notion of a small exclusive membership, where the OECD is looked upon as a mere “think tank”, and reaching out to all major economic players, not just through outreach, but by bringing them as members to the OECD table. I have not even succeeded in convincing members to issue an invitation to Russia to start the accession process, despite the fact that Russia applied for membership in 1996 and the OECD council agreed that this should be a shared goal, that Russia has the most observerships in our committees and that it is a member of the G8!

Many argue that Russia has regressed in its evolution towards a democratic state committed to open market economics, and this should disqualify it from being on a membership track. I disagree. Those of us old enough to have visited the Soviet Union see how far Russia has evolved, far beyond what I could have imagined possible on an official visit to the USSR in 1983. Let us not squander what has been harvested since that time. Russia must join the OECD, the sooner the better!

You once wrote in an Observer editorial that the OECD would have to evolve or risk becoming a “fossil…a dinosaur for future generations to gape at”. Do you think the OECD has finally started evolving as you would like?

The evolution of the organisation’s programme of work illustrates that it is not a “fossil”. However, it risks being marginalised if the major international actors are not more closely engaged. On the issues, I believe we have stayed ahead of the curve. We are world leaders in many areas including information and communications technology, health and education, where the creation of a new directorate has given profile and impetus to this most important area for knowledge-based economies of the 21st century.

You have frequently referred to a triangular paradigm of balance between the economic, social and governance dimensions of policy. How do you see the present state of that paradigm?

Since my arrival here I have argued that all societal progress depends upon balancing that triangular paradigm. My analogy is that of a tightrope walker with a balancing rod. The government is the walker; one end of the balancing rod represents economic growth, while the other represents social cohesion. Imagine yourself on a rope weighed down at either end to the prejudice of the other. You will spend all your time trying to stay upright and at worst you will fall off. That is where a number of our countries are and where the world is. When 18% of the population has 80% of global wealth, global progress is not sustainable in the long term, perhaps even the medium term. And so it is within our OECD countries.

Wealth/poverty gaps are increasing in many countries and I do not see that as sustainable. In the past this has resulted in social upheaval, often violent, such as the French Revolution. A primary task of the OECD is to help governments find that balance. If they do not, robust democracies are in peril.

What will you miss most about working at the OECD?

I will always have cherished memories of the OECD, which includes the staff of the secretariat. They represent a wonderful mix of talents and nationalities, and have produced outstanding work during my stewardship of the organisation. I will miss them, but I hope to stay in touch with the many friends I have acquired here, some of whom have already left the organisation and others who will follow in the near future. As I said in my new year’s wishes this past January, the most valuable asset I leave to my successor will not be the new improved site, nor the rich OECD archives, but the women and men who make this a truly outstanding international organisation.

What advice would you give your successor, Angel Gurría?

I do not see Angel Gurría as needing advice from me. He is spending a great deal of time and effort acquainting himself with the work of the OECD committees and their sub-structures, with the structure of the secretariat and with the council and individual ambassadors, so that he will be able to “hit the ground running” at the end of May. Once one understands that this is an organisation where committees have to drive the work programme, where the secretariat must always attract the most competent personnel to support committee work, the conclusion is simple.

In real estate the secret is location, location, location. Here it is quality people, quality people, quality people. I believe Mr Gurría will be a great success as secretary-general. His background and skills, including linguistic capabilities, will be very valuable. He also has a great sense of humour. And I have learned that humour is essential to manage this many-faceted multinational complex organisation, the governance structure of which is a curious accident of history.

Would you do it again?

However much you may enjoy your challenges in a particular position, most organisations will benefit from new blood, new ideas, new approaches and the shedding of biases and particular viewpoints. Hence, the time has come for me to move on. 

Interview by Jill Ramsey, chief editor of @tmosphere, the OECD’s staff magazine, and Rory J. Clarke


“Globalise or fossilise!” in OECD Observer No. 219, December 1999

©OECD Observer May 2006

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