Meeting place of the millennium

OECD Observer

Forum 2000, Paris, 26-28 June 2000  

How can governments address claims that they are out of touch with citizens’ needs and that public trust in government is diminishing? How can corporations build an atmosphere of better confidence with government, labour and civil society? What is good governance and how successful are partnerships between government, business and civil society in promoting it?

As a public international conference, OECD Forum 2000 will provide a meeting place where members of all segments of economy and society can come to discuss and air their views on a range of issues, and ultimately shape the development of the 21st century. After all, broad, inclusive policy dialogue is essential to identify tensions and manage systemic frictions in today’s global economy.

OECD Forum 2000 will take place alongside the annual OECD Ministerial Council Meeting from 26-28 June 2000. Already there is an impressive roster of people who have signed up to speak or attend – people like Mike Moore, director general of the WTO; Martin Baily, chief of US Council of Economic Advisers; Maria Cattaui, secretary-general of the International Chamber of Commerce; Yotaro Kobayashi, president of Fuji-Xerox; Peter Sutherland, chairman of Goldman Sachs International; Professor Jagdish Bhagwati of Columbia University; and Bjorn Stigson, president of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development.

There are a range of key items on the agenda at Forum 2000. First up is the question: “Are We Living in a New Economy?” Information and communications technologies are transforming the way people work and do business worldwide. The 1990s have seen a spectacular performance in the United States economy, with probably the longest peacetime “boom” ever. Some analysts believe that the US has entered a “new age”. In Japan domestic markets are becoming more open to international competition, market pressures are driving structural change, consumer interests are taking higher priority and personal choice and initiative are on the increase. In Europe, where productivity gains are starting to reflect the impact of new technologies, the introduction of the euro could yet stimulate widespread efficiency gains and drive the European single market programme further forward.

Is something special happening? Is it just a phenomenon limited to a few countries, with the United States in the lead, or is a similar transition being experienced in a large number of economies? What does it mean for government, business and civil society? Such questions will emerge through open debate at the Forum.

Second on the list of priorities at Forum 2000 will be partnerships between business, civil society and government for public policymaking. Globalisation, rapid technological progress and the spread of democracy are changing the relationships among states, markets and civil society.

Governments are faced with a world in which the traditional concepts of citizenship, sovereignty, responsibility and the meaning of territory are all being challenged. The market has generally become more competitive, global and powerful. The speed of innovation and globalisation has been heady at times, leading to volatility in some countries and sectors. One feature of the new economy is that citizens and consumers are becoming more informed and assertive. They have become more diverse too, as reflected in the wide range of non-governmental organisations that have emerged in recent years.

Just as the ways of doing business are changing, governments too must adapt to stay effective in this new environment. But public sectors remain largely sheltered from the disciplining forces of competition, despite the progress in improving efficiency in some countries. In this complex environment, should business, non-governmental organisations and civil society be more active partners in public policymaking? How can governments become more effective actors in the fast-changing world economy?

Sustainable world 

The Forum will also ask whether the world is moving towards sustainable development. Achieving and maintaining high rates of economic growth are only part of the challenges governments face. In fact, economic development that falls short of major environmental and social challenges will not be sustainable over time. Some types of economic decisions contribute to climate change, biodiversity loss and over-exploitation of natural resources, as well as to deeper income inequality and higher unemployment. Hence, moving towards sustainable development requires modifying economic incentives to incorporate environmental and social concerns as routine aspects of policy. But what kinds of policy changes are required? What are the costs? And how are businesses incorporating sustainable development into their strategic planning processes?

Reaping the full benefits of global trade will be the fourth theme of Forum 2000. Further liberalisation of world trade can be a powerful tool to assist development and enhance world prosperity for countries at all stages of development. A complete dismantling of existing tariffs on imports worldwide would result in an increase in world economic output of the order of 3% over the next decade, equivalent to a boost of approximately US$1,200 billion. Major gains are also expected from liberalisation of trade in services.

There is some evidence to suggest that developing countries would gain the most from liberalisation in relative terms. Yet there is some concern that many of them, especially the poorest ones, are often not able to reap the full benefits of liberalisation, or even participate meaningfully in trade talks. OECD countries have a responsibility to show leadership in this area, by taking into account the effect of their own policies on developing and transition economies and by doing all they can to prevent the poorest and weakest economies from being economically isolated.

Digital diologue 

Another key issue to be discussed at Forum 2000 is electronic commerce and the growth of the Internet. This new medium underlines how interrelated national and global agendas have become. Perhaps the world has finally become the global village first talked about some 25 years ago. The number of consumers and businesses with access to the internet and the possibility to engage in electronic commerce, including setting up new businesses, has risen rapidly. The impacts of electronic commerce are now clearly discernible throughout our daily lives. The liberating and empowering potential of the Internet seems enormous. There are risks, however.

There is some concern among governments that e-commerce might lead to a loss of tax revenue, which in turn would undermine essential public spending. Work is under way at the OECD to address that concern. There is also the risk of an emerging “digital divide”, with certain groups, even countries, being unable to participate in the new economy for lack of access to new technology. A better understanding is required of the social and economic impacts of the Internet, and of the needs of large and small business, government and non-governmental organisations and individuals, whether as workers, students, consumers or citizens in both developing and developed countries.

The political, economic and social challenges of the 21st century are daunting indeed. Overcoming them requires strong partnerships between government, business and civil society. It will demand ever greater transparency and clarity in policymaking. OECD Forum 2000 is an important initiative to assist in the task of forging those partnerships. The list of issues is large, and is likely to generate as many important questions as valuable answers. OECD Forum 2000 really could prove to be the meeting place of the millennium. 

©OECD Obsserver No 220, April 2000 

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