For a better future

This year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of a remarkable organisation which has brought a huge and, in many ways, immeasurable impact to the economic and social development not only of its members, but of the world community of nations.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, better known as the OECD, was forged from the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC) charged with the administration of the Marshall Plan.

The Marshall Plan was a historic achievement, even today not sufficiently appreciated, in that it not only buried forever the brutal military record of western Europe, but replaced it with a common and mutually supportive economic space among former enemies. The OEEC was a limited forum for intergovernmental co-operation in all areas of public policy, supported by a skilled secretariat and committee network of unprecedented reach and quality.

After 14 years of extraordinary accomplishment in a European context, the developed world, with Canada very much in the vanguard, recognised the unique value that an enlarged OEEC would offer to a larger constituency. There were some voices of resistance, notably among a few smaller countries, who wished to preserve the old European organisation. But others felt that the OEEC had to spread its wings, to become the OECD, with an ambitious, more global, reach.

The OECD is the only living international legacy of the Marshall Plan, except of course for Europe itself. A paragraph in the preamble to the OECD Convention reads as follows:

“Recognising that the economic recovery and progress of Europe to which their participation in the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (the predecessor of the OECD) has made a major contribution, have opened new perspectives for strengthening that tradition and applying it to new tasks and broader objectives.” Thus was born the OECD, with Canada becoming the first country to deposit its ratified signature of the Convention on 10 April 1961.

Two days later the US followed suit, and by 30 September when the OECD officially opened for business, 17 countries had officially ratified, with the European Commission participating as well. Three more countries, including Italy, officially joined in subsequent months, and Japan became a member in 1964. Today, the OECD has 34 member countries, and has strong relations with scores of other countries around the world, including major emerging markets.

It is timely to recall the aims of the organisation set forth in Article 1 of the Convention, and to do a stocktaking in general terms as to where we have met those aims and where we have fallen short. They were: (a) to achieve the highest sustainable economic growth and employment and a rising standard of living in member countries, while maintaining financial stability, and thus to contribute to the development of the world economy; (b) to contribute to sound economic expansion in member as well as non-member countries in the process of economic development; and (c) to contribute to the expansion of world trade on a multilateral, non-discriminatory basis in accordance with international obligations.”

The OECD was seen as a government instrument for keeping an equilibrium between economic growth, social stability and political stability, all three of which must be achieved through good governance in order to deliver the economic and social progress for which the OECD was created.

The Ottawa Conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the OECD on 2 June 2011 offers participants the opportunity of doing what John Maynard Keynes counselled: “Examine the present in light of the past for the purposes of the future.”

How well has the OECD fulfilled its role over this half-century and what does the future hold? We believe that conference participants and other observers will conclude that the role of the OECD, with its committee system, the creation of soft law enforced by peer review of performance among members and the comparison of best practices, which has served the membership so well in the past, will be the way of the future in this rapidly evolving global community.

A challenge will be to manage these processes in a much enlarged international community and, quite probably, a growing OECD.



Clarke, Rory and Lyndon Thompson (2011), “A majestic start: How the OECD was won”, in OECD Yearbook 2011, Paris, available at

©OECD Observer No 284, Q1 2011

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