The OECD compiles statistics, indicators and analyses involving large quantities of numbers. GDP in euros, health spending in dollars, school drop-out rates, years of education, unemployment figures. But behind all these numbers, there are individuals– people of flesh and blood. If you think about it, 100 does not always equal 100. There is a considerable difference between a group of 100 people full of self-confidence, with trust in each other and good basic skills, and a group of 100 people with low self-esteem, a lack of trust and poor basic skills.
With the first group you can certainly achieve success in the traditional way. With the latter there might be more hurdles to overcome.
Most people consider it important to be able to support themselves, to have the opportunity to fulfil their potential and to have a certain level of security. A steady and decent job is often essential for achieving these goals. A period of long-term unemployment may therefore be damaging to people’s self-esteem and sense of dignity. The unemployed–and especially the young people among them–need our support. As societies we have to work hard to create jobs, to establish labour market programmes, to provide access to social benefits and to equip the unemployed with adequate skills.
I mentioned that the first Norwegian constitution was among the most democratic of its time. But democracy–in the modern sense of the word–was not truly established anywhere 200 years ago, because only some men and no women could vote.
It may be that 200 years ago women did not feel a lack of dignity because they didn’t have the right to vote. No woman in the world had that right and thus it may have been considered natural. 120 years ago, however, pioneering women began to feel that the denial of their fundamental civil rights simply wasn’t right. They were being treated as inferior human beings.
In two weeks’ time, on 11 June, Norway will celebrate the centenary of women’s right to vote in Norway. Norway was the fourth country in the world to introduce universal suffrage, with women and men enjoying equal democratic rights. Our fellow OECD members New Zealand, Australia, and Finland took the lead. 100 years ago it was a controversial and pioneering decision; today of course it would be unthinkable to reverse it.
Today, though, when all our countries have universal suffrage, the “equality challenge” has moved into other arenas. There’s still a lot of work to be done when it comes to gender equality in all countries, and a lot remains to be done to ensure that your background doesn’t restrict your possibilities unreasonably.[...]
[There are] three lessons that can also be applied to other organisations and to societies.
Lesson number one: If the foundations are made of values such as dignity, trust and equality, the building above will be more solid. Lesson number two: Wise and committed leadership is important and a leader must lead–and stand as an example–also when it comes to softer, interpersonal areas. The issue of dignity should be fundamental, not just the icing on the cake.
Finally, lesson number three: The quest for a more inclusive, civilised and humane society is never-ending. We have to work persistently every day–independently and together with others. The task is demanding, but extremely rewarding. [...]
Extracted from the opening speech to OECD Week, “It’s all about people: Jobs, Equality and Trust–and dignity”, 28 May 2013. The full text is available at www.oecd.org/forum/its-all-about-people-jobs-equality-and-trust-and-dignity.htm.
© OECD Observer No 295 Q2 2013