Newspaper executive frames ‘storylist’ for sustainable development

OECD Forum, 14th May, 2001: Conversation with David Ignatius; moderator Sally Shelton-Colby
OECD Observer

In a conversation with some 50 delegates at the OECD’s Forum 2001 on Monday 14th May, David Ignatius, executive editor of the International Herald Tribune, praised the OECD’s efforts in fighting corruption, while criticising his own country for avoiding the issue of tax evasion.

Mr Ignatius said the new Bush administration has wrongly pegged global efforts for reform as “malign”.

“I find that disappointing,” he said. “The issue of corruption is a favourite issue of the OECD’s. And it’s a lonely process, I know.”

Mr Ignatius praised the OECD’s work in establishing its anti-bribery convention, which came into effect in February 1999. The convention makes it is a criminal offence to bribe a foreign public official to obtain an international business deal. While many countries have come out in support of the act, others believe drafting rules on such issues as money laundering and tax evasion falls outside of the OECD’s mandate.

After Mr Ignatius’ comments, Fred Aftalion, vice-president of France’s association of liberal economists, ALEPS, argued differences in fiscal policy are healthy, allowing countries such as Switzerland to capitalise on foreign currency. Mr Aftalion said he feared tax harmonisation would lead to a global tax burden.

But according to moderator and OECD Deputy Secretary-General Sally Shelton-Colby, the OECD is not advocating tax harmonisation, and has always been in favour of competition. Ms Shelton-Colby told delegates tax evasion amounts to a loss of more than a trillion dollars for national governments, and hampers their ability to reduce taxes. She said the OECD’s recent work on problems of corruption has been widely misinterpreted.

“Many non-member countries, such as Brazil and India, believe they’re being hurt by money going elsewhere,” said Ms Shelton-Colby. “This is not the OECD versus non-member countries.”

However, corruption and poor governance were just two of six problems Mr Ignatius outlined in a “storylist” of issues surrounding sustainable development. Also included in his broad list were the global economy, health, food and the environment.

While Mr Ignatius cited examples of upcoming series planned at his newspaper – including one on world food safety – he admitted it is often hard for journalists to frame stories around the issue of sustainable development. And when asked for his definition of the phrase, Mr Ignatius replied with three questions: “Where do you have market failure? Where do you have destructive outcomes from market failure? And how do you redress that?”

Helen Anderson is chief scientific adviser for New Zealand’s Ministry of Research, Science and Technology. Noting several global divides, such as the ones between Europe and the United States, and between multinationals, Ms Anderson asked Mr Ignatius for his thoughts on how to marry values with the ongoing political rhetoric she referred to as the “yak factor.”

Mr Ignatius said it comes down to the good old-fashioned notion of trust. “Globalisation empowers consumers as much as companies,” he said. “For example, genetically-modified food needs the trust of consumers, and the most effective blacklist is the withdrawal of the trust factor.”

And while trust takes time to develop, Mr Ignatius said governments do not have the luxury of time in moving ahead with their reforms:

“Left to itself, the global economy will mow down whatever is in front of it. The traditional process is not working. Like the model used in the Kyoto Protocol, if we wait for treaties [to be ratified] we’ll wait too long.”

Mr Ignatius promised his paper would continue to gather the facts, while he challenged the world’s governments to use these facts to take concrete action.

©OECD Observer May 2001

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