OECD Secretary-General

Building a fairer future: the role of social policy


Statement by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, delivered at the meeting of the Employment, Labour and Social Affairs Committee at Ministerial Level

Paris, 2 May 2011
Minister von der Leyen, Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my pleasure to welcome you to the OECD for the meeting of Social Policy Ministers. I would like to extend a particular welcome to Ministers and senior representatives from our new Member countries, Chile, Estonia, Israel and Slovenia, as well as our partners from Brazil, Indonesia, the Russian Federation, which is continuing its accession process, and South Africa.

I am most grateful to Ms. Ursula von der Leyen, Minister of Labour and Social Affairs in Germany for agreeing to Chair this meeting, and to Ms Jenny Macklin, Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs in Australia and Mr. Guðbjartur Hannesson, Minister for Welfare, from Iceland, who agreed to be the Vice Chairs. 

When I launched the celebrations for the OECD’s 50th anniversary I identified social policies as one of the milestones. “Better Policies for Better Lives” is the mission headline for our anniversary. “Building a fairer future” is the theme of your meeting. Now more than ever, social policies play a key role in helping to ensure better lives.

This Social Policy Ministerial is very timely. The global recovery is gathering momentum but this progress will not bear fruits if governments fail to tackle the social crisis. At the Forum this morning, we discussed the extent of the challenge we face in reversing the trend towards growing income inequality. It is important to realize that nobody is immune from the need to confront this social emergency. As our new publication, Doing Better for Families shows, one in five children in countries as different as Israel, Mexico, Poland, Turkey and the United States lives in poverty. By the way, I think it should be mandatory reading for all Ministers of Social Affairs, but also for all political and public opinion leaders.  

We know that the need for fiscal consolidation has led many countries to tighten their belts, thus making social challenges more difficult to tackle. But this should not be the case! One has to be selective, but good-quality social policies, particularly those addressed to the most vulnerable, can help bring more people into work and thus sustain economic growth. The long-term pay-offs of maintaining some type of social spending can be very high. During past recessions, across the board social cuts inevitably increased inequality as it is the low-income groups who depend most on social benefits.  

National economic realities vary and the policies required to build a system fit for the social challenges of the 21st century also differ. Despite major progress over the past decade, many emerging and developing economies are still struggling with high levels of informality and poverty. Thus strengthening their social protection network is key for fair and strong growth that benefits the whole population. In these countries ensuring the best value for money by providing high quality services in financially sustainable ways will certainly be a priority. 

Family policies

One area where more needs to do be done is family-friendly policy. Too often parents are still torn between the demands of babies and bosses, too often women are still expected to bear the brunt of household chores and caring for children and elderly relatives, and too seldom do fathers stay at home when a baby is born. It is a sad fact that many young women still feel they have to choose between starting a family and having a career.

It does not have to be like that. There are many successful examples of policies that help women - and men - to combine family and work, including for workers in the informal sector. What we need to do is to spread the good practices more widely. Some countries have experiences to share about how workplaces can be made more family-friendly; others have useful insights to offer about how to make career prospects for men and women more equal, and achieve a better sharing of care responsibilities. Others again are good at combining all these aspects together. The OECD’s recently launched Gender Initiative will make a significant contribution to promoting this objective worldwide.

Intergenerational solidarity

Last but not least, in many countries the intergenerational contract that holds our societies together is challenged by population ageing. Take the experience of the OECD. When it was created in 1961, around 18.5 million children were born in our 34 member countries. By 2010, this number had fallen to 15 million. Over the same period, average life expectancy increased by 10 years.

Finding the right balance between policies for the young and the elderly is not an easy task. Socially adequate pensions, high-quality and affordable care for children and the elderly, combined with manageable financial burdens are key objectives for OECD countries and emerging economies alike. But they are also formidable challenges for social policy. Policies must sustain the positive contributions that all groups in society make and foster the strong intergenerational solidarity we know is an essential part of our responsibilities.

Madame Chair, Ministers, Ladies and gentlemen,
I look forward to a lively and fruitful discussion on topics that are central to the lives and well-being of all the countries gathered here today for this important meeting.
Thank you.


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