Keynote Speech by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, delivered at the OECD Forum 2012
Wednesday 23 May, 2012
(As prepared for delivery)
Excellencies, Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Welcome to the OECD!
Our gathering today takes place at a historic moment. Following the Arab Spring, MENA countries have embarked on far-reaching political reforms. In Tunisia, a new government was elected and a new Constitution is being drafted. In Egypt, a new assembly was elected and presidential elections are taking place as we speak. Morocco adopted a new Constitution, and in other countries, major changes are also under way.
These changes have generated new hope and opened a window of opportunity to unleash the region’s tremendous potential. Yet change has been anything but smooth. Unemployment remains high in the region, particularly among youth, who face unemployment rates of over 25%. Growth has been sluggish, inflation has accelerated in some countries, and most of the population has yet to benefit from sustained improvements in living standards. The fall in income generated by tourism, an important driver in many countries in the region, is magnified by the already significant drop in remittances triggered by the global crisis.
For all these reasons the topic of this MENA Session -- “Delivering Jobs, Growth and Trust” -- is quite timely. Demands from the streets in the MENA countries went beyond political matters; they included calls for economic and social development. These demands translate into a priority for policy-makers to focus on employment, social justice, fair competition, anti-corruption and the rule of law.
Delivering jobs is the most daunting and urgent challenge. This is true for all countries, including OECD countries. But in the MENA region, given its relatively young population, it means finding jobs for the 2.8 million men and women who join the labour market every year. Taking into account demographic projections for the region, we are looking at the need to create an additional 51 million jobs by 2020.
Fostering growth also means boosting competitiveness. There remain barriers that prevent the private sector from prospering, including obstacles to competition, a heavy reliance on the public sector – which for example accounts for 70% of employment in Egypt – gaps in skills and low levels of entrepreneurship. In MENA countries, only 6 new firms are created per 10,000 people of working age, compared to 40 firms in high-income countries.
It is also essential to restore citizens’ trust in governments and public institutions. Fighting corruption and strengthening governance are crucial pre-conditions for economic growth. But restoring trust also means addressing high inequalities and combating poverty, which affects around 40% of the population in the region. Yesterday we had the honour of having Her Majesty Queen Rania of Jordan open the Forum. She encouraged us to deepen our work focusing on education as the means to narrow the gap between inequality and shared prosperity.
Failing to meet these challenges threatens the success of the reform process and the transition towards democratic and stable societies. This is not only a challenge for the MENA countries; this is a challenge for the entire global community.
More than ever, the OECD stands by the MENA countries. It is committed to accompanying them along their reform process. But let’s be clear: achieving higher growth and employment and restoring trust will not come easy. There will be challenges to overcome along the way, which must be confronted in a coordinated and comprehensive manner.
The OECD can help on this front. Through our peer reviews, broad-based dialogue and evidence-based analysis, we have developed a multidisciplinary approach which has been successfully applied in countries across the globe in support of their transition towards democratic societies and inclusive economies that promote higher living standards.
The OECD is not a newcomer to the MENA region. For a nearly a decade, we have been engaged through the OECD-MENA Initiative on Governance and Investment for Development. With the Arab Spring, we have broadened our contacts with the region to several policy areas. We have built networks of experts to ensure that we address the most important challenges for each of these countries.
Under the wise co-presidency of Egypt and then Morocco, the OECD has been working with countries to design innovative policies to modernise public governance, fight corruption, strengthen the business climate, improve the tax environment, and foster entrepreneurship, especially for women. Today, only 32% of women enter the labour force in the MENA countries, against 65% in OECD countries. We are working to empower women and increase competitiveness and private sector development in the region.
For instance, through the OECD-MENA Women’s Business Forum, we have created a network of over 300 representatives of government, private sector and civil society from MENA and OECD countries who develop best practices and policy recommendations to enhance women’s economic involvement, notably through the increased use of new technologies.
Our engagement in the MENA region has also advanced through the G8 Deauville Partnership. Under the Open Government Agenda, for which we have been assigned the leading role, we are helping countries align their public sector with modern information management practices. For instance, in Tunisia, we are helping to strengthen the integrity and corruption prevention framework by targeting areas such as public procurement. We will also support the implementation of Jordan’s Open Government Partnership action plan.
I am particularly pleased that MENA countries are increasingly making use of OECD instruments and actively contributing to OECD Committees. We just held our signing ceremony with Tunisia and Morocco. What does this mean in concrete terms?
The OECD will continue to work with you to promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth and employment in the MENA region. We are proud to be able to play a part in helping you fulfil the aspirations of your citizens through better policies for better lives.