OECD Forum 2019 Session: From Protest to Solutions

OECD Forum 2019 Session: From Protest to Solutions

This OECD Forum 2019 background note will be used to prepare speakers on the panel From Protest to Solutions, taking place at the OECD headquarters from 12:00-13:30 on Monday, 20 May. Join the Forum Network to comment and help inform the upcoming debate and, whether you're with us in Paris or watching online, let us know what you think of the session!

Some 30 years ago the Berlin Wall fell, in reaction to an unstoppable wave of liberalisation in Europe, punctuated by icons of solidarity, human dignity and hope, all calling for a freer, fairer and more equitable world. Such expectations have invariably characterised the many movements that have acted as turning points in our history since then. 

2019 marks the 20th anniversary of the OECD Forum. Back then, the OECD answered a direct call for more inclusive policy making and consultation of a wider group of sometimes diverging voices, in the wake of an outburst of discontent vis-à-vis the opacity of multilateral decisions and the impact of increasing globalisation, notably linked to the negotiations of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. As protesters made their voices heard loud and clear in Seattle, Ministers responded: the OECD Forum was born. 

“The political, economic and social challenges of the next century require informed and actively participating citizens. Ministers recognise their heightened responsibility to ensure transparency and clarity in policy-making, and look to the Organisation to assist governments in the important task of improving communication and consultation with civil society”.

1999 Ministerial communiqué

This bears heightened relevance today, as individuals from all walks of life feel compelled to take action on a variety of issues and causes, challenging the establishment and seeking to harness the unique transformative capacity of “people-powered” movements in shaping a new societal and political environment, and driving positive change in a bottom-up and inclusive fashion. Examples are countless: the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street protests their offspring across the world: the #MeToo movement, the student-led anti-gun March for Our Lives movement, and more recently European youth-led Climate marches, to name just a few. Yet these manifestations have taken on different facets: some violent, others peaceful; some self-organised, others structured; some homogeneous, others confronting radical views of what the outcomes should be; some translating wants into political action, others mere moments of “revolutionary romance”. 

Today, voting patterns and abstention betray the fact that our democratic institutions are suffering from political disengagement and risk irrelevance. And yet, the online space offers a new “town hall”, extending beyond national borders, allowing people to share new ideas to proactively shape public life. Digital technologies can be used (and abused) for civic purposes, providing new and enhanced ways to revitalise democratic practices and innovate the way people and power-holders interact. This changing landscape requires all power-holders and institutions to broaden the spectrum of their engagement, acknowledging once and for all that in a multifaceted and multistakeholder world, policy-making and large-scale changes in behaviour are no longer the sole remit of an exclusive club. 

For some, the answer lies in a new form of activism focusing on “creating a mental shift in people’s mind”: a hybrid of social movement and political parties that call for a stronger commitment by people running for political office, voting, participating in the city administration, and injecting disruption and sustained change across society. Successful movements might indeed require governments to integrate the views of collectively mobilised people into the effective functioning of power and to make a renewed pledge to the will of the people as the foundation of their ability to make decisions on their behalf. Isn’t that the essence of the societal contract? 

Some of the questions ahead of us are:

  • How do you feel as initiators of these movements about the state of our societal contract at the moment?
  • What impact has it had on your life to take responsibility for making change happen?
  • What can we learn from such experiences, whether a “success” or a “constructive failure”?
  • How might we best channel such high-intensity energy into shared, tangible commitments?
  • What lessons might we draw in terms of our ability to listen, to improve the health of our democracies, and ensure the resilience of our social fabric?

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