On April 28, Colombia became the 37th member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Formed in 1961, the OECD works to shape collective policies that foster prosperity, equality, opportunity and wellbeing for all. As a “club” of mutually supportive nations, the OECD was once somewhat exclusive—a band of northern upper-middle-income liberal democracies. In recent years it has expanded to include Mexico and Chile, while Costa Rica is on track to become the next member. The OECD is premised on the interdependencies among the world’s strongest economies and founded to forge common solutions to development challenges. Colombia’s accession is therefore momentous.
We could all be forgiven for missing Colombia’s big news in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting economic crisis, and fresh waves of social unrest in the United States and beyond. But it’s a milestone worth celebrating, and it’s worth remembering the supporting role the United States played in that process—and will continue to play in the years to come.
Colombia’s journey to this moment has not been easy. Lest we forget, the country was generally deemed a failed state throughout the 1990s. Decades of violent conflict left millions of victims in their wake, and the transition to peace remains tenuous. Joining the OECD is both a privilege—a seal of approval from the so-called advanced countries—and a responsibility: a commitment to serve as a modern state capable of advancing the economic and social wellbeing of its citizens.
Membership carries real weight and gaining entry requires more than currying favor with a few key “sponsors.” Beginning in 2013, Colombia underwent technical reviews by 23 OECD committees spanning topics from trade to environment to public governance and justice, a process that prompted various reform measures, including the 2014 Transparency and Access to Information Law and 2011 Anti-Corruption statutes to prevent, investigate, and punish corruption.
To take another example, the OECD Agricultural Review highlighted deficiencies in Colombia’s informal land tenure system—highlighted in the inability of rural municipalities to build roads because of confusion over who owns what, or rural schools to build extensions because the ownership of adjacent lots is not clear. Land tenure informality, including a lack of land titles and an obsolete land registration system, poses significant obstacles to economic activity. It limits access to credit, for example (absent proof of ownership, land can’t be used as collateral) and deters productive investment (why upgrade your property if your ownership rights are uncertain?). Colombia is now accelerating land rights registration, defining the mandates of the various land management government entities, and strengthening the land tax system—ambitious reforms financed with a loan from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.
OECD recommendations as a “critical friend” are echoed by international donors, especially the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), whose long-standing support for Colombia covers democratic institutions, vulnerable populations, rural economic growth, environmental resilience, low-emissions development, and other sectors. Even amid the pandemic, USAID is deepening its partnership with the government of Colombia through a fresh set of governance programs amounting to roughly $53 million over the next five years, which will bolster Colombia’s OECD commitments. This programming includes strengthening services in more remote regions historically deprived of public investment, with a focus on health, education, infrastructure, and transparency and accountability.
Better services alone cannot forge the social contract that underlies durable peace—another OECD priority. Colombians must trust their elected officials to not abuse power for personal gain. They must believe that security forces are acting in the public interest. They must trust that their demands for basic public service delivery will be met. USAID’s investment, accordingly, will also encourage “demand side” engagement by civil society to hold government accountable and strengthen the capacity of Colombia’s oversight institutions, which have yet to fully embrace OECD best practice, such as multi-year planning for risk-based audits.
USAID also intends to target corruption. Even before COVID-19, corruption presented a threat to Colombia’s democratic governance and development. Today, it also undermines emergency services because every peso wasted to price gouging, kickbacks, and other fraud is a resource not dedicated to pandemic response. Poor service delivery is attributable in large part to uneven transparency and accountability, which now heightens the threat of contagion, particularly in conflict-affected parts of the country—for example, by hindering the availability of quality health services. Groups like Transparencia por Colombia are rising to the occasion and have launched a portal to monitor COVID-19 procurements for signs of corruption. How? They analyze data from government agencies overseeing COVID-19 expenditures and will support citizens to denounce anything suspicious.
Joining the OECD club does not mean the country has surmounted its complex problems, nor that Colombians can go at it alone, as the continued utility of U.S. support makes clear. But the OECD seal of approval does serve as a kind of social capital for national and international proponents of post-conflict reconstruction, notably investors. And membership is also a call to sustained action for Colombia’s politicians and policy makers, a reminder that their principal responsibility is to the evolving needs of citizens. With that in mind, they should find that OECD members are an accountability mechanism as much as a support system.
Colombia, welcome to the club.
Sara Danish, Senior Governance Specialist with DAI, is based in Washington, DC.
Norberto Martinez, OECD Policy Consultant with the Inter-American Development Bank, is based in Bogota, Colombia.