Will Colombia Join the First World?

By Juan Andres Misle

 On October 25th of 2013, the Secretary General for the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) Angel Gurría formally announced that Colombia was on its path to accession as a member of the OECD. This distinguished international organization groups together a very select list of countries in coordinating policy by maintaining high standards in social and economic progress. In order to be admitted for membership, countries must adhere to a set of internal obligations that guarantee these standards are met, among which include strong and effective conditions on education, public governance, labor and social affairs.

While the use of the terms “First” and “Third” worlds have long been replaced in recent decades by the interchangeable use between the “Developed” and “Developing” world, the OECD comes the closest to making this old comparison the standard setter in today’s increasingly globalized planet.

Meanwhile, as Colombia comes close to a potential peace agreement between the government and the FARC guerrillas, structural problems persist in the country’s social dynamics. According to OECD estimates, revenues in the Andean nation stand at 20 percent of GDP, a low number compared not just to OECD countries, but by regional standards as well.

This greatly impacts access to education, making it deficient and in many cases non-existent in remote rural and impoverished areas. The country currently spends a mere 4 percent of its GDP on education, far from the 12.9 percent median for OECD countries, and lower than any member country. Pre-primary enrollment stands at 50 percent, below the OECD average of close to 90 percent, while the 45 percent gross tertiary enrolment rate is far below regional neighbors Argentina (78 percent) and Chile (74 percent). This is despite recent government efforts to improve education through the “Everyone Learns” program launched in 2012 to counter a problem that has made Colombia one of the most unequal countries in the region.

But most troubling among Colombia’s endemic problems is the constant attack on labor rights. This has translated directly into death threats, aggressions, and murders of union members for many years. Between 2011 and 2014, 121 trade unionists were assassinated, while impunity for murder of trade unionists stands at 93.4 percent and 99.9 percent for death threats.

In fact, according to the International Trade Union Confederation, the number of trade unionists killed in Colombia, exceeds that of the total number killed in the rest of the world. Transparency and strong institutions that uphold the rule of law work as a standard setter in the global membership of the OECD. This problem is seemingly further exacerbated when companies like Coca-Cola and Dole are accused of using right-wing paramilitaries to kill unionists, and the state refuses to put human rights above corporate interests in its overall governing agenda.

In other words, Colombia might very well be the most dangerous country in the world to be in a union. At less than 5 percent unionization rate, Colombia must do more to prevent violence against the most basic of labor rights. The US-Colombia Labor Action Plan (LAP) was supposed to address this pressing issue. However, as it entered its fourth year on April 7th, the law remains to be thoroughly and efficiently implemented.

Juan Manuel Santos Calderon.
Juan Manuel Santos Calderon.

If President Juan Manuel Santos wishes to lead his country into the “club of good practices” as he calls it, he should look up to member countries such as Finland, and emulate labor practices that reassure a stable, safe, and formal working environment.

While an agreement to end the decades-long armed conflict becomes increasingly promising, many of the causes of the conflict remain intact and unresolved. There are vast disparities between urban and rural human development, as well as dual realities: one of the booming entrepreneurial cities, and another of a countryside plagued with violence, land grabs, displacements, and a weak state presence.

Colombia is a country with tremendous natural and human resources. Yet its structural inequities are preventing the possibility of having the truly pacified country that negotiators in Havana wish to implement.

As the 2015 OECD Economic Overview of Colombia recognizes, Colombia needs to have a more inclusive growth. Without proper changes to the country’s education, wages, labor standards, pensions, and regressive tax system, Colombia can hardly join an organization that seeks to make clear distinctions between the developed and underdeveloped world.