What can the OECD initiative on ‘building trust and reinforcing democracy’ tell us about multilateral efforts to strengthen democracy?

The OECD’s new commitment to ‘building trust and reinforcing democracy’ arrives amid a broader international movement to address ‘backsliding’. In this post, Sophie Andrews-McCarroll explains the new initiative.

Alarm bells have increasingly been sounded about the risks of democratic backsliding across the world – including in established democracies in Europe, the UK and US. Backsliding is the process by which a state becomes gradually less democratic – often manifest in the reduction of checks and balances, breakdown in political norms, and reductions in civil liberties and electoral integrity. It is facilitated by political polarisation, and declining public trust in democratic institutions. The OECD’s new initiative on ‘building trust and reinforcing democracy’ – discussed at a high-level ministerial meeting, chaired by Luxembourg, in November – is one response to these concerns.

The OECD approach to policy problems

The OECD is an intergovernmental organisation that provides countries with independent policy analysis to promote economic and social well-being. It promotes best practice and provides international benchmarks, seeking to promote evidence-based policy solutions and entrench norms through a peer review and surveillance approach. Its authority rests on its technical expertise, and it lacks the coercive instruments available to other international organisations like the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, European Union or World Trade Organisation. This appeal to evidence and best practice is supported by a consensus-based model of decision making: all 38 member countries must unanimously agree to all commitments or declarations made, and any action plans adopted. Such an approach means that initiatives can only be agreed if they have broad buy-in, including from smaller, traditionally less powerful countries. But it also means that ambitious goals may have to be watered down to achieve consensus.

Building trust and reinforcing democracy

This subject has been a long-standing OECD priority, being on the organisation’s horizon since at least 2013. But the holding of the ministerial meeting – which itself required a consensus decision by the member states – reflects its topicality and urgency.

It also comes amid a number of other international initiatives designed to strengthen democracy. Notably, these include the United States’ 2021 ‘Summit for Democracy’, an international summit which set out a programme of democratic reform to be pursued during the following ‘Year of Action’, and followed up at a second summit in March 2023. The US was a vice-chair – along with Colombia, France and Lithuania – of the OECD ministerial meeting, reflecting the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to reversing both the notorious democratic erosion the US suffered under Donald Trump, and its retreat from multilateral institutions and agreements. The November meeting also followed, and drew on, an extensive cross-national survey investigating public trust levels across 22 OECD countries.

The meeting resulted in a commitment by all member countries to address eroding public trust in democratic institutions through a variety of reforms and innovations, summed up in a ‘Declaration on Building Trust and Reinforcing Democracy’. These relate to public participation and democratic representation, building resilience against mis- and disinformation, and the transition to green governance. The high-level text of the declaration is supported by a series of action plans which lay out more specific commitments – such as ‘cultivating a culture of political integrity’, promoting responsible behaviour by online platforms, and developing tools for climate and environmental action – though the question of how to achieve these is understandably left for individual countries to determine. The declaration also called on the OECD to develop a new monitoring mechanism for governance systems, as well as a ‘Gateway to Reinforcing Trust’, to support countries in efforts to build public trust.

How does the UK fit in? 

As an OECD member country, the UK was one of the adherents to the Declaration on Building Trust and Reinforcing Democracy. It was also one of the 22 countries taking part in the preceding survey – which offers some insight into how trust in the UK compares to the average across participating countries.

The survey measured perceptions of government responsiveness, reliability and openness, elected representatives’ integrity, and the fairness of the system. While the UK measured comparatively well against the average on public perceptions of ‘fairness’ and ‘reliability’ of government, it performed poorly on perceptions of integrity. Trust in major institutions was almost uniformly lower in the UK than the average, including in national government, parliament, political parties, the police and the media – though judges and the civil service were an exception. This is consistent with recent Unit research which found  that the British public care about the health of democracy in the UK but have a poor impression of politicians, tending to view the judiciary more favourably.

What happens next?

The OECD Global Forum and Building Trust and Reinforcing Democracy will now take place every two years – with the underpinning survey also being carried out biennially. The stated intention is that the forum will serve as a platform for OECD members and wider stakeholders to share knowledge, assess and improve public governance to meet the challenges facing democracies going forward.

How far the aspirations reflected in the declaration translate into concrete change will depend on individual countries’ political will. The OECD lacks hard levers to incentivise progress against its objectives or penalise backsliders, meaning that there is little that can be done to prevent aspiring autocrats from paying lip service alone to the initiative. Notably, the signatories include some countries where democratic backsliding is a significant cause for concern, such as Hungary, Poland and Turkey.

The EU’s difficulty in addressing rule of law breaches in member states Hungary and Poland demonstrates the limits of such approaches, which ultimately lack real teeth. It requires a unanimous vote to trigger serious sanctions against member states. Given that Hungary and Poland would likely veto such action against the other, the EU is left with a limited array of instruments at its disposal, including preventative hearings and monitoring and reporting mechanisms – an approach similar to that of the OECD. In the absence of credible repercussions, this had a very limited tangible effect until the Commission succeeded in withholding funds from backsliding countries.

Nonetheless, the OECD initiative is a welcome sign of the importance that multilateral institutions now place on strengthening and protecting democracy internationally. There are other reasons, too, to be optimistic; the US can be a powerful advocate for the initiative (though the upcoming presidential election may represent a threat, if an incoming president is less committed to democracy-building). The ministerial meeting has set in motion an initiative which should play an authoritative role in international democratic renewal. Encouraged by action plans, steered by monitoring mechanisms and informed by comparative research and knowledge exchange, countries may over time start to prioritise building trust and cooperating on best democratic practice.

About the author

Sophie Andrews-McCarroll is Impact Research Fellow at the Constitution Unit.