Where there's a world of information

Last updated 05:00 30/12/2012

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We work too hard but need to, in order to pay for our housing. We're honest as the day is long and as healthy as our clean air. Our kids are well-educated but our youth suicide rate is appalling.

A deep dive into the myriad statistics recorded by the OECD will tell you all sorts of things about New Zealand and how we rank alongside other countries. But how valid are they? And what is the OECD anyway and how did it become a media factoid crutch?

This month a Christchurch principal reckoned we spent less on education than most in the OECD. Recently the Green Party told us our unemployment rate rose 1.2 per cent faster than the OECD average over four years. And Auckland Action Against Poverty said it was rising 1.5 times faster. They were both right, but used figures which compared rates at different times of the year.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development is made up of 34 of the world's wealthiest capital exporting countries.

It provides a forum for governments to discuss and share common problems and solutions. Reports are made and countries ranked on their performance.

The OECD originated from an American effort to spur economic growth in Europe after World War Two. New Zealand joined in 1973. Russia is the latest country waiting to join, and close relations with non-members Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and South Africa are contributing to larger league tables. But not everyone pays as much attention to OECD findings as New Zealand, said Auckland University School of Law associate dean Jane Kelsey.

The research professor is sceptical of the organisation's reliance on government economic data, saying it downplays controversial findings to maintain relationships with member countries. Data may not always be consistent, and governments can use reports for their own benefit, Kelsey said.

A classic example was when the last Labour government massaged figures to delay the announcement of an impending housing bubble.

"The OECD was clearly reluctant to raise it earlier because the government wouldn't have been happy. Or they could have been accused of bursting that bubble and influencing the market."

Kelsey said people needed to be careful interpreting OECD figures, bearing in mind its pro-market agenda with many reports coming across as "cheerleading".

"It's a network of top capital exporting countries." Statistics are malleable and variations can occur. New Zealand has the highest youth suicide rate of member countries, comparable with Lithuania, latest OECD figures show. But it's more likely that New Zealand is better at reporting youth suicide than other countries.

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"The OECD has a high level of technical expertise for statistics," Kelsey said. "What countries do to gather them is another matter."

New Zealand local government politician Chris Laidlaw once worked for the International Energy Agency in Paris under the wing of the OECD, and agreed we should avoid treating its reports as gospel. The OECD is a product of its membership and has no formal policies over New Zealand, he said.

"OECD information is only one source of material that should be included in the national policy mix," Laidlaw said. "Reports don't go very far beneath the surface.

"They are useful, but only in a broad comparative sense."

In the past the OECD had a reputation for one-dimensional advice on economic management to promote growth without much consideration of the broader needs of member countries, he said.

While there is value in this work, it needs to be better blended with other policy streams, Laidlaw said.

"In recent years they have begun to take greater account of the environmental and social dimensions as distinct from the raw economic situation.

"And that is a good thing."

- Sunday Star Times

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