Elephants in the Room
Colombia Is Ready to Join the Club
The United States should help its Latin American ally become a member of the OECD.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is an exclusive group of wealthy and democratic countries. Colombia is currently applying for membership. The United States should help Colombia join as the 36th member state before President Juan Manuel Santos leaves office in August.
A country club for serious countries, the OECD was originally conceived to administer the Marshall Plan and helped with postwar reconstruction efforts in Europe, and in turn paved the way for the European Union. It was one of the many organizations created to support the rules-based liberal order set up by the United States and its allies.
In some ways, the OECD represents the end state toward which countries work. Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, and South Africa are all in some sort of observer status through the organization’s Enhanced Engagement program. Today, the organization has over 200 committees, working groups, and expert groups, and it often represents the gold standard on issues such as corruption, education, and foreign aid. The obscure Development Assistance Committee is the major league for international foreign aid.
When U.S. President Donald Trump visits Peru to attend the Summit of the Americas later this month, he is also set to make a stop in Colombia — the only other South American country he intends to visit during the trip. Colombia’s membership in the OECD is going to be at the top of Santos’s agenda. While an OECD membership does not require money, it does require an agreement among all OECD member states on whether the applicant country (Colombia in this case) has met a series of requirements.
The current head of the OECD is Angel Gurría, a Mexican diplomat and economist. Gurría has shifted OECD’s gaze toward Latin America, where several countries have matured into democracies, have elected responsible leaders, and have made great economic and social progress.
Colombia wants the recognition of the progress that it has made in the past 20 years and, understandably, wants to take its rightful place among successful democracies. By doing that, it seeks to close the book on its insurgency and permanently change its country’s brand.
Colombia has made incredible strides through Plan Colombia and Peace Colombia, and it has signed a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC — although the National Liberation Army, or ELN, has not put down arms. Most of these positive changes have happened to because of Colombians themselves, although the United States and others have been strong and consistent partners. On the socioeconomic front, the World Bank has reported that Colombia has reduced extreme poverty (people living on $1.90 a day or less) from 16.2 percent of its population in 2000, to 5.5 percent in 2015. During the same period, Colombia’s gross national income nearly tripled, from $97.7 billion to $286 billion.
When speaking at a joint press conference with Santos this February, former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that the United States strongly supported Colombia’s accession to a full membership with the OECD. Following this, the Colombians sent a high-level delegation to Washington in March to advance their case further.
Colombia’s application has had to go through a number of OECD committee hurdles, and Colombia has made changes to its laws and practices to meet the organization’s stringent requirements. With the employment, labor, and social affairs committee having issued a formal opinion in favor of Colombia’s accession, the review process comes down to the trade committee. Pending this approval, the country can advance to the final stage of the membership process.
There is one last diplomatic hurdle. While the United States has been supportive, it has outstanding issues over pharmaceuticals, distilled spirits, and truck scrapping while also sharing concerns about intellectual property rights. The United States and Colombia disagree on the progress that has been made on these fronts.
The United States pursued the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement in the mid-2000s largely as a sign of its commitment with Colombia. In fact, then-President George W. Bush was so committed to this that the free trade agreement was one of the few things he tried to get done while walking out the door in 2008. The United States should help Santos and Colombia become an OECD member not only because the two countries have been friends and bilateral trade partners for decades, but also to set the table for the next 30 years of a new post-conflict partnership. OECD membership would allow Colombia to be recognized for all its achievements and further transform its brand, signaling to investors and to the world that Colombia is ready for business. With Santos set to leave office in August, the timeline for this application to come to closure is now. It would be fitting for Santos to be onstage to receive Colombia’s membership.
Daniel Runde is a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he also holds the William A. Schreyer chair in global analysis, a former USAID official in the George W. Bush administration, and a former foreign policy adviser to Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign. Twitter: @danrunde