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Don’t Miss the Tide: Honourable Donald Johnston and His Dedication to the Sustainable International Development
Liu Chen
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Don’t Miss the Tide: Honourable Donald Johnston and His Dedication to the Sustainable International Development

Nearly two years after the start of global disruptions due to COVID-19, in his New Year’s Message 2022, UN Secretary-General António Guterres crystalized the essential challenge confronting the world already at a cross-roads is —“Test”. “These are not just policy tests. These are moral and real-life tests” in pursuit of a new year of recovery.

In recently heated historical reviews on what the future holds fifty years after President Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972, “Questions” are basic to the outlooks.

  When Tests, and Can we pass the tests have become a home to global concern, understanding global challenges through history, though in a different context, still and always, is a great inspiration. In doing so, the reflections upon honorable Donald Johnston and his extraordinary contributions to achieving the sustainable international development towards a better future globally may provide substantial referencing to our discussions at relevant points.

Johnston who left us on February 4, 2022 is a trailblazer. He held key cabinet positions under Prime Ministers Pierre Trudeau and John Turner from 1978-1988, and the first non-European to take office as the Secretary‑General of the OECD from 1996 to 2006 (two terms). Stepping into the international role from the domestic front, Johnston was able to understand the complexity of major issues concerning this globalizing world in an even-handed way, and ignite change for the world’s greater good from a more complete perspective.

Under his stewardship, the recommendations constructive and practical for good governance, and expansion of multilateral dialogue on matters of global concern in sustainable development, international cooperation, democracy, and education etc., had a key role either in helping governments manage risks, conduct reforms, and promote policy innovation (a prime example, he introduced Health as a work program to meet the challenges confronting healthcare), or in sparking OECD’s potential to be a more efficient, effective, and responsible organization (he took the lead in a series of innovations important to OECD, such as the globally well-known the OECD Anti- Bribery Convention; the Ministerial Round Table on Sustainable Development, which is continuing to grapple with the international collective work on climate change; and in particular, OECD Programme for International Student Assessment). Looking back closely, the beneficiaries of which Johnston took care are the whole world.

Constructive, positive, and active attitude to innovation is the foundation of Johnston’s understanding of sustainable international development. In face of unpredictable trajectory of globalization, he looked to see things differently and to embrace change positively. In his Missing the Tide, Johnston was from a historical angel meant to crystalize and share the invaluable international legacy in global governance, and international cooperation. What remains deeply meaningful to our

world at the critical time is learning from the global governments, particularly in the 1990s, that why and how “there were a number of major challenges 25 years ago, but it seemed that leaders could turn them into wonderful opportunities for rapid and sustainable economic and social progress”. Executing solutions together is the answer. He cited the collective efforts to establish World Trade Organization (WTO). This was not without challenge. In July 1997, the world faced the Asian financial crisis and with the increasing global interdependence of financial markets, the fear of a global crisis through contagion triggered various doubts and criticisms on the goal of WTO. However, the global governments then were confident of and committed to containment and resolution of that crisis augured well for the future. History tells the role of the courage and determination of this kind in sustainable international development. Evidently, WTO is seen as bringing economic growth and rising prosperity everywhere, but especially to the developing world because the new standards successfully enabled trade rather than aid to became the new mantra. Most importantly, the innovation in trade took a great number of people worldwide out of poverty and gave them the opportunity to play a part in global economy.

Over the course of his lifetime, Johnston kept bashing into the walls against international cooperation and coordination. As Stephen Cutts elaborated in his Special to Montreal Gazette, “Johnston was conscious of the need for the OECD to remain relevant through both enlargement and its outreach program” despite the confrontations from member states objecting on the grounds that the major economies such as China were “insufficiently like-minded”.

Delivering major benefits for all people beyond the economic work is at the heart of Johnston’s concern. It provides another important dimension to identify the core message of his outlook of sustainable international development.

 Johnston took care to energize youth to meet the demands of this ever-changing world. Keeping with the creation of the UN Millennium Development Goals, under his leadership, the world-famous OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) was launched in 2000. The goal of this policy is to support youth in learning for tomorrow's world. It is also a landmark international legacy far beyond education left by Johnston. One point critical to this: In China, the international comparative policy analyses of primary education have been observably expanded due to PISA. The best practices outside China from Finland, Japan, and Canada etc, for the first time caught attention of the Chinese educators when these countries ranked top on PISA.

Johnston passionately advocated for support of youth global citizenship. He chaired for many years the McCall McBain Foundation (MMF) created by his friends John and Marcy McCall MacBain. Being extraordinary philanthropists, MMF committed 200 million for McCall MacBain graduate scholarships at McGill University. The scholarships focus on leadership potential. Importantly, his care is international. He was always glad to visit China, and share his insights with the Chinese students from middle schools to universities. In his very welcome lectures, he emphasized the significance to grow up to a truly global citizen and identified the path towards a person of this kind. He encouraged the Chinese students to be curious about

different ideas and practices, and to exercise how to work together with the world as a team.

In her reflections upon WWII, Ruth Benedict, one of the most compelling intellectual figures in the twentieth-century American life wrote in her famous The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, “One of the handicaps of the twentieth century is that we still have the vaguest and most biased notions, not only of what makes Japan a nation of Japanese, but of what makes the U.S. a nation of Americans, France a nation of Frenchmen, and Russia a nation of Russians. Lacking this knowledge, each country misunderstands the other”.

History repeats in this way. Looking at the fears hanging over the world right now, the questions that Johnston raised, and the answers that he tried to give are visionary.

The most important thing in his view of international sustainable development is what makes good governance. It is in the essence is humanity. As a footnote, President Nixon once illustrated China-U.S. relationship, “Today, China’s economic power makes U.S. lectures about morality and human rights imprudent. Within a decade, it will make them irrelevant. Within two decades, it will make them laughable… unless we do more to improve living conditions in Detroit, Harlem, and South-Central Los Angeles”. 

We are living in a globalizing world, like or dislike. “Globalization is changing the way the world looks, and the way we look at the world. By adopting a global outlook, we become more aware of our connections to people in other societies. We also become more conscious of that many problems the world faces at the start of the twenty-first century” stated by Anthony Giddens, an eminent British sociologist in his Sociology (4th Edition). In face of the various uncertainty, particularly, when misunderstanding, cynicism, and disengagement somehow outpace the efforts to correct them, Johnston’s publications and associate practices for more than 60 years should be reread by China, and the world. In this sense, he is forward-looking.

Johnston’s personality has a lot in common with that of all of talents around the world. They are the persons who you can glorify or vilify, but “the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things - they push the human race forward” (Steve Jobs).

As borders become porous to everything from infectious diseases to terrorism to cyber criminals, to climate change, the uncertainty, more urgent and more complicated, confronting the whole world has reached new serious and difficult milestone. It reminds me of Johnston’s answer: “Moments of great difficulty are also moments of great opportunity, and what happens next is up to you”.

Liu Chen is the professor of Public Administration and Cultural Studies of Beijing Foreign Studies University, Harvard Kennedy School Mason Fellow, Postdoctoral Fellow, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard. Her research focuses on policy, practice, leadership and culture and international cooperation.       

Liu ChenGu Yetao

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