Economic literacy a good investment

Griffith Honours College student Brigid Buckley attended the OECD annual forum in Paris in May

by Brigid Buckley, Griffith Honours College

Despite operating in an age of information, much of what governments and institutions communicate to the public is shrouded in jargon and obscured by technical language beyond the comprehension of the so-called average punter.

Additionally, more and more students and graduates are entering the ‘real world’ with only a rudimentary understanding of the political and economic systems within which they are expected to, and must, operate.

Consider the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). In its aftermath, many members of the public remain unsettled as they continue to be adversely affected by something they do not completely understand. This can lead to mistrust, suspicion and hostility or, conversely, disinterest and disengagement.

According to research by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – a multilateral organisation that provides economic and social policy analysis and advice – only 56 per cent of people on average say they trust their public institutions. In some countries, this rate drops below 30 per cent.

As a consequence, governments and organisations such as the OECD can seem faceless institutions or rich men’s clubs. In turn, this can negatively impact upon their work and hamper the consideration of research and proposed reforms.

In 2009, the OECD’s financial education research body published a report into the contribution of financial illiteracy to the deepening and worsening effects of the GFC. Its most disturbing finding was that the vast majority of the population was ill-equipped to participate in the global economy because of a lack of basic financial skills.

In other words, a person’s financial literacy will significantly affect their access to, and planning for, higher education, home ownership, secure retirement and savings and investments. It will also influence their vulnerability to scams and imprudent financial decisions.

A teachable moment

Yet the GFC and its aftermath have also been identified as a unique opportunity, a ‘teachable moment’, with households now more willing to learn about financial matters.

So, as more people increasingly demonstrate a serious interest in understanding economic and financial issues, governments and organisations such as the OECD should be encouraged to actively support and educate this willing public.

If such a rare opportunity for reform and education is squandered, we may live to regret it – and our children certainly will.

Better education and communication on economic matters can help eliminate barriers of ignorance and resistance, opening up public discourse and allowing for greater focus on the content of economic reforms, as opposed to trivialities or political point-scoring.

Simply producing information is no longer enough. There is a need to reach out to, connect with, and include the public.

If the OECD expects its research and recommendations to be understood and implemented, it needs to take more responsibility by advocating for greater investment in economic literacy and better communication with the public.

Furthermore, if member governments wish to see important economic reforms debated, considered and accepted in an informed manner, they need to help facilitate this process.

A greater prioritisation of economic education would be the first step. A concerted effort to produce and communicate more digestible information for the public could be a second.

Public engagement

The latter could be achieved by the OECD and member governments via the use of internet communications technologies, including social media, to promote better economic education and public engagement in economic issues.

Social media can provide a unique alternate avenue for information. It piques the interest in economic and political matters and offers supplementary information, particularly for younger members of the general public.

Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that social media and the internet do not provide a panacea. Rather, they assist and support that which is pre-established and offer an avenue for communicating with younger generations in particular.

Communicated information and messages must still be carefully composed with genuine consideration for the intended audience if positive results are to be obtained – a consideration often lacking in much of what is produced today.

To create a depth of economic literacy and understanding is to develop a citizenry capable of making informed decisions and forming educated opinions about economic subject matter.

To restore confidence and trust and to increase public participation and debate, it is vital that the OECD and member governments do more to actively promote economic education and engagement for all.

Griffith Honours College student Brigid Buckley attended the annual forum of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris in May. She travelled under the auspices of Global Voices, a non-profit organisation established in 2011 to help young Australians engage with international policy.