Chile, Haiti: The difference between 7.0 and 8.8, between 200 and 200,000

This post contributed by John Mutter, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences/Professor of International and Public Affairs and Director of PhD in Sustainable Development, Columbia University, NY, along with Belinda Archibong and Danni Pi, economics students at Columbia College.

Let’s imagine it is January 10th and I tell you that my seismologist colleagues and I have just found how to predict earthquakes. I can forecast that there will be two large earthquakes quite close in time, one of magnitude 7.0 in Haiti on January 12th and one of magnitude 8.8 in Chile on February 27th.

The well-known Richter scale measures amplitude of ground motion, not energy release; when comparing energy release, a magnitude 8.8 earthquake is about 500 times greater than a magnitude 7.0 earthquake, so those two are very distinct physical events.

But even though I can tell the time, location and magnitude of future earthquakes, even though I can rank them by their respective sizes, I don’t know how many people will die, or the financial losses, or any social outcomes. The difficulty to predict the consequences on the population constitutes an immense limitation to this imaginary forecasting.

How many people would have predicted that although the energy release was 500 times greater in Chile the loss of life would be a thousand times greater in Haiti –casualties were more than 200 in Chile, and in excess of 200,000 in Haiti. Also, how many would have suggested that looting would be so much greater a problem in Chile? (more…)

Ladies, win an egg this Easter!

Yesterday was “Mothering Sunday” in the UK, and the Sunday Times reported that a London fertility clinic is holding a prize draw for would-be mums this week. The lucky winner gets a human egg.

And not just any old egg, mind you, since she’ll be able to pick the “racial background, upbringing and education of the donor”.

The raffle is being organised to promote a partnership with a US company in the same business. The idea is to attract women in their forties and fifties who are unlikely to get pregnant using their own eggs.

For Josephine Quintavalle of CORE, a think-tank specialising in the ethics of assisted reproduction, “the capacity of the IVF industry to commodify human life reaches a new low with this latest deplorable initiative”.

Others may not be so outraged. After all, selling bits of their body can be a useful source of revenue for the needy. The London clinic’s own website boasts of the “superb” success of its Ukraine programme, enabling patients aged up to 56 to conceive. That said, it doesn’t specify whether the “donors” are from the Ukraine (GDP per capita $6400) or whether women from the UK (GDP per capita $35,400) are helping their Slavic sisters.

It is clear, though, that the clinic and its business partners have to steer a course through a “very wide range of laws, rules, guidelines and ethics”. The raffle is a useful navigational aid, enabling the clinic to get round legal constraints on selling eggs, since the treatment will be carried out in a US state that allows such sales.

That doesn’t make the ethical debate disappear. On the face of it, you’d expect people whose worldview is shaped by Judaism, Christianity or Islam to be delighted at the idea of an old, barren woman giving birth. After all, when Abraham/Ibrahim’s wife Sarah had Isaac she was over 90, and it was hailed as a wonder to be praised.

Some of the feeling of unease around IVF is to do with the fact that we’re talking about women in their 50s or 60s having a baby. Little is said about a man the same age fathering a child. When asked to explain their unease, many people would say that in the women’s case, it is “unnatural”.

Consciously or not, such a reply reflects a view of nature and the natural that in the West at least has changed little since the Middle Ages, when thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and Engelbert of Admont developed ideas explored earlier by St Augustine, and Aristotle before him. For them, a child conceived and born when one parent is beyond the usual age was a typical example of a miracle “beyond nature”.

Augustine also used the Greek notion of “rationes seminales” – seminal reasons – to explain the coming into existence of things that didn’t previously exist in nature. He argued that the germs of things have existed since the creation, even if the conditions that allow them to evolve did not. Also, each thing is true to its own essence – a flower seed will not grow into an animal for instance.

Why bother with all this ontology? Because in the past few decades, science has given us the possibility of producing miracles and wonders on a daily basis. Doctors can now restore sight to the blind, make the crippled walk and easily cure leprosy and plague. Thanks to science, we can fly to the Moon.

But science can also do things many of us disagree with or are unsure about – build nuclear weapons, alter genetic material, keep the near-dead alive.

Policy makers can’t keep up. Partly this is because the pace of change in science is far faster than the pace of policy making. Partly, it’s because politicians, like most of the citizens they represent, don’t understand the science. And partly it’s because, again like many of us, they have ambivalent attitudes towards the latest discoveries, perhaps not agreeing with them on moral grounds, but unwilling to deny others any potential benefits.

Useful links

Biotechnology: Ethical and social debtes from the OECD International Futures Project on “Biotechnology to 2030”

Improving the dialogue with society on scientific issues OECD Global Science Forum

Bioethics information resources from the US National Institutes of Health

Bioethics in the Council of Europe

International Association of Bioethics

Bioedge bioethics news site (incoporating the former Australasian Bioethics Information site)

Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

“They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility… a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade… has monsters half so horrible and dread. Scrooge started back, appalled.”

The reader is appalled too. Nothing in the tedious sentimentality of A Christmas Carol prepares you for Dickens’ sudden, shocking denunciation of child poverty, personified as a boy called Ignorance and girl called Want.

Dickens was writing from personal experience. He went to work in a factory making shoe polish when he was 12, after his father was jailed for debt (the rest of the family joined him, apart from Charles). Here, and later as a reporter, he saw the conditions we sometimes still refer to as “Dickensian”.

What about today? According to UNICEF, an estimated 158 million children aged 5-14 are engaged in child labour – one in six children in the world. Often they are exposed to dangerous chemicals and machinery, and various forms of physical and psychological abuse.

Children in rural areas and girls are the worst off, especially girls working as servants.

Lack of education helps condemn children to poverty. Dickens even saw it as the worse of the two conditions, with the Ghost warning Scrooge “…most of all beware this boy [Ignorance], for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”

Erasing that writing is the second of the UN Millennium Goals “Ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling”.

However, according to the latest UN update (from 2008, before the recession) 58 out of the 86 countries that have not yet reached universal primary education will not achieve it by 2015. And as for child labour, the children most likely to drop out of school or to not attend at all are girls, those from poorer households or children living in rural areas.

Almost all of these children are in developing countries, but UNICEF also looks at the well-being of children in 21 OECD countries (not enough comparable data is available to include the others).

The countries are ranked according to six dimensions: material well-being; health and safety; education; peer and family relationships; behaviours and risks; and young people’s own subjective sense of well-being, giving a total of 40 separate indicators.

The Netherlands heads the table of overall child wellbeing, ranking in the top 10 for all dimensions. However, no country features in the top third of the rankings for all six dimensions (though the Netherlands and Sweden come close).

Research featured on yesterday’s OECD Factblog suggests that child poverty is increasing in OECD countries, but isn’t receiving the policy attention it deserves. We’ve moved on from the days when Scrooge could point out that there were prisons and workhouses to tackle the problem of poverty, but with a combined GDP of forty trillion dollars for the OECD countries, we could do much better.

Useful links

Growing Unequal: Income distribution and poverty in OECD countries

Society at a glance 2009 contains data on poverty among children

A Christmas Carol e-text

Teachers matter

It’s hard to overstate the importance of teachers. Strip away the other things that determine how well students do – such as social background and individual capacity – and you’re pretty much left with teaching as the major factor that can be shaped by education policy.

Unfortunately, in the past teachers were often thought of in terms of quantity not quality – it didn’t matter what they were like so long as you had enough of them. That attitude is changing. In part that’s a response to student assessments like the OECD’s PISA . It has shown that differences in how well students do are often greater within schools than between schools. In the U.S., research suggests students with the strongest teachers can be a full year ahead of those learning under the weakest teachers.

But what makes a teacher good? Two recent articles offer some interesting ideas. In The New York Times, Elizabeth Green reports on a couple of interesting approaches, including the Lemov Taxonomy. This emphasises the need for teachers to capture students’ attention and then get them to follow instructions. That may sound like a call for a return to old-style classroom discipline, but in fact it mostly comes down to better classroom management and simple techniques.

An example: When Doug Lemov, creator of the taxonomy, was carrying out his research, “he noticed something about most successful teachers that he hadn’t expected to find: what looked like natural-born genius was often deliberate technique in disguise. ‘Stand still when you’re giving directions,’ a teacher at a Boston school told him. In other words, don’t do two things at once. Lemov tried it, and suddenly, he had to ask students to take out their homework only once.”

In The Atlantic, Amanda Ripley reports on Teach for America , a non-profit organisation that hires college graduates for two years to teach in poorer neighbourhoods. With more than 7,000 teachers on its books, the group has a large pool of research to work from. It has come up with a number of findings on what makes teachers effective. Firstly, it found they were ambitious – they set big goals for their students and constantly reexamined their own approaches to try to make them better.

Strong teachers shared four other tendencies, adds Ripley: “They avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully – for the next day or the year ahead – by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.”

Useful links

OECD Insights: Human Capital

OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS)

OECD work on attracting, developing and retaining effective teachers

OECD work on evaluating and rewarding teachers

educationtoday – including the OECD education blog

Does Wonderwoman earn as much as Superman?

Last night’s news carried a story on the status of women in the workplace today. The teaser promised to inform us on France’s relative progress on pay differentials, discrimination and harassment.

My 13 year old son piped up in disbelief, “That’s not true anymore…Maybe it used to be, but women are treated just the same as men now.”

I pause to think of an age-appropriate explanation of  “the treatment of women” – on the history of women’s rights, the progress made and the confounding barriers that remain.

Trying to explore the meaning of equity and equality is actually a great way to put the issue in perspective.  In the developed world, women are present in most fields (and have begun to outnumber men in higher education).  Still, they lag behind in average pay – and what more concrete measure is there than compensation?

The latest data show that across the OECD, men’s median earnings are on average about 18% higher than women’s.   In some countries the difference is as much as 30%.  We may appear to be on equal footing – projecting an image of strength and success to our children – but the figures tell a different story…

Useful links:

Overview of Gender Differences in OECD Countries

HIV/AIDS kills more young women than anything else

HIV/AIDS is now the leading cause of death and disease among women of reproductive age (15-49 years) worldwide. That’s the stark message coming from UNAIDS as it launches the Agenda for Accelerated Country Action for Women, Girls, Gender Equality and HIV.

Violence against women and girls is the key driver of the epidemic. The risk of HIV among women who have experienced violence, or fear they might experience it,  may be up to three times higher than among those who have not.  These women are less likely to have safe sex, go for HIV testing, share their HIV status and get treatment.

Their inferior social status puts women and girls at risk too.

The infection rate among young women (15-24 years) is three times higher than that of young men in some countries where men are encouraged to have more than one sexual partner and it is common for older men to have sexual relations with much younger women.

When they do get infected, women are likely to face barriers in accessing HIV prevention, treatment and care services because benefiting from services often requires time, money and the possibility to travel that men are not prepared to grant.

Women and girls can find themselves in a double bind. They have to stay at home to look after the family, including HIV/AIDS victims, thereby limiting their chances of earning money and increasing their autonomy.

The death of a partner, whatever the cause, means that many women lose everything and have to adopt what UNAIDS euphemistically calls “survival strategies that increase their chances of contracting and spreading HIV”.

The United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, is more direct: “Driven by poverty and the desire for a better life, many women and girls find themselves using sex as a commodity in exchange for goods, services, money, accommodation, or other basic necessities.”

Lack of education is also responsible.

The cheapest way to inform people about HIV prevention is through written material such as posters and leaflets. Illiterate women can’t take advantage of this information, which is one reason why they are four times more likely to believe there is no way to prevent HIV infection.


Useful links

WHO site on gender inequality and HIV

Women and health : today’s evidence tomorrow’s agenda a new WHO report reviewing evidence on the health issues that particularly affect girls and women throughout their life

The Global Coalition on Women and AIDS

The Finnish government analysed HIV/AIDS related strategies and key interventions of 25 development partners funding the HIV/AIDS related activities

OECD statistics on aid to HIV/AIDS control in official development assistance programmes

Wikigender was initiated by the OECD Development Centre to improve knowledge on gender equality-related issues around the world and facilitate information exchange

Time for banks to fail?

A hard-hitting report from the United States warns of a second Great Depression unless urgent action is taken to fix the financial system in the U.S. and G20 countries. It argues that the economic system is in the grip of a “doomsday cycle”: Banks behave recklessly during the boom part of the cycle, confident in the knowledge that during the bust “they can walk away and let the state clean up”.

Despite the damage caused by the  crisis, nothing has changed to alter financial institutions’ attitudes to risk, claim the authors: “It is now obvious that risk-taking at banks will soon be larger than ever. […] nothing has changed to make us believe the regulatory system will succeed this time, when it has failed so enormously – and repeatedly – in the recent past. To bring about the dramatic change that is needed also requires international cooperation and consistency.”

The report sets out its own fresh ideas for regulating financial markets, and places special emphasis on the need to make banks and their shareholders pay the price of their mistakes. The proposals, says the report, would “serve to prevent, detect, and credibly resolve financial crises. Making markets work as a system is the focus — emphasizing transparency, competition, and the important discipline of failure.”

The report, Make Markets be Markets, was written by a number of contributors, including Dr. Robert Johnson , who serves on the UN commission of experts on financial reform, and Prof. Elizabeth Warren, who chaired the congressional oversight panel on the U.S. crisis bailout. Its findings are being discussed at a conference organised by the Roosevelt Institute in New York today (Wednesday March 3).

Useful links

OECD Policy Framework for Effective and Efficient Financial Regulation

The OECD’s Adrian Blundell-Wignall discusses U.S. proposals for bank reform

OECD work on financial markets