Does education still pay?

Click to download the report

Today’s post is from Dr Neil Lee, senior economist at The Work Foundation.

Youth unemployment is reaching crisis point in many countries. The financial collapse of 2008/9 and the weakness of the subsequent recovery have made it harder for young people to make the first step into the labour market. Unemployment rates have risen across the OECD. Some in the media have claimed that there is a crisis in graduate unemployment, and that education may not be worth the cost. And a cursory glance at the statistics would seem to support this point of view: across the OECD, unemployment rates have increased for those with higher education from only 3.3% to 4.7% between 2008 and 2010.

Yet if the labour market is difficult for those with higher education, it is far worse for those without. As the OECD’s Education at a Glance report – released last week – makes clear, education is more valuable than ever. For those without an upper secondary education, unemployment across the OECD has increased from 8.8% to 12.5%. Education matters, and increasingly so.

Given that the supply of highly educated workers has increased hugely over the past 30 years, why hasn’t the demand for educated workers declined? One answer is structural change in the economy. As we move to an economy based on knowledge rather than physical production, the demand for workers who can create, use and disseminate knowledge has increased. The economic crisis accelerated structural change, with weak industries closing and marginal jobs reduced.

Alongside this is the related issue of technological change. Skilled workers who can use and – to a lesser extent – produce technology are increasingly in demand. And globalization, or the increase in trade between countries, is also a partial explanation, meaning that low-skilled workers in advanced economies have fewer job opportunities – but that workers in other parts of the world often have more.

Young people without education have been caught between these trends. And where low-skilled employment has increased, it has been in low-waged service work. While manufacturing has declined as a source of employment, services have become more important, with the result that even the skill requirements for entry level work has changed. Large plant manufacturing gave young people opportunities to ‘learn on the job’, meaning that it mattered less if young people lacked the soft skills to work – they could enter the labour market and develop them.

Yet in service based economies, young people without soft skills are caught in a “Catch 22”: it is hard to develop soft skills without experience of work, but they cannot find employment without soft skills. In many countries, including the UK, these two processes have led to long-term increases in youth unemployment, particularly for those with less education.

So what are the answers?

Firstly, the public debate needs to abandon the myth that there are too many graduates, or that education is not worth it. The facts directly contradict this and it is vital that neither policymakers nor young people themselves begin to believe it.

Secondly, it is important to provide young people with a ‘soft landing’ into the labour market – the opportunity to develop workplace skills alongside formal education. Countries with low levels of youth unemployment, such as Germany or the Netherlands, are often good at this. In the Netherlands, many young people work part-time whilst still in education. This allows them to develop workplace skills in the areas of teamwork, punctuality and customer service without getting caught in a ‘Catch-22’.

Thirdly, we need continued efforts to ensure young people from any background have the chance to gain higher education. The OECD’s Education at a Glance report contains some startling findings on differences in attainment for young people of different backgrounds. On average across the OECD, young people whose families have low levels of education are less than half as likely to be in higher education compared to the average.

However, some countries perform better on this measure than others – chances are better for a young person from Australia than the UK. And one of the key drivers of this is attainment while at school: countries that are better at educating children in school fare better when it comes to translating this into higher education.

Youth unemployment is a major challenge across the OECD, with rates especially high for those with fewer qualifications. Governments need to respond across a number of fronts, but at the heart of the problem is education. Increasing educational attainment, particularly amongst disadvantaged groups, will be the key to addressing the long-term challenge of youth unemployment.

Useful links

OECD work on employment

OECD work on education


Child mortality: aid works

Click to download the Unicef report on child mortality

The number of children dying before age 5 dropped from nearly 12 million in 1990 to around 6.9 million in 2011, according to new figures from UNICEF and the United Nations Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation. To put it another way, 14,000 fewer children under 5 die each day than was the case 21 years ago, chiefly because of progress in tackling polio, measles and malaria. The decline in under-five mortality has accelerated in the last decade — from 1.8% a year during the 1990s to 3.2% a year between 2000 and 2011. But 19,000 children under 5 still die every day from preventable diseases, notably pneumonia (18% of the deaths) and diarrhoea (11%).

We asked aid specialist Brenda Killen from the OECD Development Co-operation Directorate for her thoughts on what the UN report reveals.

Brenda Killen: It’s great news that child mortality has fallen, but every baby’s death is a tragedy and we have to reduce mortality even more by learning the lessons from this success, identifying the key success factors, then replicating them elsewhere – on a larger scale if possible. One lesson for me is that your chances of success are greatest when the goal is simple, clear, and widely shared.  Everyone wants to reduce child mortality – from global leaders to the poorest people in the least developed parts of the world.  So we can mobilize our efforts around it in a true partnership of governments, donors, NGOs, people. And we can raise funds around it so it has sustained and secure finance. Being able to plan your budget is important, especially for long-term efforts such as those targeting child mortality. Our research shows that the value of aid is reduced by 15% to 20% when it’s unpredictable and volatile.

We hear a lot of criticism about aid being a waste of money. How important was aid in reducing child mortality?

BK: Aid didn’t achieve the result on its own, but it was a vital factor. Experience from the field shows again and again that aid programmes work. For example, aid saves over 1 million children from death each year in six Commonwealth countries according to Oxfam Campaigns Director Ben Phillips. At the OECD, we’ve been studying what makes aid effective. Last year in Busan, Korea, donors from OECD and non-OECD countries, along with civil society, set out a number of principles to guide all development actors in making their cooperation work better. I mentioned the fact that the mortality goal was widely shared. In the Busan Partnership, this is described as “ownership”: countries receiving finance take charge of the process and so too do the various people and organisations involved at every level.

But what if the country can’t cope?

BK: Ownership doesn’t mean the country has to achieve everything on its own. The Busan principles emphasize that partnerships are important too, and we’re starting to see results from a number of innovative initiatives where we’ve used aid well. Aid can do things that other types of assistance can’t. A good example is the GAVI Alliance, the organisation that used to be called the “Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation”. Aid was used to guarantee markets for life-saving vaccines so that the pharmaceutical companies would provide the products needed to tackle the leading killers of infants at an affordable price.  This would not have happened without aid.  The development of new partnerships such as the Global Fund to Fight Aids, TB and Malaria or the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health are other examples.  They show that innovative thinking backed by aid can be a game-changer.  And that is the Busan principle on results.

Why do you need a “principle on results”? Shouldn’t it be obvious that policy makers need to produce evidence of results?

BK: Yes, but actually collecting reliable data, analysing it and drawing conclusions as to what works and doesn’t isn’t simple. Child mortality has always has been relatively well-reported when compared with other issues and efforts to tackle child mortality have gone hand-in-hand with improvements in data and knowledge.  Even so,  in 2009 the births of 50 million children went unrecorded and the deaths of 40 million people went un-noted except by family or friends, according to the World Bank. And there’s a long list of other areas where better information is needed, both to support the design of policies and programmes and to improve accountability. For instance, only 17 sub-Saharan African countries have collected data to measure changes in poverty over the past decade and 47% have not carried out household income or expenditure surveys in more than five years. Only one in four African countries report basic crop production data. Without reliable data, you can’t target your efforts, or demonstrate impact, or learn lessons as quickly and accurately as you should.  The Busan Action Plan for Statistics supports three principal objectives: fully integrating statistics in decision making; promoting open access to statistics; and increasing resources for statistical systems.

Finally, what would you say to people who argue that the government shouldn’t be giving taxpayers’ money to foreigners when times are tough at home?

BK: We’ve just been talking about statistics, so it’s worth recalling the actual data. In 2011, countries that are members of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD provided $133.5 billion of net official development assistance (ODA), representing 0.31% of their combined gross national income (GNI).  This was a 2.7 % drop in real terms compared to 2010, the first drop in 15 years. There are a number of reasons OECD countries should help others. Apart from the moral aspect, it’s in their own interest, for both positive and negative reasons. The big problems affecting the world with regard to the economy, security and conflict, the environment, or health don’t respect national boundaries. It’s cheaper to help a poor country tackle problems while they’re still local before they spill over to affect the wider global community. Let’s not forget that the public is fully committed to helping the less fortunate. A recent survey in crisis-hit Ireland found that 80% of those interviewed support the 0.7% target for aid. The public is also supporting important private giving. For example, Save the Children has over two million supporters worldwide and raised 1.6 billion dollars last year. What is often questioned is how aid money is spent – and that’s what the Busan commitments are all about. And as Korea and others have shown, aid plays a part in helping countries develop to become valuable partners in a number of different fields.

Useful links

OECD work on aid effectiveness

Children and Young People: Reading less but enjoying it as much

Endangered species?

Today’s post is by Christina Clark, Head of Research of the UK National Literacy Trust, whose latest report Children’s and Young People’s Reading Today has just been published

Young people’s lives are busier than ever before, with many activities and interests vying for their time outside of school. What role does reading play in this crowded lifestyle? Findings from our latest annual literacy survey of 21,000 8 to 16-year olds in the UK, published this month in our report Children and Young People’s Reading Today, suggest that reading plays an increasingly lesser role in young people’s leisure time, for example the frequency with which young people read. We found that only 30.8% of young people said that they read daily in their own time in 2011 compared with 38.1% in 2005. Conversely, more than a fifth of children and young people (21.6%) rarely or never read in their own time in 2011, up from 15.4% in 2005.

While fewer young people now read daily, we intriguingly also found that the proportion of children and young people who enjoy reading very much or quite a lot has remained static since 2005 (50% today vs 51% in 2005). These findings together suggest a clear issue with children and young people’s leisure time, with many children and young people enjoying reading but pushing it out in favour of other activities.

It isn’t the case that young people have shifted their reading patterns from paper to digital formats as a comparison of reading choices in 2005 and 2011 showed that, with the exception of text messages, reading across all formats, including technology-based reading, has fallen. For example, 77% of children and young people read magazines in 2005 while now just 57% do; comic reading has dropped from 64% to 50%; and reading on websites from 64% to 50%.

In line with numerous other studies, we also found that girls are more likely than boys to make time for reading, with 35.3% of girls saying that they read outside of class every day compared with 26.3% of boys (issues surrounding boys’ reading in the UK today are discussed here). However, our surveys – in line with OECD PISA international comparison data – show that the gap between boys and girls in terms of their daily reading has widened in recent years. For example, in 2005, 35% of boys and 42% of girls said that they read daily outside of class. 

Not only are girls more likely than boys to read daily, they are also more likely to enjoy it than boys. Nearly twice as many girls as boys say that they enjoy reading very much (27.6% vs. 18.3%), with 56.7% of girls enjoying reading either very much or quite a lot compared with only 43.8% of boys. Conversely, nearly twice as many boys as girls say that they don’t enjoy reading at all (14.6% vs. 8.3%).

The gender gap in reading enjoyment is not just a UK phenomenon; instead, it is corroborated by numerous studies that all show that boys enjoy reading less than girls. For example, PISA showed that across OECD countries, just over half of 15-year-old boys (52%) said that they read for enjoyment compared with nearly three-quarters of girls (73%). However, the gender difference remains wider in 2011 than in 2005 (where the percentage point gap between boys and girls who enjoy reading either very much or quite a lot was 10.7). The PISA question is a combined reading enjoyment and reading frequency question, which might account for the different proportions of boys and girls who say that they enjoy reading compared with our survey.

Girls and boys also read different materials outside of class. More girls than boys say that they not only read technology-based formats, such as text messages, messages on social networking sites, emails and instant messages, but also that they read more “traditional” texts, such as fiction and poems as well as magazines and lyrics. By contrast, more boys than girls say that they read non-fiction, newspapers, comics and manuals. Girls’ penchant for technology-based materials is not simply explained by girls having greater access to computers or the internet than boys. Our survey also showed that roughly the same proportion of boys and girls say that they either own a computer (boys 72.1%; girls 74.0%), have access to one (boys 96.4%; girls 97.0%) or have the internet at home (boys 96.3%; girls 96.3%).

One other area that we would like to highlight here relates to ethnic background. We compared data on broad ethnic groups and found that the relationships between reading and ethnic background are complex. For example, young people from White backgrounds enjoy reading considerably less (White 49.4%; Mixed race 56.8%; Asian/Asian British 58.2%; Black/Black British 60.7%), and read daily less often (White 30.7%; Mixed race 34.2%; Asian/Asian British 32.6%; Black/Black British 38.3%). They are also less likely to agree that reading is “cool” (White 31.9%; Mixed race 37.7%; Asian/Asian British 44.1%; Black/Black British 47.4%). They are more likely to agree that they would be embarrassed if their friends saw them read (White 17.7%; Mixed race 15.6%; Asian/Asian British 13%; Black/Black British 12.3%). Young people from White backgrounds are also more likely to agree that they prefer watching TV to reading (White 54.5%; Mixed race 50.3%; Asian/Asian British 46.8%; Black/Black British 50.7%).

We believe it is essential to make the time for children and young people to read as the research also shows a clear link between reading outside of class and their achievement. It found that young people who read outside of class daily were 13 times more likely to read above the expected level for their age.

We hope this research will increase interest in children’s and young people’s reading habits and encourage government, families and those working with children and young people to help make reading part of a young person’s daily activities. To find out more about our research and the activities we undertake to address literacy issues in the UK and how you could become involved, see our website 

Useful links

OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

PISA – Let’s Read Them a Story! The Parent Factor in Education

The American Library in Paris is organising a discussion on 25 September at 19:30 with the author of Let’s Read Them a Story, Francesca Borgonovi, and Peter Gumbel, author of On achève bien les ecoliers, to learn more about the book and what you can concretely do to help your children in school and beyond.

Draw a datum and win a trip to Paris plus $2500 spending money!

Click to enter the competition

Growing up in Scotland, you learn that we invented everything from heat and light to the deep fried Mars Bar (for people who want a heart attack but don’t want to wait). I could go on, but the list is long and the transition to what I’m supposed to write about will get even harder, so you’ll forgive me if I tell you right now that I’d never heard of William Playfair until I started this article. Born in 1759 in the parish of Liff and Benvie (which I’d never heard of either), Playfair invented the line graph, circle graph, bar chart (used in his 1786 Commercial and Political Atlas) and the pie chart (in his 1801 Statistical Breviary).

Later in the century, famous nurse and less famous statistician Florence Nightingale developed a kind of pie chart, the polar area chart, to show that dirty hospitals had killed more British soldiers than enemy action in the Crimean War. Military operations are also behind what Edward Tufte of Yale University calls “probably the best statistical graphic ever drawn”, Charles Minard’s chart showing the losses of Napoleon’s army in Russia, along with temperatures, time and locations.

Tufte himself is a professor of statistics but he’s more widely known for his criticisms of how slidewares are used (here’s Peter Norvig’s suggestion on how Lincoln could have improved the Gettysburg Address using PowerPoint) and for his work on data visualisation. And that’s the subject of this post. We’re offering a trip to the OECD Forum in Paris next spring for the best visualisation of data from Education at a Glance, published this morning. The winner will also receive a $2500 prize courtesy of GE.

The theme is “Return on education”. The report says that people with higher (tertiary) education can expect to earn 55% more on average in OECD countries than a person without tertiary education. Those who have not completed secondary education earn 23% less than those who have.

We’ll supply the raw data and your design will be judged on understanding, originality and style. It “should encourage comparison across the countries, and should reveal the individual statistics that go into these indicators. Additional education or economic data from the Education at a Glance or other OECD publications may also be included.”

Deadline for entries is Friday, November 2, 2012, 11:59 pm EDT and we’ll announce the winner on Wednesday, November 14.

Good luck!

Useful links

If you’d like to have a go but don’t have much experience, take a look at Shawn Allen’s course at the School of Visual Arts. You’ll find lots of good advice and examples, including the ones I used here, as well as links to software.

 OECD work on education

Cornflakes at the soup kitchen

Click to see what poverty means to Amira and other children

Amira, the little girl in the photo, had her picture taken as part of a Save the Children campaign against poverty. Unfortunately, we’re used to similar images and actions, except that Amira lives in London and the campaign is the first in the charity’s history to help children in the UK. In the text she wrote to go along with her portrait, Amira explains that it’s great when there’s money to pay the electricity bill because then you can enjoy a long list of things, starting with lights, and ending, well down a long list of things most of us take for granted, with TV. There are 3.5 million children living in poverty in the UK according to figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies quoted by It shouldn’t happen here, Save the Children’s report on child poverty. One in eight of the poorest children go without at least one hot meal a day, and one in ten of the UK’s poorest parents have cut back on food for themselves to make sure their children have enough to eat.

It’s not just in the UK. According to the US Department of Agriculture, 50 million people lived in food-insecure households last year, 12 million adults lived in households with very low food security (what they used to call food insecurity with hunger), and 8.6 million children lived in food-insecure households in which children, along with adults, were food insecure. The charity Feeding America says that hunger is a reality for 1 in 6 people in the United States. They serve 14 million children including 3 million under-fives, but this may not reflect the whole picture. My colleague Kate Lancaster says that in her home state of Vermont,  there are numerous small local-based groups that probably wouldn’t be known outside the immediate community also providing meals.

I had a look on to see if we had any data, but our reports about hunger only seem to be about developing countries. That said, the general argument that hunger is a problem of poverty rather than availability is even more true in the rich countries than elsewhere. France is the world’s fifth largest exporter of farm and food products, but earlier in the summer a soup kitchen I pass on my way home was serving cornflakes. Maybe it was all they could afford once the winter surge of donations was used up. And cornflakes may not be so affordable next year, given the recent surge in cereal prices following the US drought and poor weather in other major exporting countries.

The OECD participates in the Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) set up by the G20  “to enhance food market transparency and encourage coordination of policy action in response to market uncertainty”. The Rapid Response Forum, AMIS’s main body for reacting to abnormal conditions, may meet once an updated forecast of US harvests is available later this week. Or they may not. The FAO Food Price Index averaged 213 points in August 2012, the same as July, but 18 points less than a year ago and 25 points below the peak reached in February 2011.

According to this statement from the French Ministry for Agriculture, following a videoconference with the US, Mexico (current G20 president) and various international organisations, the present situation is worrying but there’s no threat to global food security. They probably meant no additional threat. The USDA’s July report on global food security estimates the number of food insecure people in the 76 developing countries covered at 802 million in 2012, and projects that number to rise by 37 million over the next 10 years.

There’s no projection for the OECD countries, but almost a hundred years after Save the Children was set up to tackle hunger in post-World War I Vienna, who would have predicted that it would be turning its attention to Europe again?

Useful links

Price Volatility in Food and Agricultural Markets: Policy Responses

Doom and gloom, continued

A non-fiscal cliff earlier today

After Monday’s post about how bad things could get, I thought an article on the OECD’s interim global economic outlook released today would cheer you up. It won’t. English prepositions being what they are, “cheer you down” doesn’t exist, but if it did, down you would be cheered. A quick glance at the early reactions from the international media gives you the flavour, even if you don’t speak the languages: Rezession, récession, recessione. The OECD projects that the euro area’s three largest economies – Germany, France and Italy – will shrink at an annualised rate of 1 percent on average during the third quarter of this year and at 0.7 percent in the fourth.

The euro area crisis is dragging down the rest of the world economy through its impacts on trade and business and consumer confidence. The outlook thinks that “durable” changes are taking place in the geographical composition of global imbalances, with the euro area trade surplus rising on soft domestic demand and fiscal consolidation. China’s exports to the euro area are being hit hard. This may affect China’s ability to invest in the US in the longer term, although that aspect is beyond the scope of an interim outlook. In the US itself, an increasing non-oil deficit is offset by an improving oil balance. This is another area where longer-term developments will be interesting. Oil production from deepwater sites and unconventional sources such as oil sands or the Arctic will grow, and most of the potential fields are outside the Middle East. The Japanese surplus is falling because of rising energy imports and sluggish exports. Business investment is holding up, but mainly due to post-disaster reconstruction.

Could it get even worse? Yes it could: “Risks to the outlook remain significant”. Apart from the euro area crisis, the report mentions the US heading for a “fiscal cliff”. Even if you’ve never heard that expression, you probably suspect that it’s the kind of cliff you fall, jump or are pushed off. The outlook explains that current legislation implies an extremely sharp fiscal tightening in 2013 (the fiscal cliff) that would probably push the US economy into recession. It then urges the political parties to agree on detailed medium-term consolidation plans to avoid this. Perhaps one of our American readers could tell us what the chances are of the parties doing this.

Fiscal policy poses problems elsewhere too. Rigour, austerity, tightening or whatever it’s called is a medium-term policy, but it’s acting as a drag on short-term economic activity. Some countries may actually be caught in a negative feedback loop whereby activity is weaker than expected when planning the budget, so less tax comes in and there is overspending and then the need for more consolidation, which acts as a drag…

The outlook suggests actions to address feedback loops that undermine the euro’s stability. Speculation that Greece or others might leave the euro are pushing up sovereign bond yields, making it more expensive for some governments to borrow, further reinforcing fears of a break-up. The OECD argues that exit fears could be soothed if the ECB intervened in bond markets to keep spreads (the different interest rates paid on sovereign debt of one country compared to another) within ranges justified by the fundamental economic conditions.

And in a move that will no doubt enrage euro sceptics, the Organisation also calls for further progress towards banking union to increase the availability of public funds to recapitalise banks, along with full recognition of non-performing loans enforced by common supervision.

This just in. Mario Draghi, the European Central Bank’s president has announced a plan whereby the ECB will buy unlimited quantities of government bonds to help countries facing high interest rates. Critics say it will discourage governments’ efforts to balance the books and that it would fuel inflation. That’s not the opinion of OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría who backed such a move a month ago. “Speculators will lose their bet against the euro, because the ECB will then pull out all the stops,” he told the Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung, adding that he saw no risk of inflation in the short term.

So far, the announcement has boosted stock markets and helped  Italian and Spanish bonds, so maybe the gloom will not become doom. Watch this space.

Useful links

OECD work on the economic outlook, analysis and forecasts

OECD Sovereign Borrowing Outlook

Is this as good as it gets?

Happy days aren’t here again

Last Monday, Jan Zjederveld, Unilever’s director for Europe, told the German edition of the Financial Times that his company was adapting its marketing strategy to deal with “a return of poverty in Europe” by using sales methods that are successful in Asian developing countries. That means for example pushing entry-level lines rather than organic products or premium brands and selling small doses of cleaning products rather than a larger package that may now represent half a shopper’s budget. Unilever sees this as a strategy for hard times until things pick up again. But what if they don’t? What if this is as good as it gets for a whole range of issues worldwide from living standards to geopolitics to personal freedom?

Ever since Enlightenment philosophers like Condorcet and Turgot in France or Hume and Smith in Scotland advocated, in different ways, the idea that society and not just individuals could improve, we’ve grown used to the notion that the communities we live in would become wealthier, better educated, more enlightened, healthier, and so on. More recently, just about everybody assumed that children would have a better life than their parents.

One of the most lasting legacies of the recession that followed the 2007 financial crisis may be the end of that assumption. Even an organisation like the OECD, not known for sensationalism, warned that: “If we want to make sure that the progress in living standards we have seen these past fifty years does not grind to a halt, we have to find new ways of producing and consuming things. And even redefine what we mean by progress and how we measure it.”

The latest OECD Environmental Outlook is equally alarmist about “the consequences of inaction”, to quote the book’s subtitle. Terrestrial biodiversity is projected to decrease by a further 10% by 2050. Without a significant change in policies, global average temperature is projected to be 3C to 6C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, exceeding the internationally agreed goal of limiting the rise to 2 degrees. The number of premature deaths from exposure to particulate matter in the air is projected to triple from just over 1 million today to nearly 3.6 million per year in 2050.

Since the Outlook was published, other indicators have reinforced its messages. August 22nd was Earth Overshoot Day, the day when the total resources consumed by humanity will exceed the capacity for the Earth to generate those resources that year. In 1987, Overshoot Day was December 19th and it has been getting earlier every year since. To put it another way, we’d need 1.5 Earths to balance the budget, or 4.1 if everybody lived like a resident of the USA.

Fatih Birol, the International Energy Agency’s chief economist says that “we have to leave oil before it leaves us”. The IEA doesn’t make any predictions about when peak oil will occur, but the BBC published a chart in June estimating when various other non-renewable resources would run out. For minerals, the predictions range from eight years for antimony to 80 for aluminium.

Trends in other domains aren’t very cheerful either. The sovereign debt crisis drags on, and although the subprime crisis is behind us, aggressive lending to people who can’t afford to repay debts that are then rebundled and sold on has re-emerged according to the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s report on student debt.

Speaking of young people, youth unemployment is almost as high as it’s ever been, at 17%, and there are at least 23 million NEETs in OECD countries – young people not in education, employment or training, more than half of whom have given up looking for work. Health is another area where there are fears that the steady progress of recent decades may slow or stop, due to obesity. Half the population is now overweight or obese in over half of OECD countries. Rates are projected to increase further, and in some countries two out of three people will be obese within ten years. Obesity is also a problem in developing countries, and obesity and malnutrition can even exist simultaneously.

I’ll stop there. You could probably add to the list or produce a counter-list of where things are improving. In both cases, many of the items would be based on reasonably objective data while others would be more subjective. But even where there was agreement about what is important, there would be debate about what the priorities should be. My colleague Donata Garrasi of the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding told me that when she was working in Afghanistan, an official came out from London to consult the leaders of the area she was in about how to spend UK aid money. You’d think they would have asked for a hospital, roads, a school… They asked for a conference centre.

Donata says that people she tells this story to assume it’s in some way linked to corruption around building contracts. It’s not. Having a new centre like this for official meetings is prestigious (very important in Afghan society) and makes the leaders look more professional. This is in turn is vital for new authorities trying to establish their legitimacy and power, and may help to attract donors and political cooperation from governors from other regions. Also, many of the Quick Impact Projects that were built by the American military were conference centres, so those who did not get one were judged less influential by their constituents.

The OECD Better Life Index gives citizens a chance to tell governments what their priorities are. But that still leaves open the question of whether these wishes should be respected, and whether the government has the right to impose unwanted measures it considers in the best interests of the country.

Useful links

OECD work on the environment

OECD work on employment and social affairs