Rich Man, Poor Man: The middle classes – now you see them, now you don’t

"The happy medium means respectability..."
The happy medium means respectability…

In the second of three postings on wealth distribution, we look at the mixed fortunes of the world’s middle classes.

“I just had a cup of tea with soymilk,” tweets Dave Ellis. “It was one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made in my life.”

Dave’s tweet, and many, many more, can be found on Middle Class Problems, which makes fun of the daily challenges facing folks in the middle of our societies. In truth, their supposed pretensions and status anxieties have long made the middle classes objects of fun and even scorn. Even John Lennon, raised in fairly comfortable surroundings, turned his back on them and proclaimed himself a Working Class Hero.

Lennon was able to play with his identity, perhaps, because from a social perspective the term that might have described him best – “middle class” – is so vague. By definition, middle class is relative – somewhere between not well-off and very well-off, or rich, but where?

The economic definition is unclear, too (see Box 1): For example, some experts use a relative approach and define a household as middle class if it’s earning, say, between 75% and 125% of median income. (Median income is the point in the income range,  after taxes are paid and state transfers received, that separates the top 50% of earners from the bottom 50%.) Other approaches are more global: Goldman Sachs has defined middle class households as having an income of between $6,000 and $30,000 a year. By contrast, experts working in development tend to use a much lower figure – between $10 and $100 a day. Another way to see it is that, after covering the essentials, middle-class households have some money to spare – in other words, they’ve risen above subsistence living and can start thinking about the future.

In any case, defining “middle class” in purely economic terms misses a lot. That’s because to be middle class is as much a question of values as of income or wealth.  “Middle class values,” says development expert Homi Kharas, “emphasize education, hard work and thrift.” The goal of all this, adds columnist David Brooks, is improvement – of the individual, family and society: “They teach their children to lead different lives from their own, and as Karl Marx was among the first to observe, unleash a relentless spirit of improvement and openness that alters every ancient institution.”

It’s these values that make the middle classes so important – a reality underlined by recent protest in Brazil and elsewhere. As the OECD’s Horacio Levy wrote, the rallies showed that a “part of the population now feels empowered to demand access to quality services”.

Those calls are only likely to grow: According to Homi Kharas, there were 1.8 billion middle class people in the world (based on the $10 to $100-a-day definition) at the start of this decade. Europe and North America accounted for more than half the total, and the next biggest share was in the Asia-Pacific region, with 28% of the total. By 2030, Kharas estimates that the middle class will total 4.8 billion, and around two-thirds will live in the Asia-Pacific. These, he argues, they will increasingly take over from U.S. consumers as the main drivers of the world economy.

Naturally, any projections like this come with health warnings. It remains to be seen, for example, how the current slowdown in emerging economies will affect the emerging middle classes. Their position is often fragile – $10 a day doesn’t buy a lot of stability – and they are vulnerable to setbacks both in the economy and in their own households in the form of unemployment or illness. But, economic shocks aside, their long-term prospects probably look good.

By contrast, many fear the same can’t be said for developed economies. As Alan Krueger, then-chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, said in June, “economic forces have been chipping away at the middle class for decades”. As we’ve noted before on the blog, income inequality has tended to rise in OECD countries, fuelled by factors that include technological change, globalization and the emergence of winner-take-all economies. In many OECD countries, middle-class incomes have grown less quickly – or even stagnated – compared to those of high earners. Middle-class jobs, too, are under pressure, increasingly vulnerable to technological advances, even in areas like law and tax accounting that might once have seemed immune.

The result, argue some, is a “squeezed middle” – a middle class that grabs a shrinking share of national income and is losing confidence that its children will do better than it’s doing. In the world of middle-class problems, that’s a very big one indeed.

Useful links

OECD work on  income inequality

Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising (OECD, 2011)

An emerging middle class – Mario Pezzini in the OECD Observer

The hurting middle class – Arianna Huffington in the OECD Observer

A hollowing middle class – Peggy Hollinger in the OECD Observer

US Teacher Gets Finnish Lesson in Optimizing Student Potential. Part 2

FlagsToday we publish the second of a two-part article by Janet English on her experience as a teacher in the US and Finnish education systems. Janet was awarded the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching. She holds a masters degree in education, teaches in southern California, and is the author of a blog called Finland from a teacher’s perspective.

I observed good teachers, some not so good teachers, and some great teachers in Finland – about the same quality I’ve observed in US schools; teacher quality is comparable.  What is dramatically different is how our education systems are structured and what they are designed to achieve. We know that Finland consistently scores at or near the top of PISA results and we know that it’s partly because of their small class sizes and homogenous society, but their success can largely be attributed to the design of their educational system and how they implement their ideas to ensure each child’s success.

To help children realize their full potential, the Finnish education system employs the following strategies:

  1. The pace of student learning determines the pace of the curriculum.
  2. The child and his or her learning needs are the center of the educational process – everything else is considered support. If a student has trouble learning – even if it’s because the child can’t focus or if they are distracted because of family issues – that student is now considered to have “special needs.”  Any Finnish child who is not successfully learning in school is considered to have “special needs” and that child will be given additional support. (It is expected that most students will require additional support at some time in their educational career.)
  3. Young children are provided an environment with a minimum of stress so their minds can be open to learning and taking intellectual “risks.”
  4. Play is a natural way for children to learn. For every 45 minutes of work in elementary school, children are given 15 minutes of play.
  5. Expectations are high and individual progress is nurtured.
  6. Schools across Finland are funded in an equitable manner and the system is funded so that every Finnish student will receive a good education at a good school, no matter where he or she lives.
  7. Teachers monitor student learning on a continuous basis so that assessment adds to student progress rather than detracting from it; students may have to evaluate discrepant events in science, evaluate convergent patterns in history, or compose a musical composition. Tests are not the main method of assessment so students do not spend substantial time taking tests or reviewing for them. Multiple-choice tests are generally not given because having students pick an answer from a list is not considered the best way to assess learning.
  8. National, sample-based assessments are used to ensure the education system is performing as needed, whereas teachers are responsible for assessing individual student progress in the classroom. The only compulsory national exam is given at the end of secondary school when students are approximately 18 years old.
  9. Most classroom lessons include problem-solving components and teachers purposely “leave something out” of lessons so students will have to solve the problem. (For example, one Finnish teacher asked her third grade students to make a painting of a Finnish forest in the moonlight.  What did the teacher leave out? Brown paint.  She provided the students with primary colors but her students had to figure out how to mix the paints to make brown.)
  10. Teachers strive to connect students emotionally and intellectually with the content so that students will be engaged in their lessons.
  11. Teachers are given the freedom to teach students in ways that best serve their students.  Teacher professionalism includes knowing how children learn and then shaping that educational environment for optimal success.  National education goals are determined by the needs of the society but the work of teaching and learning – and the pace and design of that process – is the work of the teachers.
  12. Students are given very little homework. (Three to six problems per night, on average.) Quality is more important than quantity.
  13. Compulsory education ends at age 15 and students have the choice to attend upper secondary school (high school), vocational school, or nothing at all (this last option is not advised).  Vocational students can earn a professional certificate and be employable at the age of 18. Finnish citizens have the right to be re-educated and/or change their course of study at any point in their lives.

Finnish classrooms are typically quiet and, at a glance, remarkable only due to their small class sizes and well-behaved students. One has to spend many hours in Finnish classrooms to understand the teachers’ methods for helping students on their long road of intellectual progress. The beauty of the Finnish system lies hidden; their success has to be heard in the room’s silence and in the voice of the lessons as the teachers and students work together in their intellectual “dance.”  By contrast, my American school seems to generate creative energy, excitement for learning, and optimism for the future; our classrooms are generally loud and full of discussion, activity, and commotion. American culture inspires creative thought and innovation and I see this being encouraged by many American teachers – especially the science and technology teachers.

Every child is unique – they don’t look the same, act the same, nor do they come to school with identical backgrounds or abilities; it’s not reasonable to believe they will process information at identical speeds or have identical learning needs.  An education system is not about holding a competition where few students succeed, it’s about ensuring that all children are nurtured and inspired during their basic education and are prepared for further training and/or higher education. There are many paths to success but with more than 500,000 American students dropping out of high school per year, we clearly have to rethink our educational design for students who struggle and don’t fit into this poorly shaped mold we’ve created.

I’m now back in the U.S. and teaching in my high school classroom; once again, I’ve fallen in love with teaching.  The students in my conceptual biology class are intelligent, compassionate, and they want to learn and be successful.  But learning is difficult for them – it always has been – they’re the ones who typically don’t do well in this competitive American environment and I worry about their future. Will they graduate high school?  Will they reach adulthood with the skills they need to be employable? Many of these students would be more productive if given a vocational school option at the age of 15 or 16 because technical schools are more aligned with their natural abilities; unfortunately, this full-time option is not available for them.

I’ve also noticed something remarkable; the students in my broadcast journalism class exhibit creativity beyond what I was able to see in any of the Finnish students I observed. Is this creative expression a mirror of American society? These students are, by any measure in the American system, highly successful students, but imagine what all students could achieve if America slowed down the pace of instruction and adopted the Finnish methods for optimizing students’ potential (as listed above), minimized memorization, and allowed students a broader field for their minds to create, “play,” and solve problems?

This is my dream – that every child is valued and needed for their ability to contribute to society and that our learning environments are constructed to help each child reach their full potential.

Americans have some important work to do – and to make a “play” on the competitive American spirit – the Finns already know how to do it and they are well on their way.

Useful links

Finland from a teacher’s perspective Janet English’s blog

OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators

OECD educationtodayblog

US Teacher Gets Finnish Lesson in Optimizing Student Potential. Part 1

FlagsToday we publish the first of a two-part article by Janet English on her experience as a teacher in the US and Finnish education systems. Janet was awarded the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching. She holds a masters degree in education, teaches in southern California, and is the author of a blog called Finland from a teacher’s perspective.

Finland and the United States strive to provide meaningful and appropriate education for students but their methods for achieving this goal are quite different. I live and work in the United States but a Fulbright Program allowed me to visit Finnish schools for six months to learn how Finnish teachers teach problem solving skills; this newfound perspective gives me insight into how the educational systems of these two nations are structured and what helps children succeed (or not) within their boundaries.

America loves professional sports teams and Friday night football games, we compete at family picnics and our children play in afterschool sports. We love competing and we love winning.  Education in the United States has come to mirror these competitive values – students are pushed to work until they’re exhausted, they struggle through hours of homework, and they compete for top academic honors. School curriculum proceeds rapidly because teachers follow pacing guides to ensure they’re on track for mandatory state tests. Students read a lot, write a lot, fill out worksheets, memorize vocabulary words, conduct labs, and oftentimes take weekly tests. Young children feel the pressure to perform and they can spend hours every night doing homework — even to the point of exhaustion and tears.  Americans tend to believe that pushing students harder, making them do more work, and persevering for longer hours will somehow make them more successful in school, in business, and in life.

The American education system has become a form of, “survival of the fittest,” and this system does not serve all children well. Students who read well, learn quickly, and reproduce information without notes can be successful, but for every child who is successful, there may be five or more who struggle. A student who is two weeks behind in mastering math concepts, for example, will continue to fall behind as the teacher “keeps the pace” to cover new concepts, and there is little time for teachers to re-teach the material. Schools have tutoring sessions to assist struggling students but as students strive to catch up, their classes move forward to cover new concepts.  How can struggling students learn old math concepts and master new concepts at the same time and at such a rapid pace?

“When you turn education into a race, which is essentially what we do [in the United States], you have to have many more losers than winners.” (John Holt, author of How Children Fail)

I recall a conversation with a Finnish teacher who asked me, “Do you find it interesting that America prides itself on the value of the individual but educates its children to be the same?” She found it strange that the educational system of a country that so values individuality would treat its children as interchangeable parts.

For illustration purposes, imagine a math class as a group of students learning how to clear a high jump – and the bar is moved upward at intervals predetermined by someone not working with these particular students. American teachers have very little flexibility for adapting the lessons for student progress because they have a predetermined schedule to ensure the curriculum is completed by the end of the year. Day after day, more and more students are unable to “clear the bar” but the bar keeps getting higher. If students can’t keep to this predetermined pace, should they be considered failures? (How can any child be considered a failure?)

Teachers know that children’s learning needs and academic potential are unique, and Finnish educational objectives are written to accommodate these differences. If the Finns had an objective for students to learn how to high jump (which they do not have), their objective would not specify that all students clear 1.8 meters, but would say something to the effect of, “Have students participate in track and field by learning to clear the high jump.” Teachers would then help students develop their full abilities for that objective.  Finns have high expectations – but their expectations are based upon helping each child become their “best.”

The Finnish education system moves slowly because teachers know that developing young minds takes time and rushing that development is counter-productive.  I asked teacher after teacher in Finland how they know when to proceed to the next topic and I was looked at with curiosity and told, “When the students have learned what they need to learn,” as if to say, “How can it be any other way?  That wouldn’t make any sense.”

Tiina Tähkä from the Finnish National Board of Education told me, “I like [how] the core curriculum gives structure to the teachers [for] what things are expected but it doesn’t actually hinder the teachers to use their own ideas. Teachers have a lot of good ideas and when they process those ideas and share those with others they can create an even better school than we can here at the Board of Education.”

The Finnish education system is exemplary; it is gentle, forgiving, and nurturing for children, but it also holds high expectations for academic achievement. Students are continually monitored and lessons are optimized for student learning. Students are taught that it is their responsibility to learn in school. I asked a high school student how she knew when she was successful in class because student work is infrequently “graded,” and she looked at me as if I were asking a ridiculous question.  “I know I’m learning when I’ve learned the material,” she said. “If I don’t learn it, it’s my own shame.” Finnish students are taught from a very early age to be responsible for their own learning and to ask questions when they need help.

Children in the American system have to learn quickly, but Finnish children progress slowly.  Where American teachers frequently administer multiple-choice tests for assessment, Finnish teachers require students to produce something that reflects their learning. Where American students and parents want (and expect) frequent grade updates, Finns are patient for students to learn and families receive grade updates about every seven weeks.  (I didn’t find any online grading programs in Finland.) Where American schools are not equitable, Finnish schools are designed and supported so that each child has a good school, can develop to the best of their abilities, and can be employable when they reach adulthood.

Click here for Part 2 of Janet’s article.

Useful links

Finland from a teacher’s perspective Janet English’s blog

OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators

OECD educationtodayblog

Don’t give up on the Central African Republic

International Peace Day
Click to find out more about International Day of Peace

To mark UN International Day of Peace, today’s article is by Donata Garrasi of the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding

In the words of the UN Security Council, there has been “a total breakdown in law and order” in the Central African Republic (CAR) following the March overthrow of the government by the Séléka rebel group. UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos reported that CAR faces “a complex emergency characterised by violence, acute needs and grave protection issues.” According to Amos, all 4.6 million CAR citizens have been affected and 1.6 million people are in dire need of food, protection, health care, water, sanitation and shelter. Amos’s words were echoed by EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs, Kristalina Georgieva when she exposed the gravity of the situation of CAR to the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) and called for greater international attention to what she described as a “forgotten crisis” and a country at risk of disintegration, in a region characterised by high levels of instability.

Is the international community giving up on CAR? Other countries have recovered from conflict, insecurity, and serious humanitarian crisis. A decade ago, few people would have guessed that Sierra Leone and Liberia would become – as they are today – peaceful countries with a hopeful future. Even fewer would have predicted that Somalia would establish a government. Many would have categorised these countries as “intractable cases” – and they would have been wrong. Why, then, ignore CAR today, and wait for the next big and costly disaster to happen?

CAR has good agricultural land, extensive forests and natural resources, hydropower potential and a young population.  What it doesn’t have are accountable, inclusive institutions that perform their core functions effectively and respond to citizens’ expectations. No humanitarian aid, development assistance or foreign direct investment can substitute for the absence of political settlement and functioning institutions. Only an inclusive political process can lead to a political settlement agreed by all parties. Only an inclusive political settlement can lead to peace.

The good news is that CAR is not alone. As a member of the g7+ forum of fragile countries and of the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding, CAR can draw on the experiences and support of a range of countries that have embarked on successful peace and state building processes and of development partners. It can also take advantage of international agreements, like the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, a framework that guides national and international actors’ cooperation in situations of conflict and fragility, which was endorsed by over 40 countries and organisations in 2011.

What should development partners do? According Ms Georgieva from the EU, Mr Chataigner from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and DAC Chair Mr Solheim, development partners must act together now and for the foreseeable future to support a peaceful transition in CAR.

First, the UN Security Council and the international community must continue focusing political attention on the situation of CAR and the broader region.  Support to CAR, including peacekeeping capacity, must be increased if any improvement is to be seen. Regional partners must be brought into a coalition for change in the region.

Second, development partners should join up efforts and find ways to apply the principles of aid effectiveness and of the New Deal in CAR in support of a country-owned and country led-transition. This means, stepping up coordinated support for the New Deal peace and state building goals of an inclusive political dialogue, security and justice, and economic revitalisation and services. This work can start now, and should be aligned to the current plans for political transition in CAR.

Third, humanitarian needs of the population must be met and humanitarian space must be protected.

The risks of engaging in CAR are great, but the risk of not engaging even greater.

Useful links

OECD Work on the Central African Republic

Rich Man, Poor Man: Poverty, then and now

They don't look very industrious to me
They don’t look very industrious to me

In the first of three postings on wealth distribution, we look at changing attitudes to poverty.

Should we should try to end poverty? “Yes,” you reply, and wonder why we’d even ask.

People in earlier times would have been surprised, too. And for them, the answer would have been equally obvious – “no.” Well into the 19th century, poverty was widely seen as inevitable: Economists estimate that in 1820 around 84% of the earth’s population lived in absolute poverty, or on the equivalent what we now call “a dollar a day” (it’s actually $1.25). Poverty was also seen as useful: “Everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor or they will never be industrious,” the English writer and traveller Arthur Young wrote in 1771.

That quote comes from a fascinating paper by Martin Ravallion, which traces – from an economist’s perspective – the great shift in attitudes towards poverty over the past three centuries. For much of that time, poverty was regarded as necessary: “True, it was miserable for the poor,” as The Economist commented recently. “But it also kept the economic engine humming by ensuring the availability of plentiful cheap labour.” Not just cheap, but uneducated: “To make the Society happy and People easy under the meanest Circumstances, it is requisite that great Numbers of them should be Ignorant as well as Poor,” the 18th century economist Bernard de Mandeville wrote.

That’s not to say that the poor didn’t have their defenders. But, as Ravallion points out, efforts to help them were focused on easing suffering, not eradicating poverty. Workhouses began to appear in Europe in the early 17th century: “Welfare recipients were incarcerated, where their ‘bad behaviours’ could be controlled, and obliged to work for their upkeep.”

When did attitudes change? Ravallion traces the beginnings of the First Poverty Enlightenment to the late 18th century, and the coming together of several key ideas, such as the French Revolution’s “liberty, equality, fraternity,” which established a moral case for regarding the poor as equal human beings. Later, industrialisation would help make the case for mass education, which raised individuals’ economic prospects. Over time, acceptance also grew for the construction of social safety nets and at least some income distribution.

Today, it’s hard not to feel a bit smug when confronted with the attitudes of the past. In two centuries, we’ve gone from a world where “all countries were sick and poor and life expectancy was below 40,” in the words of Hans Rosling, to one where a significant number of countries are rich and where the Millennium Development Goal of halving absolute poverty was met “five years ahead of the 2015 deadline”. Few now would argue against poverty eradication.

But as the work of Amartya Sen has shown, narrow measures only tell part of the story: Poverty is not simply a lack of wealth but can also represent a lack of access to things like healthcare, decent education and economic opportunity.

We associate these problems mostly with developing countries, but they are also issues in the wealthy world, where there are concerns about signs of a gradual rise in relative poverty. Relative poverty is typically calculated as the number of people living below a “poverty line”. For developed countries, the OECD places the line at 50% of median income. Median income is the point in the income range  (after taxes are paid and state transfers received) that separates the top 50% of earners from the bottom 50%.

Between the mid-1980s and the late 2000s, relative poverty rose in 16 of 19 OECD countries for which data are available, and there has also been an uptick in child poverty. As a recent Unicef report said (and as we noted here on the blog), children living in relative poverty are “to some significant extent excluded from the advantages and opportunities which most children in that particular society would consider normal”.

Those disadvantages are especially clear in education, where the OECD’s PISA assessments have shown a clear link between family background and how well students do in high school. And they continue in tertiary education: If your parents went to university, the odds rise substantially that you’ll go too.

Many experts argue that these patterns of educational disadvantage are set very early in a child’s life, and that more needs to be done tackle them by investing heavily in pre-school and early education. But rallying support can be difficult: The benefits can take decades to appear and, as The Economist noted recently, some critics argue that such early interventions represent overreach by the state.

More than two centuries on from the era of Arthur Young, it’s clear we no longer believe that people should be kept poor or deprived of educational opportunities. But, it seems, we’re still figuring out how best to ensure that these opportunities reach everyone.

Useful links

OECD work on poverty reduction, income inequality and inclusive growth
Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising (OECD, 2011)

How much do farmers get from taxpayers?

Click to find out more
Click to find out more

In 2008, one farmer from Blackburn in the UK got 32 pence (around $0.45) from the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy (CAP). That’s not much, but it’s still over 30 times as much as one of his neighbours, who only got a penny. At the same time, some large landowners in the UK and other countries got hundreds of thousands of euros. The food industry didn’t do too badly either, with some food processors getting around a million pounds each. The biggest payout, over £6.7 million, went to a “professional services company in the sugar market”.

Other OECD countries could show a similar pattern for farm subsidies, with the rich getting more than their less well-off colleagues. More what, though? There are problems with vocabulary in such a sensitive area. For some people, we’re talking about handouts or the less pejorative “aid” or “assistance”; others prefer the dynamism of “incentives”, or the neutral-sounding “transfers”. The OECD term “support” describes the various ways in which governments intervene in the business of agriculture, including subsidies, grants, tax breaks and other policies that boost revenues.

So what’s it worth? Over $258.6 billion (EUR 201.2 billion) in the OECD area in 2012 according to Agricultural Policy Monitoring and Evaluation 2013: OECD Countries and Emerging Economies, published today. Support represented 19% of farm receipts in the OECD, up from 18% in 2011. Support averaged one-sixth of gross farm receipts in the 47 OECD and non-OECD countries covered in the report. The Producer Support Estimate increased to 17% of gross farm receipts in 2012, compared to 15% in 2011.

It can be hard to understand the economic justification of support to farmers. If there is a surplus in supply, why should the taxpayer subsidise producers? If there is a shortfall, you’d expect prices to rise and the need for subsidies to disappear (or at least weaken). The reason usually given by governments is that agricultural policies are designed to improve the “competitiveness” of their farmers. Yet sometimes this is meant to be achieved by reducing support in the interests of imposing stronger market discipline, while at other times improved competitiveness means granting subsidies for inputs such as fertilisers; according tax concessions, for example on diesel fuel; or providing financial incentives to meet the costs of implementing new regulations.

Do the subsidies and other forms of support really help farmers? OECD research into farm household income suggests that with the most commonly used policy, market price support, only about 25% of the cost finds its way as a net income gain to the intended recipients in farm households. “Farmer” is not the first word that springs to mind when seeking to define what service companies, food processors and other large beneficiaries of support actually do. The CAP, like many other forms of support, does not target farmers, but farms or activities related to agriculture, which is why a confectionary firm ended up receiving 332 000 euros to help buy sugar.

Subsidies don’t help the hungry either. Some of the sharpest increases in farm support have occurred in countries that are trying to promote self-sufficiency, but the OECD sees only weak links between higher self-sufficiency and improved food security, particularly in less developed economies. Access to food would be more effectively improved by reducing poverty and developing safety nets.

Agricultural support policies are evolving, but only slowly. This may seem surprising given the repeated, often violent, calls for change and the massive amounts of public money being spent. Policy makers and the public alike would agree that some programmes no longer do what they were created for and should be modified or scrapped (for instance, one catering company supplying cruise ships got 148,000 euros in subsidies for the sugar and milk powder it “exported” in passengers’ stomachs).

Why is change so slow and difficult? In agriculture as in other areas, fundamental policy thinking is often born of crises, but can persist even when the original problems have been solved. Key features of agricultural policy in the United States emerged in the 1930s in response to the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Today’s agriculture policy in Europe and Japan can be traced to concerns with food supply at the end of World War II.

Policy shifts can be dramatic however. Airport security is one example of how things can change practically overnight. Agriculture provides examples of this too, for instance the sudden imposition of export restrictions and traceability norms in reaction to the BSE outbreak. However, despite the volatility of commodity prices and regional difficulties related to drought, flooding or other environmental conditions, food security is not a problem in the countries giving most of the support, and the agro-food system as a whole is not faced with any major threat to its existence. The sector even fared better than others during the recent recession.

Another factor to consider is who would gain and who would lose if the current system was changed. Actual numbers of people are less important in this respect than how the costs and benefits are distributed and how well-informed and politically influential they are.

Consumers pay twice for agricultural support, first through the taxes used to finance it, second through higher prices. The cost to an average European citizen is over 100 euros a year, but few people are aware of this extra sum they’re giving to the agri-food industry. For those receiving the support, much more may be at stake. The smallest farms receive relatively little support, but the big producers and industrialists who do get public money also have the means to finance sophisticated lobbying and public relations campaigns to block change that would seriously erode their privileges.

Useful links

OECD work on agricultural policies and support

OECD work on sustainable agriculture

Do you “Like” your government as much as Chileans Like theirs?

They like us!
They like us!

Today’s post is by Arthur Mickoleit of the OECD’s Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development. Inputs from Kareen Schramm and Sofia Varas of Chile’s Ministry General‑Secretariat of the Presidency are gratefully acknowledged. 

Do you “like” your government? For many Chileans, the answer could be yes, I “Like” (or rather, “Me gusta”). That’s because the official government Facebook account has 23,000 likes). If that number sounds low, take a look at their soon 500,000 followers on Twitter. That’s anywhere between one third and one sixth of all Twitter users in Chile (estimates of overall Twitter users range from 1.4 to 3.2 million)

To be fair, public administrations and officials in the United States and United Kingdom led developments in this area. President Obama is one of the top 5 celebrities on Twitter worldwide. His community of 36 million followers sets him on par with personalities like Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga.

The UK government’s @Number10gov can count on the highest “per capita” followership among accounts of top executive institutions across the OECD. But it’s closely followed by Chile’s @Gobiernodechile .

 

Do all these numbers mean anything for you as a citizen?  Maybe President Obama is an exception, but my guess is that most people would prefer a one-on-one with a celeb to a public policy jam with the president or prime minister. No offense, but the odds of being sought after on social media are probably even lower for a civil servant.

If you look beyond the numbers, though, a pattern seems to emerge where governments and public administrations the world over use the web to defeat popular stereotypes (what comes to your mind when you think “public administration”?). So could it be that social media are profoundly changing the way those who govern talk and listen to their constituents?

To get back to Chile, when the current President Sebastián Piñera assumed office in 2010 he did so with a cabinet of 22 ministers. But not just ministers as usual – each of the 22 had a Twitter account upon taking office. Health minister Jaime Mañalich has a reputation for answering e-v-e-r-y question that reaches him via the online service with the little bird: on whether an adult infected with Hepatitis B as a child could act as a blood donor (no);  on the rising risks of canine rabies contagion starting in the month of August;  on the correct timing for vaccinating a baby against meningococcal disease,  etc.

If you’re not in Chile, can you see your own government’s minister for healthcare doing that? Certainly possible, but still pretty unusual. So along with governments like the US and the UK that make bold use of social media, it seems the Chilean government is doing a pretty good job too.

How did this come about? Chile’s experience with social media started abruptly and dramatically. President Piñera took office in 2010, just days after massive earthquakes devastated parts of the country, killing hundreds of people. In many places, power, communications and broadcasting broke down. Amazingly though, a large number of mobile phone and Internet infrastructures like 3G kept going. So citizens turned to services like Google’s People Finder, Twitter and others, whether via fancy smartphone web access or low-key SMS.

Chile’s government made sure it was present on the main platforms. It decided to adapt to a new situation and operate in the same space in which citizens were already operating. That’s a lesson governments all over are starting to take more seriously. To “go where the citizens are” is the motto, instead of trying to bring citizens into government processes that are often complicated or even opaque for the outsider (thanks to David Eaves for bringing this up at the 2012 OECD E-Leaders meeting).

Chile’s government has used the momentum that built up since then. It published a digital guide) for institutions and individuals in the public administration that want to engage via Twitter, Facebook, Vimeo, YouTube, Slideshare, etc. And their comprehensive ChileAtiende (“ChileService”) strategy gives citizens a wide range of choices for the communications channel they want to use to access information and public services.

You will have understood by now, social media are one of the “valid” channels to get in touch with government in Chile. Compare this with many governments around the world that are still having difficulties considering an email from a citizen as a “valid” means of communication.

Where does all this lead us? What will help more governments take the social media plunge is more knowledge and evidence about what works and what doesn’t.

Chile and some other countries are doing impressive stuff, but when governments use social media, is that mostly to jazz up their image or are they really trying to innovate in the way they provide information and services? How do people react – and who are those people? Are young people really the only target group for social media use? What about opportunities to reach vulnerable people too? For example, immigrant groups in some countries are reported to have high uptake rates for Facebook or Twitter. Can social media actually help civil servants work better? Think of crowd-sourcing of ideas for your local government office. Or is that a pipe-dream when more than one third of civil servants are over 50 years old in most OECD countries?

We will raise most of these questions, and hopefully answer one or two of them, at the next OECD E-Leaders meeting on 29-30 October in Switzerland. Tune in to the webcast and talk to us via #eleaders and @OECDinnovation). We hear a lot from government, let’s hear from you: do you “Like” your government?

Useful links

OECD work on e-government

Chile’s Ministry of the Presidency and its government modernisation

Twiplomacy, analysis of Twitter use by political leaders and GovTwit, which looks at Twitter use in the US administration

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