In my view: The OECD must take charge of promoting long-term investment in developing country infrastructure

LogoReDefine3Today’s post from Sony Kapoor, Managing Director, Re-Define International Think Tank, is one in a series of ‘In my view’ pieces written by prominent authors on issues covered in the Development Co-operation Report 2014: Mobilising resources for sustainable development.

The world of investment faces two major problems.

Problem one is the scarcity – in large swathes of the developing world – of capital in general, and of money for infrastructure investments in particular. Poor infrastructure holds back development, reduces growth potential and imposes additional costs, in particular for the poor who lack access to energy, water, sanitation and transport.

Problem two is the sclerotic, even negative rate of return on listed bonds and equities in many OECD economies. The concentration of the portfolios of many long-term investors in such listed securities also exposes them to high levels of systemic – often hidden – risk.

Most long-term investors would readily buy up chunks of portfolios of infrastructure assets in non-OECD countries to benefit from the significantly higher rate of return over the long term, and to diversify their investments. At the same time, developing economies, where neither governments nor private domestic markets have the capacity and depth to fill the long-term funding gap, are hungry for such capital.

So what’s stopping these investments?

Financial risks in developing countries are well known and often assumed to be much higher than in OECD economies. Also, investing in infrastructure means that investors will find it hard to pull their money out on short notice, and therefore such investments pose liquidity risks.

Despite these easy answers, however, there are three significant caveats:

First, the events of the past few years have demonstrated that on average, political risk and policy uncertainty in developing countries as a whole have fallen, especially in the emerging economies.

Second, OECD economies are also exposed to serious risk factors, such as high levels of indebtedness and demographic decline. As the financial crisis demonstrated, they are also likely to face other “hidden” systemic risks not captured by commonly used risk models and measures.

Third, the kind of risks that dominate in developing countries, such as liquidity risks, may not be real risks for long-term investors (e.g. insurers or sovereign wealth funds). Given that the present portfolios of these investors are dominated by OECD-country investments, any new investments in the developing world may look more attractive and may actually offer a reduction of risk at the portfolio level.

So I ask again: Why aren’t long-term investors investing in developing country infrastructure in a big way?

The biggest constraint is the absence of well-diversified portfolios of infrastructure projects and the fact that no single investor has the financial or operational capacity to develop these. Direct infrastructure investment, particularly in developing countries, is a resource-intensive process.

The G20, together with the OECD and other multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, can facilitate the development of a diversified project pipeline on the one hand, together with mechanisms to ease the participation of long-term investors on the other. This work will involve challenges of co-ordination, more than commitments of scarce public funds.

In my view, the OECD – which uniquely houses financial, development, infrastructure and environmental expertise under one roof – must take charge.

Useful links

OECD work on institutional investors and long-term investment

OECD work on financial markets

The haves and have-nots of education

Education at a glanceIf you cling to the ideal of higher education as a force for building fairer societies, these are not encouraging times. Over the past few months, there’s been a wave of criticism suggesting that, rather than driving social mobility, higher education is tending to reinforce social divisions.

Strikingly, some of this criticism has come from people in the heart of higher education. Take William Deresiewicz, who taught for 10 years at the prestigious Yale University. He describes the American higher education as a system that is “exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead”. He’s not alone: Suzanne Mettler, who teaches at Cornell, another top U.S. university, argues that “college-going, once associated with opportunity, now engenders something that increasingly resembles a caste system”.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Over the course of the 20th century, higher education went from being an elite to a mass phenomenon. As we’ve noted before, it’s estimated that in 1900 there were only around half a million students in higher education worldwide. By 2010, the number had risen to an estimated 177 million.

In the developed countries of today, the expansion of tertiary education, especially after World War II was accompanied by the emergence of a strong middle class – two trends that were not unconnected. A university education was associated with opportunity and social mobility. When the British political leader Neil Kinnock referred to himself in the 1980s as “the first Kinnock in a thousand generations” to go university, he was speaking not just for his own family but for millions of others.

But, today, it seems clear that the benefits of higher education are no longer making their way down through society in quite the same way. The latest evidence comes from the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2014, which looks at the relationship between the education levels of young people and their parents. In basic terms, if you have at least one graduate parent you’re very likely yourself to go to university. But if your parents didn’t go to university, and especially if they didn’t finish secondary school, the odds are much lower.

This relationship between the education levels of parents and their children is key to determining social mobility. Unfortunately, in OECD societies, the relationship seems to be getting stronger, not weaker. The OECD’s adult skills survey found that about 43% of people aged between 45 and 55 had higher levels of education than their parents. Among those aged between 25 and 34, the proportion was just 32%. (Of course, these are averages, and the situation can vary greatly between countries.)

The concern is that this relationship will become even harder to break in the future. That’s because having a college education increasingly determines your earning ability. On average, more than 80% of graduates have a job compared with less than 60% of people who haven’t completed secondary education. And even though too many young graduates are unemployed today, they still have better job prospects than young people with lower levels of education. The income gap between graduates and non-graduates is growing, too.

So, a vicious circle develops. Families where parents are graduates have higher incomes, and relatively more to invest in the education and development of their, who, in turn, are likely themselves to go on to be graduates. By contrast, families where parents don’t have a tertiary qualification are slipping further behind, bringing up children who are less likely to make it to higher education. The result, say some, is that a “bachelor’s degree is the closest thing to a class boundary that exists today.”

But is higher education to blame? In reality, it can only do so much. If pre-school, primary and secondary schools have failed to meet the needs of children from poorer families, it’s unrealistic to ask higher education to leap in and save the day once a young person hits 18.

The real work to make access to tertiary education more equitable has to begin much earlier. To start, education systems need to ensure that students from poorer families have the qualifications they need to go to university. As the OECD’s PISA programme has shown, some countries do a much better job than others of minimising the impact of social background on how well students do in school.

School systems also need to do a better job of raising students’ expectations, regardless of their family background. And they need to ensure that young people with the potential to be the first in their family to go to college have the information they need to make the right education choices.

Useful links

Education at a Glance 2014 (OECD, 2014)

Find out more about Education at a Glance 2014 at the OECD educationtoday blog and follow the launch on Twitter.

PISA 2012 Results: Excellence through Equity – Giving Every Student the Chance to Succeed (OECD, 2014)

OECD Education GPS – data on education policies and practices, opportunities and outcomes.

From a mechanical study of static equilibria to a science of human behavior?

1914 2014To mark the centenary of The First World War, we will be publishing a series of articles looking at what has changed over the last century in a number of domains. In today’s post, Professor K. Vela Velupillai of Trento University and The New School, New York, discusses economic theory.

When Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated on 28th June, 1914, economic theory was very much a European “monopoly” – with only a few isolated contributions by great American economists – notably Irving Fisher – to the lasting development of the subject, none of whom would reach the pioneering status of a Walras, Pareto or the young Schumpeter. So this is very much a Eurocentric narrative, for that was the way the story of economic theory in 1914 seemed, even at that time, to the pioneers of the field. It was to Vienna, Lausanne and Cambridge that the narrator of the origins of neoclassical economic theory turned, or to France, England and Scotland, for the pioneering work of the classical economists.

That being said, the most important event on the eve of August 1914 from the point of view of monetary theory and policy, was the establishment of the US Federal Reserve system, with the Federal Reserve Act of 23rd December, 1913. It far exceeds in significance the creation of the European Central Bank and the Euro Currency area, from every point of view, but particularly in the monetary policy ramifications in this era of so-called globalization of currency markets (even if not of labour markets and, to a lesser extent, commodity markets).

The Federal Reserve Act of December, 1913 and the birth of modern macroeconomics – especially at the hands of Knut Wicksell, were the result of the bimetallist controversy in the US in 19th century (using both silver and gold in the monetary standard), and the 20-year period of deflation from 1873 to 1893. Thus, the golden era of the gold standard – with its close ‘cousin’, the gold exchange standard – came to occupy the seemingly impregnable institutional framework for the conduct of monetary policy in almost all the (then) advanced industrial countries. It was to take the monetary dislocation and disorientation caused first by the hyperinflation in the immediate post WWI years and then the Great Depression before these golden fetters were discarded. But they would always hover in the wings of orthodoxy and its eternal extolling of the virtues of monetary neutrality.

Back to the one or two of the broader arenas of theory, in those halcyon, pre-WWI years. A.N. Whitehead and Bertrand Russell’s monumental Principia Mathematica had been completed in 1913, the same year, Diederik Korteweg vacated the Chair of Mathematics at the University of Amsterdam in favour of Luitzen Brouwer, whose inaugural lecture on Intuitionism and Formalism was to throw down the gauntlet to the Logicism of Principia Mathematica (the view that some or all of mathematics can be reduced to formal logic) and the Formalism David Hilbert. In April of the following year Wittgenstein began writing what eventually came to be the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, working on it all through the war while on active service and a prisoner.

Just as the hostilities started, Dennis Robertson submitted A Study of Industrial Fluctuation (note: Fluctuation – not Fluctuations!) for a Fellowship election at Trinity College Cambridge. There is not a single mathematical equation or formula in this wonderfully “modern” book, with a message that is still relevant – although there are graphs, charts and tables galore. The one graph was prefaced with the characteristic Robertsonian wit: “Diagrammatic representation, though not completely satisfactory, will perhaps be found useful by some.”

There are no mathematical equations in Keynes’ first published book either, Indian Currency and Finance, published in 1913[1], and there is no evidence whatsoever in the 600 or so pages of Wesley C. Mitchell’s Business Cycles that such a thing was even envisaged by that great founding father of the NBER (and of my own New School University!). What, alas, many at the so-called frontiers of research in economic theory and behavioural economics missed was the exceptionally prescient Human Behavior and Economics: A Survey of Recent Literature by Mitchell a year later in (1914) that ends by saying: “[I]n embracing this opportunity [to profit by and to share in the work of contemporary psychologists] economics will assume a new character. It will cease to be a system of pecuniary logic, a mechanical study of static equilibria under non-existent conditions, and become a science of human behavior.”

It is particularly pleasing to remember that this classic by Mitchell is succeeded in the same issue of the Quarterly Journal of Economics, by Maynard Keynes’s own nascent contribution to a field in which he was to stride like a colossus, in the interwar period: an institutional analysis of monetary experiences.

Mitchell’s plea for an economic theory, underpinned by a theoretically sound psychology, seems to have been answered by the practitioners – and claims – of a version of behavioural economics, without sacrificing their homage to the altar of the neoclassical triptych: preferences, endowments and technology. Thorstein Veblen’s passionate advocacy of an evolutionary approach to economic theory – to which Marshall was not unsympathetic – has become a new orthodoxy at the hands of evolutionary game theory.

The supreme dominance of the so-called fundamental theorems of welfare economics would, I am sure, induce discomfort in Marshall and Pigou. The “old” welfare economics they carefully (even lovingly) developed, so that the economic theory they fashioned as a development of Ricardian equilibrium economics could serve as a basis for enlightened policy, became the “new” welfare economics at the hands of Kaldor and Hicks. This was basis for the development of the fundamental theorems of welfare economics – although the mathematical framework in which it was encapsulated, primarily by Arrow and Debreu (but not in their fundamental joint paper of 1954) – which is the basis for the nihilistic policy frameworks of every kind of orthodoxy, from Hayek to Lucas, via Friedman.

How much of the economic theory that is being taught, and practiced, via an underpinning of economic policy – both monetary and real – couched in monumentally irrelevant mathematics, would be strange and unfamiliar to our neoclassical masters? To Jevons and Marshall, to Walras and Pareto, to Menger and Wicksell, to Edgeworth and Pigou? None of them may well be sure-footed in the non-computational, uncomputable, undecidable, unsolvable mathematics that encapsulates the formal economic theory they fashioned, in the golden decade culminating in the tragic year of 1914.

But they would be eminently comfortable in the safely ensconced orthodox economic theory of today – although Marshall may be an outlier and Wicksell a dissenter!

Useful links

If you’d like to find out which famous painter was interested in the non-Euclidean geometry of relativity in Einstein’s physics, or who invented purchasing power parity, download the pdf of the unabridged version of Vela’s article here.

OECD work on economics

[1] Any serious understanding of the changing monetary stances adopted by Keynes, both in the foundations of the monetary theory he continued to fashion, and re-fashion, and – more importantly – on the monetary policy frameworks he developed, with imaginative flair and theoretical audacity, in the whole interwar period, can best be understood via his intensive work, in the two years in the India Office.

Is happiness a woman ?

BLIToday’s post is by Gaël Brulé, PhD student at Erasmus University Rotterdam, Scientific Director of Spinoza Factory

Is happiness a woman ? That is at least what Nietzsche wrote in Thus spoke Zarathustra, a philosophical poem in which Zarathustra (the Persian name of Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroastrianism, an old Iranian religious philosophy) ironically says “Happiness runs after me, because I do not run after women. Happiness is the woman itself”.

This may seem a bit opaque, especially when you know the complicated relationship Nietzsche had with women, but nonetheless it is interesting to observe that in the scientific literature, the vast majority of happiness studies seem to indicate that women are happier than men, even if recent studies show that this gap in gender happiness has eroded in the last decades. They are happier married, happier when single, at work and pretty much throughout their life; only retired and divorced men seem slightly happier than their feminine counterparts.

If the results seem to go pretty much all in the same direction, it is thus legitimate and interesting to wonder why this is the case and, going a bit further, to see if we can give happiness a sex or a gender. Let’s see if values can shed light on this difference in happiness. Sociologist Geert Hofstede has defined a range of indicators to compare cultures in countries according to several criteria, such as power distance, individualism, uncertainty avoidance and masculinity /femininity values. Arrindell and Veenhoven have shown that feminine values are more conducive to happiness than masculine values.

Hofstede defined the masculine values as linked to action, hierarchy, duty, power and nationalism, whereas feminine values encompass collaboration, intuition, community and egalitarianism. These criteria are very commonly used and at the same regularly criticized. The way they are measured can, indeed, be seen as ethnocentric with western criteria. The way the indicators are built can easily be questioned and the fact that they can overshadow local differences has been highlighted.

Furthermore, the actual labeling of the indexes might be debated and in particular the masculine/feminine one. Unless it is proven otherwise, these values seem mostly socially constructed, not “natural”, but these labels seem to indicate that there is something natural in the values attributed to men and women. As Georges Orwell famously wrote in his book 1984, ‘if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought’. Therefore, it might be relevant to change the labels of the two sets of values: the “feminine” cohesive values might be called horizontal values whereas the differentiating, comparative, “masculine” values could be seen as vertical values. After this semantic reflection, let’s explore what these values can reveal in terms of happiness.

The scientific literature shows that too much hierarchy isn’t a good basis for happiness to flourish. Too much competition has also been shown to hinder happiness, whereas the positive effects of collaboration on happiness have largely been proved. The “masculine” values are also linked to external values such as social status and materialism, which are negatively correlated with happiness (money is positively correlated with happiness, up to a point, but actively seeking it is not). The “feminine” societal matrix seems, therefore, a more fertile ground for happiness than the masculine one. Thus, the difference in happiness between the two sexes might be due to a difference in happiness between genders.

A macro-study shows a particularly revealing view: when comparing the countries on Hofstede’s male/female scale, one realizes that all the happiest countries are those whose structure is the most horizontal (Sweden, Denmark, Iceland), while countries endorsing vertical, “masculine” values (for instance Japan) are typically much lower in terms of happiness.

At first sight, men seem to largely benefit from a system that has been built by the patriarchate. Men are overrepresented in big companies, governments, prestigious positions. Iin brief, they largely occupy practically every high position and keep the key positions of the current economic system. Then how could men be less happy than women? Would men be the first victims of a system created by the patriarchate? One could wonder. Indeed, for instance, the very DNA of capitalism is largely anchored in “masculine” values: maximization of profits, struggle for prestige, competition.

By strictly separating gender roles – production roles for men, support roles for women – on top of keeping women away from the highest positions, has the patriarchate forced men to endorse values that handicap them in terms of happiness? It seems so. At a micro level, structures that leave the most space for women see not only their level of happiness rising, but also men’s level of happiness. From a certain “masculine” (as socially constructed) point of view, happiness is a zero-sum game, a win-lose situation. From a “feminine” point of view it is rather an expansive resource that can increase when shared.

This could encourage people who are afraid of gender studies to follow the path of leveling differences between genders. Down the path, more happiness for men and women. Letting go of the framework of the past can be hard and might hurt, but gentlemen, let us express our feminine side, it’s probably the best way towards happiness, for women, for us, for society.

Useful links

OECD Better Life Index

OECD work on gender

Governing the Internet

It's running on time, but is it running IPv6?
It’s running on time, but is it running IPv6? Source: Iljitsch van Beijnum

Today’s post is by Rudolf van der Berg of the OECD Science, Technology and Industry Directorate

“Internet”, it’s a word we use daily. “Look it up on the Internet”, “I have no Internet”, “Read it on the Internet”, “Connect it to the Internet”, “Meet him/her on the Internet”, “because of the Internet”. There are so many ways the Internet has changed our lives that many of us would be hard pressed to remember daily routines without it. Perhaps, there has never been a technology capable of pervading our activities so much, so quickly and on such a global scale.

A tram (like the one in Iljitsch van Beijnum’s photo above), a train or a bus may already be connected to the Internet with few of us being aware. The number of connected devices in our homes is increasing as are the range of connected devices that we wear or are all around us, from fitness trackers to light bulbs.   A new idea for a device or service developed in Shanghai, in Silicon Valley or in Stockholm can overnight be taken up by people around the world. Think of the games “Flappy Bird”, developed in Vietnam, or “Angry Birds”, from Finland, and extend that phenomenon to everyday activities across the world.

This has had an unprecedented effect on global governance. It is no longer enough to have your national governance of a sector. Unless you cut the cord, the governance of others is directly influencing yours. Whether it is access to undersea cables, satellites, harmful and illegal content, cybersecurity, health or trade, a country’s rules affect those of others.

And it is for this reason that each year the Internet Governance Forum (IGF2014) comes together. This week, 3000 representatives of business, civil society, the Internet technical community, Inter-governmental Organisations and governments come together in Istanbul to discuss the width and breadth of Internet governance. They’re primarily discussing the role of regulators, the deployment of local infrastructure, the creation of local content, the triangle of privacy-security-trust, the governance institutions, and what it all means for the Internet and future developments, such as the Internet of Things. Moreover, the topics are expanding, in parallel with the Internet’s influence, to encompass what it all means for areas such as employment, health, energy and transport.

The OECD is present at the IGF2014 since the Organisation is one of the principal forums where its 34 member countries and partners discuss issues relevant to Internet governance. The OECD publishes each year a number of reports on policies and good practices on how to preserve the open Internet, how it influences economic and social development and how to take advantage of opportunities and address challenges.

This year we are participating in a number of sessions and presenting our most recent work on the Internet economy. We will in particular have an Open Forum on Thursday at 14:30 in Workshop Room 03. The focus of this year’s forum is on the many economic layers and dimensions that make up the open Internet, in a holistic manner. The OECD will engage with policy experts, economists, the technical community and civil society to discuss the different possible approaches to assessing the economics of the open Internet. This session will provide an opportunity to update the IGF on OECD’s ongoing work in this area and to present the OECD Ministerial on the Digital Economy to be held in Mexico in 2016.

Useful links

OECD work on the Internet

How good is your job?

EMO 2014-IMAGEToday’s post is by Mark Keese of the OECD Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs

Six years after the start of the financial crisis, employment still hasn’t got back to pre-2007 levels in many countries, and for many people working conditions have got worse, according to the OECD’s Employment Outlook 2014, released today. Talk of ‘sovereign defaults’ and the whole system unravelling has faded, but – at a personal level – the conversation of the Great Recession has become one about job loss amongst family and friends, cutbacks at work, falling wages, under-employment, insecurity, and what this means for simply trying to make ends meet.

Although the average unemployment rate in the OECD countries finally fell from 8.5% at the peak in 2009 to 7.4% and is predicted to continue to drop slightly throughout 2015, almost 45 million people are still recorded as unemployed, plus an unknown number who’ve disappeared from the unemployment statistics because they have given up looking for work. And the number of people suffering from long-term unemployment (12 months or more) has nearly doubled since 2007, reaching 16.3 million across the OECD countries in total.

Unemployment is not the only concern. Many of those who kept their jobs have also encountered more difficult times. For this reason, the Outlook investigates how the crisis has also influenced working conditions including earnings, security and job quality (measured along three dimensions: the level and distribution of earnings; employment security; and the quality of the work environment). Real wage growth has slowed, or even dropped, as a result of rising unemployment and policies that reduced or froze public sector earnings as a part of fiscal consolidation efforts. The downwards adjustment in wages has helped to improve competitiveness, rebalance current accounts and promote growth. But real wages have fallen harder than expected in some, mainly European, countries. With wages cut, people can’t purchase as much as they used to. With inflation close to zero in some countries, cutting wages further means cutting “nominal” wages: people will actually get less cash from one month to the next. The Outlook argues that wage moderation and even real wage cuts were probably needed in some countries, especially in the Eurozone, to restore competitiveness lost prior to the crisis, when wages grew more rapidly than productivity and countries accumulated large current account deficits. But there comes a point where further cuts don’t create any more jobs, but do create more hardship. What is more, wage cuts only make sense if they lead to lower prices as well. This hasn’t always happened, so policymakers need to make sure that firms don’t just hoard all the savings from lower wages, but pass them on to consumers.

A big concern is the loss of income low-paid workers and their families have suffered as a result of slower wage growth or wage cuts. The Outlook advises countries to look at who will be hit hardest, and who can least afford, wage adjustment in their future policies. Implementing or strengthening mandatory minimum wages, progressive taxation and in-work benefits would help protect those more vulnerable workers.

Non-regular employees, whose work contracts are not ‘permanent’ or ‘open-ended’ (so called “atypical” jobs), are at greater risk of under- or unemployment than regular employees. Yet unfortunately, these types of contracts are becoming more common. While there are some benefits to non-regular employment, such as increased flexibility, they don’t always outweigh the negative consequences. Contrary to belief, “atypical” jobs are not an automatic stepping stone to permanent work. In Europe, fewer than half of temporary workers actually moved into a permanent contract three years later and in countries like France, Italy or Spain the proportion is around 20%– too often, they either get pushed out of the workforce, or continue with a sequence of short-term contracts.

One reason for their lagging behind is that temporary employees of similar ages and with similar skills are 14% less likely to receive employer-sponsored training than their colleagues with permanent contracts. Countries are encouraged to reduce the large gap that exists in some countries between the employment protection of permanent and temporary workers which would help reduce the reliance by employers on temporary work. Continuing the current trends of increasing non-regular employment, with worse conditions, could lead to a decrease in human capital as skills are not developed. Some countries have already initiated reforms which effectively give non-regular employees greater protection relative to permanent workers or reduce use of such contracts, and other governments are urged to follow suit.

The crisis has also deepened the problem of poor job quality. The groups who accumulate the most disadvantages are youth, low-skilled workers and temporary employees. Of the three, low-skilled workers are the most likely to be pushed into unemployment. Almost one in four low-skilled workers reports experiencing too many challenges at work and too few resources to cope. The Outlook suggests several actions to improve job quality. Stronger training programmes, for example, would help employees to better handle their job demands, as well as prepare supervisors with better management practices. Countries should also implement labour market policies that facilitate mobility between sectors and foster job creation. Fortunately, policymakers don’t have to choose between job quality and the quantity of jobs: several countries have proven that it’s possible to succeed in increasing both.

With so many challenges in the labour market, what can today’s employees and future employees do to better their own chances? Various skills and factors influence a person’s employment status and salary. Early on in a career, the field-specific skills gained from studying matter more. But later on, more generic skills have a stronger impact on hourly wages. For young people, education is the biggest cause of differences in hourly earnings. Experience also plays an increasingly significant role in explaining wage variation among youth. And although the evidence suggests few young people seem to combine work and study, securing some work experience even before finishing studies is shown to help land that first job. The Outlook identifies a role for policymakers and employers here, and highlights how programmes that provide work-experience are essential to ensure economic recovery. Policymakers and employers should identify the benefits of work-study programmes and take note of best practices. After all, investments in youth can help secure the future prosperity and well-being of nations.

Useful links

Lessons in recovery

wBalloons-EiffelEight giant balloons from Japan floated in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower this weekend, a reminder of one of the worst natural disasters of recent times – and of the determination of survivors to rebuild their region.

The balloons were raised by students taking part in the OECD Tohoku School, an innovative educational project launched in northeast Japan following the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Over the past two-and-a-half years, around 100 young people from schools in Tohoku have been working together to plan an event in Paris to show off their region and to demonstrate its recovery.

“It’s not just adults who are working to help our region prosper, it’s students too,” explains Yurina Sato from Yanagawa Junior High School in Fukushima prefecture. “It’s a strong message to local people that we are moving forward.”

The results of the students’ work were on display this weekend. Over two days, the students staged an ambitious set of activities on the Champ de Mars in central Paris that reflected on the earthquake and tsunami on 11 March 2011, and the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and looked forward to Tohoku’s rebuilding.

Visitors also had a chance to sample the region’s culture, including an energetic “deer dance” – a traditional performance that’s taken on a new significance since the disaster. The elaborate costumes and drums used in the dance survived the disaster unscathed and are now presented as a symbol of the region’s resilience.

wDEER-DANCE

But it was the future that dominated many of the student projects. A team from the Yanagawa school has been working with a local producer to create a new line of fruit jellies, which they’ve started retailing in their area. “We’ve sold at least 8,000,” says Yurina Sato. “We want to help local industry in our region.”

wYurina-SATO

Unsurprisingly, the region’s energy needs were on many minds. Kaoro Kanno is one of a group of students from Adachi High School that worked on measuring radiation levels around the school and on exploring possibilities for renewable energy.

wKaoro-KANNO

“The disaster was a turning point,” Kaoro says. “We have to do something now. We thought that if we miss this chance, then who will do it?” Students at Kaoro’s school have been working on using hot springs in the area as an energy source, and are hoping their experiments will lead to the creation of a real source of sustainable energy.

wRenewable-energy-project

As well as teaching the students valuable new skills, the OECD Tohoku School may also have lessons for Japanese education. The project challenges traditional styles of teaching and learning by putting students in the driving seat. “In this project, it is students who are taking the initiative, not teachers, not the school,” explains Chikato Nakamura. “It’s a big difference.”

Chikato is on the team from Iwaki city that came up with the idea of raising the balloons above the Champ de Mars. Walking under them, he explained that the four blue balloons, hoisted to over 21 metres, represented the height of the tsunami surge in his area. Against them, the four red balloons represented the determination of Tohoku’s people to recover from the disaster.

wChikato-NAKAMURA

Chikato is hopeful not only about his region’s prospects, but also about the project’s impact on other Japanese schools: “I think Japanese education should do more project-based learning,” he says. “When you study just with a pen and paper, it’s not really learning. Doing actions outside the classroom is really important.”

Many thanks to Saki Kinnan of Osaka University for help with translation.

Useful links

OECD Tohoku School

The OECD educationtoday blog will have more coverage of the project later this week.