More power to your grannies


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If you want a solar engineer, get a granny. That was the message of Sanjit “Bunker” Roy, founder of India’s Barefoot College at a session on women’s economic empowerment at the OECD’s 50th Anniversary Forum.

Mr. Roy explained that there was little benefit in training men from rural villages — “men are untrainable, they are restless and compulsively mobile,” he said. “There’s no point in training them, because when they get a certificate they leave the village.” So, his Barefoot College instead trains grandmothers – women who have usually never left their home village and have little wish to do so. “Grandmothers come screaming onto the plane,” he told the audience, “they hate leaving their lives behind.”

But if the journey is painful, it’s also worthwhile, especially for the home villages of the women. As Mr. Roy explained, the college has trained hundreds of women from India and further afield, including 200 women from across Africa. “Through sign language, not through the written word, we trained these women to be solar engineers,” he said.

Once they return home, they’re keen to pass on their knowledge – another characteristic that distinguishes them from the male counterparts: “If you train a man, he doesn’t want to pass on his knowledge for fear of losing his job,” said Mr. Roy. For the village, electricity can be transformative. Solar lamps mean there’s light for midwives when they’re delivering babies. Access to power also means there’s more for people to do once night falls, which helps cut down the birth rate

Mr. Roy’s reflections were just part of a fascinating discussion on empowering women, and the impact that has more widely for societies. Melanne S. Verveer, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, argued that there was no better way to drive economic growth than women’s economic empowerment. “Women who run small and mediums enterprises are growth accelerators,” she said.

From North Africa, Nizar Baraka, a minister from the Moroccan government, said events in the region this year showed there was a real demand for recognition of people’s dignity – and, “in order to have dignity we need gender equality”. That meant ensuring women had access to employment, he said, and the opportunities to create their own enterprises. In the Middle East and North African region, he said, women accounted for only about 10% of entrepreneurs, compared with 30% in OECD countries. But, he said, progress was being made, with the creation of a range of “incubators” and mentoring programmes to encourage women to set up their own businesses.

Useful links

OECD Gender Initiative

OECD launches Your Better Life Index

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As we mentioned a few days ago on the Blog, this week marks the launch of the OECD’s brand new Your Better Life Index . A quick reminder: The Index is designed to let you compare and contrast the various factors that determine people’s well-being – not just GDP, but a much wider range of things like education, income, housing, security and so on.

The Index was launched this morning in Paris by OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría l, who quoted Bob Kennedy, who in 1968 said of GNP – a more traditional economic measure – that it “does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play; it does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials … It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Danilo Türk, president Republic of Slovenia, spoke next and described the Better Life Index as a “very important and very precious present” from the OECD as it marks its 50th anniversary. He praised the Index’s “imagination and creativity,” and said he hoped it would help drive a rethinking of measuring progress: “I hope the quote from Kennedy will look obsolete in a few years’ time,” he added.

Inevitably, with such a new project, there were plenty of ideas from panellists at the opening sessions of the OECD Forum on how the Index could be improved and, just as importantly, made relevant to people’s lives and to policymaking.

Jacques Attali, Chairman of PlaNet Finance, a non-profit that works on microfinance issues, felt the Index needed to take more account of democracy issues, freedom of speech and corruption. He said it had become clear that these issues were missing in many international indicators, especially the Millennium Development Goals, but that they were essential to social progress.

Pravin Jamnadas Gordhan, South Africa’s Minister of Finance, said a test of the Index’s usefulness would be whether it helped publics to communicate with politicians. He warned that “significant parts of the population feel excluded,” citing groups like young people in Spain and workers in Greece. He said there was an urgent need for “ruling elites hear voices that are marginalised in society.”

Sharan Burrow, General Secretary, International Trade Union Confederation, liked the Index, but warned that its focus on a broader approach to thinking about well-being needed to be reflected in policy: “The Index means little if it remains separate from our dominant economic thinking.” She also was critical of mixed messages from the OECD: The organisation’s policy thinking on structural issues was bad for workers and would foster inequality, she said, which was at odds with that the thinking behind the Index.

Also commenting was Yoshinori Suematsu, a Japanese Senior Vice-Minister, who said the catastrophes that have struck his country this year had focused people’s attentions on what is really necessary for living a good life. One of the most important, he said was social networks, and he noted that since the earthquake and tsunami sales of engagement rings had jumped by 50% in Japan – a mark of people’s little need for engagement in a dark time.

A quick final note: The Index is already getting plenty of media coverage: “Canadians can’t complain,” reports The Globe and Mail which reckons that the Index shows Canada is a pretty good place to be. What do you think? Take a look at the Index and let us know.

Useful links

OECD’s 50th Anniversary Week

Changing the care-less economy

8 March is the centenary of International Women’s Day. This year, we mark the occasion with a series of blog posts about initiatives to strengthen gender equality worldwide. In this post, Rosalind Eyben, from the Institute of Development Studies and former Chair of the OECD DAC Network on Gender Equality, highlights how development policy has failed to address women’s unpaid care work.

When, twenty years ago, I became Chair of the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) working group on women in development (now the Network on Gender Equality), a key issue was the impact on women of the economic policy reforms – structural adjustment programmes – that donors had been encouraging partner countries to adopt.

Writing at that time, Diane Elson explained that because the economy has conventionally been understood in relation to making money, much of the work that takes place outside the market economy is ignored. This includes not only unpaid work in family farms and businesses but also the feeding, caring for and ensuring the well being of families and neighbours. (more…)

Disasters and the traps of poverty and wealth

UN HQ in Haiti after the earthquake

Today’s post is contributed by John Mutter, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences/Professor of International and Public Affairs and Director of PhD in Sustainable Development, Columbia University, NY

We like to categorize disasters into two types – natural and man-made. 2011 has begun with massive flooding in agricultural regions of Northeast Australia causing shoppers to brace for the inevitable increase in food prices that will soon follow. Just one death so far though and no doubt the rugged Australian farmer will get through this latest assault by Nature.

In 2010 we had a very well publicized example of a disaster of the man-made type in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico where 11 workers were killed and an enormous drilling structure incinerated and crumpled onto the sea floor causing an oil spill of historic proportions that threatened the Gulf coast. Pundits kept upping the drama of the event from the worst environmental disaster ever, to Obama’s Katrina, Obama’s 9/11 and even Obama’s Cuban Missile Crisis! None of this proved to be true and given the scale of the event itself – more oil released into the ocean than ever before – the scale of environmental damage seems to be not so great, not compared to what we all thought might be the consequences. We were all expecting thousands upon thousands of oil soaked seabirds but there were relatively few and just days after the seafloor gusher was finally plugged there was hardly any oil to be found anywhere.

On Boxing Day the New York Times published an extensive analysis of what went wrong 50 miles offshore Louisiana, the mistakes that were made many from inaction by workers on the drill rig though disaster was staring them in the face. The Times did not say so outright but it does seem that disaster could have been avoided. Certainly people will be held accountable. Someone will be blamed; perhaps many people will share the blame.

Who do we blame for the earthquake in Haiti earlier in the year on January 11th that killed around a quarter of a million people? (more…)

End poverty, now?

What’s the best way to fight poverty? Just give money to the poor. That’s the idea – and the title – of a provocative new book on development policy. True, the book isn’t a call to throw money out of helicopters over shantytowns. But it does argue for giving small payments (and other benefits), directly to poor people, and letting them decide how to use them. Think of it as bottom-up, not top-down, development.

Two of the book’s authors, Professors David Hulme and Armando Barrientos, visited the OECD recently to discuss their work. As they explained, such programmes already have an impressive track record of success in a number of developing countries, for example Brazil’s Bolsa Familia and Mexico’s Opportunidades schemes.

The programmes vary greatly: Some countries simply give out allowances and child grants to the poorest families; others attach conditions, such as requiring children to attend school; and others, such as India, require families who receive payments to work on community infrastructure projects. Whatever form they take, schemes like these now reach an estimated 750 million people around the world, say the authors, and – amid growing interest in China – are on course to reach a billion by next year.

The programmes are interesting from a number of perspectives. One is that they come from “the South”. That’s development shorthand for saying they were designed and implemented by developing countries themselves, and not by donor countries or agencies. “The idea of the Millennium Development Goals and much of the discussion of global poverty over the past 10 years has tended to emphasise what rich countries can do for poor countries,” Prof. Hulme said at the OECD. “But when you look at the origins of these programmes, you find they’re very much from the South,” especially countries like Mexico, Brazil, South Africa and India.

Another is that families make good use of the payments and experience real benefits. To give an example, two years after the introduction of a programme in Mexico, children in beneficiary families were a centimetre taller than children in families that received no payments, Prof. Barrientos said. That suggests the beneficiary children were better fed and enjoyed stronger health.

Critics of the schemes argue they can create welfare dependency. But the authors argue that such fears are misplaced, for a number of reasons. Not least is the fact that the sums of money are very small – they often amount to no more than about a fifth of a household’s expenditure. In Bangladesh, the payment to pensioners is equivalent to only about $2 a month. Incidentally, the small size of the payments means the schemes are relatively affordable, even for poor countries.

The researchers also say they’ve found little evidence that the schemes reduce the number of people who are ready and willing to work. Indeed, the opposite may be the case. In South Africa, for instance, research shows that people living with an elderly person who’s receiving a pension go looking for jobs more often than those that don’t. “People say, ‘it’s because we’ve got the money to pay for the bus fare – before, we couldn’t pay the bus fare to go and find a job’,” said Prof. Hulme.

Impressive as these programmes are, they need to be seen in the wider context of development and the provision of adequate systems of education and healthcare. For instance, insisting that children go to school before a family receives its payment makes sense only if there’s a school to go to.

Still, the programmes give important pointers on how people can be empowered to tackle their own problems. And that’s an idea some developed countries are also picking up on. The Economist reported recently on a pilot scheme in London where homeless people were asked what they needed to change their lives. “One asked for a new pair of trainers and a television; another for a caravan on a travellers’ site in Suffolk, which was duly bought for him. Of the 13 people who engaged with the scheme, 11 have moved off the streets. The outlay averaged £794 ($1,277) per person (on top of the project’s staff costs),” it reported.

“Just Give Money to the Poor: The Development Revolution from the Global South”, by Joseph Hanlon, Armando Barrientos and David Hulme (Kumarian Press).

Useful links

OECD Development Centre

OECD work on poverty reduction

OECD Factblog: Why poverty is declining

Social Assistance in Developing Countries Database  at the Chronic Poverty Research Centre

Too embarrassed to go to school

Click to read the report

I stopped reading a biography of Einstein when the author explained that the Jews, like the Scots, placed a high value on education. “Fiddlesticks!” I muttered, “Everybody places a high value on education”. That was a few years ago. Last week, I had a doubt. A candidate in the US mid-term elections boasted in a campaign video that she didn’t go to Yale. (She didn’t go to Washington either, but that’s another story).

The Tunisian grocer across from my place was perplexed by this attitude too. He works from 9 in the morning until 11 at night, six days a week, to give his children a better life, and that includes as good an education as possible. He also sends money back to his family in Tunisia to pay for private tuition.

He’s not alone. As the latest UN Human Development Report points out, despite progress in providing universal access to education, there are huge disparities based on ability to pay. The good news is that the world’s population is better educated than ever before. In 1960, an average 15 year-old had four years of schooling. By 2010, this had doubled globally and more than tripled in developing countries, from 1.9 years to 6.4. The gender gap has been narrowing too, and has even been reversed in some cases: in the Arab States, there are now 132 women in higher education for every 100 men.

The improvement is associated with increased public funding in much of the world, up from 3.9% of GDP in 1970 to 5.1% in 2006 (and 1% a century ago). However, as you’d expect, these averages hide enormous differences. In sub-Saharan Africa, average state spending per student is $184 a year, eight times less than in Latin America, and forty times less than in developed countries.

The UN also point out that higher spending and enrolment don’t necessarily mean better schooling. For instance, grade 8 students in Indonesia scored just as well in mathematics tests as those in many Latin American countries, despite having only an eighth of the spending per capita.

Still, money can make a big difference. One of the downsides of expanded enrolments is that schools may not have the resources to cope with the extra numbers, hence the need for private lessons and a widening gap between students from different backgrounds. The UN report also stresses the social barriers to education poor students have to overcome. One 11 year-old boy described how he dropped out of school because he was too embarrassed to go bare foot after the teacher humiliated him for coming without shoes.

Similar trends are seen more generally outside education. The world population is healthier and wealthier on average than when the first Human Development Report appeared in 1990, but inequalities have been growing within and across countries, and some indicators have even got worse in certain areas.

Useful links

Meeting of education ministers at the OECD, 4-5 November

The educationtoday blog has contributions from particpants in the ministerial meeting

OECD Education Policy Forum: Investing in skills for the 21st century

Urban agriculture: good food, good money, good idea!

This post comes to us from Professor John Mogk of Wayne State University Law School, specialist on the question of urban development.

Urban agriculture on a grand scale is nothing new to American cities. The most successful home front effort during World War II was the growing of Victory Gardens by residents in every city and town in the country.   The United States Department of Agriculture reports that Victory Gardens produced an estimated nine to ten million tons of fruits and vegetables, more than 40% of the nation’s crop, through the nearly twenty million gardens planted in Americans’ backyards and instilled the art of canning into urban life.   

Today, distressed American cities such as Detroit can greatly benefit from urban agriculture once again both economically and socially, as well as environmentally.  Urban agriculture increases economic prosperity by creating jobs and developing new, local industries.  Additionally, it improves the health and safety of residents by providing wholesome food and greater access to well-maintained green spaces, fostering a sense of community, building social capital and organizational capacity, and uniting residents around a common purpose.  Urban agriculture improves the local environment by removing blight from vacant lots and returning a green landscape to the city’s neighborhoods.   

There is an increasing demand for locally grown food in America, especially in local restaurants and grocery stores.  The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that demand for locally grown food will rise from the $4 billion market in 2002 to a $7 billion market in 2012.  Importantly, money spent on local agriculture stays within the local economy.  Detroit’s enormous vacant land inventory of nearly 50 square miles in the aggregate could provide wholesome vegetables and fruits for a large percentage of its population, as well as its restaurants and retail food outlets.  Today, there is little, if any, demand for the city’s vacant land for traditional urban uses. 

Investing in urban agriculture is a smart business decision.  Approximately every $1 invested in a community garden yields $6 worth of fruits and vegetables. Researchers in Ohio estimate that “urban farmers can gross up to $90,000 per acre by selecting the right crops and growing techniques.” In Philadelphia it is estimated that “urban market gardens” earn up to $68,000 per half acre.  Projections are that locally grown fruits and vegetables in Detroit could generate $200 million in sales and approximately 5,000 jobs.  When vacant land becomes clean, productive, and more attractive to existing and new residents through agriculture, the city’s housing values will benefit and, in turn, its tax base.   (more…)