The Pakistani floods: a note of guarded optimism

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

 How will Pakistan do after the floods?

To answer that question we need first to know how bad the flooding was. It is widely said to be the worst in modern history and there is no reason to doubt that, but it’s not so easy to measure the magnitude of a flood. There is no widely accepted scale like the Richter scale for earthquake magnitude. Disasters are commonly scaled by deaths and economic losses.

The death toll for the Pakistan flooding is said to be around 2000. However, such figures are notoriously difficult to assess accurately because many people who are displaced don’t “report in”, making it hard to know who among the missing are alive or dead. The 2000 figure is probably the number of bodies recovered and is surely less than the true total. Even so, that’s still as high as the death toll from Hurricane Katrina, although it’s less than the number killed in other disasters in the region, such as the 70,000 victims of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar.

Floods are not like earthquakes that give no warning. You can see a flood coming. It has to rain a lot over a long period of time and floodwaters rise over many days or longer. People can get out of the way and move to safer locations and that is what happened in Pakistan. The number of displaced people is thought to be enormous, far greater than the number displaced by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. These figures too are hard to estimate with any accuracy but it is very safe to say that the death toll was mercifully low and forced displacement by contrast absolutely enormous.

Hard as these figures are to assess it is harder still to assess the economic impact of a disaster. Here there is often confusion added to the difficulty of estimation. What is often reported is so-called financial losses that, at least in the US tends to mean the value of that which is destroyed and the figures that come out quickly are insured property losses. Insurance companies usually know how much they have lost. But the very fact that property is insured says that it will be rebuilt without much financial hardship to the owner. Those losses don’t hurt an economy and can even stimulate a surge in the construction industry. As measures of economic set back due to a disaster they are very misleading.


Measuring value in education in more ways than one


Vote early, vote often

“Ranking is a disease,” said Charles Reed of California State University this last Monday, speaking at the OECD’s institutional management in higher education (IMHE) general conference, Higher Education in a World Changed Utterly: Doing More with Less. He went on, “All universities provide value at what they do, and this business of ranking is unhealthy.”

 Yet countries themselves are keen to learn where they stand each time the OECD publishes its international comparative data in Education at a Glance (just released last week) and PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) (to be released 7 December).

Fascinated as we are with understanding where we stand in comparison to others, whether we are countries or schools, companies or individuals, Charles Reed has a point. Rankings cannot cover all dimensions of value, but they do provide comparative evidence on a few key ones.  As available rankings reflect neither the quality of teaching nor learning, OECD is currently measuring what matters by starting to test student and adult performance with the Programmes for the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO) and the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). Going beyond rankings requires a vision of what makes each country or school, company or individual, unique or valuable to its population, audience or following.

In an effort to add more voices to the ongoing debate on education priorities, the OECD is undertaking a new global, participative and transparent “crowdsourcing” project. With Raise your hand, launched today, we’re shouting out for the very best ideas around the most important action to take in education today.

What’s new about this?

We are targeting everyone in every corner of the world.

  • There are no barriers to entry (no sign in, no e-mail address, voting is entirely anonymous). 
  • New ideas from the public at large are welcome and encouraged.

Developed using Princeton University’s open-source software, “All Our Ideas” and in close collaboration with Matthew Salganik, this project benefits from the best features of quantitative and qualitative methods. Other communities working with All Our Ideas have added more than 1,500 ideas and cast more than 60,000 votes.

 Help us get even more impact with this new “crowdsourcing” initiative. Go ahead and give it a try. You’ll be presented with two ideas at a time (out of the current 55). You can keep voting as much as you like, but be warned it is highly addictive. And the ideas will not stop until you do.

Better still, you might have a good idea of your own. If so, go ahead and add it!

 Voting opens today and closes 15 October 2010. Get your vote in and spread the word to everyone you know. Together, we might make a difference.

 Useful links:

How smart are you about education?

Is Europe making the grade?

OECD and allourideas

OECD Raise Your Hand

What’s the big idea?

Want to work? Stay in college!

It can’t be more straightforward: the more educated you are, the more likely you are to have a job. In every OECD country, without a single exception, a higher proportion of 25 to 64–year-olds with a tertiary level of education are employed than those with only an upper secondary degree. And likewise, those with an upper secondary qualification are generally far more likely to have a job than those with a level of education below that.


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…)

How’s the economy recovering? Sloooooooowly…

Pace of recovery slowing, says OECD. Hopes for a rapid rebound in the global economy receive another blow in the latest OECD economic update. It suggests that the pace of economic recovery is slowing, and by more than had previously been expected. But although the situation is extremely uncertain, fears of a double-dip recession look to be misplaced. “The uncertainty is caused by a combination of both positive and negative factors,” OECD Chief Economist Pier Carlo Padoan  said at the launch of the Interim Assessment in Paris this morning. “But it is unlikely that we are heading into another downturn.”

Those negatives include the possibility that consumers will continue to keep a tight hold on their purse strings, so reducing demand in the economy. The reasons for that vary: some people may be paying off debts while others may put off spending because of unemployment, or the fear of losing their job, and concerns over continued weakness in house prices. On the plus side, the OECD says corporate profits are “robust” and that levels of private investment are so low they can probably now only go in one direction – up. (A decline would take even more steam from the economy.)

The OECD also believes that the worst of the turmoil on financial markets may now be over, although risks remain, and notes that emerging economies like China and India are doing well, which should benefit the wider global economy. As for the hard numbers, the OECD sees the pace of economic growth slowing over the course of this year in the G7 countries. It cites GDP growth of 3.2% in the first three months of 2010 and 2.5% in the second quarter, and forecasts falls to 1.4% in the third quarter and just 1% in the fourth.

Useful links OECD work on economics

Insights: From Crisis to Recovery

Is Europe making the grade?

Cambridge overtakes Harvard in the annual QS World University Rankings, released this week. Other than that, good news for Europe is a little hard to find in this annual league table, which is one of a number of international university rankings published each year.

According to the QS listing, when you exclude British universities, only one European institution features in the world top 20 and only three – two in France and one in Switzerland – in the top 50.

Of course, any such ranking reflects the methodology used to create it, as Daniel de Vise  and The Chronicle of Higher Education explain . Different criteria would produce different results. On the other hand, other rankings, such as the widely cited league table  from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, also suggest that Europe’s universities are not keeping up with the world leaders. Also worrying, a report  from the Lisbon Council suggests that, more broadly, university systems in a number of European countries are failing “to make their education systems more open, democratic and readily accessible to a broader range of people”.

By the way, the OECD is hosting a conference on higher education next week under the title “Higher Education in a World Changed Utterly: Doing More with Less” . You can find out more about the event on the OECD’s educationtoday  blog, and follow the discussions via a live webcast starting Monday morning.

Useful links

 OECD work on higher education

 OECD Insights: Human Capital

 “Europe’s university challenge”   – from the OECD Observer

How smart are you about education?

It’s September again, and in much of the world that means one thing – back to school. So, with that in mind, take a look at these three questions and see how much you know about education (answers below).

1. Generally in OECD countries, which age group is more likely to have a university-level qualification?

a. 25-34 year-olds  b. 55-64 year-olds

2. Around the world, 3.3 million tertiary students study abroad. In which of these OECD countries do foreign and international students make up the biggest slice of the student population?

a. Australia b. Switzerland c. The United States

3. Between primary and tertiary education, how much do OECD countries spend per student each year (in U.S. dollars)?

a. $1,688 b. $5, 644 c. $9,195

All these questions are based on data in OECD Education at a Glance, a compendium of data and statistics on education released every September by the OECD. It covers an enormous amount of ground, including how far young people and adults have studied, the economic benefits of education, who pays for it and conditions in schools and universities, such as teaching hours and student numbers. The point of collecting the data is to give OECD countries a basis on which to make comparisons about their education systems. This is important as there can be big variations in how well students perform in individual countries, even with similar levels of investment. As OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría said at the launch of Education at a Glance in Paris this morning, “In a global economy, it is no longer improvement by national standards alone. The best performing education systems internationally provide the benchmark for success.”

And the answers to those questions …

1 a: 25-34 year-olds ;  younger people are much more likely to have been through tertiary education in OECD countries, a reflection of the expansion of university-level education in recent decades.

2 a: Australia ; more foreign students go to the United States in absolute terms, but they account for a bigger share of the tertiary student population in Australia, more than one in five.

3 c: $9,195 ; most of the money goes on salaries for teachers and other staff.

Useful Links :  

Education at a Glance 2010