Unmasking the Climate-Change Deniers

STANFORD – Twenty-five years after the adoption of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change on May 9, 1992, the world has yet to implement a treaty that effectively addresses global warming. Now, following President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate agreement, it is time to investigate more deeply the forces driving delay.

Throughout the 1990s, the American Petroleum Institute (API) – the largest oil and gas trade association and lobbying group in the US – repeatedly relied on economic models created by two economists, Paul Bernstein and W. David Montgomery, to argue that pro-climate policies would be devastatingly expensive. API successfully lobbied for delaying measures to address climate change solutions, using Bernstein and Montgomery’s projections to claim that job losses and economic costs would outweigh environmental benefits.

These arguments were used in 1991, to torpedo the idea of carbon dioxide controls; in 1993, against the Clinton administration’s proposed BTU tax (an energy surcharge that would have taxed sources based on their heat and carbon content); in 1996, against the goals of the UN Conference of Parties in Geneva (COP2); in 1997, against the goals of the UN Conference of Parties in Kyoto (COP3); and in 1998, against the Kyoto Protocol’s implementation. The API’s lobbying plan was repetitive. It also worked.

The oil and gas industry portrayed the reports it commissioned from Bernstein, who once worked at the Hawaiian Electric Company, and Montgomery, a former deputy assistant secretary for policy in the US Department of Energy, as factual, independent, and products of genuine economic debate. In the run-up to the 1997 meeting in Kyoto, Japan, for example, the oil company Mobil claimed in an advertisement placed in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times that “the cost of limiting emissions could range from $200 to $580 per ton of carbon,” based on “a study just issued by Charles River Associates.” Mobil didn’t name who wrote the CRA report (Bernstein and Montgomery were the first two authors) or who funded it (API).

Mobil’s message was misleading, but was the analysis that Bernstein and Montgomery authored truly flawed? Consider this: they ignored the negative costs of climate change, and suggested that clean energy would never be price competitive with fossil fuels, which is simply not true. They assumed the result that they claimed to show.

The oil and gas industry was richly rewarded for abusing the public trust. Americans eventually elected a president, George W. Bush, who bought the industry’s claims and pulled the US out of the Kyoto Protocol.

Sixteen years later, Trump stood in the White House Rose Garden and announced, with equal sophistry, that the Paris climate agreement would devastate the US economy and cost America some 2.7 million jobs, mostly in the construction industry, by 2025. That accounting, Trump said last month, was “according to the National Economic Research Associates.”

In case you’re wondering, the first two authors of the report Trump cited – just published in March – are Bernstein and Montgomery. This time, they were hired by the American Council for Capital Formation, a Washington, DC-based think tank and lobbying group with a history of commissioning deeply flawed work used to challenge climate policy.

Throughout the 1990s, the oil and gas industry and its allies perfected the art of blocking America’s support for key global climate-change initiatives. The maestros, it appears, are back, and their repertoire hasn’t changed. It never had to.

In addition to commissioning studies claiming that climate policies would hurt the US economy, the industry also consistently claims that efforts to address global warming would be uniquely harmful to the US , would not reduce the risks , and might prevent poverty alleviation. All three of these additional arguments also appear in Trump’s announcement on the Paris accord.

When a tortoise is sitting on a post, you know it didn’t get there by itself. The reappearance of the same four arguments developed a quarter-century ago by an industry that benefits from delaying climate policies – arguments used with great success precisely because their origin and true purpose were hidden from the public – looks a lot like the tortoise’s four wiggling feet.

If history rhymes, here’s what we may expect in the months ahead: industry-sponsored economic “studies,” flashy online content, think tank reports, and polished front groups posing as grassroots organizations. These are time-tested components of the strategy used by the fossil fuel industry and others to block, obstruct, and control climate policy.

We must not let the industry continue to obstruct climate policy. That means following the money that funds the pseudo-science of delay, and exposing the co-opted scholars who feed false images of debate to the public.

The same arguments – and people – used by the fossil fuel industry to block climate policies decades ago are back. For the sake of humanity, we must not let them succeed again.

Benjamin Franta, a former research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, is a doctoral student in the history of science at Stanford University, where his research focuses on climate politics and the manipulation of science.

By Benjamin Franta

How Parasites Pull the Strings

LIVERPOOL – Science fiction has long explored the terrifying possibility that we are devoid of free will, and that some unpleasant creature could control our minds or turn us into plodding zombies. But mind control is not just a literary trope. It is also a common method by which parasites gain access to environments where they can grow, reproduce, and complete their life cycles.

Consider the fungus Cordyceps, which interferes with the behavior of ants in tropical rainforests in such a way as to make them climb high into the vegetation, and latch onto a leaf to die. The fungus then reproduces by dropping its spores all over the forest floor, to infect more ants below. Similarly, a virus that infects gypsy moth larvae prompts them to climb en masse to the tops of trees to die. The virus then multiplies, and rains viral particles down on the forest floor.

These parasites make their hosts seek a higher elevation, which expands the reach of their infectious spores or particles. But other species can induce far more complex behaviors. Nematomorph worms, for example, infect crickets, and drive them to commit suicide by jumping into various water sources, be it a puddle or swimming pool. It is precisely in such aquatic environments that nematomorph worms reproduce and complete their life cycles.

And parasites’ mind-control abilities are not limited to invertebrates. Consider the rabies virus, which is transmitted among dogs, humans, and other mammals by biting. To maximize its chances of spreading to another host, the virus actually alters its host’s mind to turn it into an angry, slavering, biting machine that will chomp at anything it encounters.

Another species that can affect human behavior is the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii, the causal agent of Toxoplasmosis. T. gondii is extremely common, with an infection rate of 15-85% across different countries, depending on climate and diet. Whereas Brazil and France have infection rates of around 80%, Japan’s is only 7%.

T. gondii can find its way to humans through farm animals such as pigs, cows, and sheep. And, as it happens, raw-meat dishes are more common in French and Brazilian cuisines. But T. gondii naturally targets cats, by way of rats whose behavior it has altered. Namely, the microbe increases the likelihood of its host rat being eaten by a cat, by reducing the rat’s natural fear of light (photophobia) and cat urine.

Humans, too, can experience alarming behavioral changes after becoming infected by T. gondii. Infected men can become jealous, distrusting of others, disrespectful of established rules, and less risk-averse; as a result, they are almost three times more likely to be involved in a car accident. Infected women, meanwhile, can become either suicidal or more warm-hearted, insecure, and moralistic.

Moreover, there is evidence that a T. gondii infection could play a role in mental disorders. More than 40 studies have shown that people suffering from schizophrenia test positive for T. gondii antibodies, indicating that they may have been previously infected. And T. gondii has also been tied to dementia, autism, Parkinson’s disease, and brain cancer.

How can these puppet-master parasites control the brains of such diverse invertebrate and vertebrate species? One possibility is that they can change the levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin in the brain. Neurotransmitters are ancient molecules that have been conserved through the ages of evolution, and they are known to influence behavior.

Thanks to genomics and proteomics, we have begun to understand the role that neurotransmitters play in allowing parasites to manipulate host behavior. When researchers analyzed the T. gondii genome, they found the precursor to dopamine synthesis, L-DOPA, suggesting that the parasite might be able to synthesize and secrete dopamine directly into a host’s brain. This would explain why rats infected with T. gondii have higher levels of dopamine, and why dopamine inhibitors can suppress their parasite-induced behavior.

Parasites that infect invertebrates can also manipulate neurotransmitter levels. For example, the emerald cockroach wasp injects its cockroach host with a venomous cocktail that contains the neurotransmitter octopamine. This puts the cockroach into a sleep-like state, at which point the wasp drags it off to its lair and lays eggs in its abdomen.

And like T. gondii in rats, acanthocephalan worms (also known as spiny-headed worms) overrides the natural photophobia of their freshwater crustacean hosts. As the crustacean gravitates toward the surface of the water, it is eaten by a duck, at which point the worm completes its lifecycle.

Researchers have found that when uninfected amphipods are injected with serotonin, they spend more time near the surface of the water, as if they had been infected. And protein analysis of grasshoppers infected with nematomorph worms shows a change in the proteins that are involved in releasing neurotransmitters.

We are only just beginning to understand how these diverse puppet-master parasites can manipulate invertebrate and vertebrate behavior. But we already know that pulling on the strings of neurotransmitters is one common method. If further research vindicates some of the more seemingly outlandish imaginings of science fiction, it wouldn’t be the first time. Robbie Rae is a lecturer in genetics at Liverpool John Moores University, United Kingdom.

By Robbie Rae

Fostering Arab Entrepreneurship

WASHINGTON, DC – Across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), technology hubs are emerging. Whether it’s in the Beirut Digital District or the GrEEk campus in Cairo, some of the Middle East’s brightest minds are turning innovative ideas into marketable products.

When I visited the Beirut Digital District two months ago, and the GrEEK Campus startup hub before that, optimism was palpable – and for good reason. In a region that has struggled to find its economic footing since the Arab Spring, the entrepreneurial ideas being refined at incubators like these hold the keys to the region’s future.

Startups anywhere contribute to job creation, competitiveness, higher productivity, and economic growth, while helping to reduce poverty and fight climate change. And when energetic new companies bring innovative products and services to untapped markets, they contribute positively to private-sector development.

In the MENA region, several successful startups are already doing this, and more. One example is, an online retailer based in the United Arab Emirates that was purchased in March by Amazon. Souq led a revolution in e-commerce in the region that has powered cross-border trade and improved consumer choice.

In Egypt, Fawry has developed a game-changing electronic payment system that has freed consumers and businesses from using cash. More than 20 million Egyptians, including many small business owners, now use the service, which processes 1.5 million payments daily.

The region needs more of these private entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, at the moment, unsupportive business and regulatory environments are stifling the startup ecosystem.

Despite the value that smaller companies bring to the region’s customers and economies, first-time business owners too often are on their own. For example, most new MENA businesses cannot access the credit needed to expand or hire workers. The region has 23 million small- and medium-size enterprises (SMEs), accounting for roughly 90% of the private sector, but SMEs receive just 8% of total bank lending. And capital-starved entrepreneurs have few other options; despite a growing number of accelerators and seed funds in the region, the venture capital market remains undeveloped.

Even well financed entrepreneurs face obstacles to growth, often due to a lack of experience. There is little formal education for new entrepreneurs, and only a handful of networks support start-ups. Gender bias, too, is a limiting factor; nearly every MENA economy fails to empower female employees and executives fully.

But much can be done to ensure that more startups in the region are able to make the leap from good idea to business success. For starters, countries need to reform their bankruptcy laws. Start-ups take risks, yet existing regulations make it difficult to liquidate companies, deterring potential creditors and increasing the cost of debt. An important part of these reforms is to abolish jail time for non-fraudulent bankruptcies, which remains a real threat for owners of small businesses throughout the region.

Moreover, many countries have labor laws that make it hard for businesses to recruit and terminate staff. Employee mobility is also mired in bureaucracy and costly paperwork. Addressing both challenges would help cash-strapped startups make every dollar count.

Finally, countries should revisit restrictions on foreign ownership and strengthen intellectual property laws to protect entrepreneurs’ hard-won innovations. Doing so would encourage more investment to flow into the region.

Entrepreneurs drive economic growth in ways that go far beyond online sales and e-payment solutions. Creating jobs is one of the most critical contributions they make. Nearly one in three young people in the region are unemployed, and those who do have jobs often work in the public sector, which is the largest employer throughout the Arab world. In the Gulf States, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Tunisia, government jobs account for an unsustainably high 60-80% of formal employment.

Governments need to reassess this balance, and adopt reforms that unlock the potential of private businesses to grow and take on more employees. Global development-finance institutions, like the World Bank Group – which includes my institution, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) – can provide a bridge between governments and the private sector.

The heart of the IFC’s strategy is to help develop new markets in low- and middle-income countries by encouraging private participation in what are often state-dominated economies. In May, the IFC, together with the World Economic Forum, brought together 100 of the most promising startups in the Arab world, with the goal of beginning to address the bottlenecks that stifle entrepreneurship. In time, it is companies like these that will deliver sustainable economic growth to the region, and create employment opportunities for millions of people.

That is the kind of future that Arab innovators, like those I met at the World Economic Forum in Jordan, know is possible. Our job, as global development advisers, is to help them realize it. Philippe Le Houérou is the CEO of the International Finance Corporation, the private-sector arm of the World Bank Group.

By Philippe Le Houérou

Capitalizing on Africa’s Youth Dividend

TORONTO – When South African university students took to the streets in 2016 as part of the “Fees Must Fall” protest movement, the “decolonization of the curriculum” was among the movement’s chief concerns. It was a pivotal moment in South Africa’s history, as young people rose to demand quality and accessible education. But a crucial question was missing from the debate over fees and curricular relevance: how can changes to higher education empower Africa’s youth to drive the continent’s economic transformation?

For Africa, the question is no longer “if” students are taught, but “what.” Unfortunately, while access to education has improved significantly in recent decades, school curricula have changed little since the colonial era, when secondary education was an elite privilege designed to advance the careers of a select few. Technical and vocational education and training (TVET) programs have also suffered from neglect. Today, these initiatives are marked by outdated courses and rote learning methods that fail to prepare young people for the demands of the twenty-first-century job market.

The trouble goes beyond traditional components of the curriculum, like math, science, and language. There is also a deficiency in critical “soft” skills, such as communication, teamwork, and problem solving. Though neglected, it is these skills that enable young people to become adaptable, lifelong learners. The mastery of soft skills correlates to improved outcomes in school, work, and life. Yet, until recently, training in soft skills has not been integrated into formal education systems on the continent.

Fortunately, that is changing. Across the continent, secondary schools and TVET systems are transforming themselves to prepare Africa’s young minds with the skills they need to make the transition from school to employment, and to become more engaged citizens.

These adjustments are coming at a critical time for Africa, where many countries are experiencing a demographic dividend of declining fertility rates and rising productivity. In particular, these changes mean more opportunity for young people as they prepare to enter the job market. But to succeed on the job, young people must have the skills and education that a modern economy requires.

At The MasterCard Foundation, where I manage education and learning programs, we’ve put together a blueprint – called Skills at Scale – to help African educators revitalize their curricula to capitalize more effectively on the economic potential of youth.

One of the continent’s most successful efforts already underway is the USAID-funded Akazi Kanoze Youth Livelihoods Project, designed by the Education Development Center (EDC) in Boston. Akazi Kanoze epitomizes how a small initiative can catalyze wider education-sector reform, by emphasizing links to local employers that provide access to entry-level jobs, internships, and apprenticeships. The focus on personal development, interpersonal communication, and leadership training has ensured that students are well equipped to enter the labor market upon graduation.

Rwanda’s Ministry of Education has already moved to integrate elements of the program in TVETs across the country. The government recently integrated Akazi Kanoze’s approach in the national curriculum to equip secondary and TVET students with the soft skills they require to succeed. National exams in the 2018-2019 academic year will also reflect the new competency-based curriculum.

Since 2009, Akazi Kanoze trainings have prepared more than 37,000 youth for work, with more than 65% of participants in the initial round of training employed six months after graduation. Based on the success of integrating soft skills into the curriculum in Rwanda, The MasterCard Foundation and EDC will launch a similar program in Senegal later this year.

Case studies from Skills at Scale highlight six components to a successful skills-training initiative. These include an enabling policy environment, in which the government is supportive and sets clear goals for education sector reform; vocal backing for these changes from strong political champions; wide stakeholder engagement, especially in the design and implementation phases of the reform; decentralization of authority for education; flexibility on the part of donors; and the ability to measure the changes’ impact on youth employment and entrepreneurship.

Change is not without challenge. Adapting models of skills training to vastly different education systems across Africa will take time. It will also be difficult to ensure that intensive training models reach all young people, including those no longer in school. Experience in Rwanda shows that curriculum redesign requires close cooperation with education and workforce development authorities, as well as government officials, teachers, and school administrators. New curriculum content also requires developing new teaching and learning materials.

Achieving scale also requires a markedly different approach to training teachers than is currently on offer in most African school systems. Trainings must go beyond traditional, one-off approaches, by providing ongoing teacher support. New pedagogies also require continual supervision and practice, especially early on. The old “cascade” model of teacher training simply won’t work.

African governments, with support from the international community, can help students’ transition from school to work by relying on a curriculum that elevates the importance of soft skills. If done well, these changes can ensure young people are positioned to drive Africa’s future prosperity. Africans deserve a forward-looking education system, not one that remains stuck in the past. As students in South Africa demonstrated last year, the continent’s youth will settle for nothing less.

Kim Kerr is Deputy Director of Education and Learning at The MasterCard Foundation.

By Kim Kerr

The Health Costs of Environmental Change

OXFORD – In recent years, the world has become increasingly preoccupied with the catastrophic potential of global warming and other human-induced environmental changes, and rightly so. But one of the most serious risks has been all but ignored: the threat to human health.

To be sure, concerns about what a rise in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels could mean for the planet are entirely justified. And many are understandably perturbed that the world’s poorest suffer disproportionately, while the United States, the planet’s second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, seems to be shirking its responsibilities.

But the health implications of human-induced environmental change are largely being overlooked, while future generations’ quality of life is being mortgaged for economic gain. Nowhere are these implications more visible than in the emerging markets of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe.

Rapid growth and rising incomes have led to unprecedented improvements in nutrition, education, and social mobility. Over the last 35 years, countries such as Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, and Turkey have all made extraordinary gains in human development.

But this progress has often been pursued with little regard for the stability of natural systems. The contamination of roughly half of the world’s fresh water supply, the disappearance of more than 1.4 million square miles (2.3 million square kilometers) of forests since 2000, solid waste mismanagement, and widespread species loss, habitat destruction, and overfishing are destroying the very resources we need to survive.

Humans are changing the natural environment so dramatically, and to our own detriment, that scientists believe we have entered a new geologic epoch – the “Anthropocene” – which began around 1950 and is characterized by unprecedented planetary pollution.

The Emerging Markets Symposium at the University of Oxford’s Green Templeton College recently concluded that these changes have serious implications for human health, especially in developing economies. Up to a quarter of the world’s disease burden is associated with human-caused environmental factors, the symposium found. Children under five years old are at the greatest risk of suffering a disease caused by poor environmental stewardship.

Repairing the Earth’s natural systems, and restoring the health of the planet’s most vulnerable populations, is possible. But success will require radical changes in environmental, economic, and social policies.

Countries that developed early, before the advent of modern environmental science, can rightly claim they knew no better. It wasn’t until scientists pointed out the carcinogenic impact of asbestos, for example, or the neurological effects of pumping water through lead pipes, that laws and regulations were enacted to address these problems.

But today, countries cannot hide behind scientific ignorance. Even developing countries must reconcile economic ambitions with full (or at least, partial) knowledge of the environmental consequences of growth. Leaders everywhere must be prepared to advocate changes in attitudes, lifestyles, and development strategies. And they must place a greater emphasis on development goals that protect the environment and public health.

These adjustments will be hard to manage structurally, and even harder to sell politically. In certain cases, they will put the planet’s welfare above national interests. But leaders in emerging markets, as elsewhere, need to recognize that there is no other option. Years of unbridled growth, and the misguided assumption that natural systems would continue giving, no matter how extensively they were exploited, has brought us to this point.

There is good news, however. Rigorous environmental stewardship is compatible with economic growth, social progress, and political stability. This is true for even the poorest countries that pursue environmentally sound policies that promote healthy, non-destructive models of development.

Shortsighted decisions, like that taken by the Trump administration to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement, have the potential to move the world in the other direction. We must not let that happen. The agreement’s remaining signatories must work collectively to solve the world’s environmental challenges, paying close attention to the health costs of inaction. The current trajectory cannot be corrected unless all countries accept that economic growth and environmental stewardship can coexist.

Global forums, like the G20 and the United Nations, can serve as key conduits for the promotion of sustainable development. In particular, strategies to promote health and wellbeing must be better integrated into local, state, and international environmental policymaking.

Make no mistake: determined opponents will question the science and criticize those who claim that human health is being jeopardized by environmental disregard. But to these critics I pose a question of my own: “Are you willing to risk being wrong?”Shaukat Aziz was Prime Minister of Pakistan from 2004 to 2007.

By Shaukat Aziz

Trump’s Unethical Aid Cuts

PRINCETON – When Americans are asked what percentage of US government spending goes to foreign aid, the median answer is 25%. The correct answer is 1%. No wonder, then, that when President Donald Trump justifies cutting aid on the grounds that other countries need to step up because they are not paying their fair share, many people believe him.

The truth is that it is the United States that is not paying its fair share. Long ago, the United Nations called on rich countries to raise their foreign aid to 0.7% of their gross national income (which of course is very different from government spending). In 2016, according to OECD figures, the United Arab Emirates, Norway, Luxembourg, Sweden, Denmark, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and Germany reached that level. In contrast, official US aid amounted to only 0.18% of gross national income, or 18 cents for every $100 dollars earned.

In absolute terms, the US still spent more on foreign aid than any of the countries that met the target. But Germany, despite having an economy less than a quarter the size of the US, was only a little less than $9 billion behind. If Trump’s proposed cuts are implemented, while Germany maintains its aid spending, the US would no longer be the biggest donor, even in absolute terms.

Another significant comparison is with the UK, which is clearly not as wealthy as the US – its per capita GDP is 31% lower. Yet a few years ago, with bipartisan support, it reached the recommended 0.7% level – more than three times the proportion of gross national income spent by the US. It has since maintained that level.

Nor is all US aid directed to those with the greatest need. The three countries receiving the largest shares of US development assistance are Afghanistan, Jordan, and Pakistan. These choices are obviously based on what are perceived to be US geopolitical interests, not on the acuteness of countries’ need for development aid.

Those who know what the US aid cuts would mean to some of the world’s poorest people are dismayed by the prospect. Alex Thier, who managed multibillion-dollar US government aid programs before becoming executive director of the Overseas Development Institute in London, was visiting a health clinic in Buikwe, Uganda, when he received the news of Trump’s budget proposal, which would mean deep cuts to such facilities.

The Buikwe clinic, which treats 33,000 people, scrapes by on a monthly budget of $150. On the day Thier visited, there were 40 confirmed malaria infections, and malaria remains the leading killer in the district, despite the fact that it can be treated for about $3.

The glaring discrepancy between the cost of treating illness and preventing death in Uganda and the US makes Trump’s proposed reduction in aid spending – especially on global health programs – indicative of deep disregard for the lives and wellbeing of people beyond the borders of the US. When one considers the low proportion of its gross income that the US gives as foreign aid, Trump’s decision becomes even more shameful.

It is sometimes said that we should not give aid because it creates dependence. Let’s be clear: Trump’s proposed aid cuts would cause many people to die, and many more to face additional suffering from illness and disability that could have been prevented with better health care.

To use the possibility of creating dependence to justify the cuts, we would need hard evidence, not only that some aid programs have created dependence, but that specific global health programs adversely affected by the cuts really are creating dependence. In the absence of such evidence, an unproven hypothesis is insufficient reason to cause people to die or to increase their suffering.

Uganda seems to be an example of a country that receives a significant amount of aid, and at the same time, contrary to the hypothesis that aids creates dependence, is making rapid economic progress. The number of Ugandans living in extreme poverty, as defined by the World Bank, fell from 53% in 2006 to 34% in 2013. Indeed, many African countries are increasingly sharing the burden, by collecting much more of their own revenue and spending it on items like health and education. These efforts to raise more resources are also supported by donors, including the US. In Trump’s budget proposal, however, the US share of this support would be eliminated.

The proposed US cuts to global health programs will save the government about $2.3 billion. With total estimated federal government spending for 2017 of around $4 trillion, that amounts to about $1 for every $2,000 that the government is likely to spend. In terms of doing good, these global health programs may well offer the best value of any federal government program. All the aid cuts, to global health and other programs, as well as to diplomacy and peacemaking efforts, amount to $19 billion, still less than 0.5% of federal government expenditure.

There are welcome signs that some Republicans in the US Congress will resist Trump’s proposed deep cuts in US aid. Let’s hope that they do. Foreign aid – especially aid that saves lives and reduces human suffering – should not be a partisan issue.

Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include Practical Ethics, The Most Good You Can Do, One World Now, and Ethics in the Real World.

By Peter Singer

A Solution When a Nation’s Schools Fail

BUCHANAN, Liberia — Imagine an elementary school where students show up, but teachers don’t. Where 100 students squeeze into a classroom but don’t get any books. Where teachers are sometimes illiterate and periodically abuse students. Where families pay under the table to get a “free” education, yet students don’t learn to read. That’s public education in many poor countries.

And it’s why the hostility of American teachers unions and some of their progressive supporters to trials of private management of public schools abroad is so misconceived. This country, Liberia, is leading an important experiment in helping kids learn in poor countries — and it’s undermined by misguided Americans, including some of my fellow liberals.

“The status quo has failed,” George Werner, Liberia’s education minister, told me. “Teachers don’t show up, even though they’re paid by the government. There are no books. Training is very weak. School infrastructure is not safe. “We have to do something radical,” he added.

So Liberia is handing over some public schools to Bridge International Academies, a private company backed by Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, to see if it can do better.
So far, it seems it can — much better. An interim study just completed shows Bridge schools easily outperforming government-run schools in Liberia, and a randomized trial is expected to confirm that finding. It would be odd if schools with teachers and books didn’t outperform schools without them.

If the experiment continues to succeed, Liberia’s education minister would like to hand over “as many schools as possible” to private providers. Countries in Asia and others in Africa are also interested in adopting this model. The idea of turning over public schools to a for-profit company sparks outrage in some quarters. There’s particular hostility to Bridge, because it runs hundreds of schools, both public and private, in poor countries (its private schools in other countries charge families about $7 a month).
“Bridge’s for-profit educational model is robbing students of a good education,” Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, America’s largest teachers union, declared last fall. Education International, which represents the N.E.A. and other teachers unions around the world, similarly excoriates Bridge and the Liberian government.

I understand critics’ fears (and share some about for-profit schools in the U.S.). They see handing schools over to Bridge as dismantling the public education system — one of the best ideas in human history — for private profit. But I’ve followed Bridge for years, my wife and I wrote about it in our last book, and the concerns are misplaced. Bridge has always lost money, so no one is monetizing children. In fact, it’s a start-up that tackles a social problem in ways similar to a nonprofit, but with for-profit status that makes it more sustainable and scalable.

More broadly, the world has failed children in poor countries. There have been global campaigns to get more children in school, but that isn’t enough. The crucial metric isn’t children attending school, but children learning in school.Here in Liberia in the village of Boegeezay in Rivercess County, I dropped in on a regular public school that officially had 16 teachers assigned to it. Initially, I saw four; a couple more trickled in hours later.

I asked one girl in the school’s third grade if she could read the word “hands” (which was on her T-shirt); she couldn’t. I asked her what eight plus five equals. After a while, she guessed 12. Finally, I asked her to write the letter “E” in my notebook. She couldn’t. Americans wonder why 60 million elementary school-age children worldwide don’t go to school. It’s no wonder if you have to pay under-the-table school fees and know that years of “education” will get your children nothing.

In contrast, the Bridge schools I visited were functional. The teachers can themselves read. School begins on time, at 7:30 a.m., and continues until 3:30 instead of letting out around noon, as at many government-run schools. And students have books.“Since Bridge arrived here, the difference is so great,” explained Prince Yien, the PTA chairman in one school I visited.

Ruth Yarkpawolo, 9, a third grader, told me that the biggest difference since Bridge took over is that the teacher is present. Ruth is the first girl in her family to attend school, she loves science class, and she has ambitions that an education could facilitate. “I want to be a nurse,” she said. We can all agree that the best option would be for governments to offer better schools, with books and teachers in the room. Indeed, Liberia is trying to improve all schools, and it is winnowing out payments to “ghost teachers,” who don’t exist except on paper.

But my travels have left me deeply skeptical that government schools in many countries can be easily cured of corruption, patronage and wretched governance, and in the meantime we fail a generation of children. In the United States, criticisms of for-profit schools are well grounded, for successive studies have found that vouchers for American for-profit schools hurt children at least initially (although the evidence also shows that in the U.S., well-run charters can help pupils).

The situation in countries like Liberia is different, and when poor countries recognize that their education systems are broken and try to do the right thing for children, it doesn’t help to export America’s toxic education wars. So, a plea to my fellow progressives: Let’s worry less about ideology and more about how to help kids learn.

Sex Talk in Ghana

LABADI, GHANA – Education about sexuality and reproductive health is a serious political issue in many Western countries. Elections are won or lost on topics like abortion and “family” values. But in Ghana, and in many other developing countries, family planning is a matter of life and death, especially for girls and young women.

Six years ago, when I was a girl growing up in a slum in southern Ghana, it was normal to hear stories of teenagers having abortions; of 14-year-olds giving birth; and of 18-year-old men beating their prepubescent girlfriends because they refused to wash their partner’s clothes. No one in a position of authority – like parents or teachers – seemed concerned that the victims were unmarried girls, often below the legal age of consent.

This was my “normal.” Many classmates dropped out of school after becoming pregnant. Others died as they opted for abortions in unlicensed facilities.If I could see these problems so clearly, why couldn’t the adults in my life do something about them?

In the part of Ghana where I grew up, education about sexuality was the limiting factor. Young women and girls lacked access to even the most basic information about reproductive health. The subject was not taught in schools, owing to “cultural sensitivities.” Parents and educators were not much help, either; many believed that talking about sex with children would cause them to be more promiscuous. So, instead of being the first place to turn, family and teachers became a last resort. Many of us turned to one another; others went online, where information is often inaccurate.

The lack of sex education has caused severe harm to Ghana’s youth. According to a recent survey by the US-based Guttmacher Institute, 43% of girls, and 27% of boys, engaged in sexual intercourse before their 20th birthday. Even more shocking, 12% of Ghanaian girls under 15 have had sex at least once (compared to 9% of boys). Of those who are sexually active today, only 30% use any form contraceptive, and just 22% use a modern one (like condoms). In a country with high teenage birthrates and staggering levels of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, these percentages are deeply troubling.

Birth control can be a lifeline for young women in particular. The United Nations Population Fund, for example, estimates that increased use of contraceptives in developing countries would reduce annual maternal deaths by 70,000, and infant deaths by 500,000. In Ghana, broadening access to modern contraception is a crucial starting point for improving the long-term health of children and expectant mothers.

For starters, governments should emphasize young people’s sexual health by offering a comprehensive instruction in reproductive health issues, including topics related to contraceptive methods, how to communicate in relationships, and where to access information and support related to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Governments must also increase partnerships with civil-society groups.

And yet Ghana’s young people cannot rely on adults to do all the work; we must advocate on our own behalf. Earlier this year, I helped launch a youth-led initiative called My Teen Life, to give young people a voice in how we talk about sexuality in rural parts of Ghana. Thanks to the generous support of the Global Changemakers initiative in Switzerland, this project is off to a promising start. It is already educating parents and guardians about how to talk to their children about sexual health; providing skills training to teenage mothers; and working to break the cycle of poverty and early childbirth.

To date, My Teen Life has reached more than 100 teenagers and their families, and a first group of teen mothers has been trained to make jewelry and slippers to generate income. We hope to expand these and other outreach efforts to many more Ghanaian and other African teens in the coming months and years.

Such initiatives are meant to appeal to girls in ways that government programs do not. Until recently, “family planning” in Ghana was offered only to married couples. Though that has changed somewhat, many women, even those who are married, are still prevented from accessing quality services because of patriarchal family structures.

In our small way, My Teen Life is reaching out, effectively, to young people. We are helping them learn and understand what happens as they grow, and how best to make decisions that will set their future course in life. We are empowering every young girl we work with to stay in school, and stressing that if they express their sexuality, they must retain control over what happens to their body. Much more work remains to be done, but my colleagues and I believe that when young people provide solutions to their own problems, lasting change is more likely to follow.

Esenam Amuzu is a European Development Days 2017 Young Leader.

How Healthy is the Global Financial System?

LONDON – In recent weeks, policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic have affirmed that the financial system is sound and stable. The US Federal Reserve announced in June that all US banks passed its latest annual stress test. And Fed Chair Janet Yellen has now suggested that we might not experience another financial crisis “in our lifetimes.”

At the same time, the Financial Stability Board (FSB) – which monitors regulatory practices around the world to ensure that they meet globally-agreed standards – has declared, in a letter to G20 leaders, that “toxic forms of shadow banking” are being eliminated.

In short, ongoing measures to buttress the global financial system have undoubtedly paid off, especially when it comes to strengthening capital cushions and cleaning up balance sheets in important parts of the banking system. The latest assurances from policymakers are comforting to those of us who worry that not enough has been done to reduce systemic financial risk and to ensure that banks serve the real economy, rather than threaten its wellbeing.

Yet it is too soon to give the financial system as a whole a clean bill of health. Efforts to shore up the banking sector in some parts of Europe are still lagging far behind. And, more important, financial risks have continued to migrate to non-bank activities.

After irresponsible risk-taking almost tipped the global economy into a multi-year depression in 2007-2008, regulators and central banks in advanced economies launched a major effort to strengthen their financial systems. To that end, they focused initially on banks, which have since bolstered their risk-absorbing capital cushions, cleansed murky balance sheets, increased liquidity, enhanced transparency, narrowed the scope of high-risk activities, and partly realigned internal incentives to discourage reckless behavior. Moreover, the process for resolving failing and failed banks has been improved.

In addition to strengthening the banking sector, policymakers have also made progress toward standardizing derivative markets and making them more robust and transparent, which also reduces the risk of future taxpayer bailouts for irresponsible institutions. Moreover, the system for payments and settlement has been made safer, thereby lowering the threat of a “sudden stop” in economic activity, like the one that occurred in the fourth quarter of 2008.

It has been encouraging to watch national authorities coordinate their efforts under the auspices of the FSB. Better coordination has reduced the risk of regulatory arbitrage, and address the threat that banks will be, as former Bank of England Governor Mervyn King memorably put it, “international in life but national in death.”

The United States and the United Kingdom took the lead on reform, and Europe has been catching up. Assuming that it does, as policymakers there intend, Yellen’s assurance of a “much stronger” banking system in the US will apply to all of the other systemically important banking jurisdictions in the developed world, too. And the FSB’s confident assertion that “reforms have addressed the fault lines that caused the global financial crisis” will receive more support.

Still, it is too early to declare victory. Although the FSB describes the financial system as “safer, simpler and fairer,” it also acknowledges “nascent risks that, if left unchecked, could undermine the G20’s objective for strong, sustainable and balanced growth.”As an observer and participant in global capital markets, three of these risks stand out to me.

First, as more carefully regulated banks have ceased certain activities, voluntarily or otherwise, they have been replaced by non-banks that are not subject to the same supervisory and regulatory standards.

Second, certain segments of the non-bank system are now in the grips of a “liquidity delusion,” in which some products risk over-promising the liquidity they can provide for clients transacting in some areas – such as high-yield and emerging-market corporate bonds – that are particularly vulnerable to market volatility. And at the same time, exchange-traded funds have proliferated, while financial intermediaries have shrunk relative to bigger and more complex end users.

Third, the financial system has yet to feel the full impact of technological disruptions fueled by advances in big data, artificial intelligence, and mobility, which already are in the process of upending a growing number of other established sectors. And the financial-technology (fintech) activities that have expanded are inadequately regulated, and have yet to be tested by a full market cycle.

To be sure, another systemic financial crisis that threatens growth and economic prosperity worldwide likely won’t originate in the banking system. But it would be premature to assert that we have put all the risks confronting the financial system behind us.

Because risks have morphed – and migrated out of the banking system – regulators and supervisors will have to step up their efforts and widen their focus to see beyond the banks. After all, as Greg Ip of the Wall Street Journal pointed out in 2015, “Squeezing risk out of the economy can be like pressing on a water bed: the risk often re-emerges elsewhere. So it goes with efforts to make the financial system safer since the financial crisis.”

Mohamed A. El-Erian, Chief Economic Adviser at Allianz, was Chairman of US President Barack Obama’s Global Development Council and is the author of The Only Game in Town: Central Banks, Instability, and Avoiding the Next Collapse.

By Mohamed A. El-Erian

Why Build Financially Inclusive Economies?

SEATTLE – The theme of this week’s G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, is “shaping an interconnected world,” and when leaders get down to business, many of the highest-profile topics – climate change, counter-terrorism, trade – will take center stage. But the attention received by a less well-known agenda item will be no less critical to ensuring global prosperity: digital financial inclusion.

Today, some two billion adults still lack access to even the most basic financial services. Digital financial inclusion is about broadening access to the formal economy by making electronic financial tools – like debit accounts that people can access on their mobile phones – affordable and available on a large scale.

When the poor start using these services, two things happen. First, they manage money more effectively – with new ways to save, make payments, access credit, or obtain insurance. Second, they spend less time taking care of simple financial transactions and more on productive work or running a small business of their own. Moreover, additional earnings and savings boost poor people’s resilience against financial shocks resulting from, say, an unexpected medical expense or a seasonal crop failure.

There is no shortage of evidence for the transformative effect of digital financial inclusion on economies. In Kenya, for example, “mobile money,” which allows users to transfer funds by text message, has helped an estimated 194,000 households escape extreme poverty. The breakthrough there was driven by changes in savings behavior and greater occupational choice, especially for women.

As more countries experience gains like these, the prospects for lasting economic growth improve dramatically. One recent study projected that broadening access to digital finance tools could increase developing countries’ GDP by an estimated $3.7 trillion by 2025.

But, in order to capitalize on the promise of greater financial inclusion, effective policies are needed at the national level. Last year, the G20 published “High-Level Principles for Digital Financial Inclusion,” which focuses on eight of the most successful strategies adopted by national governments around the world. A new G20 report published this spring probes those strategies further, and shows how to turn principles into action.

China has been a leader in this regard, demonstrating how to strike a balance between innovation and risk. When online payment services, like Alibaba’s Alipay, first emerged, regulators were faced with an entirely new category of financial provider. Rather than impose a battery of rules up front, they watched and learned to see what types of regulations were needed. This gave providers a chance to find their footing and evolve. That approach helped Alipay to become the world’s largest online payment platform.

Regulatory innovations elsewhere are solving another key challenge: the lack of personal identification for new account holders. This is a common problem in many developing countries, and has prevented hundreds of millions of people from signing up for financial services. To overcome this hurdle, Tanzania and Mexico implemented systems that require nothing more than a phone number to sign up for the most basic accounts. Programs in both countries have been successful; in Mexico, for example, more than nine million new accounts were opened in the first two years.

India, meanwhile, is launching a massive digital identification program that collects fingerprints and other biometric data. More than one billion digital profiles have been created since the program began six years ago; today, more than one-third of those profiles are linked to bank accounts.

Yet the most recent G20 report also highlights some challenges. For example, “interoperability” – the ability of customers to transact with one another even if they are using different platforms – is the norm in only a few markets today. Government action to address this would help increase customer convenience and lower operating costs for providers. Users with little or no experience navigating online payment systems would also benefit from the adoption of policies that improve financial literacy.

Overall, the G20 reports make clear that digital financial inclusion is a powerful tool for tackling poverty. But wealthier countries can benefit as well, because digital financial inclusion, when rolled out well, increases consumer activity and trade.

The G20, under China’s presidency last year, made improving access to digital financial services a global priority, and it will remain so under Germany’s tenure. This focus will help improve access to the global economy for the billions who need it most — especially the poor, the elderly, and women in developing countries.

The world is getting better at understanding the mechanics of financial inclusion, and the ways that digital technology can accelerate it. This is great news for the unbanked. But placing the topic on a summit agenda is not enough. To keep the innovation going, global challenges need localized solutions. As leaders in China, Kenya, Mexico, and many other countries have already discovered, an economy that includes everyone benefits all. Mark Suzman is Chief Strategy Officer and President of Global Policy and Advocacy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

By Mark Suzman

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