Around Christmas time and at the beginning of every academic year, I have routinely sent cash to my extended family back home in Zimbabwe. That’s been the pattern since I joined the World Bank mid-career and settled in Washington D.C. 23 years ago.
I am not alone; the number of Zimbabweans that have left the country is estimated at more than 3 million. Most have left since 2000, for reasons varying from the socio-economic to political.
This passage in Lant Pritchett’s new book, The Rebirth of Education, (reviewed here yesterday), had me gurgling with pleasure. It explains, in vintage Pritchett prose, why we all find it so hard to think in terms of systems, rather than agents (i.e. heroes and villains). He totally nails the origins of that glazed look I see in the eyes of my Oxfam colleagues when I start going on about systems, complexity, emergence etc:
“I am going on at length about this because this book is about explaining and fixing poor learning outcomes by fixing broken systems, not fixing people. But I have to go on about this because system explanations just have no appeal to people, myself included. Agent-centered explanations are powerfully appealing to us, on a very deep level. Believe me, if your child says, “Daddy, tell me a story,” you can be sure he or she wants a story with agents, heroes and villains who have goals and make plans and overcome obstacles.
We are curating a new monthly series on Digital Gov in developing countries seeking fresh perspectives and insights into the policy, institutional, and technical dimensions of using technology and public management to make services work for businesses and citizens.
Over a cup of tea, on a January afternoon of freezing rain, Emily, who works on Digital for the US Government, and I met to exchange perspectives on what it takes for governments to get digital right. Although our contexts are vastly different, we agreed that there remain similar pain points in the developed and developing world. In the first edition of the Digital Gov. blog, we consider factors common to good digital service delivery.
Each January, about 85 government ministers or so -- together with some members of their staffs, leaders of the education departments in international organizations, large NGOs and multinational companies, and other 'high level decision makers' -- gather in London to speak informally about topics of common interest during the Education World Forum, which bills itself as the 'world's largest gathering of education and skills ministers'. It's a rather unique and impressive collection of people with the power to make decisions affecting hundreds of millions of students and teachers around the world. This annual meeting was previously called the 'Learning and Technology World Forum'; despite dropping the word 'technology' from its official title a few years ago, talk of tech was inescapable during this year's Forum, whether onstage or in the hallways. If I were asked to identify three general themes that permeated discussions throughout this year's three-day event, they would be 'technology', 'systems' and 'data'.
For many groups, the Education World Forum offers a high profile venue to announce new initiatives, launch new publications, and present findings from recent research. My boss at the World Bank, Elizabeth King, for example, officially launched a new 'SABER' education data technology tool during her keynote speech on the second day ("When it comes to learning, education systems matter"). While the links between these three themes were perhaps not always explicit in Beth's speech, the important role that new technologies will play in helping education systems to collect and analyze key data about the health of the education system, especially as pertains to whether or not students are learning (and, if so, how), was echoed and amplified by many of the other speakers in both EWF plenary sessions and related side events.
While the Forum has become increasing open over the years, embracing the use of social media throughout much of the agenda, for example, and quickly making available on YouTube key speeches and presentations, the off-the-record ministerial exchange sessions that happen on the second day are, as per the EWF social media policy, meant to be a largely Twitter-free zone. The hope is that, if/when/where given space to ask the 'dumb' questions of their peers, and freed from having it reported that someone, in response, provided some 'dumb' answers, Forum participants might feel comfortable enough to have what turn out to be some rather smart conversations about topics for which they had not been prepped, and about which no formal position papers had been prepared back home.
At one of the informal Forum ministerial exchange sessions a few years ago, rather exasperated that much of the conversation was concentrated on discussions of the lowest costs that various countries had paid for student laptops, I posed the following scenario, and question, as a sort of 'thought experiment':
As a poverty economist, I know how difficult it is to forecast poverty numbers for even the next year. But, since the World Bank Group (WBG) announced the goal of ending extreme poverty by 2030, I have been projecting poverty numbers of some countries and regions for nearly two decades into the future. I could not help but ask myself “What am I doing this for?”
Forecasting versus Benchmarking
I looked for answers by reading recent papers on similar topics. Most seemed to be competing to prove that their projections were the most plausible. Some seemed better than others, but they were not convincing enough to erase my doubt. Before giving up the search, I reread Ravallion (2012, 2013) , and at last got an answer. In both papers Ravallion projected future poverty under the assumption that the developing world maintains its current pace of growth and poverty reduction. Although his methodology ensures that his projection predicts future poverty accurately if this assumption holds, it is still uncertain whether this assumption will hold and, consequently, whether his projection will prevail.
I approached Lant Pritchett’s new book ‘The Rebirth of Education’ with glee and trepidation. Glee because Lant is one of the smartest, wittiest and best writers and thinkers on development. Trepidation because this issue is an intellectual minefield of Somme-like proportions (remember the epic Kevin Watkins v Justin Sandefur battle?). And sure enough, Lant took me into all kinds of uncomfortable places. Allow me to share my confusion.
First the book. Based on a data-tastic summary of a lot of research and case studies, Lant argues, in the words of the book’s subtitle, that ‘Schooling Ain’t Learning’:
- In India less than half of children surveyed in grade 5 could read a story for second graders (and over 1 in 4 could not read a simple sentence), and only slightly more than half could do subtraction. Results over several years were getting worse, not better. See graphic for more examples.
- In Tanzania over 65 percent of students who sat the 2012 examination for secondary school (Form IV) completers failed, with the worst possible results.
- A majority of 15 year-olds in low- and middle-income countries have only learned enough to reach the bottom 5 percent of their peers in high-income countries.
“I genuinely think there’s a cause for optimism. Crashing through a glass ceiling is always painful but, having crashed through it, I think it will be easier for the next woman who comes along.”
- Julia Gillard, Former Australian Prime Minister
YANGON, Myanmar — The government here has put forward ambitious plans to dramatically increase access to electricity and health care, especially in rural areas. Both are huge problems; some 70% of all people in Myanmar do not have access to electricity, and public health issues, including the spread of TB, need to be more effectively curtailed. What can we can do about these problems? Actually, quite a bit. Watch the video from the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.