Afghanistan is vulnerable to a number of natural hazards, including earthquakes, flooding, drought, landslides and avalanches, as well as hazards arising from human interaction. Among low income countries, Afghanistan is second only to Haiti in terms of the number of fatalities caused by natural disasters between 1980 and 2015. In the last few years, however, the Afghan Government has increasingly understood how the consequences of extreme weather events and disasters add to existing security risks. Severe and prolonged droughts, for instance, have increased food insecurity, causing on average $280 million in economic damage to agriculture each year. Natural disasters and climate-related shocks affect 59 percent of the population, concentrated in economically poorer regions, as opposed to security-related shocks (15 percent).
The availability of disaster risk information is particularly important for a fragile state like Afghanistan where 4 out of 5 people rely on natural resources for their livelihoods. To strengthen resilience, investments in Afghanistan need to incorporate information on natural hazards in their planning, design and implementation. To help support government efforts, the World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), in close cooperation with the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA), recently produced a comprehensive multi-hazard assessment level and risk profile, documenting information on current and future risk from fluvial and flash floods, droughts, landslides, snow avalanches and seismic hazards. The main findings, methodology and expected outcomes were recently discussed and presented to the Disaster Risk Management community of practice within the World Bank Group. A number of takeaways from the discussion are presented below:
What is Afghanistan’s risk profile and vulnerability?
Flooding is the most frequent natural hazard historically, causing average annual damage estimated at $54 million; large flood episodes can cause over $500 million in damage
Historically, earthquakes have caused the most fatalities, killing more than 10,000 people since 1980
3 million people are at risk from very high or high landslide hazard
Droughts have affected 6.5 million people since 2000; an extreme drought could cause an estimated $3 billion in agricultural losses, and lead to severe food shortages across the country;
An estimated 10,000 km of roads (15 percent of all roads) are exposed to avalanches, including key transport routes like the Salang Pass
When Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities in 1859, he was most definitely not thinking about Latin America, let alone Panama. He was writing about Paris and London, and more importantly, depicting important themes of poverty and inequality experienced during the French Revolution.
So what does this have to do with Panama? Well, despite more than 150 years having passed since Dickens wrote his famous tale, the themes of poverty and inequality persist and are quite evident in Panama’s health sector. In the case of Panama, the “Two Cities” are actually a metaphor for the two very stark realities that Panama faces - urban Panama versus rural, indigenous Panama -- and the very different health outcomes experienced in each.
Afghanistan is not exactly an easy place to undertake a rigorous study on the ease of doing business. And collecting primary data for a micro-based study in Kabul and several Afghan provinces can be a daunting task. Just how daunting is underscored by the fact that the country conducted its most recent census almost 40 years ago, in 1979. Vast tracts of the country remain unsafe and many of its provinces are inaccessible.
Despite the security challenges, our experience from the recently launched Subnational Doing Businessin Afghanistan report shows that the barriers to collecting micro data are not insurmountable. The data and related findings can help guide business reforms toward the kind of smart regulations that are imperative for attracting private sector investment to the capital city and beyond. A regulatory environment that enables private enterprise, especially small and medium firms, to function and be creative boosts job creation and is, therefore, good for the economy.
The report, the first of its kind in Afghanistan, benchmarks Kabul and the provinces of Balkh, Herat, Kandahar and Nangarhar across four Doing Business indicators: Starting a Business, Dealing with Construction Permits, Getting Electricity and Registering Property.
The key takeways?
Kabul leads in two of the areas measured, Starting a Business and Getting Electricity. Kandahar ranks first in Dealing with Construction Permits and Registering Property, while Balkh comes in second in all four areas measured by the report.
Regulatory quality and efficiency vary considerably among the five locations. Rolling out reforms already implemented in Kabul across all of Afghanistan would improve the business environment for entrepreneurs in the provinces.
By adopting all the good practices, Afghanistan could move up 11 places in the global Doing Business ranking, to 172.
In two weeks I'll visit BETT, the London-based event which is sometimes referred to as the 'world's biggest educational technology trade show'. While I don't know if it is in fact the 'biggest' (ISTE's annual event is huge as well), nor how one calculates magnitude in such cases, there is no doubt that it is indeed really, really, really, big.
I attend BETT most years for a number of reasons. Doing so provides me with a chance to see all of the new cool gadgets and applications in one place. It is pretty easy to schedule meetings packed into a few days with lots of groups and people who are also at BETT; 'back home' it would take months to coordinate such meetings.
Conveniently, BETT takes place immediately after the Education World Forum, where scores of education ministers gather together each year to share experiences about challenges and successes related to education in their countries. This 'convenience' is actually no coincidence: Many ministerial delegations, especially those from middle and low income countries, stay on to tour the exhibition halls at BETT, to see the 'latest and greatest' and be (presumably in some cases) wined and dined by various vendors hoping to build relationships and do some business. While I skip the 'hospitality' stuff (not really my scene), I typically find it very educational to attach myself to, and rotate between, a few ministerial delegations each year as they tour the BETT exhibition spaces. Doing so offers me some exposure and insight into what such groups are interested (and not interested) in, and provides me with a 'fly-on-the-wall' view into the various sales pitches that are made to these sorts of government officials by companies eager to ring in the new year with some big contracts – as well as how such officials respond to such marketing.
Just as I find the questions that educational officials ask of vendors when they tour the BETT exhibition spaces to be revealing in many ways, I am often intrigued by the related questions that many of these companies then pose to me.
Government representatives express their frustration for not having benefited enough during the boom. Policymakers lament the lack of planning that has left their countries with no cushion in their budgets, and companies are looking to cut costs so they can weather the storm. And most importantly, communities are feeling the economic impact as mines purchase less local supplies, generate fewer jobs and halt some operations.
Not only are things slowing down, but it seems a golden opportunity has passed us by. Fatima Denton, Director of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, highlighted that Africa is less industrialized today than it was in 1990. After the minerals super cycle of 2000-2013, the percentage of manufacturing of African economies actually declined from 12% to 11%.
This year, the World Bank’s spring meetings are offering a rare opportunity for the heads of the United Nations, the World Bank Group, and the IMF to jointly talk to finance ministers from around the world about the critical importance of inclusive green growth and careful stewardship of the Earth’s natural resources.
The venue is a breakfast meeting this morning with over 30 national finance ministers. The meeting will be private – and powerful. We’re hoping for an open and frank discussion among ministers on how to achieve concrete outcomes at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, in June.
Education is a ‘black box’ -- or so a prevailing view among many education policymakers and researchers goes.
For all of the recent explosion in data related to learning -- as a result of standardized tests, etc. -- remarkably little is known at scale about what exactly happens in classroomsaroundtheworld, and outside of them, when it comes to learning, and what the impact of this has.
This isn't to say that we know nothing, of course:
The World Bank (to cite an example from within my own institution) has been using standardized classroom observation techniques to help document what is happening in many classrooms around the world (see, for example, reports based on modified Stallings Method classroom observations across Latin America which seek to identify how much time is actually spent on instruction during school hours; in many cases, the resulting data generated are rather appalling).
Common sense holds various tenets dear when it comes to education, and to learning; many educators profess to know intuitively what works, based on their individual (and hard won) experience, even in the absence of rigorously gathered, statistically significant 'hard' data; the impact of various socioeconomic factors is increasingly acknowledged (even if many policymakers remain impervious to them); and cognitive neuroscience is providing many interesting insights.
But in many important ways, education policymaking and processes of teaching and learning are constrained by the fact that we don't have sufficient, useful, actionable data about what is actually happening with learners at a large scale across an education system -- and what impact this might have. Without data, as Andreas Schleicher likes to say, you are just another person with an opinion. (Of course, with data you might be a person with an ill-considered or poorly argued opinion, but that’s another issue.)
side observation: Echoing many teachers (but, in contrast to teaching professionals, usually with little or no formal teaching experience themselves), I find that many parents and politicians also profess to know intuitively ‘what works’ when it comes to teaching. When it comes to education, most everyone is an ‘expert’, because, well, after all, everyone was at one time a student. While not seeking to denigrate the ‘wisdom of the crowd’, or downplay the value of common sense, I do find it interesting that many leaders profess to have ready prescriptions at hand for what ‘ails education’ in ways that differ markedly from the ways in which they approach making decisions when it comes to healthcare policy, for example, or finance – even though they themselves have also been patients and make spending decisions in their daily lives.
One of the great attractions of educational technologies for many people is their potential to help open up and peer inside this so-called black box. For example:
When teachers talk in front of a class, there are only imperfect records of what transpired (teacher and student notes, memories of participants, what's left on the blackboard -- until that's erased). When lectures are recorded, on the other hand, there is a data trail that can be examined and potentially mined for related insights.
When students are asked to read in their paper textbook, there is no record of whether the book was actually opened, let along whether or not to the correct page, how long a page was viewed, etc. Not so when using e-readers or reading on the web.
Facts, figures and questions scribbled on the blackboard disappear once the class bell rings; when this information is entered into, say, Blackboard TM (or any other digital learning management system, for that matter), they can potentially live on forever.
And because these data are, at their essence, just a collection of ones and zeroes, it is easy to share them quickly and widely using the various connected technology devices we increasingly have at our disposal.
A few years ago I worked on a large project where a government was planning to introduce lots of new technologies into classrooms across its education system. Policymakers were not primarily seeking to do this in order to ‘transform teaching and learning’ (although of course the project was marketed this way), but rather so that they could better understand what was actually happening in classrooms. If students were scoring poorly on their national end-of-year assessments, policymakers were wondering: Is this because the quality of instruction was insufficient? Because the learning materials used were inadequate? Or might it be because the teachers never got to that part of the syllabus, and so students were being assessed on things they hadn’t been taught? If technology use was mandated, at least they might get some sense about what material was being covered in schools – and what wasn’t. Or so the thinking went ....
Yes, such digital trails are admittedly incomplete, and can obscure as much as they illuminate, especially if the limitations of such data are poorly understood and data are investigated and analyzed incompletely, poorly, or with bias (or malicious intent). They also carry with them all sorts of very important and thorny considerations related to privacy, security, intellectual property and many other issues.
That said, used well, the addition of additional data points holds out the tantalizing promise of potentially new and/or deeper insights than has been currently possible within 'analogue' classrooms.
But there is another 'black box of education' worth considering.
In many countries, there have been serious and expansive efforts underway to compel governments make available more ‘open data’ about what is happening in their societies, and to utilize more ‘open educational resources’ for learning – including in schools. Many international donor and aid agencies support related efforts in key ways. The World Bank is a big promoter of many of these so-called ‘open data’ initiatives, for example. UNESCO has long been a big proponent of ‘open education resources’ (OERs). To some degree, pretty much all international donor agencies are involved in such activities in some way.
There is no doubt that increased ‘openness’ of various sorts can help make many processes and decisions in the education sector more transparent, as well as have other benefits (by allowing the re-use and ‘re-mixing’ of OERs, teachers and students can themselves help create new teaching and learning materials; civil society groups and private firms can utilize open data to help build new products and services; etc.).
What happens when governments promote the use of open education data and open education resources but, at the same time, refuse to make openly available the algorithms (formulas) that are utilized to draw insights from, and make key decisions based on, these open data and resources?
Are we in danger of opening up one black box, only to place another, more inscrutable back box inside of it?
Health systems are under pressure in Asia. Epidemiological and demographic transitions are taking place much faster than in Europe and America, in the span of a single generation. With the transition comes the non-communicable disease (NCD) epidemic that requires more sophisticated and expensive interventions provided by hospitals, inpatient or outpatient. Rapid economic development in Asia has lifted millions out of poverty and raised peoples’ expectations for services. Between China, India, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam, expansion of health insurance coverage during the last decade has reached an additional one billion people, making services more affordable and thus increasing demand. Advancing medical technology eagerly awaited by specialist doctors sitting on top of health professional hierarchies further expands possibilities for treatment. The middle class votes with their feet and takes their health problems to medical tourism meccas like those in Bangkok and Singapore, voiding their own countries of additional income to health care providers. Policymakers are scrambling to expand hospital capacity, boost the pay of health professionals, and encourage investment to meet the demand.
But governments do not wait. They are exploring hospital autonomy, decentralization, user fees and private sector participation. These policies often pose risks that need to be mitigated by policies and institutional arrangements. For example, health care providers sometimes order unnecessary procedures to earn additional revenue, thanks to the powerful incentive of the fee-for-service payment mechanism and information asymmetry between the patient and health care provider. This can mean financial ruin for both the patient and new, relatively weak health insurance agencies.
Despite these challenges, hospitals aren’t high on the international health development agenda, save a few initiatives to improve quality and provider payment reform.