Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Opting out of progress?

Newspapers and websites are full of it, yes, yes – sometimes in that way too, but I mean the debate on public spending.

At a time of economic crisis there is increasing pressure on governments to restrict public budgets, make cuts. Public spending at the moment is a big issue in the upcoming UK general election (how much? [Love the backing music by the way!]), it is an issue for healthcare reformists in the US (what for?), and child policy reform in Japan (who for?). In democracies with competing priorities it is an issue that never goes away.

But what can we pay for now, what given all of the choices and in a time of crisis would you say must not be cut… what should we pay for now? What in a time of increasing constraint on household incomes would you put your hand in your pocket for (or have a dig around down the back of the sofa for). Amongst the many worthy causes – the poor, the frail elderly, health care, homelessness, education and employment supports – I would highlight one with a long term perspective: child policies… Let me explain.

Spending early in the lifecycle is important for many reasons. First it is good for progress. Children are the entering into the social and economic sphere and any spending on them will generate returns for the longest possible period. Second, it is efficient. Later and more costly spending will be necessary in adulthood if people fail to find work, get sick, or require further education or retraining. Spending well in the early years reduces the burden on ‘catch-up’ or ‘fix’ spending in later years. Third it is equitable. Well placed spending can be used to close or reduce gaps for disadvantaged children before gaps become unmanageable and restrict opportunities. Finally, also in terms of equity I will simply ask this question: How many children do you know who chose the family and society into which they would be born? None you say? I guessed as much.

We live in societies that appreciate the need for healthy and educated populations. If societies don’t prepare a child in the ways of healthy living, protect them sufficiently from debilitating disease, and teach them how to make the most of their opportunities the society will pay for it later. Notwithstanding the complexities of causality, examples are found in intergenerational transmission of welfare dependency, education, as well as health and risk behaviours. Lives will not flourish, and consequently a certain level of dependency is inevitable (directly or indirectly). And so yes, unless you intend to buy an island and abandon the life of a citizen in a modern democratic society, you - the taxpayer - will quite literally pay for it later.

Economics tells us that the provision of goods we wouldn’t pay for ourselves but otherwise benefit from (and so free-ride) requires a public role: lights on the street at night, roads, healthy and educated neighbours, workers, etc.etc. It also tells us that if we club together we can do things cheaper and yet achieve equivalent outcomes.

As the economic crisis bites, child welfare, health and education services can suffer cuts alongside many other important policies, but can we afford to put off additional investment in our future; can we afford to opt out of progress?

Monday, 22 March 2010

Without water there is no life.

Following are a few interesting links in honor of World Water Day, 22nd of March.

UN-Water has chosen "Clean Water for a Healthy World" as theme for World Water Day 2010. The overall goal of the World Water Day on 22 March 2010 campaign is to raise the profile of water quality at the political level so that water quality considerations are made alongside those of water quantity. There will be a live webcast on Water for Life, 2005-2015 from the UN today from 9am-5pm.

According to The 2010 report on Water Supply and Sanitation by WHO / UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) for Water Supply and Sanitation the world is not on track to meet the MDG sanitation target: 2.6 billion people still lack access to improved sanitation, including 1.1 billion who practice open defecation. The world is on track to meet the MDG drinking-water target. However, 883 million people do not use an improved source of drinking-water. And for the data: http://www.wssinfo.org/datamining/introduction.html

Charity Water breaks this message down via video:
Right now, almost a billion people on the planet don't have access to safe, clean drinking water. That's one in eight of us. They made a music video out of it with Beck on the soundtrack. http://www.charitywater.org/whywater/. Definitely check this out.

Millions of women and children spend several hours a day collecting water from distant, often polluted sources. According to Water Advocates, a Washington DC based group, women in poor communities across Asia, Africa, and South America typically walk an average of 3 miles a day to fetch water for their households, often from contaminated sources such as rivers, unprotected springs, and shallow wells, and yet women play an important role in water management. They are most often the collectors, users and managers of water in the household as well as farmers of irrigated and rain fed crops. http://www.wikigender.org/index.php/Women_and_Water:_The_Forgotten_Glass_Ceiling

3.575 million people die each year from water-related disease according to World Health Organization. 2008’s report: Safer Water, Better Health: Costs, benefits, and sustainability of interventions to protect and promote health.

For OECD data on water consumption: http://www.wikiprogress.org/index.php/Water_Consumption

And finally, oldie but a not-so goodie actually:

From World Vision.

Wikiprogress needs more articles and data on the state of the world’s water and access to it. Please log in to wikiprogress.org to contribute your knowledge on the topic and join the Global Project for Measuring the Progress of Societies. Information on the world’s water is vital. Help wikiprogress to gather it.

What could motivate policy makers to start using broader measures of progress?

Hi ProgBlog readers,

Jon, I agree with your blog on 9 Feb where you identify the gap between developing indicators and using them in decision making. This is where the gap seems to be. We can do great research and develop a wide array of indicators, but if policy makers continue to default to an economic growth paradigm, what affect will the broader indicators of progress have on policy?

I am very grateful to have recently been awarded a Sustainable Economy Fellowship with Australia's Centre for Policy Development. The scope of this four month project will be to conduct research to better understand how policy makers might be motivated to use broader measures of progress. The project has just started and the first stage is to seek advice on building a survey with questions which will help provide insight into policy makers. If anyone reading this blog has ideas that you would like to contribute please write a comment.

Here are some of the questions around this issue:

When policy makers choose indicators what are they looking for? What are the motivations behind choosing certain indicators? How do they find the indicators? Who do they seek advice from? How could broader measures of progress be used to make the job of policy makers easier and more effective? If the policy maker is working to improve the standing of an elected official are there any examples of success where policy makers have used broader measures with a positive result for the elected official?

There may be other questions that you consider pertinent as well. I welcome any thoughts you the reader have. If this is a gap in the adoption of broader measures of progress how can we bridge this gap?

Here is a link to the Fellowship announcement http://cpd.org.au/article/meet-our-new-sustainable-economy-fellow-tani-shaw

Thanks very much.

Kind regards,

Tani Shaw
Sustainable Economy Research Fellow, Centre for Policy Development
& PhD Candidate, Institute for Sustainable Future, University of Technology, Sydney

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

On Commuting and Costa Rica: Bright Lights and Stop Lights .... PART II

Silky Anteater, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

I've got toothache this week which means it’s even harder for me to think of something intelligent to say than usual. So perhaps I can just talk a bit about my impressions of Costa Rica, where I spent a happy 10 days at the end of February. But there is a link with progress, admittedly a bit tenuous....

My first post on this blog back in January finished with an important question: I wonder what the Costa Ricans call their traffic lights? If you want to know why this question was important, then take a look at my post. But if you cannot be bothered to open the link then, in short, I noted that Costa Rica is regarded by some as one of the world's happiest countries and that perhaps - if their happiness is driven by some facet of their culture - they would have a more positive name for their traffic lights than the pessimistic "Feu Rouge" that the French label them.

I liked Costa Rica very much and it would be hard not to. But rather than bore you with details of all the different animals I saw, I will talk about my impressions of the Costa Ricans' subjective wellbeing.

First, is it a happy country? I'm not going to pretend to make informed comments on a country I visited for less than 2 weeks. And I am sure it has its fair (or unfair) share of unhappiness. But most of the people I met were remarkably friendly, and apparently relaxed. There was a distinct lack of pressure in just about everyone I spoke to and I don't think I heard a single car horn the whole time I was there. As someone there said to me "Life is short, but time is long". Which I think was her way of telling me to relax! (hey, I was stressed because I couldn't find a Tapir). Perhaps the relaxed attitude was a symptom of happiness. Perhaps it was a cause. But of course I was on holiday and that alone will bias most observers’ attempts to be objective.

Second, why might the Ticos (the Costa Ricans) be so happy? Well you would be much better asking a Costa Rican. I am sure the weather helps. But perhaps so does the fact that so much of the countryside is protected and there is, as a result, such a beautiful and accessible natural environment. Another factor might be that so many people are ready to help one another (at least they tried to help me - I spent a considerable amount of time lost and people were asking ME if I needed directions .... one guy even turned his car around and led me out of town).

These sorts of things are, I believe, very important to our wellbeing and quality of life.... but how often do they get measured by official statistics in most countries? And so how often are they treated with the prominence they deserve? Maybe Oscar Wilde was having a go at us statisticians when he spoke about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Finally, what do they call traffic lights? This is actually quite funny, and lends weight to my soon to be patented Traffic Light Test. In Costa Rica they call traffic lights "semaforo" which is unfortunately neutral on the optimism/pessimism scale. More interesting - and to the point - was what happened when I stopped at some roadworks somewhere in the south of the country. One lane of the highway was closed, and I was at the front of the queue. There were no traffic lights. There was no sign. But the workman on traffic duty said something to me in Spanish. He was obviously telling me to wait but my Costa Rican passenger translated it as "Wait for the flag". She didn't understand either....

A line of traffic came through the roadworks from the other direction and the driver of the last car was flying a red flag out of his window. He passed it - relay baton style - to the workman who waved me on my way with a grin, and presumably passed the flag to the last car in the queue behind me. And that simple system says a lot about Costa Rica. First, having to pass the flag from driver to driver creates a little more social interaction. Second, it requires trusting them to actually give it back (or the whole system will fail) which relies on social capital and might generate a little more. And third, it made me laugh and a lot of others too judging by the looks on people's faces. I thought it was wonderfully low tech, trusting and friendly. So perhaps there is something in this theory of mine after all.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Just one indicator please!

So one day you decide to cut through all of the nonsense and insist that a single indicator is defined to represent how well our children are progressing. You have no time for half-measures, and your goal is a global one. All children, all societies, one indicator. As you wait impatiently in the canteen of the UN headquarters an important and flustered looking person (perhaps Ban Ki-moon) comes in and asks if it is you that has set this challenge. A positive reply, a concerned frown, and the gentle ushering of your good self to the podium leaves you in the position of making the first suggestion. What do you say?

“Income poverty, ah no wait, life satisfaction…errr, infant mortality… no, no, wait, low birth weights!” Everyone is thoroughly confused.

Child income poverty is a good choice. Everyone knows kids need money. It is easy enough to measure objectively, though from time to time families can mis- or under-report their income. When it comes to children is family income enough, or should we be talking about pocket money? Can we be sure household money is spent on the children? Income poverty is policy amenable, quick to adjust (if you’re willing to take taxes) and policy efforts are easy to evaluate and are likely show up before the end of a government term (so politicians might like this one!). But then how do we measure it: relatively or absolutely? Does a dollar mean the same to two different children on either side of the world, in developing or underdeveloped countries… certainly not. Would it make sense to compare globally… oh dear, probably not. Even before we begin to address the dreaded issue of equivalisation we have problems.

Life satisfaction says it all, right? How is your quality of life? First, everyone can answer that – and it can capture experiences of health, education, poverty and more. But ask it of children and you’re stuck. First of all there is general perception that children are easily swayed, their quality of life depends on whether they have had enough sweets that day (I am sorry to report I have had to challenge this perception in the past). ‘Soft measures’ abound in child well-being research – an easy in for the critic, and a risk that your hard work measuring this concept comes to nothing. Also, you can’t ask it of all children, how do you ask a two-year-old how they rate their life? What is the context in which any child of any age will respond to this question - compared to yesterday, last week, last year, in general, or compared to their peers or the people living on their street? Uh oh, more problems.

Infant mortality or low birth weights? Infant mortality may be considered an iceberg indicator measuring the experience of a few to represent the risk to many. But how do we identify those that were at risk, and what might be considered a natural level of infant mortality? Many low birth weight studies suggest low birth weight children’s long term earning and learning is impeded, but it is a measure defined by a threshold and the lack of a distribution limits our policy response as we don’t know who is at immediate risk or severe risk. Moreover infant mortality and low birth weight measures interact. The better we are at saving preterm births, the lower the infant mortality and the higher the low birth weight… oh dear, more problems.

By no means exclusive, these are some of the challenges we face when we try to define indicators for child well-being. I have not discussed culture, children’s rights, complementarity between indicators, prioritisation or weighting, the longevity of an indicator, or children’s participation even. Nonetheless the political pressure to identify catch-all indicators is real. Recently the European Commission has produced a report designed to identify a reduced set of indicators for monitoring child well-being to add to the so-called Laeken indicators set.

When few indicators are desired, selecting those indicators is a difficult job. We need to get it right first time. Any change to key indicators can mean we quickly lose our ability to create times series, and therefore restrict our ability to measure progress.

Take yourself back to the beginning, back to the podium… What do you say?

Monday, 8 March 2010

Making women count: Why global progress can’t happen without gender equality

For much of the past two decades, the global economy has experienced a period of significant growth and overall rates of poverty have declined. However, inequalities between men and women, between rich and poor and between urban and rural communities remain rife. The recent financial crisis in particular poses specific challenges for developing countries and threatens the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015. As the global economy rebalances, more attention needs to be paid to quality of life, social development and in particular, gender equality.

Why gender equality particularly? Globalisation and development processes have transformed men and women’s roles and relations, but this has not necessarily translated into more access to resources and greater empowerment for women, or more gender equality. More women end up in the informal sector in ‘bad jobs’, women bear the brunt of climate change and poverty, few women are represented in decision-making structures, and violence against women remains widespread. For women, little progress is being made. Globally speaking, can we have progress if we still don’t have gender equality?

Women are 50% of the population and up until now, they are not being accounted for in any measure of development or progress. What would it mean if all of the work that women do around the world was actually counted and measured over time? What would it mean if violence against women was recognized as having real economic, social, political and security consequences? What would it mean if women were able to engage effectively in decision-making in the home, community and at the national level? How should we capture this data and turn it into knowledge? A wider range of dimensions of progress, quality of life or well-being can and should be utilized in order to answer these pressing questions.

Capturing and measuring these dimensions of progress is challenging but essential for gender equality. While the OECD has traditionally focused on economic measures, it has recently along with its partners been at the forefront of the Global Project on Measuring the Progress of Societies, which is a part of the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress chaired by Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz. This Commission focuses on applying additional measures of progress to foster the development of sets of key economic, social and environmental indicators, thereby providing a more comprehensive picture of how the well-being of a society is evolving. This project is looking at the factors that cannot be considered by income and assets alone, such as environmental depletion and human well-being, and focuses on determining what to measure and how. It also seeks to develop innovative tools, such as wikiprogress and wikigender, to gather progress related data and communicate results. There is a real opportunity here to look at measuring progress in gender equality though this perspective.

Why are women currently not counted? Most statistics and data on development and economic growth are gender-blind and too little sex-disaggregated data exists, meaning that the work that women do, particularly in the informal sphere, is made invisible. Furthermore, the gender equality indices that do exist tend to focus on gender differences in outcomes such as in education or labour market participation. While important, the OECD’s work on gender and social institutions argues that these underlying norms, cultural factors and formal and informal laws are important underlying factors that drive discrimination against women. Measuring the impact of social institutions and understanding how they affect policy outcomes is critical to addressing gender inequality.

2010 presents many opportunities for strengthening women’s rights and gender equality. Beijing +15 will review progress towards achieving the UN’s ambitious platform for women’s empowerment adopted in 1995, the UN’s reform process that will establish a new, stronger women’s entity backed by resources and political will is well underway, and it is the 10th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. The OECD and UNESCO are therefore taking this opportunity in the context of International Women’s Day on 8th March to explore how to measure and address remaining gaps in gender equality through a conference to be held on 12th March in Paris. The outcome of this meeting will be to improve our understanding of the linkages between gender, culture and progress in societies, and to take concrete next steps in this regard.

Women must not be seen as victims but as agents of change that bring resources, knowledge, capacity and opportunities for enhancing not just social development at household and community level but also global progress more broadly. In short, ensuring women count will make the achievement of global progress much more likely.

Happy International Women’s Day. Karen and Angela