Why education should top the development agenda

By Wolfgang Lutz, IIASA World Population Program Director and Founding Director of the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital (Originally published on the World Economic Forum Agenda Blog.)


Wolfgang Lutz

Few people would dispute the importance of education in our lives and those of our children. For good reasons, in virtually all industrialized countries, education is compulsory for everybody for at least 10 years.

In developing countries, however, 780 million women and men remain illiterate. Moreover, about 60 million children of school age are not at school.

Yet instead of making a concerted global effort to bring all children to school, less than 4% of official development assistance funds basic education. Over the past seven years, UNESCO and UNICEF report a decline in basic education.

Many think education is an aspect of social development that comes as a by-product of economic growth. This is wrong. Education is an absolutely necessary precondition of economic development.

Bill Clinton’s famous mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid!”, may be a useful slogan for an election campaign, but it is misleading in setting the priorities for sustainable development. It’s not primarily the economy, nor money, that makes the world go round and determines progress in human well-being. Much more important than the content of people’s wallets is the content in their heads. And what is in our heads is formed and enhanced by education which, in turn, helps fill the wallets, improves health, improves society and the quality of institutions, strengthens resilience at all levels and even makes people happier.

I could discuss the ample scientific statistical analysis to prove the transformative role of education in development. But more convincing may be historical success stories.

Finland was one of the poorest corners of Europe in the late 19th century. In 1868-1869 it suffered the last great famine in Europe not induced by political events. Almost half of the children died in this hopelessly underdeveloped and poorly educated economy based on subsistence agriculture.

After that tragedy, the Lutheran Church, supported by the government, launched a radical education campaign: young people could marry only after they passed a literacy test. The number of elementary school teachers increased by a factor of 10 over just three decades and by the beginning of the 20th century all young men and women in Finland had basic education. In 1906 Finland was the first country in Europe to grant women the right to vote and the subsequent economic development, based primarily on human capital, made Finland one of the world’s leaders in technology, innovation and, as a result, competitiveness.

In the early 1960s, Mauritius was a textbook case of a country stuck in the vicious circle of high-population growth, poverty and environmental destruction. Following the advice of scientists such as James Meade, the government launched a (strictly voluntary) family planning programme together with a huge push on female education. This led to rapid fertility decline plus economic growth, first through the textile industry based on semi-skilled female workers, then in upmarket tourism and more recently in banking and high-tech information technology. Mauritius is the only such success story in sub-Saharan Africa. The country managed to escape the vicious circle of poverty and underdevelopment through investment in human capital.

© Nafise Motlaq / World Bank

University students in Malaysia. © Nafise Motlaq / World Bank

Japan, Singapore, South Korea and finally China have similar stories but the timing is different. The Chinese experience shows that such success is not confined to remote and tiny island or city states. The highly elitist appreciation of education in Confucian tradition became transformative for the country once it was combined with the (originally) protestant approach of a broad-based education. Again, these countries built their stunning success stories primarily on improvements in human capital and without significant raw materials or international assistance. Economic growth followed the education expansion.

There is little doubt about the cause and effect between education and human well-being. Neurological research shows that every learning experience builds new synapses making our brains physiologically different for the rest of our lives. Education expands the personal planning horizon and leads to more rational decisions and less fatalism. It clearly empowers people to access more information, contextualize it and make conclusions that are more conducive to personal and societal well-being.

Well educated people are better at adopting good habits such as physical exercise, safe sex or quitting smoking. Education has many other effects on health from lowering child mortality to postponing disability and cognitive decline in old age, besides the commonly cited effects on income and employment. There is even the surprising finding that education makes people happier despite the fact of making them more aware of potential problems. Unsurprisingly, universal education reduces vulnerability to natural disasters and helps people adapt to climate change.

About a decade ago, I discussed some of this evidence with the Nobel laureate Gary Becker. He said: “Well, when I think about it, I cannot think of anything for which I rather would be less educated than more educated.”

Now we need to educate the economists and policy-makers to make it a much higher priority in the development agenda.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Envisioning a better global future: Reporting back from the World in 2050 launch meeting

By Joost Vervoort, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford

“Vision is the most vital step in the policy process. If we don’t know where we want to go, it makes little difference that we make great progress. Yet vision is not only missing almost entirely from policy discussions; it is missing from our whole culture.” Donella Meadows 

In the face of increasing human pressures on the planet, in a time that is now described as the Anthropocene, the need to finding pathways toward a sustainable and just global future is critical. In 2015, the world’s nations agree on a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – aiming to subscribe to a global narrative on a desired future of human development in all its dimensions.

Photo Credit: E. van de Grift

Vervoort, center, speaks with Tanzanian policy makers at a workshop organized as part of CCAFS’ PACCA project (Policy Action for Climate Change Adaptation). The scenarios used in this workshop were developed with regional stakeholders and quantified by IIASA’s GLOBIOM model and IFPRI’s IMPACT model. Photo Credit: E. van de Grift

The World in 2050 project aims to support the vision of the SDGs by quantifying it and assessing its feasibility through model simulations covering a range of development and environmental dimensions. The goal is to use top science to show that a better world is possible, and explore what transformations and trade-offs are needed to achieve that future. The world’s top modelling groups on population, energy, food, water, technology and other sectors have been invited to join forces for this project.

At a first meeting at IIASA in Laxenburg from 10 to 12 March 2015, the project organizers brought together world-leading modelling teams as well as representatives of global organizations like the OECD, the IMF, the Global Environment Facility and the World Energy Council. A number of us also had experience with using future scenarios for policy and strategy development.

The meeting had two purposes: to outline a way forward for the project, and to allow modelling teams to update each other on their most recent work. Excellent presentations on many dimensions of global change led many to believe that the combination of these modelling efforts would be able to provide a strong exploration of the feasibility of the SDGs. Recommendations were also made to find ways to integrate highly relevant, but not easily quantifiable, dimensions of human development, such as conflict, governance, cultural and value changes and issues of gender inequality. Other challenges that were highlighted had to do with the fact that the future is fundamentally uncertain, and systems models can have difficulty anticipating the impacts of future drivers that are not part of the current scope of concern. The solution to such challenges can be a reflexive approach to integrating model simulation and qualitative information, such as stories about future pathways, that can try to take such dimensions and uncertainties into account and also make clear what they don’t capture.

The launch workshop for the World in 2050 project involved researchers from a number of key institutions. Credit: Matthias Silveri / IIASA

The launch workshop for the World in 2050 project involved researchers from a number of key institutions. Credit: Matthias Silveri / IIASA

What I saw as perhaps the key conversation in the meeting, however, is one that characterizes many discussions about how to productively engage with the challenges of the future. Is it better to build one unifying vision, or to develop many different future scenarios from the perspectives of a wide range of actors? In the context of the World in 2050 project, developing a single, quantified vision for the SDGs has the benefit of harnessing the power of the best global change research to create a powerful, deeply examined notion that a better world is possible, supported by the voices of global-level organizations. An alternative approach that we discussed was to engage regional and national decision-makers first and build and quantify a diversity of visions and pathways from the perspectives of these actors. The benefit of this approach is that national and regional decision makers may be more likely to perceive this quantitative visioning  as useful, and that there is space for and ownership of diverse notions of a better future based on different sets of values.

The leaders of the World in 2050 project took these considerations into account and proposed a way forward: focus on a single global, quantified vision first, to kick-start dialogues about the feasibility of a transformative future at the global level by providing top-level science. Jeffrey Sachs, as one of the project leaders, argued that the SDGs will already involve many interactive processes that allow for a diversity of ideas and conversations at national and regional levels on how to achieve these goals; and that rather than trying to support all SDG-related work, the World in 2050 project would have the most complementary value if it provided its clear, quantified global vision first. Then, a next phase of the project will be to connect to global regions and to national-level processes and find out how the insights from the project can be used. Many of us in the meeting indicated that we have strong networks at regional and national levels that can support this phase. From the beginning of the global modelling project, Sachs and colleagues already envision a strong need to have regional diversity in the analysis, to make sure its results are relevant at that level.

”Also clear from the discussions was that this vision should not just be aimed at policy makers, but that it should speak powerfully to people in all walks of life. Widespread public support for such a vision could be a strong contributor to political momentum. Several speakers referred to the impact of the 1972 “Limits to Growth” study, which, though controversial, stimulated thinking and action around environmental change and sustainability worldwide. Innovative communication approaches that powerfully engage people with the vision will be crucial – if future visions can be made real in an experiential sense, they have a much stronger chance of changing behavior and decisions.

Collaborations across international networks
The World in 2050 project plans to build on the excellent simulation-based work on transformation pathways toward SDGs done by the Dutch Environment Assessment Agency.

It will be very interesting to see the global vision take shape and to help connect it to regional and national action and strategy. With IIASA colleagues from the GLOBIOM team, the CGIAR’s Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security program is helping decision makers in Africa, Asia and Latin America develop better policies using socio-economic and climate scenarios, and from our experience, working with future pathways that are inspiring as well as feasible is very attractive to governments and other actors.

Other interactions with complementary projects can be explored – for instance, the “Bright Spots – Seeds of a Good Anthropocene”  project takes an  opposite, bottom-up approach to future visioning – collecting local “seed” practices with global, transformative potential and combining them to foster dialogues about a better Anthropocene. A similar process for bottom-up transformation pathways on the future of food in Europe also involves IIASA researchers.

Meadows, Donella, J. Randers and D. Meadows. Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books, 1972.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.