Learn from the past, prepare for the future

By Roman Hoffmann, Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital (IIASA, VID/ÖAW and WU), Vienna Institute of Demography, Austrian Academy of Sciences

Flooded street in Meycauayan, Bulacan, Philippines (credit: Kasagana-Ka Development Center Inc., 2016 )

Floods, droughts, and tropical storms have significantly increased, both in frequency and intensity in recent years. The burden of these events—both human and economic—falls in large part on low and middle-income countries with high exposure, such as coastal and island nations. In a recent study, with IIASA researcher Raya Muttarak, we found that education significantly contributes to increasing disaster resilience among poor households in the Philippines and Thailand, two countries which are frequently affected by natural calamities.

In these countries, public disaster risk reduction is important, yet public measures, such as investments in structural mitigation for large buildings or infrastructure, implementation of early warning systems, or planned evacuation routes and shelters, may not be enough to sufficiently protect communities from the devastating impacts of natural calamities. In addition, the undertaking of individual preparedness measures by households, such as stockpiling of food and water, strengthening of house structures, and having a family emergency plan, is crucial. Yet, even in areas which are heavily exposed to disasters, people often do not take any precautionary measures against environmental threats.

How people can be motivated to take precautionary action has been a fundamental question in the field of risk analysis. In the new study, which was based on face-to-face interviews in both Thailand and the Philippines, we found that prior disaster experience, which is influenced by geographical location of the home, is one of the key predictors of disaster preparedness. For those who were affected by a disaster in the recent past, education does not seem to play a significant role—they have already learned by experience.  However, among those who had not previously been affected, educational attainment becomes a key determinant. Even without having experienced a disaster, the educated are more likely to make preparations. In fact, educated people who haven’t experienced a disaster have preparedness levels that are as high as those of households who were only recently affected. Since education improves abstract reasoning and abstraction skills, highly educated individuals may not need to experience a disaster to understand that they can be devastating. This suggests that education, as a channel through which individuals can learn about disaster risks and preventive strategies, may effectively serve as a substitute for (often harmful) disaster experiences as a main trigger of preparedness actions.

In additional analyses, we investigated through which channels education promotes disaster preparedness by looking at the relationship between education and different mediating factors such as income, social capital and risk perception, which are likely to influence preparedness actions. We found that how education promotes disaster preparedness is highly context-specific. In Thailand, we found that the highly educated have higher perceptions of disaster risks that can occur in a community as well as higher social capital (measured by engagement in community activities) which in turn increase disaster resilience. In the Philippines, on the other hand, it appears that none of the studied mediating factors explain the effect of education on preparedness behavior.

Emergency shelter, San Mateo, Rizal, Philippines (credit: Kasagana-Ka Development Center Inc., 2013 )

Certainly, it remains important for national governments to invest in disaster risk reduction measures such as early warning systems or evacuation centers. However, our study suggests that public funding in universal education will also benefit precautionary behavior at the personal and household level. In line with recent efforts of the UN to promote education for sustainable development, our study provides solid empirical evidence confirming the important role of education in building disaster resilience in low and middle-income countries.

Hoffmann, R. & Muttarak, R (2017). Learn from the past, prepare for the future: Impacts of education and experience on disaster preparedness in the Philippines and Thailand. World Development  [doi:10.1016/j.worlddev.2017.02.016]

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.

What you probably don’t know about higher education in sub-Saharan Africa

By Anne Goujon, IIASA World Population Program

Less than 6% of the working age population has a post-secondary education in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Wittgenstein Centre Data Explorer. However, there is a huge diversity of experiences in the region: those countries located in Southern and Western Africa have higher shares of highly educated people compared to those in Eastern and Middle Africa.

The potential for increasing education levels is tremendous as there is a huge demand for higher education, partly driven by rapid population growth. The population in the age of attending higher education—18–23 years—is forecasted to increase by 50% from its 2015 level (110 million) by 2035 (183 million), and will have doubled by 2050 to 235 million. The number of colleges and universities in the region has been burgeoning to fulfill the demand. Those are not always of very good quality, whether they are in the public sector or the private, as most are. While regulatory bodies exist to check whether all education providers meet national and international standards, they are not universal.

A 2015 graduation ceremony for the Open University of Sudan. ©Hamid Abdulsalam, UNAMID via Flickr

The expansion of higher education has led to substantial brain drain to Europe, North America, and Australia, because highly educated find better opportunities there for studying and jobs–and better salaries. Researchers have estimated that in some countries such as Eritrea, Ghana, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Uganda, more than a third of the national high-skilled labor force had migrated to OECD countries in 2000. While remittances that these people send home help compensate and reinforce the education in their countries of origin, they do not compensate for the departed skills and knowledge.

These facts about education in sub-Saharan Africa are well-known to education professionals and researchers in the field. But as we show in a new book Higher Education in Africa: Challenges for Development, Mobility and Cooperation, published in January 2017, there are a lot of other aspects of education in the region that are not so well-known and that could provide interesting avenues for further research.

For instance, you probably did not know that the African Union has a higher education harmonization strategy. The general idea is the same as the Bologna process in Europe:  enhance the mobility of students by making higher education systems more compatible and by strengthening the quality assurance mechanisms. One chapter by Emnet Tadesse Woldegiorgis, which looks at the process of harmonization of higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa, shows that it follows in the footsteps of the Bologna process mostly because of the involvement of international donors and of the strong links between African universities and European ones.

Students in lecture room at St. Augustine University of Tanzania © Max Haller and Bernadette Mueller Kmet 2009

Many chapters of the book look at the mobility of more highly educated people between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. This is the case of a chapter by Julia Boger who interviewed graduates from Germany returning to their countries of origin: Ghana and Cameroon. The experiences of those graduates from the two West African countries are radically different: because mainly of their networks, the Ghanaian graduates face less difficulties in finding a job upon return to their country than the Cameroonians.

The last part of the book looks at some cooperation programs that are in place between the North and South (also between the South and the South). Lorenz Probst and colleagues, in their chapter, report about the challenges in implementing a transdisciplinary course in Africa within the context of the rather compartmentalized sectors of higher education in Africa.

The development of higher education could push forward change and innovation, just as much as capacity building in sub-Saharan Africa where it is direly needed.

Goujon, Anne, Max Haller, and Bernadette Müller Kmet. 2017. Higher Education in Africa: Challenges for Development, Mobility and Cooperation. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

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.

Interview: The role of education in the future of humanity

In the 21st century the major global divide runs between knowledge societies and those where access to education is hampered or denied, say population experts Reiner Klingholz and Wolfgang Lutz in a new book. In an interview with campus.de they explain what this means. 

Education empowers us to look beyond our own horizon and to consciously choose our lifestyle. Better qualified people are more involved in political decision making processes and foster democratization – this is what your book says. Does this mean in reverse that societies with limited education opportunities are, as a rule, less democratic?
Rainer Klingholz: From antiquity to medieval times, the uneducated masses were dominated by despotic elites. Wherever the first seeds of democracy were observed, for example in ancient Greece or Florence during the Renaissance, at least a certain part of the male population could write and read. They were in a better position to see what was going on and they strived for more influence in decision making. The more educated the population became, the more chance there was for democracy. In the modern world, we see a clear statistical association between the education of broad segments of society and a well-functioning democracy, although education is a precondition and not always a guarantee.

There are direct and indirect reasons why education is good for democracy. Education directly fosters the ability to obtain information, express one’s own opinions, engage oneself in discussions and look for compromise, all prerequisites for a lively democracy. Education works indirectly through economic development as it fosters prosperity, and such societies are in a better position to afford the ‘luxury’ of democracy. Even autocratically governed countries, such as Singapore and China, which have invested massively in education and achieved rapid economic growth, can also be seen as moving in the direction of democracy in a long term.

© Goinyk Volodymyr | Dreamstime.com

Singapore (home of the aquarium pictured here) and other Asian countries have invested heavily in education, with impressive results. © Goinyk Volodymyr | Dreamstime.com

You say that in a context of global competition countries with low educational standards have lower chances to succeed. Could these countries get out of misery by their own strength or does this problem require a global solution?
Wolfgang Lutz: Looking back in history, we see that many countries have made it without outside assistance. In our book we describe the example of Finland, which was one of the poorest regions of Europe before 1900 and later due to massive educational efforts became not only a winner of PISA test but also one of the most innovative industrial countries. Or, let’s look at Mauritius, which as recently as the 1960s presented a textbook example of a country trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty, population growth, and destruction of the environment. Today, thanks to an early boost in education that was followed by fertility decline and economic growth, it is the most successful country in Africa. Similarly, the rise of the “Asian Tigers” has been induced by massive investment of their own modest means into basic education of the broad layers of population.

In many other countries, mostly in Africa and in South and West Asia, this did not happen.  As a consequence, there is still widespread poverty and birth rates have remained high, causing continued rapid population growth and difficulties in finding solutions for existing problems. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that dissatisfaction results in conflicts which in turn trigger streams of refugees. There are of cause many other reasons for this but lack of education is a root cause.

The most important factor behind decreasing fertility rates is female education. If women complete at least secondary school, they have substantially fewer children, they and their offspring are much healthier, and they become more independent from their husbands, as they are better informed and can obtain their own income. Education is the best and most effective development aid. In order to make this happen, the least developed countries need urgent help from outside. The world cannot wait decades for these countries to later possibly make it on their own. By that time, their population may have multiplied by a factor of 3-5, resulting in higher poverty and possible conflicts. There is good reason why there has been compulsory education and a right to education for all children until the age of 16 for a long time in all developed countries. This must apply equally to all children of the world.

Just a small portion of total development aid expenditures goes into education. Have we still not recognized the problem?
Reiner Klingholz: We have, on paper. The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations postulate exactly this. The problem is that these ambitious education goals are not being implemented. Only 2 to 4 percent of global development aid goes into basic education; this makes it impossible for all children to complete primary school and even less secondary school. Most of the development money goes into big infrastructure projects that satisfy local potentates and promote corruption and exports from the donor countries. Building of a rural school, or education of teachers, in Mali or Pakistan are not attractive in that sense. Since educational efforts only become noticeable in 10-20 years, it is much more attractive for a current president to build a new highway. Despite or perhaps because of this, we point out that investment in basic education is the most important investment for enhancing the ability of people and countries to help themselves and it therefore should become an absolute priority in international development.

In some Arab or African countries there is a youth bulge without adequate occupation or place in the society. What are the long-term consequences of this?
Wolfgang Lutz: The main problem of these countries is that the population grows faster than opportunities are being created, especially job opportunities. Many young people do not see prospects for their lives and at the same time they see through TV or internet that elsewhere people are much better off. Under such conditions, young men in particular have a tendency to become radicalized, or fall victim to religious zealots, who tell that people of different religions are the enemies. This mixture leads to a clash between education cultures that we describe in the book.

Students outside a school in Rwanda © Alangignoux | Dreamstime.com

Who or what impedes education in countries like Pakistan, Egypt, or in Western Africa?
Rainer Klingholz: Until the middle of 20th century, most of those countries were pawns in the hands of colonial powers that did not invest in broad education. They were afraid of a population empowered through mass education. In the majority of these countries with independence, authoritarian governments came to power who pursued the same goal: they wanted to stay in power surrounded by small educated elites and had no intention of empowering their citizens through education. Fortunately, in many of the countries the situation has improved in recent years and younger generations are now better educated than the older ones. But there is a real threat from fundamentalist religious or terroristic groups, such as IS or Boko Haram, that actively fight against modern education. They want to stop the teaching of natural sciences and instead have boys memorize the holy scriptures and exclude the girls from education altogether

What does Martin Luther have to do with your book?
Wolfgang Lutz: Martin Luther was the first person in history who actively and successfully fought for the basic education of all, including girls and the poorest farmers. He wanted every individual to find his/her own way to salvation through being able to read the Bible. To achieve this, Luther had to translate the Bible into a language that people understood. But most of all, he had to do something to enable all people to read themselves. This focus on universal literacy was new in world history and went further than e.g. the rather elitist humanists had gone.

Interestingly, we see today that the protestant countries that first implemented those educational reforms in the course of the next decades and centuries became more economically successful as a consequence. The rise of the Netherlands and Great Britain, the industrial revolution, and the later success of the United States, the improvement of living conditions and declining death rates—all this had as a necessary precondition  the education of broad segments of the  population that ultimately goes back to the Reformation. Luther himself did not have long-term social and economic consequences in mind. Coming from a medieval culture he personally would have been probably unsettled by the following developments towards modernity.

In your book “Who survives?” you describe different scenarios of the future of humanity to the end of the 21st century depending on investments in education in the near future. Can we only survive current and future crises if we indeed prioritize education?
Rainer Klingholz: At the beginning of the 21st century, humanity faces the biggest challenges in its history. It has to abolish poverty, stop population growth, combat climate change, and sustain peace in a world which at the moment may seem to be falling apart. These problems require the best possible brain power and the empowerment through education of everybody. The alternatives to education are high population growth in the poor countries where uneducated women have much higher birth rates together with many other development problems, which likely result in chaos and possibly conflict.

Wolfgang Lutz: The problem is that education needs time to show its positive effects. We have to wait until children come out of school and become active adults. Education is hence not a quick solution to any of the urgent problems that fill today’s newspapers. But in a long run, there are no alternatives to universal education.

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

What does your walking say about your true age?

By Daniela Weber, research scholar in the IIASA World Population Program.

Did you ever notice that you walk faster than your friends, or are you the one lagging behind? Your walking speed doesn’t only reveal how fast you walk; it can predict survival and the “slowing down process” and – according to a recent study – it can tell how old you are in terms of your physical fitness. If you are highly educated, or work in a non-manual job, you could be up to 15 years younger when it comes to your “walking age”—the age you are supposed to be according to your physical performance.


Your chronological age does not necessarily reflect your “walking age,” which can be much younger depending on your lifestyle.

For almost all of us, walking is necessary for our everyday lives. For instance, did you know that walking at about 1.1 meters per second (m/s) means that you can cross the street safely in time before the light changes? The decline in walking speed starts around age 60, previous research has found, and a speed of less than 0.6 m/s is associated with substantial impairments to daily life. In my new study, I investigated physical aging and particularly the walking age of older adults in England.

It’s well documented that higher socioeconomic status is positively associated, for older individuals especially, with better physical functioning, such as faster walking. My results confirmed the effects of education, occupation, and regional wealth on physical aging. For instance, a more highly educated 70 year old walked around 0.1 m/s faster at their normal pace than a less educated person of the same age. I noticed a gap of a similar magnitude comparing manual and non-manual workers, with a higher walking speed in those that worked in non-manual jobs.

Interestingly, living in a wealthier region was also associated with higher walking speed, although the difference is only minor. The positive effect of living in a wealthier area might be down to fitness as a result of daily routine. People living in wealthier, urban areas are more likely to walk to the shops or to catch public transport than their counterparts living in rural areas, where people tend to use their cars for shopping or commuting.

What does a difference of for instance 0.1 m/s mean and why is it important? I highlighted the differences by converting them into years of age. In a nutshell, less educated 70-year-olds walked on average at the same pace as more highly educated individuals who were 6.5-9 years older. At higher ages they had lost 2.5 years of walking age, which has been linked to many general health issues. Overall, the advantage of more education, non-manual work, or living in a wealthier region comprises up to 15 walking age years for men and up to 10 years for women. However, the size of the advantage declines with increasing age.

More information: IIASA Research Project: Reassessing aging from a population perspective

Weber D (2016) Differences in physical aging measured by walking speed: evidence from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. BMC Geriatrics, 16(1):31 [December 2016] doi:10.1186/s12877-016-0201-x

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.

Why universal secondary education can help fight climate change

By Raya Muttarak, IIASA World Population Program
This blog was previously posted on the GMR’s World Education Blog

Not only have climate scientists agreed that humans are contributing to climate change, but recent evidence also points out that the rate of warming is happening much faster now than it ever has before.  This is why, at the UN Climate Conference in Paris this month, world leaders sought to reach a new international agreement on climate change, essentially to keep global warming below 2°C (or 3.6°F). Rising temperatures pose threats on food and water security, infrastructure, ecosystems and health and, as a previous blog on this site shows, increases the risk of conflict. With an upsurge in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and the potential for rapid sea level rise, both mitigating human-related exacerbation of climate change, and adapting to its devastating effects are key priorities. This is where education comes in.

Both mitigation and adaptation require technological, institutional and behavioral responses. Correspondingly, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlighted the value of a mix of strategies to protect the planet, which combine policies with incentive-based approaches encompassing all actors from the individual citizen, to national governments and international communities. Because, while national and sub-national climate action plans are fundamental, changing individual behaviour also lies at the heart of responses to climate change.

At the individual level, barriers to the adoption of mitigation and adaptation measures include a lack of awareness and understanding of climate change risk, doubt about efficacy of one’s action, lack of knowledge on how to change behavior and lack of financial resources to implement changes. Accordingly, there are many sound reasons to assume that different education strategies can help overcome these barriers both in direct and indirect manners.

First, directly formal schooling is a primary way individuals acquire knowledge, skills, and competencies that can influence their mitigation practices and adaptation efforts. Schooling provides a unique environment to engage in cognitive activities such as learning to read, write, and use numbers.

Students in Indonesia learn about living with nature. Credit: Nur’aini Yuwanita Wakan/EFAReport UNESCO

Students in Indonesia learn about living with nature. Credit: Nur’aini Yuwanita Wakan/EFAReport UNESCO

As students move to higher grades, cognitive skills required in school become more progressively demanding and involve meta-cognitive skills such as categorization, logical deduction and cause and effect. This abstract cognitive exercise alters the way educated individuals think, reason, and solve problems. Indeed, experimental studies have shown that higher-order cognition improves risk assessment and decision making. These are relevant components of reasoning related to risk perception and making choices about mitigation and adaptation actions.

Furthermore, education enhances the acquisition of knowledge, values and priorities as well as the capacity to plan for the future and allocate resources efficiently. Schooling can help individuals adopt, for instance, disaster preparedness measures by improving their knowledge of the relationship between preparedness and disaster risk reduction. Moreover, educated individuals may have better understanding of what measures to undertake. Recent evidence also shows that education can change time preferences such that more educated people are more patient, more goal-oriented and thus make more investments (e.g., financial, health or education investments) for their future. Such forward-looking attitudes can influence adoption of mitigation actions or adaptation measures where benefits may only be expected by future generations.

Apart from the direct impacts, education may indirectly reduce vulnerability or promote mitigation actions through other means. Firstly, education improves socio-economic status as education generally increases earnings. This allows individuals to have command over resources such as purchasing costly disaster insurance, living in low risk areas and quality housing, installing renewable energy sources at home or being willing to pay carbon taxes.

Secondly, many empirical studies have shown that people with more years of education have access to more sources and types of information. The level of education is not only highly correlated with access to weather forecasts and warnings but the more educated are better able to understand complex environmental issues such as climate change than less educated counterparts.

Knowing where to get information on how to reduce emissions or what adaptations to take allows individuals to change their behaviour appropriately. Indeed, there is evidence that good understanding of climate change or environmental knowledge are associated with climate change mitigation behaviours such as consumption of climate-friendly food, owning fuel-efficient vehicles and conservation behaviour.

In addition, more educated individuals also have higher social capital. A perception of risk and motivations to take preventive action are more likely to be communicated via social networks and through social activities. Evidently, through increasing socio-economic resources, facilitating access to information and enhancing social capital, education can promote and foster sustainable lifestyle and consumption.

Despite these potential benefits on climate action, education has not yet been sufficiently prioritized as a fundamental instrument to fight climate change. Recently researchers at the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital based in Vienna have produced convincing empirical evidence that education, particularly (at least) secondary school, is important for reducing vulnerability to climate change. By showing that education enhances disaster responses, reduces loss and damage and facilitates recovery after disasters, it was argued that part of Green Climate Fund should be spent to promote universal secondary education.

Likewise, education has also been shown to be an important determinant of sustainable lifestyle and consumption. As another blog on this site has shown recently, individuals with a higher level of education are more likely to be concerned about climate change and consequently more likely to take actions to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The Figure below clearly demonstrates how the number of mitigation actions increases with years of schooling. Not only do the highly educated carry out more mitigating actions, education also interacts with concern about climate change. In other words, given the same level of concern about climate change, the highly educated are doing even more to reduce GHG emissions than those with lower education.

Figure 1: Number of mitigation actions taken by years of schooling and concern about climate change

Notes: Own calculation. Estimated from multilevel models with country random effects. Source: Pooled Eurobarometer Surveys (2008, 2009, 2011, 2013).

Notes: Own calculation. Estimated from multilevel models with country random effects. Source: Pooled Eurobarometer Surveys (2008, 2009, 2011, 2013).

Responding to the challenges of climate change is going to require action on multiple fronts. Ignoring the impacts of education on climate change is no longer an option. Promoting universal secondary education should be given a high priority on the agenda as we look forward past last week’s Paris meeting.

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.