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.)

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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.

Journey of your life: Demography for the demos

By Samir K.C., IIASA World Population Program

How old are you? This is the most basic demographic question about an individual, and an easy one to answer. What is the population of the world or your country? Well, many who read the news roughly know the number, about seven billion for the world and more than a billion in China and India. But when asked more detailed questions about demography, “What percentage of people are younger than you in the world or your country?” or “What’s the remaining life expectancy for you in your country and the world?” the eyes start rolling. Such questions are important because they lead to better knowledge and awareness about the population, especially the question of life expectancy.

(Photo: UN Photo/Sebastiao Barbosa)

(Photo: UN Photo/Sebastiao Barbosa)

This is why I, with my colleagues Wolfgang Fengler (World Bank), Benedikt Gross (data visualization designer), and many others, have developed a website where people can find out their respective place in the world population or the country population: population.io.  The website was launched last Saturday at the TEDxVienna.

How long will we live? Most of us in the general public do not know the answer.  But demographers and actuaries can actually project the expected date of death for populations, based on factors such as place of residence, age, and sex. Demographers use data on deaths occurring during a period and the population structure to estimate death rates. These death rates are then included in the life table calculations that show, among other details, expected number of years of remaining life given one’s place of residence, age, and sex.

On population.io, you can find your own expected death date, based on population projections and details such as where you were born, where you live, and your sex. Of course, this date is just an average with a distribution. If the remaining life expectancy for a 40-year-old is 30 more years,  that does not mean that all today’s 40-year-olds will die in 2044: roughly half will die earlier and half later. But we hope that exploring this tool will give people some insight into the world and their country’s population and their place within it.

How do we know how long you will live?
To answer this question, we use population projections. To make good population projections, demographers need information about the demographic structure, including current age and sex structure and assumptions about the future scenarios of mortality,  fertility, and migration. A “cohort component” method is then applied to calculate the future population size and structure and to obtain number of births, deaths, and migration. This method projects each cohort born in the same one- or five-year period forward in time, to replace the older cohort occupying the age. In the process some die or migrate out (population decreases) and some migrate in (population increases), while women in reproductive age groups might give birth to children, who will then enter the population as a new cohort. All of these numbers and assumptions are needed for many purposes within and outside the discipline of population studies including for a proper answer to our question, “How long will I live?”

Here’s how the calculations behind population.io work. As an example, I’ll take myself: For a male of my age,  40 years old, on average according to the current global mortality rates, my remaining life expectancy would be about 37 years. This is bit scary for me – that means as an average “global citizen, I would die at age 77. In Nepal, where I am from, my life expectancy would be a little more than one year less. However, since I will most likely live in Austria, my remaining life expectancy increases to 43 years, an increase of 7.4 years due to migration.

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On population.io, you can explore–among lots of other population data–how living in a different country would affect your life expectancy. Click to try it yourself!

Now, if I add that I belong to the highest category in terms of education, what will happen to my life expectancy? Though education is not yet included in the population.io, it turns out that that also depends to a large degree on where I live. In Portugal or Italy, a person with a university degree would have lesser advantage compared to those with lower secondary education or below (2.5 and 2.6 years more respectively) than someone living in Estonia (13.8 years more) or the Czech Republic (12.5 years), Hungary and Bulgaria (12.1 years).

What if I am a smoker? Do not exercise? These factors too play an important role in future life expectancy, and we plan to add them soon to the population.io Web site.

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: Women, education, and leadership in Africa

Lanoi Maloiy is a PhD student at the University of South Australia in Adelaide, and a participant in the recently completed 2013-14 Southern African Young Scientists Summer Program (SA-YSSP), which IIASA co-organizes with the South African National Research Foundation and Department of Science and Technology at the University of the Free State in South Africa. In this interview Maloiy talks about her research and her experience in the program.

Lanoi Maloiy

Lanoi Maloiy Photo Credit: Stephen Collett 

Why did you apply for the SA-YSSP?
I applied for the Southern African Young Scientists Summer Program because I envisioned the program would assist my research, especially regarding ways to improve the quality of life for Africans.

I’m from Nairobi, Kenya and from the Maasai tribe. Coming from Africa, I am passionate about improving the quality of life for all of the continent’s citizens.  The Maasai are a culture that traditionally didn’t often value sending girls to school, but my parents really stressed the importance of education.

I have seen very clearly in my own life how having access to education makes a difference, and how it really presents a limitation for those who don’t have access to education. Especially for girls, not having that education really limits their options. This experience made me very passionate about education as a transformative tool. I believe that education is an important tool in eradicating poverty and eliminating oppression.

Please tell us about your project for the SA-YSSP.
My research for the SA-YSSP explores the educational experiences of Kenyan female political leaders evaluating the role of education in their leadership journey. I investigated social, cultural and historical issues regarding African women and education, including the leadership context in Africa. My doctoral work is an interdisciplinary study within the fields of gender, education, and African leadership. The study investigates the experiences of Kenyan female political leaders, and focuses on locating enablers or strategies to address the challenges women face while accessing leadership positions.

During the program I worked with IIASA population researcher Dr. Anne Goujon and my South African adviser Dr. Petronella Jonck.  Working with them gave my research a new social psychology perspective which really enriched my work, because I come from an education and a leadership standpoint, it broadened my research examining it from the perspective of social psychology, evaluating the interaction and dynamics of gender within society.

I believe that this study will be beneficial to policy makers, and leadership practitioners. More studies on women leaders in Africa are essential to provide a global account of the experiences of women in leadership.

What methods did you use to conduct your study?
I did largely a qualitative study analyzing face to face interviews with 18 women political leaders in Kenya, which I had conducted in 2013.  I went to where the women leaders were based, often to their constituencies or in parliament. The interviews included demographic questions, asking them about their education, qualifications, age, and marital status. Then the second half of the interview was more open ended, asking about their leadership journey, about their family background, educational background, and what factors enabled them, and factors that inhibited them, and in particular evaluating the role of education and personality. The last section of the interviews focused more on recommendations, asking their opinion on strategies that could be put into place to help women better access leadership positions. In particular, what African society could do better in terms of accommodating women, and also asking participants why it is important to have women take part in leadership, and how women leaders can enrich African society.

I will be submitting my report at the end of this month, and we plan to also submit a journal article on the work.

How has the program changed the way you think about or do research?
 The SA-YSSP has informed the way in which I communicate my research, ensuring simplicity and clarity, especially to interdisciplinary audiences. It has also equipped me as an early career researcher, with knowledge and skills to locate avenues for transforming and improving the lives of Africa’s citizens through research.

What was the best thing about the SA-YSSP?
The SA-YSSP programme was an exciting and capacity building process, which provided a rich experience for me as an early career researcher.  It afforded me with an invaluable learning experience. Attending lectures on writing scientific papers, systems analysis, including practical ‘hands on’ training in media communication enriched and extended my skills base. Interacting with a range of PhD students brought a new wealth of knowledge and provided a vibrant social experience. I truly appreciated the opportunity to contribute and engage in research life during the course of the summer program.

Where do you hope to go with your research career?
I have a strong desire to be part of research that transforms the lives of Africans, in particular through education and leadership development projects. I believe that attending the SA-YSSP has proved an important step towards my long-term goal of creating leadership development programs to improve the quality of life for Africans.

Lanoi Maloiy, right, with other participants in the 2013-14 Southern African Young Scientists Summer Program (SA-YSSP)

Lanoi Maloiy, right, with other participants in the 2013-14 Southern African Young Scientists Summer Program (SA-YSSP) Photo Credit: Rene Van Der Berg

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.