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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Horn of Africa Crisis: Opportunity for Paradigm Shift

Jeff Sachs is a rare kind of economist. He is one of the most outstanding intellectuals I have had the privilege and honor to know, work with and learn from.

Prof. Sachs authority and leadership on the global campaign against poverty has given him an enduring global prominence and unmatched influence.

As the Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia, Sachs has demonstrated remarkable leadership and intellectual stewardship of one of the best institutions of interdisciplinary scholarship of our time.

However, Jeff Sachs absolute trust and faith in power of aid is problematic at best. Aid and foreign assistance tends to preface and frame most of Sachs' understanding of the opportunities and solution domains for development challenges, especially in Africa. Much less in Asia.

Do not get me wrong. Aid when targeted can make available considerable global public investment that can for example, fund immunization campaigns, improve sanitation, subsidize the vital inputs farmers need and provide a hot meal that keeps kids in school.

But I like to think of aid as firs aid. A kind of measure to stop the bleeding. A temporary remedy that must yield to evidence-based differential diagnosis of the fundamental structural and institutional causes of the 'development' problem.

Too often, promoting aid-based solutions absolves governments and communities from the responsibility of thinking hard about long term systemic solutions to their problems.

The catastrophic drought ravaging the Horn of Africa is a scar on our conscience. It is a shameful and tragic indictment of policy failure.

In article posted in the Guardian, Sachs presents a brilliant analysis of the profound human disaster that is unfolding.

Jeff Sachs, brilliantly puts his finger on the root causes of the crisis in the Horn of Africa i.e.," poverty and vulnerability of pastoralist and agro-pastoralist populations". Great diagnosis!

And Prof. Sachs, like a good physician offers a treatment plan. Unsurprising, he prescribes that the international community must respond with $1b to forestall the catastrophe, and time is of essence.

Absolutely. These resources must be made available to avert a shameful humanitarian disaster.

But I am concerned that Prof. Sachs has not offered any thoughts on how we could grapple with poverty and vulnerability of pastoral societies in the long term.

As Jeff Sachs notes, the entry of the Gulf states and the Islamic Development Bank will make up for aid shortfalls from the US and the EU.

But I think the entry of the Gulf states and Islamic Development Bank offers an opportunity to frame the response strategy not in terms of aid but long term investments that can deal with the root causes of the crisis.

Here is Prof. Jeff Sachs.

The Horn of Africa crisis is a warning to the world

The crisis in the Horn of Africa is a profound human disaster in the making and a warning to the world. More than 11 million Africans, mainly pastoralists in the dry lands of Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and neighbouring countries, are at risk of starvation after two failed rainy seasons. They need urgent help to stay alive, and governments and NGOs are in place to deliver that help if the needed financing is confirmed immediately. An estimated $1bn is needed urgently, equal to $1 from each person in the high-income world.

The warning is also clear. The Horn of Africa is the world's most vulnerable region, beset by extreme poverty, hunger and global climate change, notably a drying and warming of the climate during the past quarter century. These scourges are leading to the spread of violence and war, and war is contributing to global instability. Unless we confront the challenges of the Horn of Africa at their root causes – the poverty and vulnerability of pastoralist and agro-pastoralist populations – we will face burgeoning violence in the Horn of Africa, Yemen and beyond. The world would be gravely endangered and the trillions of dollars that would eventually be spent on military responses would prove useless to stem to unrest. Hunger cannot be overcome with violence.

The west has contributed to the region's crisis through global climate change that victimises the lives and livelihoods of the people of the region. It is time that we act to help the region strengthen the pastoralist economies in the face of these environmental threats. We must not only provide emergency aid but move beyond it, to help these impoverished regions escape from extreme poverty and become more resilient to climate change. By supporting the sustainable development of pastoralism in the Horn of Africa we will not only save lives but help to end wars and the spread of global instability.

The "traditional donors", including the US and the EU, have fallen far short of promises they made at the G8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, in 2009 to assist smallholder farmers, including pastoralists. Both the US and the EU are in a deep political and financial crisis, meaning that neither is likely to step forward with the scale of emergency and long-term aid to the Horn of Africa that they should normally be expected to fulfill.

In this situation, it is heartening that the Gulf countries, including members of the GCC, have demonstrated a readiness to step up their assistance to the Horn of Africa, just across the Red Sea. These countries are experiencing an impressive rise in export earnings this year, giving them the opportunity to scale up their regional and global leadership as well. The Islamic Development Bank, the leading financing institution of the 57 countries of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC), has also shown impressive and inspiring dynamism as well as a commitment to the countries in crisis in the Horn of Africa.

New donors, in short, are stepping forward to help fill the urgent needs of the Horn of Africa. Time is extremely short and the needs are great. Generosity and speed are of the essence.
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Thursday, July 28, 2011

United States of America: Beginning of the End?

The US legislative and political process is in deep crisis.

Congress and the White House lack imagination, a sense urgency and most of all the political skills to move the country beyond ideological pettiness and silliness.

I think this NYT Editorial is prophetic. We could be seeing the last days of an empire.

New York Times EDITORIAL
America's Credibility Is at Risk
Published: July 28, 2011

Until this week, Wall Street has shrugged off each new low in the debt-limit debate, confident - in a whistling-past-the-graveyard kind of way - that Washington would raise the debt limit on time.

Many Republican politicians have insisted that the economy and the country could shrug off a default. Up to Wednesday, the most conservative members of the House seemed to be welcoming a default. They refused to support a plan to raise the limit - and impose overly harsh spending cuts - put forward by Speaker John Boehner.

The cost of this fecklessness should now be clear to everyone. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped nearly 200 points on Wednesday and is down 421 points since Friday when Mr. Boehner left President Obama waiting for a phone call that never came about a deal that never closed.

With bond-rating agencies issuing dire warnings, investors have begun to demand higher rates on Treasury bills that come due in August. Prices have surged on credit default swaps, which are used by investors to protect against default and by speculators to bet on the likelihood of default.

On Wednesday, with Mr. Boehner warning his troops to "get your ass in line" to keep things from getting worse, several hard-line members began switching their votes and chances increased that his plan would pass the House. Whether that gets Washington any closer to a tolerable deal isn't clear.

It would be reassuring to chalk up the market volatility to endgame tension. Even if default is avoided, the prolonged stalemate has left the United States vulnerable to losing its AAA credit rating. For credit raters, the issue is political risk - the danger of dysfunctional politics leading to continued fiscal disarray. The risk is especially high if any deal only raises the debt limit until early next year, as called for in the speaker's plan. The potential repercussions of a downgrade include an even larger deficit, as higher interest rates raise borrowing costs for the government, as well as higher borrowing costs for businesses and consumers. As money that might have been spent or invested is instead used to pay debt, the slowing economy would slow even more and joblessness would rise.

The contractionary impact would be amplified because higher interest costs could hit at the same time as stimulus payments wane: Federal unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut for employees expire at the end of this year. Deep spending cuts that may accompany a deal would add to the distress.

Financial markets could also be roiled by a downgrade, in part, because a drop in the nation's credit rating might trigger payouts on derivatives bets that counterparties would not necessarily be able to meet.

Not least, a downgrade would be a blow to American credibility and prestige, made all the worse for coming so shortly after the made-in-America global financial crisis. As a correspondent for the German newspaper Die Welt wrote a few days ago, "Out of the American 21st-century crisis could come the downfall of the dominant power of the 20th century." That may be overheated. But no one can shrug it off. The markets and the rest of the world are worried, and they should be. We all should be.
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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Tests don't measure critical thinking

This article was written by educator Anthony Cody, who taught science for 18 years in inner-city Oakland and now works with a team of science teacher-coaches that supports novice teachers.

This article is a must read for anyone anywhere in the world who cares about how we educate the next generation. But I think the general tax paying public must demand real value for their money.

Cody is also one of the organizers of this Saturday's Save Our Schools March in Washington D.C. A version of this post appeared on his Education Week Teacher blog, Living in Dialogue.

Educator Marion Brady offers us some words to chew over:

"Kids can't be taught to think better using tests that can't measure how well they think".

The logic should be obvious. What gets tested gets taught. Complex thinking skills -- skills essential to survival--can't be tested, so they don't get taught. That failure doesn't simply rise to the level of a problem. It's unethical."

This is the reason so many of us are so fed up that we will take our own money and time to go to Washington, D.C. this week to protest.

Test-based accountability has taken our schools and made it their central mission to increase test scores. No Child Left Behind did this through labeling of entire schools as failures, and the Obama administration has doubled down, having states tie teacher pay and evaluations to test scores.

Teachers are in an inescapable ethical bind. We know that the tests do not measure critical thinking.

As a science teacher, I believe that the essence of science is the exploration of the natural world. It is all about inquiry: asking good questions, and then using all the tools we can muster to investigate and answer those questions.

To get a student to behave as a scientist, the key is to put them in the role of a scientist. Challenge them with open-ended questions. Find out what THEY are curious about and inspire them to wrestle with that so they can truly understand it.

Great teaching is about provoking curiosity among our students, and then using that innate inquisitiveness to drive learning in a discipline. I think this is true for every subject, not just science.

Great history teaching is about provoking student curiosity about the past, and getting them to investigate the evidence to develop explanations of what really happened and why. Great math teaching is about delving into puzzles of one sort or another, helping students understand clever ways to manipulate numbers to do wonderful things. And English teaching at its best is provoking students to read, to wonder, and to express themselves in ways that can be shared with others.

In each case, this provocation works best when it is driven by spontaneous discovery and innovation. The best teachers are constantly scanning the environment for hooks that we can use to catch student interest. I remember one year we were studying insects and a student brought in a particularly large potato bug. I created a challenge on my web site: Could anyone find one that was bigger? We even had a visit from the local newspaper as a result.

I used explorations with dry ice to drive a whole series of investigations, getting students to come up with their own questions as the basis for our investigation.

The objective with this approach is to get students to develop their ability to ask good questions, to design thoughtful experiments that will yield solid data, and to explain their results, using evidence from their research and experimentation. This is critical thinking applied to science.

I have not seen a standardized test that measures this. Instead we get questions that are best prepared for by memorizing things in one way or another. There is nothing inherently wrong with memorization. There is nothing wrong with learning much of what is tested. But it is not our highest calling as teachers. It is not the reason I became a teacher. And when it is defined as our goal, it systematically devalues and undermines the sort of learning I have described here.

That is why I am standing up at the Save Our Schools March on July 30th, with as many of my colleagues and allies I can gather.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

UNICEF Statement on Horn of Africa Drought

I read this statement and had to contain my disgust and anger.

Drought that leads to catastrophic hunger on the scale we are witnessing in the Horn of Africa does not strike like a Tsunami.

That there was an impending drought was known last year when the short rains were below normal. By end of January it was pretty clear that 2011 would be an exceptionally dry year, especially after the long rains were late and below normal.

And evidently, the effects of the drought will be felt for the rest of the year and for the first quarter of 2012.

This stuff is out there and pretty easy to figure out. So UNICEF releasing a statement on July 17 2011 and proclaiming that the "Situation in Horn of Africa set to get worse for millions of children Situation in the Horn of Africa will worsen"is irresponsible and is cheap publicity.

The officials of UNICEF, like all public and humanitarian organizations who suck up billions of dollars in donations are too late on this one.

I say to UNICEF, IGAD member countries and humanitarian aid agencies, SHAME ON YOU.

Here is the full text of the UNICEF statement.

NAIROBI, Kenya, 17 July 2011 – UNICEF has called for an immediate expansion of assistance across the Horn of Africa's drought affected communities, to address the dire needs of more than two million children, of whom half a million are at imminent risk of dying.

With no improvement in the overall food security conditions expected before early 2012, the already severe nutrition situation will likely worsen further.

"What we are seeing here is almost a perfect storm – conflict in Somalia, rising fuel and food prices, and drought and the loss of the rain. Now we are going to go another four to five months before there will be a harvest and we all have a huge job ahead," said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake at the end of a four-day mission to Kenya. "In many of the poorest communities people are either too poor or too weak to be able to try to walk for help."

Across the region, nearly 11 million people are at risk. Thousands of women and children are fleeing central and southern Somalia every day. The crisis, however, extends well beyond the daily flow of refugees into Kenya and Ethiopia: it is also affecting millions of subsistence farmers and pastoralists in these two countries who are dependent on the rains for their survival.

During a field mission to the arid region of Turkana in northern Kenya, Lake saw the silent face of the crisis. He met with pastoralists whose livestock has been decimated by the consequences of a ten-year drought. Malnutrition rates in some parts of Turkana have skyrocketed to 37 per cent.

At a meeting in Kapua village, a satellite point for food distribution, hundreds of once nomadic herders, gathered to share their experiences and asked not to be forgotten. While safety nets and humanitarian assistance helped sustain these communities in the past, the breakdown of the food pipeline means that supply is now sporadic and inadequate.

Lake heard from women who have to walk from dawn to midday in search for water in dry river beds. He heard how children were surviving, if lucky, on one meal a day, comprised often only of palm nuts, and lactating mothers were not able to produce enough milk to feed their newborns.

It is a situation that had been replicated in other communities across the semi-arid and arid areas of Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia.

"This is not just a question about lives being threatened but a way of life being threatened," he said.

In Somalia, hundreds of thousands of children and their families were already on the move to seek assistance either within camps for internally displaced people or flowing across the border into neighboring countries.

Lake pledged UNICEF's continued support, stressing that the international children's agency would continue working closely with partners to scale up an emergency response in the region, which has been underfunded for many years. He called on the international community and private donors alike to step up funding for UNICEF, WFP, UNHCR and other partners, and to focus new effort on finding solutions that address the deep-seated poverty and vulnerability in the region.

Across drought-affected areas in the Horn of Africa, UNICEF is working with partners to treat acute malnutrition through therapeutic feeding programmes; provide medicines and vaccinations to prevent disease; gain access to clean water through the repair of pumping stations, dig  boreholes, chlorinate water sources and truck in water; support education through temporary learning spaces and the use of School-in-a-Box kits; and scale up of protection measures to ensure children are safe from violence, abuse and exploitation. UNICEF has appealed for US$ 31 million to cover the costs of most urgent scale up of operations.

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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Are They Learning?

This opinion piece was carried in the New York Times on July 17 2011.

I find it hard, perhaps inappropriate to even attempt a preface to provide a wider and global context to what is in fact just an Atlanta school system scandal.

Interestingly, this is a pervasive problem, certainly in the developing and especially in Africa. I think as a global collective we have succumbed to the deadly pandemic of test scores as a means of measuring learning.

The tragedy is that in pursuit of high test scores and the allure of admissions into elite colleges, we have ostracized learning from the classroom and banished education from the school.

What is more disconcerting is that parents are playing along. They want grades and not learning. And for the regulators high test scores means that the so-called education system is working and public spending can be justified.

And with those few remarks, here is the New York Times Op-Ed.

A cheating scandal in which scores of teachers and principals in Atlanta's public schools falsified student test results has thrown the system into chaos and made its name synonymous with fraud. This shameful episode has destroyed trust in the schools and made it impossible to determine how much students are learning and whether the system is doing its job.

In a report released this month, state investigators in Georgia found a pattern of "organized and systemic misconduct" that dates to 2001. They identified 178 teachers and principals in 44 of the system's approximately 100 schools involved in cheating on student tests. Even worse, reports of cheating were ignored by top administrators, creating a culture of fear and intimidation that prevented many teachers from speaking out.

Test haters will inevitably blame the standardized testing mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind act for inducing this kind of misconduct. The tests remain a crucial gauge of student performance and an indicator of how much academic progress schools are making. It's the cheats who need to go, not the tests.

To restore integrity to the Atlanta system, which serves mainly impoverished children, state and city officials need to improve test security and make sure that those involved in cheating lose their teaching certifications and never work in classrooms again.

The former schools superintendent Beverly L. Hall, who was widely praised during her 12-year tenure, which ended last month, stood at the center of the scandal. The investigators found that Ms. Hall and her staff had a see-no-evil policy, even though they had received many reports of widespread cheating, including one filed by the Atlanta Federation of Teachers in 2005. Under their administration, whistle-blowers were punished while the cheats went free.

Since the report became public, Atlanta school officials have removed some employees connected with the scandal, and prosecutors could eventually bring charges against educators who may have violated state law. Beyond that, the state education department says that schools that may have received federal grants based on fraudulent test scores could be forced to return the money.

The fraud will cast doubt on the real progress that Atlanta has made on the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation's report card. In the last decade, for example, the city raised its average math scores significantly. The federal tests, however, are not administered or graded by local districts and are virtually impervious to tampering.

Atlanta is not alone in facing testing scandals. Allegations of cheating have erupted in several places, including Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania and Los Angeles.

There are several things that states can do. They should protect whistle-blowers so that teachers who report wrongdoing do not have to fear retaliation. They should make it clear that cheats will be stripped of their certification and barred from the profession. In addition, states should create systems in which tests are independently administered.
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Friday, July 15, 2011

The Road to Serfdom is Paved with Big Oil and Wall Street

The Road to Serfdom was written by the Austrian-born economist and philosopher Friedrich von Hayek in the 1940s. In this book and back then, Hayek warned that inevitably, tyranny would arise from government control of economic decision-making through central planning. Hayek argued stringently that subverting individual decision-making through central planning undermines fundamental personal freedoms, leading invariably to tyranny and serfdom. Hayek argued that central economic planning was antithetical to democracy.

It is clear that Hayek’s writing was not without a socio-political context. Communism was deemed as a supreme front of evil. So Hayek’s ideas are not entirely universal or timeless, and they must not be.

But Hayek and his ideas remain especially influential amongst economists today. The Keynesian wagon ran out steam in the 1970s and Hayek surged. John Maynard Keynes, writing during the depression, argued that actions by central bank and fiscal policy actions by the government were more effective than markets in stabilizing output.

Hayek and markets have become imperishably associated with liberty.

I am honestly appalled that we have produced generations of economists who have little or for the most part, very little understanding of the history of the development of their field.

But the surge and pre-eminence of Hayek was driven less by science, but rather by politics and ideology of the Reagan and Thatcher governments in the US and the UK. In 1976, Ronald Reagan spoke his famous line, “return to the people the freedoms and also reduced government regulation.

The squabbling in the US today about how to lower public debt or weather to raise the debt ceiling or reduce unemployment or tax cuts or cutting entitlement programs has at its core, the Hayek-Keynes conundrum.

But I think the ideas of Hayek, Keynes or even the invisible hand of Adam Smith do not offer sufficient intellectual and philosophical sophistication to even begin to grapple with the current financial crisis.

It is pathetic to say the least. This is why I have added my voice to the millions of voices of other global public intellectuals and thought leaders to urge for “New Economic Thinking”. There has to be a smarter way to do economics.

When Adam Smith could not wrap his head around the idea of markets as self-organized complex adaptive systems he resorted to the use of a simplifying metaphor, “the invisible hand”. According to Keynes, we could spend our way out of an economic downturn. And public spending got the US out of the Great Depression and triggered unprecedented economic growth. So this stuff really works!

The persistent global financial uncertainty demonstrates that financial markets are complex systems, which are far from equilibrium and are dynamically unstable and vulnerable to fundamental shifts and emergence complex interaction of system components.

I now turn back to ideological, political and intellectual paralysis surrounding the US fiscal policy and unemployment. I think big interest in finance and oil, through the lobbyist and politicians in Washington have wrought tyranny upon the American people. Big Oil and Wall Street control the US economy. Personal freedoms are curtailed, leading invariably to tyranny and serfdom.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Uncertainty is Not A Temporary Factor

This is a preface to an article published in this week's economist under the title "Temporary factors proving temporary".

The title of this article is very interesting. But it is also disheartening. I think it is disheartening because it demonstrates a deep and troubling lack of understanding of global economics as a complex dynamic system fraught with uncertainty and emergent phenomena.

What is absolutely disappointing is that the Economist imagines that bad weather, high gas prices, seismic disasters such as the Tsunami are temporary factors.

Projections of national or global economic growth can no longer predicate growth on a handful "known" market fundamentals.

Complexity and systems literacy is absolutely fundamental. I would hope that globally significant and authoritative magazines such as The Economist would function as a robust fora for promoting public understanding of complexity, systems dynamics and more importantly, uncertainty.

However, I absolutely agree with the article on the effect of the US Congress on economy. The reason the US economic recovery has stalled is not external. It is not China. It is not natural disaster. It is not oil prices. It is the dysfunction of US domestic politics. The polarization of the US Congress based on false and naive ideological choices is the biggest threat to the US economy.

Here is the article.

THROUGH the first half of the year, one factor after another weighed on the American economy, disappointing forecasters (and workers) who'd been looking forward to 4% or so GDP growth. Patience, countenanced Ben Bernanke; when these temporary factors—bad weather, high petrol prices, seismic disasters, and so on—eased off, growth would bounce back. But as the months wore on, it seemed like temporary negative factors might be dragging down expectations and threatening to set of another summer swoon.

That worrisome outcome is not entirely out of the question, but it is looking less likely by the day. Japan's post-disaster economic slump seems to be ending, and American firms impacted by the disruption of supply chains are gearing back up. High automobile prices, due again to supply disruptions, dragged down auto purchases and pushed up inflation, but these trends too seem to be reversing. Petrol prices have dropped about 40 cents since the beginning of May, providing much needed relief to American consumers. And housing markets are showing some signs of life.

The good news is translating into good data. Industial production surprised to the upside in June, according to figures released today. Home prices ticked up in April and, according to one survey, in May as well. Serious delinquencies continue to decline, and pending sales rose in May for the first time in over a year. Labour markets remain shaky, but initial jobless claims, while still high, have backed away from their recent peak near 500,000. Equities are following the good news; stocks are up over 5% since mid-June.

So what happens now? In the hopeful scenario, the reversal of the first half's negative trends brings a return to the stronger job growth seen early in the year—the 235,000 new jobs seen in February rather than the 54,000 added in May. And ideally, these job gains support more spending and continued recovery in housing markets. One hopes, in other words, that the economy regains the trend it seemed to be on early in the year. That trend growth rate was too slow (it still implied a return to full employment somewhere off in the distant future) but it was far better than the prevailing pattern in April and May.

Unfortunately, America isn't out of the woods yet. European crisis could yet spin out of control. Commodity prices should stay moderate as overheating emerging markets rein in their growth, but oil markets remain tight and a stronger American recovery could easily mean a new jump in petrol costs.

The biggest threat to recovery, however, is associated with America's domestic political situation. If this bounce back persists, the Fed will be really and truly done with its easing, despite continued high unemployment and continued moderation in inflation. In the best of circumstances, fiscal policy is set to tighten. In all likelihood, a debt deal will mean that fiscal policy tightens quite a lot. And in the worst case, the failure to reach a debt deal will mean either catastrophic fiscal tightening or a default, which would probably send America quickly back into recession.

Washington is the biggest threat to America's economy. It shouldn't be. It should be working to make sure that recovery continues and accelerates. At this point, however, the big question seems to be: just how much damage will Congress do to a recovery that is managing, just, to keep its head above water.
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