Reading literacy is on the rise internationally – in 2016, 96 percent of fourth graders from over 60 education systems achieved above the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2016 low international benchmark. This is one of the key findings of a report released today by the International Association for Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.
To show how large-scale assessments, such as PIRLS, can contribute to achieving the education goal of the United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda, UNESCO and IEA have also released a joint booklet “Measuring SDG 4: how PIRLS can help”.
Conducted by IEA, PIRLS provides internationally comparative data and trends in the reading achievement of fourth graders from more than 60 education systems. In 2016, the scope of PIRLS was extended to include ePIRLS – an innovative assessment of online reading. The ePIRLS assessment concluded that good readers have an advantage in digital literacy skills, with 50% of students deemed good to excellent readers reaching the PIRLS high international benchmark.
An early start in reading literacy has lasting benefits, with students who had attended pre-primary school for three years or more reporting higher average scores. Supportive home environments, where parents often engage their children in early literacy activities, are also associated with higher achievement scores.
In 2016, female students outperformed their male counterparts in 48 countries and dependent territories by an average of 19 points. Such disaggregated data can inform progress toward Education 2030 target 4.5, which calls to “leave no one behind”.
Finally, the report indicated that safe and well-resourced learning environments with qualified teachers are associated with higher achievement scores. PIRLS 2016 identified a positive trend in school safety, with teachers from 16 countries and dependent territories reporting that schools have become safer and more orderly since 2011.
The UNESCO-IEA booklet also launched as part of today’s international PIRLS 2016 release, provides some examples to demonstrate how the achievement and background data collected by PIRLS can help inform national policies in education and learning, and measure progress toward Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 targets in Education.
SDG4 targets analysed in the booklet include target 4.1 on primary education, 4.2 on early childhood development, 4.4 on skills for work, 4.5 on gender equality and inclusion, 4.a on effective learning environments and 4.c on teachers.
Burkina Faso: Former colony orders French troops to leave
Burkina Faso has demanded the withdrawal of French troops stationed on the territory of the West African nation, local media reported, citing a government decision. Relations between Paris and its former colony have been on a downward spiral for months now, with the local population blaming France for their security problems.
Agence d’Information du Burkina (AIB) reported that the government of Burkina Faso had suspended a 2018 agreement with France, which regulated the deployment of its service members in the country. Paris now has one month to remove its soldiers, the agency said.
France currently has 400 troops in the African country, who are stationed there as part of efforts to combat Islamist terrorist groups in the region.
In November 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron officially announced the end of anti-insurgent ‘Operation Barkhane’ in the Sahel region, which has been largely viewed as a failure. In doing so, France also vowed to “reduce the exposure and visibility of [its] military forces in Africa.”
The Sahel is a region in northern Africa that includes Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, and a number of other neighboring countries.
Paris ended another military mission in neighboring Mali last August after relations went sour, with the government calling France’s military involvement “not satisfactory.”
Hundreds of people protested in the Burkina Faso’ capital Ouagadougou against the French military presence, chanting anti-French slogans.
Mohamed Sinon, one of the main leaders of the collective that called the demonstration, said it was to show support for junta leader Traore and the security forces fighting jihadists. “We are a pan-African movement and we want cooperation between Burkina Faso and Russia, but also the strengthening of friendship and of cooperation with Guinea and Mali,” he added.
Protesters carried huge posters showing the presidents of Mali and Guinea — both of whom also came to power in coups — as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A source close to the government clarified it was “not the severance of relations with France. The notification only concerns military cooperation agreements”.
Sources familiar with the matter told AFP that France’s preferred option would be to redeploy its forces in the south of neighbouring Niger, where nearly 2,000 French soldiers are already stationed.
French troops withdrew from Mali last year after a 2020 coup in the former French colony saw its rulers also inch closer to Russia.
European farms mix things up to guard against food-supply shocks
By ETHAN BILBY
‘Items in this section have limited availability due to supplier production issues,’ ‘Sorry, temporarily out of stock’ and ‘Sold out’ are all signs that became familiar as recent global upheavals exposed how precarious our food supply is.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to bare shelves in supermarkets as shipping routes were cut off. The war in Ukraine has affected the supply of essential grains.
But increased climate change stands to cause even greater disruption. Researchers say part of the solution to mitigating that risk is for farms to become more mixed through some combination of crop cultivation, livestock production and forestry, a move that would also make agriculture more sustainable.
For Dr Sara Burbi, assistant professor at Coventry University in the UK until December 2022 and now an independent researcher, COVID-19 was a wake-up call.
‘Suddenly, we experienced first-hand what happens when value chains are not resilient to shocks and what happens when globalisation, with all its intricacies, does not work anymore,’ she said. ‘We saw highly specialised farming systems fail when they over-relied on external inputs that they had no access to.’
Climate change, according to Burbi, could provide even bigger global shocks ranging from widespread crop failures to lower yields or damage from flooding. More sustainable agriculture is essential to ensure food supplies can withstand the impact of climate change and unexpected local, national and even global crises.
During her tenure at Coventry University, Burbi coordinated the EU-funded AGROMIX project, which runs until end-October 2024.
As part of the project, pilot farms across Europe are experimenting with combining crop and livestock production in one farm (mixed farming) and with pairing farming and forestry activities (agroforestry). Poultry grazing in orchards is an example of a mixed-farming approach. The results reveal interesting synergies and promising effects, including improvements in soil health.
‘For a long time, forestry and agricultural activities have been considered at odds, as we have pushed for more and more specialised land uses,’ Burbi said. ‘This has led to loss of soil fertility and a sharp decline in biodiversity, coupled with an increased dependence on external inputs to compensate.’
A combined system can increase the cycling of nutrients needed in the soil for crops to grow. It can also help to regulate air and water quality, prevent land degradation and even provide biomass and food on-site for livestock.
One site in Switzerland, for instance, found that mixed farming helped keep soil quality high, while more specialised farming tended to deplete it.
AGROMIX will use 12 pilot sites and nine experimental ones, spread across three climatic zones (Atlantic, Continental and Mediterranean), to develop recommendations for farmers on combining productivity with greater sustainability and climate resilience.
Although mixed farming has been practiced for a long time, it is only recently that scientists have begun to measure biophysical data on such sites and provide real evidence to support approaches that work.
The project has found that the presence of trees on pasture has measurable benefits to animal health and welfare, especially in extreme heat when they provide a canopy of much-needed shade.
Trees and hedgerows can also offset greenhouse-gas emissions from livestock, increase the carbon sequestration capacity of the land, provide a haven for biodiversity and help prevent flooding.
The project wants to work closely with farmers, taking into account their needs and priorities.
‘Knowledge integration can empower key actors, in this case farmers, to embrace the transition to sustainable farming,’ Burbi said.
The next step will be designing agriculture systems that are totally energy independent and, as a result, even more sustainable.
The EU-funded MIXED project at Aarhus University in Denmark is also focused on combining mixed farming systems with agroforestry to make agriculture more efficient and resilient.
‘It’s not only about economic efficiency, but also environmental and climate efficiency,’ said Professor Tommy Dalgaard, the project coordinator. ‘Agriculture needs to be resilient to change, all kinds of change.’
Working with around 100 farmers across Europe, MIXED has created networks to study the different ways in which mixed farming and agroforestry can be used.
One focus is on the take-aways that can be gleaned from the traditional agroforestry techniques used in the Tagus Valley of Portugal, in an area known as the Montado.
‘They have these big cork oaks that are often more than 100 years old with grazing cattle below them,’ said Dalgaard. ‘In the winter, they can plough the soil and make small fields with cereal so they can harvest a winter crop and then in the dry season the cattle can be there.’
It is possible to have these green, vegetated areas because of the ancient oak trees, which create shade and sustain the water cycle.
The concern is that drought may threaten the oaks, so researchers from the project are trying to work out how best to preserve the system as well as how to adapt it to new areas.
Danish farms in the project have taken a different approach, looking at how farmers can use coppicing to create a carbon sink. Coppicing is a pruning technique that cuts trees to ground level, causing new shoots to grow rapidly from the base to form a bush.
These are then usually harvested every 10-20 years for biomass fuel, meanwhile also giving shelter and shadow to free-range, high-value livestock such as sows with piglets. Cutting the bushes to create mulch also helps to improve soil quality and avoids burning them, according to Dalgaard.
The project’s ultimate aim is to build up a European database demonstrating examples of mixed farming and agroforestry, highlighting the benefits and advising on best practices. Essentially, it is about inspiring more farmers to adopt mixed farming and agroforestry methods and supporting them in the process.
‘We need real-life examples,’ said Dalgaard. ‘We now have some concrete examples of farmers, agricultural landscapes and value chains that can report good results from having done something in a different way.’
Research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
Astana hosts 18th Iran-Kazakhstan Joint Economic Committee meeting
The 18th meeting of Iran-Kazakhstan Joint Economic Committee meeting was held on Thursday in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, at the end of which the two sides signed a comprehensive document to expand cooperation in numerous areas including trade, agriculture, environment, tourism, science, and technology, education and sports.
As IRIB reported, the two countries’ Joint Economic Committee meeting was co-chaired by Iranian Agriculture Minister Javad Sadati-Nejad and Prime Minister of Kazakhstan Alikhan Smailov.
Sadati-Nejad and Smailov held talks before the two countries’ joint meeting to discuss major areas that should be agreed upon in the event’s concluding document.
Speaking to the press after the joint committee meeting, Sadati-Nejad said that according to the signed memorandum of understanding (MOU), 30 percent of the trade between the two countries will be in the field of agricultural products.
According to the agriculture minister, the two countries are also going to establish a commercial-agricultural joint venture in order to develop trade in the Persian Gulf countries, Central Asia, and West Asia.
In this meeting, Amir Yousefi, the vice-chairman of the Agriculture Committee of Iran Chamber of Commerce, Industries, Mines and Agriculture (ICCIMA) also said that Kazakhstan is a good option for extraterritorial cultivation due to the good water conditions and the quality of soil, which should be considered by Iranian investors.
Reaching $3b of annual trade on agenda
Speaking on the sidelines of the meeting, Sadati-Nejad announced that the two countries have put an annual trade of three billion dollars on the agenda, expressing hope that signing the comprehensive MOU would pave the way for achieving this target.
“The presidents of the two countries have aimed to increase the level of trade to three billion dollars; currently this number is around 500 million dollars,” the minister said.
Mentioning the developments in the two countries’ banking relations, the official said that the expansion of relations in the agriculture sector is of special importance for both sides.
He further noted that a joint committee will be formed in the next month to pursue this goal, saying: “Kazakhstan has requested Iran’s engineering services in modern irrigation and desalination areas, and we have expressed our readiness to provide them with the mentioned services.”
Iranian trade center to be opened in Almaty
During the meeting of the two countries’ expert committees which was held prior to the main event on Wednesday, Amir Abedi, the head of the Iran-Kazakhstan Joint Chamber of Commerce, announced that the business office of Iran-Kazakhstan joint chamber will soon be opened in Almaty.
Pointing to the capacities of Iran and Kazakhstan for the development of economic relations, Abedi considered Kazakhstan’s market as a strategic destination for Iranian businessmen.
The 17th Iran-Kazakhstan joint economic committee meeting was held about a year ago in Tehran.
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