When I was a child, my father, Captain Cousteau, an explorer and oceanographer, sometimes scolded me for my behaviour or actions that had an unfortunate outcome. “I didn’t mean to!” I would say in my defense. And his answer was always the same: “You could have meant not to do it”.
More than 3.8 billion years ago, microscopic marine organisms were the source of a new molecule on our planet, a waste product of their metabolism, rejected in water and air: oxygen. Bubble by bubble, these tiny settlers oxidized not only the whole of the Earth’s crust, but also all the oceans. This oxygen, highly toxic for all the other micro-organisms that had until then been masters of the planet, became an ozone layer in contact with the ionizing rays in the upper atmosphere. Today, that layer is still protecting all life on Earth from damaging solar radiation.
The term “pollution” comes from the Latin verb “polluere”, which means to dishonour or defile. Since ancient times, human beings have been polluting and defiling both nature and humanity, and lately we have begun calling this pollution “externalities”. The production of goods and services, from copper forges in the Roman empire to contemporary plastic bags, lead to the release into the environment of molecules that are harmful to life.
The notion of intention is at the crux of the global problem of pollution, which contributes to the destruction of life on Earth, both in its diversity and in its quality. If someone were to start breaking everything around them, that person would immediately be locked up. However, when economic benefit is involved, that same person or entity may actually be encouraged and subsidized. As soon as money is part of the equation, destruction is permitted. The environment and human life are nothing compared to the false god of profit. To oil barons, oil spills and climate change are acceptable risks.
Today, more than one third of fish and seafood contains plastic, while 80 per cent of the world’s tap water contains microscopic particles of plastic. The carbon dioxide that humans have already emitted by humans will cause sea levels to rise by 12 meters. Toxic effluent travels from rivers into the seas, the floors of which are already being relentlessly scraped by industrial activity.
But it’s always involuntary. We do not want to kill the polar bear. We do not do it on purpose! But we could make a purposeful choice not to do it.
A circular economy mimics the natural processes from which we have alienated ourselves. It implies that there is no waste. That every product, every activity, feeds other processes of valorization. We have become the masters of this planet by cutting off the Earth’s natural cycles. To continue to survive on this planet, we will have to learn to integrate them into our economic system.
Our politics and our values have bowed down before the economic algorithm that governs us all. This algorithm has brought us many benefits, including safety, comfort and convenience that are unprecedented in human history. But it has also led to the destruction of the environment, and immeasurable amounts of pollution. This system must change to take externalities into account. Our island is getting too crowded; we can ignore our impacts no longer.
The UN Environment Assembly in December 2017 generated bold pollution-beating commitments from governments, business and civil society, as well as nearly 2.5 million individual pledges to #BeatPollution.
Reimagining ageing: Older persons as agents of development
Older persons are highly visible across Asia and the Pacific: they work in agricultural fields producing our food supplies, peddle their wares as street vendors, drive tuk-tuks and buses, exercise in our parks, lead some of the region’s most successful companies and form an integral part of our families.
Indeed, population ageing is one of the megatrends greatly affecting sustainable development. People now live longer than ever and remain active because of improved health. We must broaden the narrow view of older persons as requiring our care to recognize that they are also agents of development. With many parts of the Asia-Pacific region rapidly ageing, we can take concrete steps to provide environments in which our elders live safely, securely and in dignity and contribute to societies.
To start with, we must invest in social protection and access to universal healthcare throughout the life-course. Currently, it is estimated that 14.3 per cent of the population in Asia and the Pacific are 60 years or older; that figure is projected to rise to 17.7 per cent by 2030 and to one-quarter in 2050. Moreover, 53.1 per cent of all older persons are women, a share that increases with age. Therefore, financial security is needed so older persons can stay active and healthy for longer periods. In many countries of the region, less than one-third of the working-age population is covered by mandatory pensions, and a large proportion still lacks access to affordable, good quality health care.
Such protection is crucial because older persons continue to bolster the labour force, especially in informal sectors. In Thailand, for example, a third of people aged 65 years or over participate in the labour force; 87 per cent of working women aged 65 or over work in the informal sector, compared to 81 per cent of working men in the same cohort. This general trend is seen in other countries of the region.
Older persons, especially older women, also make important contributions as caregivers to both children and other older persons. This unpaid care enables younger people in their families to take paid work, often in metropolitan areas of their own country or abroad.
Older persons should also have lifelong learning opportunities. Enhanced digital literacy, for example, can close the grey digital divide. Older women and men need to stay abreast of technological developments to access services, maintain connections with family and friends and remain competitive in the labour market. Through inter-generational initiatives, younger people can train older people in the use of technology.
We must also invest in quality long-term care systems to ensure that older persons who need it can receive affordable quality care. With the increase in dementia and other mental health conditions, care needs are becoming more complex. Many countries in the region still rely on family members to provide such care, but there may be less unpaid care in the future, and care by family members is not always quality care.
Finally, addressing age-based discrimination and barriers will be crucial to allow the full participation of older persons in economies and societies. Older women and men actively volunteer in older persons associations or other organizations. They help distribute food and medicine in emergency situations, including during the COVID-19 pandemic, monitor the health of neighbours and friends, or teach each other how to use digital devices. Older persons also play an active role in combatting climate change by sharing knowledge and techniques of mitigation and adaptation. Ageism intersects and exacerbates other disadvantages, including those related to sex, race, and disability, and combatting it will contribute to the health and well-being of all.
This week, countries in Asia and the Pacific will convene to review and appraise the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing (MIPAA) on the occasion of its 20th anniversary. MIPAA provides policy directions for building societies for all ages with a focus on older persons and development; health and well-being in old age; and creating enabling environments. The meeting will provide an opportunity for member States to discuss progress on the action plan and identify remaining challenges, gaps and new priorities.
While several countries in the region already have some form of policy on ageing, the topic must be mainstreamed into all policies and action plans, and they must be translated into coherent, cross-sectoral national strategies that reach all older persons in our region, including those who inhabit remote islands, deserts or mountain ranges.
Older persons are valuable members of our societies, but too often they are overlooked. Let us ensure that they can fully contribute to our sustainable future.
70% of 10-Year-Olds now in Learning Poverty, Unable to Read and Understand a Simple Text
As a result of the worst shock to education and learning in recorded history, learning poverty has increased by a third in low- and middle-income countries, with an estimated 70% of 10-year-olds unable to understand a simple written text, according to a new report published today by the World Bank, UNESCO, UNICEF, UK government Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), USAID, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This rate was 57% before the pandemic, but now the learning crisis has deepened.This generation of students now risks losing $21 trillion in potential lifetime earnings in present value, or the equivalent of 17% of today’s global GDP, up from the $17 trillion estimated in 2021.
The State of Global Learning Poverty: 2022 Update report shows that prolonged school closures, poor mitigation effectiveness, and household-income shocks had the biggest impact on learning poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), with a predicted 80% of children at the end-of-primary-school-age now unable to understand a simple written text, up from around 50% pre-pandemic. The next-largest increase is in South Asia, where predictions put at 78% the share of children that lack minimum literacy proficiency, up from 60% pre-pandemic. Emerging data measuring actual learning levels of children in reopened school systems around the world corroborate the predictions of large learning losses. In Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), increases in learning poverty were smaller, as school closures in this region typically lasted only a few months, but stand now at an extremely high 89%. In all other regions, simulations show increases in learning poverty.
The report also shows that even before COVID-19, the global learning crisis was deeper than previously thought. The global average pre-pandemic learning poverty rate, previously estimated at 53% for 2015, was even higher – with updated and revised data revealing that 57% of 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries were not able to read and understand a simple text, the measure for learning poverty. In regions, such as LAC and SSA, in which temporally comparable data is available, the report notes that learning poverty has remained stagnant in this period. This highlights that returning to the pre-COVID status quo will not secure the future of the world’s children – a vigorous learning recovery and acceleration is needed.
Prolonged school closures and unequal mitigation strategies have worsened learning inequality among children. Evidence is mounting that children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and other disadvantaged groups are suffering larger learning losses. Children with the most fragile grasp of foundational literacy before the closures are most likely to have suffered larger learning losses. Without strong foundational skills, children are unlikely to acquire the technical and higher-order skills needed to thrive in increasingly demanding labor markets and more complex societies.
The need for sustained commitment at all levels of society
The new World Bank, UNESCO, UNICEF, FCDO, USAID, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation report emphasizes that learning recovery and acceleration requires sustained national political commitment, from the highest political levels to all members of society. Turning the tide against the longer-term learning crisis will require national coalitions for learning recovery – coalitions that include families, educators, civil society, the business community, and other ministries beyond the education ministry. Commitment needs to be further translated into concrete action at the national and sub-national levels, with better assessment of learning to fill the vast data gaps, clear targets for progress, and evidence-based plans for learning recovery and acceleration.
Given the scale of the challenges and scarcity of resources, countries need to concentrate their efforts on the most cost-effective approaches to tackle learning poverty.
The RAPID framework offers a menu of evidence-based interventions that education systems can implement to help children recover lost learning, and to accelerate long-term progress in foundational learning. Governments must make sure that education systems:
- Reach every child and keep them in school
- Assess learning levels regularly
- Prioritize teaching the fundamentals
- Increase the efficiency of instruction, including through catch-up learning
- Develop psychosocial health and well-being.
These interventions must be implemented as part of a national learning recovery program that can also serve as a springboard for building more effective, equitable, and resilient education systems. To lead to broad, sustained change, the program will need to be accompanied by much-needed systemic strengthening. This is critical to closing learning gaps as much as possible by 2030 to ensure that all children and youth have the opportunity to shape the bright futures they deserve.
Jaime Saavedra, Global Director for Education, World Bank: “COVID-19 has devastated learning around the world, dramatically increasing the number of children living in Learning Poverty. With 7 in 10 of today’s 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries now unable to read a simple text, political leaders and society must swiftly move to recover this generation’s future by ensuring learning recovery strategies and investments. The World Bank is committed to supporting countries during these challenging times. Together, we can build forward better more equitable, effective, and resilient education. We owe it not only to the children and youth of this generation, but to ourselves – in their minds rests our future.”
Alicia Herbert OBE, Director Education, Gender and Equality and Gender Envoy, FCDO: “This important document helps us to better understand where we are on education globally, and how we can ensure that all children are supported to get on track to achieve 12 years of quality education. The report shows what we feared. Even fewer children are now able to access a quality education, due to the impact of COVID-19 and school closures globally, especially the most marginalised. An estimated 7 in 10 of all children in low- and middle-income countries cannot read a simple text with comprehension by age 10. This is unacceptable. We must come together to pay attention and to act, so that all children can get back to school and learn.”
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation:
Dr. Benjamin Piper, Director of Global Education, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: “I want readers of this report to have at least two responses. The first is profound sadness at the magnitude of the learning crisis. The learning poverty data highlights the shocking inequality that persists in learning outcomes, with 87% of children in Africa unable to read and understand a simple text. This data was collected before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the new simulations suggest this has increased to 89%. This is sad, but it’s also wrong. The second is that we have solutions that can work at scale and in government systems. Committing to substantial learning recovery programs is a start, but the composition of those programs matter: measure learning outcomes, but also invest in improving instruction through structured pedagogy or teaching at the right level interventions while increasing instructional time. Countries that do this have a real opportunity not only to recover learning lost due to COVID-19, but to make significant progress to reduce learning poverty by 2030.”
Stefania Giannini, UNESCO Assistant-Director General for Education: “These estimates ring the alarm louder than ever on the urgency to prioritize education in recovery plans and beyond. We must invest in holistic and transformative policies that act on the multiple causes of the learning crisis, mobilize the international community, and put in place all the conditions to ensure that no child falls behind. The Transforming Education Pre-Summit, from June 28 to 30 at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, and the Transforming Education Summit, on 19 September in New York, are our opportunity to set learning on the right tracks and fulfill the SDG4 promise to ensure quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all.”
Robert Jenkins, UNICEF Global Director of Education: “Getting children back into the classroom is just the first step – but if we stop there, we will rob millions of children of the chance to reach their full potential. Every child has a right not only to be in school, but to learn in school, acquiring the basic skills that are the foundation for higher learning and higher income levels someday – in turn supporting equitable development and sustainable growth. We need to reach every child, in every situation. We need to assess their learning level and help them master the basics, so they can move ahead as confident learners. And especially for children living through conflicts and crises, we need to support children’s learning by making sure they have the psychosocial support they need. We can’t let children’s learning become yet another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
LeAnna Marr, Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Development, Democracy, and Innovation, Center for Education, USAID: “The State of Global Learning Poverty is an urgent call for commitment. Recovering from this massive shock will require all of us – governments, families, educators, civil society, and the private sector – to double our efforts to ensure every child is supported to return to school and catch up on learning. In the wake of the worst shock to education and learning in a century, USAID is committed to continuing our support to the recovery and transformation of education to ensure all children and youth are able to return to safe and quality learning. USAID will continue to build on our investments and lead globally in foundational learning, strengthening resilience in education systems, and equipping the next generation with the skills needed for lifelong success.”
Overturning of Roe v Wade abortion law a ‘huge blow to women’s human rights’
Friday’s decision by the US Supreme Court which overturns the 50-year-old Roe v Wade judgement guaranteeing access to abortion across the United States, was described by the UN human rights chief as “a huge blow to women’s human rights and gender equality.”
The widely anticipated Supreme Court decision, by six votes to three, was made in the specific case of Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health, and Michelle Bachelet said in a statement that it represents a “major setback” for sexual and reproductive health across the US.
The historic decision returns all questions of legality and access to abortion, to the individual states.
Reacting earlier to the US ruling, without making specific reference to it, the UN sexual and reproductive health agency (UNFPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) noted that a staggering 45 per cent of all abortions around the world, are unsafe, making the procedure a leading cause of maternal death.
The agencies said it was inevitable that more women will die, as restrictions by national or regional governments increase.
“Whether abortion is legal or not, it happens all too often. Data show that restricting access to abortion does not prevent people from seeking abortion, it simply makes it more deadly”, UNFPA highlighted.
According to the agencies’ 2022 State of World Population report, nearly half of all pregnancies worldwide are unintended, and over 60 per cent of these may end in abortion.
UNFPA said that it feared that more unsafe abortions will occur around the world if access becomes more restricted.
“Decisions reversing progress gained have a wider impact on the rights and choices of women and adolescents everywhere”, the agency emphasized.
WHO echoed the message on their official Twitter account, reminding that removing barriers to abortion “protects women’s lives, health and human rights”.
An attack on women’s autonomy
Ms. Bachelet further reminded that access to safe, legal and effective abortion is firmly rooted in international human right law and is at the core of women and girls’ autonomy, and ability to make their own choices about their bodies and lives, free of discrimination, violence and coercion.
“This decision strips such autonomy from millions of women in the US, in particular those with low incomes and those belonging to racial and ethnic minorities, to the detriment of their fundamental rights”, she warned.
The rights chief highlighted that the decision came after more than 50 countries with previously restrictive laws have liberalized their abortion legislation over the past 25 years.
“With today’s ruling, the US is regrettably moving away from this progressive trend”, she said.
Meanwhile, the UN agency, UN Women, cautioned in another statement that the ability of women to control what happens to their own bodies, is also associated with the roles women are able to play in society, whether as a member of the family, the workforce, or government.
The 1994 Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), signed by 179 countries including the United States, recognized how deadly unsafe abortions are, and urged all countries to provide post-abortion care to save lives, irrespective of the legal status of abortion.
The document – resulting from a high-level meeting in Cairo, Egypt—also highlighted that all people should be able to access quality information about their reproductive health and contraceptives.
UNFPA, as the custodian of the Programme of Action, advocates for the right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so.
The agency also warned that if unsafe abortions continue, Sustainable Development Goal 3, related to maternal health, to which all UN Member States have committed, will be at risk of not being met.
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