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Young people struggling in digital world

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One in four students in OECD countries are unable to complete even the most basic reading tasks, meaning they are likely to struggle to find their way through life in an increasingly volatile, digital world. This is one of the findings of the OECD’s latest PISA global education test, which evaluates the quality, equity and efficiency of school systems.

The OECD’s PISA 2018 tested around 600,000 15-year-old students in 79 countries and economies on reading, science and mathematics. The main focus was on reading, with most students doing the test on computers.

Most countries, particularly in the developed world, have seen little improvement in their performances over the past decade, even though spending on schooling increased by 15% over the same period. In reading, Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang (China), together with Singapore, scored significantly higher than other countries. The top OECD countries were Estonia, Canada, Finland and Ireland.

“Without the right education, young people will languish on the margins of society, unable to deal with the challenges of the future world of work, and inequality will continue to rise,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, launching the report in Paris at the start of a two-day conference on the future of education. “Every dollar spent on education generates a huge return in terms of social and economic progress and is the foundation of an inclusive, prosperous future for all.”

The share of students with only very basic reading skills highlights the challenge countries, including those in the developed world, face in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 (SDGs), particularly in relation to “ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all.” (SDG 4). The share of low-performers, both girls and boys, also increased on average between 2018 and 2009, the last time reading was the main focus of PISA.

Student well-being is also an increasing issue; about two out of three students in OECD countries reported being happy with their lives, although the share of satisfied students fell by 5 percentage points between 2015 and 2018. And in almost every country, girls were more afraid of failing than boys and the gap was largest among top performers. One in four students also reported being bullied at least a few times a month across OECD countries.

Around 1 in 10 students across OECD countries, and 1 in 4 in Singapore, perform at the highest levels in reading. However, the gap between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged students is stark: the reading level of the richest 10% of students in OECD countries is around three years ahead of the poorest 10%. In France, Germany, Hungary and Israel, the gap is four years.

Yet some countries have shown an impressive improvement over the past few years. Portugal has advanced to the level of most OECD countries, despite being hit hard by the financial crisis. Sweden has improved across all three subjects since 2012, reversing earlier declines. Turkey has also progressed while at the same time doubling the share of 15-year-olds in school.

The latest PISA findings also reveal the extent to which digital technologies are transforming the world outside of school. More students today consider reading a waste of time (+ 5 percentage points) and fewer boys and girls read for pleasure (- 5 percentage points) than their counterparts did in 2009. They also spend about 3 hours outside of school online on weekdays, an increase of an hour since 2012, and 3.5 hours on weekends.

Other key findings include:

Students’ performance in science and maths

Around one in four students in OECD countries, on average, do not attain the basic level of science (22%) or maths (24%). This means that they cannot, for example, convert a price into a different currency.


About one in six students (16.5%) in Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang (China), and one in seven in Singapore (13.8%), perform at the highest level in maths. This compares to only 2.4% in OECD countries.

Equity in education

Students performed better than the OECD average in 11 countries and economies, including Australia, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Japan, Korea, Norway and the United Kingdom, while the relationship between reading performance and socio-economic status was weakest. This means that these countries have the most equitable systems where students can flourish, regardless of their background.

Principals of disadvantaged schools in 45 countries and economies were much more likely to report that a lack of education staff affected their teaching standards. In 42, a lack of educational material and poor infrastructure was also a key factor in limiting success in the classroom.

On average across OECD countries, 13% of students in 2018 had an immigrant background, up from 10% in 2009. Immigrant students performed on average less well in reading, by around one year of schooling. Yet in countries including Australia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Singapore, immigrant students scored higher or at least the same as their non-immigrant peers.

Gender gap

Girls significantly outperformed boys in reading on average across OECD countries, by the equivalent of nearly a year of schooling. Across the world, the narrowest gaps were in Argentina, Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang (China), Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama and Peru. Boys overall did slightly better than girls in maths but less well in science.

Girls and boys have very different career expectations. More than one in four high-performing boys reported they expect to work as an engineer or scientist compared with fewer than one in six high-performing girls. Almost one in three high-performing girls, but only one in eight high-performing boys, said they expect to work as a health professional.

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Inequality threatening human development

MD Staff

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Despite global progress in tackling poverty, hunger and disease, a “new generation of inequalities” indicates that many societies are not working as they should, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) argues in its latest report released on Monday. 

The 2019 Human Development Report (HDR) states that just as the gap in basic living standards is narrowing for millions of people, inequalities surrounding education, and around technology and climate change, have sparked demonstrations across the globe. 

Left unchecked, they could trigger a ‘new great divergence’ in society of the kind not seen since the Industrial Revolution, according to the report. 

“This Human Development Report sets out how systemic inequalities are deeply damaging our society and why,” said Achim Steiner, the UNDP Administrator. 

 “Inequality is not just about how much someone earns compared to their neighbour. It is about the unequal distribution of wealth and power: the entrenched social and political norms that are bringing people onto the streets today, and the triggers that will do so in the future unless something changes. Recognizing the real face of inequality is a first step; what happens next is a choice that each leader must make.”  

‘Inequality not beyond solutions’ 

Mr. Steiner added crucially that “inequality is not beyond solutions”. 

The human development approach views “richness” as going beyond the idea that economic growth will automatically lead to development and wellbeing. 

It focuses on people, and their opportunities and choices.   

UNDP research shows that in 2018, 20 per cent of human development progress was lost due to the unequal distribution of education, health and living standards. 

“What used to be ‘nice-to-haves’, like going to university or access to broadband, are increasingly important for success, but left only with the basics, people find the rungs knocked out of their ladder to the future,” said Pedro Conceição, Director of the HDR Office at UNDP. 

Invest in education, productivity, public spending 

The report recommends revamped policies in the areas of education, productivity and public spending. 

As inequality begins even before birth and can accumulate through adulthood, investing in young children’s learning, health and nutrition is key. These investments must continue throughout life as they have an impact on earnings and productivity in the labour market. 

UNDP observed that countries with a more productive workforce generally have a lower concentration of wealth at the top, which is enabled by policies that support stronger unions, the right to a minimum wage, social protection and which bring more women into the workplace. 

The report further highlights the role of taxation, which cannot be looked at on its own.  Rather, fair taxation should lie behind policies that include greater public spending on health, education and greener energy alternatives. 

Beyond today 

As the UNDP chief noted, “Different triggers are bringing people onto the streets — the cost of a train ticket, the price of petrol, demands for political freedoms, the pursuit of fairness and justice. This is the new face of inequality”. 

Looking to the future, the report asks how inequality might be viewed years down the line, especially in relation to  “two seismic shifts” that will shape the next century. 

Those are the climate crisis, and the progress of the technological transformation that includes renewables and energy efficiency, digital finance and digital health solutions. 

The report calls for opportunities to be “seized quickly and shared broadly”. 

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Concerted Action Needed to Address Unique Challenges Faced by Pacific Island Countries

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Small island developing states (SIDS) must position themselves to take full advantage of often limited, but nonetheless available, opportunities to improve standards of living and accelerate economic growth, according to the latest issue of the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) Pacific Economic Monitor launched today.

The Monitor focuses on addressing the development needs and challenges of the Pacific SIDS, which in the context of this publication are the Cook Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea (PNG), Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.

The Monitor notes that the geographic and physical challenges faced by SIDS manifest in elevated cost structures and heightened economic vulnerability that severely constrain development prospects. These are further compounded by fragility from thin institutional capacities for effective governance and increased climate change risks.

“Development challenges stemming from vulnerability and fragility, which are further amplified by climate change impacts, call for a differentiated approach to long-term development among the SIDS,” said ADB Director General for the Pacific Ms. Carmela Locsin. “Sustainable development financing as well as innovative, fit-for-purpose strategies for institutional strengthening are central to such an approach.”

This is the 28th issue of the Monitor, the ADB Pacific Department’s flagship economic publication, which was launched in 2009 to provide more regular economic reporting on the Pacific islands. It reveals that a weak external environment is translating into a softer 2019–2020 outlook for the Pacific through subdued exports. The subregional outlook is for average growth of 4.0% in 2019 before moderating to 2.5% in 2020, largely reflecting weaker prospects in Fiji and a return to low growth in PNG as the ongoing recovery from last year’s major earthquake fades.   

The Monitor includes country articles as well as policy briefs. Country articles feature analyses of labor productivity and youth unemployment in Fiji, fishing revenues in Kiribati and Tuvalu, and how various SIDS manage unconventional revenue streams. Other articles focus on recent fiscal adjustments in PNG, sustaining tourism-led growth in the Cook Islands, improving the business environment in Palau, Samoa’s ability to rebound and build resilience after disasters, and urbanization issues in Tonga.

Topical policy briefs in the report further examine the common development challenges faced by SIDS. The first policy brief discusses the structural constraints to long-term development among SIDS and highlights the crucial role of sustainable development financing to overcome these. Another policy brief mapping fragility in the Pacific shows that although some progress has been made over the past decade to strengthen institutional capacities among SIDS, there is still work to be done. Other policy briefs outline key takeaways from some Pacific atoll nations at the frontlines of climate change, and explore poverty reduction challenges in small island developing states, with special reference to PNG.

The Pacific Economic Monitor is ADB’s bi-annual review of economic developments and policy issues in ADB’s 14 developing member countries in the Pacific. In combination with the Asian Development Outlook series, ADB provides quarterly reports on economic trends and policy developments in the Pacific. The Monitor welcomes contributions of policy briefs from external authors and institutions.

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Weak Outlook in GCC Due to Muted Oil Prices & Global Trends

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Economic growth in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was significantly weakened in 2019 due to muted oil prices and excess oil supply, according to the new World Bank’s Gulf Economic Update released today. As a result, overall real GDP growth in the GCC is estimated to drop to 0.8% this year compared with 2% last year. While most GCC countries retained strong external positions in 2019, the ongoing slowdown in China and the continued global trade war are hindering their efforts to boost non-oil exports. Meanwhile, resurgent geopolitical risks are raising risk perceptions, which could hurt prospects for investment.

This issue of the Gulf Economic Update, titled “Economic Diversification for a Sustainable and Resilient GCC”, explores ways in which GCC countries can pursue diversification that is environmentally sustainable and resilient to global megatrend. Many countries in the region have pursued ‘traditional diversification’, meaning diversifying away from hydrocarbon production but towards heavy industries that still depend on fossil fuels. The emissions-intensive nature of ‘traditional diversification’ has increased the GCC countries’ exposure to disruptive low-carbon technologies, international policy efforts to address climate change, and negative public perceptions of fossil fuels and their derivatives.

“As GCC countries strive to diversify their economies, they should ensure that diversification strategies are aligned with environmental sustainability goals,” said Issam Abousleiman, World Bank Regional Director for the GCC. “Ensuring that the Region’s diversification efforts are climate-friendly is critical not only for environmental sustainability but also to help the GCC invest in sources of growth that are resilient to global technology and policy impacts.”

The report suggests three ways to help align diversification strategies to environmental sustainability objectives.

First, ensuring that diversification strategies take an ‘asset diversification’ approach; one that moves beyond the concept of diversifying output and broadens the composition of a country’s national wealth to include human capital, in addition to natural and produced assets.

Second, GCC countries can hedge the risks of traditional diversification by liberalizing energy and water prices, scaling up investments in renewable energy and carbon capture and storage to help mitigate the impacts of climate change. Energy subsidy reform and increased investment in renewable energy are already underway in the Gulf.

Third, the GCC must establish effective environmental management institutions and practices to ensure that the region protects its fragile ecosystem and reduces environmental cost of industry as it invests heavily in new sources of economic growth.

GCC Countries Outlook

Bahrain: Bahrain’s economy is expected to grow at a moderate rate of 2% in 2019 and average 2.3% over 2020-21, driven by the non-oil sector. Nonoil GDP growth will be driven by an increase in manufacturing output and higher levels of infrastructure spending.

Kuwait: Kuwait’s growth rate is expected to dip to 0.4% in 2019 before picking up to 2.2% in 2020, as the OPEC production cuts expire, and 2% in 2021, as the government increases spending on oil capacity enhancements and infrastructure to boost the non-oil sector.

Oman: Oman’s growth rate is projected to accelerate from an estimated 0% in 2019 to 3.7% in 2020 and 4.3% in 2021, supported by rising natural gas production. The potential boost from the diversification investment spending would continue supporting growth in the medium term.

Qatar: Qatar’s economy is projected to grow by a modest 0.5% in 2019 before accelerating to 1.5% in 2020 and 3.2% in 2021. Growth will be driven by a boost in gas production as the new Barzan Project starts operations as well as by the non-oil sector supported by the government’s investment program targeting infrastructure and real estate.

Saudi Arabia: GDP growth rate will likely slow to 0.4% in 2019 driven OPEC’s oil supply reduction drive, before rising to 1% in 2020 and 2.2% in 2021.

United Arab Emirates: GDP growth rate is projected to stabilize at 1.8% in 2019, before accelerating to 2.6% in 2020 and 3% by 2021, driven by government stimulus and a boost from hosting Expo 2020.

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