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Countries Commit to Tackling “Learning Poverty” and Accelerating Learning in MENA

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Recognizing the very low learning outcomes, and the need to change the way education is delivered as critical to the future development of the Middle East and Africa regions, ministers and development partners affirmed their commitment to tackling the global learning crisis at the High Level conference on Accelerating Learning: A call to action and opportunities for collaboration. Accelerating learning will require continued commitment to learning, measurement of learning, and better use of technology; more and better spent resources; and increased collaboration to improve knowledge sharing and leverage economies of scale.  

Dr. Jaime Saavedra, World Bank Global Director for Education, said, “We must accelerate improvements in learning and center reforms around what is best for the student, giving children the foundational skills to become permanent learners and productive citizens.” The World Bank introduced a new “Learning Poverty” indicator –defined as the share of children who cannot read and understand a simple text by age 10 – and a new learning target to reduce that number by half by 2030, as a way to galvanize action towards Sustainable Development Goal 4 on Education (SDG4). “Currently 59% of 10 year old children in the Middle East and North Africa and 87% in Sub-Saharan Africa are learning poor. That is completely unacceptable and must be eliminated.” To accelerate learning outcomes, the World Bank advocates a two-pronged approach of implementing systemic reforms that will achieve gains over the long term while making short-term interventions aimed at improving the experience of the child in the classroom today. 

Egypt’s Minister for International Cooperation Dr. Rania Al-Mashat said, “No country can achieve development without the human element, and this conference signals our high-level commitment to education reform.

In his plenary address, Egypt’s Minister of Education and Technical Education Dr. Tarek Shawki shared Egypt’s story of its ambitious reform program aimed at modernizing the education system, using scripted lessons, new curriculum guides, digital learning resources, improved teaching practices, and computer-based student assessments. “What we are doing in secondary education today is to prepare for an unpredictable and rapidly changing environment  – we want to produce graduates with good skills, not grades,” noting that the “Education 2.0” reform program revolves around teaching children the skills needed to compete in the future.  “We have to ask ourselves – what are the competencies needed of today’s teachers in today’s environment? – because the old model is not working.

World Bank Country Director Dr. Marina Wes for Egypt, Yemen and Djibouti commented: “Egypt’s reform program aims to bring learning back into the classroom, which can yield valuable insights for other countries in Africa and the region.”  She noted, ‘There are no easy answers to the challenges of improving the education system, but there are many innovative approaches and this kind of cross-country and regional collaboration holds valuable advantages to development partners including the World Bank to inspire and support reform.”   

United Kingdom Ambassador to Egypt, Sir Geoffrey Adams said, “The UK is proud to support Egypt in its efforts to provide quality education for all. Our partnership is providing technical assistance to help create a more interactive learning environment allowing students to reach their full potential. Investing in the knowledge and talent of young children is an investment in their prosperity, and ours.” 

Ministers and senior officials from nearly 20 Middle East and African countries shared their views and experiences with education challenges and reforms, with some common areas emerging for discussion: 

– Widespread recognition on the need for sustained and accelerated action on improving learning outcomes, and that each country is unique and while well positioned to learn from each other, must chart their own path to reform.

– The learning crisis is also a teaching crisis. Too many teachers are not well prepared, incentivized, and supported.  Teachers and school leaders should be at the center of any reform program – a point emphasized by speakers throughout the day.  

– Investing in early childhood education (ECE) and ensuring better coverage across countries is needed to reduce the development gaps that emerge at young ages which hinder further learning, noting the complexity of those investments and the need for ECE teachers to be well trained and prepared. 

– The power of technology needs to be leveraged to suit the needs of students and teachers, and can be used to improve assessments, teacher professional development, and access to teaching and learning resources.

– Importance of student assessments and  data – noting that policymakers are flying blind without the data – to ensure reforms can be measured and evaluated and data can be useful inputs into policy and programs.

Following the conference, ministers and delegates convened to discuss priorities to accelerate learning and promote further collaboration. This included exploring the potential for creating digital platforms to share knowledge; supporting teacher professional development; provision of Early Childhood learning resources; a platform to support student assessment; and development of a regional literacy strategy and platform to share experiences and access teaching and learning resources to foster literacy skills.

The conference was hosted by the World Bank and Egypt’s Ministry of Education and Technical Education and supported by the Government of the United Kingdom. 

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Scholz and Macron threaten trade retaliation against Biden

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Image source: International Affairs

After publicly falling out, Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron have found something they agree on: mounting alarm over unfair competition from the U.S. and the potential need for Europe to hit back, – writes POLITICO.

The German chancellor and the French president discussed their joint concerns during nearly three-and-a-half hours of talks over a lunch of fish, wine and Champagne in Paris.

They agreed that recent American state subsidy plans represent market-distorting measures that aim to convince companies to shift their production to the U.S., according to people familiar with their discussions. And that is a problem they want the European Union to address.

Both leaders agreed that the EU cannot remain idle if Washington pushes ahead with its Inflation Reduction Act, which offers tax cuts and energy benefits for companies investing on U.S. soil, in its current form. Specifically, the recently signed U.S. legislation encourages consumers to “Buy American” when it comes to choosing an electric vehicle — a move particularly galling for major car industries in the likes of France and Germany.

The message from the Paris lunch is: ‘If the U.S. doesn’t scale back, then the EU will have to strike back. That move would risk plunging transatlantic relations into a new trade war.’

Crucially, Berlin — which has traditionally been more reluctant when it comes to confronting the U.S. in trade disputes — is indeed backing the French push. Scholz agrees that the EU will need to roll out countermeasures similar to the U.S. scheme if Washington refuses to address key concerns voiced by Berlin and Paris, according to people familiar with the chancellor’s thinking.

Before bringing out the big guns, though, Scholz and Macron want to try to reach a negotiated solution with Washington. This should be done via a new “EU-U.S. Taskforce on the Inflation Reduction Act” that was established during a meeting between European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Mike Pyle.

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Futuristic fields: Europe’s farm industry on cusp of robot revolution

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By Sofia Strodt

In the Dutch province of Zeeland, a robot moves swiftly through a field of crops including sunflowers, shallots and onions. The machine weeds autonomously – and tirelessly – day in, day out.

“Farmdroid” has made life a lot easier for Mark Buijze, who runs a biological farm with 50 cows and 15 hectares of land. Buijze is one of the very few owners of robots in European agriculture.

Robots to the rescue

His electronic field worker uses GPS and is multifunctional, switching between weeding and seeding. With the push of a button, all Buijze has to do is enter coordinates and Farmdroid takes it from there.

‘With the robot, the weeding can be finished within one to two days – a task that would normally take weeks and roughly four to five workers if done by hand,’ he said. ‘By using GPS, the machine can identify the exact location of where it has to go in the field.’

About 12 000 years ago, the end of foraging and start of agriculture heralded big improvements in people’s quality of life. Few sectors have a history as rich as that of farming, which has evolved over the centuries in step with technological advancements.

In the current era, however, agriculture has been slower than other industries to follow one tech trend: artificial intelligence (AI). While already commonly used in forms ranging from automated chatbots and face recognition to car braking and warehouse controls, AI for agriculture is still in the early stages of development.

Now, advances in research are spurring farmers to embrace robots by showing how they can do everything from meeting field-hand needs to detecting crop diseases early.

Lean and green

For French agronomist Bertrand Pinel, farming in Europe will require far greater use of robots to be productive, competitive and green – three top EU goals for a sector whose output is worth around €190 billion a year.

One reason for using robots is the need to forgo the use of herbicides by eliminating weeds the old-fashioned way: mechanical weeding, a task that is not just mundane but also arduous and time consuming. Another is the frequent shortage of workers to prune grapevines.

‘In both cases, robots would help,’ said Pinel, who is research and development project manager at France-based Terrena Innovation. ‘That is our idea of the future for European agriculture.’

Pinel is part of the EU-funded ROBS4CROPS project. With some 50 experts and 16 institutional partners involved, it is pioneering a robot technology on participating farms in the Netherlands, Greece, Spain and France.

‘This initiative is quite innovative,’ said Frits van Evert, coordinator of the project. ‘It has not been done before.’

In the weeds

AI in agriculture looks promising for tasks that need to be repeated throughout the year such as weeding, according to van Evert, a senior researcher in precision agriculture at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

‘If you grow a crop like potatoes, typically you plant the crop once per year in the spring and you harvest in the fall, but the weeding has to be done somewhere between six and 10 times per year,’ he said.

Plus, there is the question of speed. Often machines work faster than any human being can.

Francisco Javier Nieto De Santos, coordinator of the EU-funded FLEXIGROBOTS project, is particularly impressed by a model robot that takes soil samples. When done by hand, this practice requires special care to avoid contamination, delivery to a laboratory and days of analysis.

‘With this robot everything is done in the field,’ De Santos said. ‘It can take several samples per hour, providing results within a matter of minutes.’

Eventually, he said, the benefits of such technologies will extend beyond the farm industry to reach the general public by increasing the overall supply of food.

Unloved labour

Meanwhile, agricultural robots may be in demand not because they can work faster than any person but simply because no people are available for the job.

Even before inflation rates and fertiliser prices began to surge in 2021 amid an energy squeeze made worse by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year, farmers across Europe were struggling on another front: finding enough field hands including seasonal workers.

‘Labour is one of the biggest obstacles in agriculture,’ said van Evert. ‘It’s costly and hard to get these days because fewer and fewer people are willing to work in agriculture. We think that robots, such as self-driving tractors, can take away this obstacle.’

The idea behind ROBS4CROPS is to create a robotic system where existing agricultural machinery is upgraded so it can work in tandem with farm robots.

For the system to work, raw data such as images or videos must first be labelled by researchers in ways than can later be read by the AI.

Driverless tractors

The system then uses these large amounts of information to make “smart” decisions as well as predictions – think about the autocorrect feature on laptop computers and mobile phones, for example.

A farming controller comparable to the “brain” of the whole operation decides what needs to happen next or how much work remains to be done and where – based on information from maps or instructions provided by the farmer.

The machinery – self-driving tractors and smart implements like weeders equipped with sensors and cameras – gathers and stores more information as it works, becoming “smarter”.

Crop protection

FLEXIGROBOTS, based in Spain, aims to help farmers use existing robots for multiple tasks including disease detection.

Take drones, for example. Because they can spot a diseased plant from the air, drones can help farmers detect sick crops early and prevent a wider infestation.

‘If you can’t detect diseases in an early stage, you may lose the produce of an entire field, the production of an entire year,’ said De Santos. ‘The only option is to remove the infected plant.’

For example, there is no treatment for the fungus known as mildew, so identifying and removing diseased plants early on is crucial.

Pooling information is key to making the whole system smarter, De Santos said. Sharing data gathered by drones with robots or feeding the information into models expands the “intelligence” of the machines.

Although agronomist Pinel doesn’t believe that agriculture will ever be solely reliant on robotics, he’s certain about their revolutionary impact.

‘In the future, we hope that the farmers can just put a couple of small robots in the field and let them work all day,’ he said.

Research in this article was funded by the EU. This material was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.   

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Greek shipowners do not care about the boycott of Russian oil

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European sanctions against Russian oil will only lead to higher prices, it will hit the pocket of the end consumer, says Nicolas A. Vernicos, the largest Greek ship owner and president of the International Chamber of Commerce. He made this statement in connection with the decision of the European Union to impose a price cap on Russian oil.

The French ‘Liberation’ published an interview with N. Vernicos under the title “Russian oil: Greek shipowners, in whose hands half of the world’s  tankers, do not care about the boycott.”

Vernicos says: “Transportation costs, which are already skyrocketing, will rise even faster, but the embargo on the transportation of Russian oil by sea will have a positive effect on shipowners, because we will become richer.”

At the same time, he warns that Greece will comply with the new conditions. The European decision on sanctions will bring a net benefit only to maritime carriers. Nicolas A. Vernicos recalls: “The Greek shipping community is the strongest in the world… Nothing can be done without it, and the Greeks will definitely find a way around the sanctions.”

And on the fact that prices will rise, Russia will also earn.

‘Liberation’ writes that in the hands of the Greeks 21% of the world’s shipping tonnage and 40% of the world’s tonnage in the transportation of oil, their trade cooperation with Russia has existed since the 19th century, and they do not intend to stop it.

The EU countries have already agreed on the issue. An agreement was reached to set the price limit at $60 per barrel. The decision came into force on 5 December.

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