Friday, December 16, 2011
Back in September the New York Times reported on an unexpected finding from a clinical trial: “A promising but expensive device to prop open blocked arteries in the brain in the hope of preventing disabling or fatal strokes failed in a rigorous study.” Many promising medical innovations fall short when they finally reach clinical trials, but this story was unusual because the stents had already been approved by the FDA under a so-called humanitarian exemption. The FDA approved the stents to reduce the risk of stroke, but those who received it had twice as many strokes.
How did this happen? The Times chronicled experts’ puzzlement: “Researchers said the device seemed as if it should work.” And Joseph Broderick, a prominent neurologist, is quoted as saying “Quite frankly, the results were a surprise.” Researchers are delving into this case to discover why the stent failed, but policymakers from all fields should take it as a valuable lesson. This is one more argument for testing policies whenever possible: not only does expert opinion sometimes get things wrong, but without good data there is often no way to really know when they are right.
Similar lessons can be gleaned from the history of surgical response to breast cancer. In The Emperor of All Maladies (2010), a new history of cancer, oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee chronicles the history of such failed interventions as the radical mastectomy. Over a period of decades this brutal procedure – removing the breasts, lymph nodes, and much of the chest muscles – became the tool of choice for surgeons treating breast cancer. In the 1970s rigorous trials comparing radical mastectomy to more limited procedures showed that this terribly disfiguring procedure did not in fact help patients live longer at all. Some surgeons refused to believe the evidence – to believe it would have required them to acknowledge the harm they had done. But eventually the radical mastectomy fell from favor; today it is quite rare. Many similar stories are included in a free e-book titled Testing Treatments (2011).
As a society we’ve come to accept that medical devices should be tested by the most rigorous and neutral means possible, because the stakes are life and death for all of us. Thousands of people faced with deadly illnesses volunteer for clinical trials every year. Some of them survive while others do not, but as a society we are better off when we know what actually works. For every downside, like the delay of a promising treatment until evidence is gathered properly, there is an upside – something we otherwise would have thought is a good idea is revealed not to be helpful at all.
Under normal circumstances most new drugs are weeded out as they face a gauntlet of tests for safety and efficacy required before FDA licensure. The stories of the humanitarian-exemption stent and the radical mastectomy are different because these procedures became more widely used before there was rigorous evidence that they helped, though in both cases there were plenty of anecdotes, case studies, and small or non-controlled studies that made it look like they did. This haphazard, post-hoc testing is analogous to how policy in many other fields, from welfare and education, is developed. Many public policy decisions have considerable impacts on our livelihoods, education, and health. Why are we note similarly outraged by poor standards of evidence that leads to poor outcomes in other fields?
A recent example from New York City helps illustrate how helpful good evidence can be in shaping policy. A few years ago Mayor Michael Bloomberg rolled out a massive program that seemed to make a lot of sense: pay teachers bonuses based on their students’ performance. The common sense proposal was hailed as “transcendent” and gained the support of the teachers’ union. It cost $75 million, and it didn’t work. How do we know? The program was designed from the beginning as a pilot where schools were randomly assigned to the program or to a control group, and the research showing that the program had no effect on outcomes was subsequently published. What would have happened if this policy had been put in place without an effective evaluation plan? In all likelihood New York officials would now be touting its success at conferences and urging other cites to implement similar programs. Instead it was quietly shelved. That this particular program did not have the intended effect is disappointing, but it is much better than if we believed it worked and continued on unaware.
The pros and cons of randomized trials have been discussed here on 14 Points before – see recent posts by Jake Velker and Shawn Powers. The cases I presented here are ones where the results were not “no-brainers” at all, and without systematic evaluation bad policies would have been or tragically were put in place. While good evidence does not have to come from randomized trials, there are still many areas where they are underused. In areas where they are feasible (i.e. not macroeconomics) such evidence should be the norm, and those who implement policies with great optimism but without planning for thoughtful evaluation should be panned. Even without random assignment of the treatment, the best policy evaluations should involve a serious attempt to estimate the counterfactual: what would have happened in the absence of the intervention. Moving beyond arguments over specific programs and whether they work, policymakers can move us towards better outcomes by creating a culture where strong evidence is valued. After all, the clinical trial as we know it in medicine is a 20th century innovation; it hasn’t always been this way.
Joshua Owens, MPA
For over five years, peace talks between Darfur rebel groups and the Government of Sudan (GoS) have failed to yield a substantive agreement. Low-level fighting and lawlessness continues, and recent developments indicate a potential relapse into serious conflict. Over the summer major clashes erupted along the North-South border between GoS and Southern-aligned groups (the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North, or SPLM-N) in Kordofan, which was not allowed to secede with the rest of South Sudan. In November SPLM-N and the main Darfur rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice for Equality Movement (JEM), united to establish the “Sudanese Liberation Front,” with the aim of launching coordinated military attacks across Sudan and forcefully overthrowing the Bashir regime. According to a recent International Crisis Group report, “...the growing war on multiple fronts poses serious dangers for the country, for its future relationship with the Republic of South Sudan and for the stability of the region as a whole."
To build enduring peace, the international community must first realize that the current mediation strategy of facilitating negotiations between insurgent groups and the GoS is fundamentally flawed. Peace talks have failed because they have neglected (1) traditional tribal leaders and (2) building civil society. My reflections are based on my two-year experience as a development program manager in rebel-held territory in the heart of Darfur – near the fighting lines between Darfuri rebels and GoS forces (together with their Janjaweed allies). While there, I worked on a UNDP project to study and address root causes of ongoing conflict and recognized these pitfalls in the peace-building process.
1. Breakdown of the Traditional Leadership Structure
According to local accounts, a strong tribal leadership structure facilitated relatively stable relations between African and Arab tribes in Darfur for decades before the war. Tribal elders led this structure, and it provided the mechanism for maintaining the balance of power equilibrium between tribes and mediating occasional conflicts.
However, during the 1990s, a new group of young, political activists emerged from the African tribes (Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit) to protest their enduring socio-economic marginalization under Arab hegemony from Khartoum. As this group (Sudanese Liberation Movement or SLM/SLA) amassed support from neighboring Chad and the people in the isolated tribal areas of Darfur, the balance of power shifted from legitimate tribal elders to young insurgent leaders.
When the SLM finally militarized and attacked Sudanese Armed Forces in early 2003, the GoS responded by arming Arab tribes in Darfur and authorizing them to eradicate African tribes. This intervention further disrupted the delicate balance of power that had long existed between Darfuri tribes.
Nevertheless, peace talks are framed primarily as a negotiation between the GoS and rebel groups. Though these insurgents purport to represent the best interests of the African tribes, their primary concern is their own survival. SLA and JEM present unreasonable demands in peace talks and perpetuate the conflict because peace would deprive these young, zealous rebels of their raison d’être and the basis of their authority. Rebel groups continue to wield considerable power and maintain popular support only because local populations are wholly dependent on them for protection.
Therefore, effective peace negotiations and reconciliation must also engage the traditional tribal leaders. These elders are the only legitimate representatives of the best interests of the tribes, and their continued exclusion will undermine any settlement attempt.
2. Shoring Up Civil Society
Second, in order to facilitate long-term peace-building, the international community must help these areas build strong, village-level civil society institutions. According to conventional social science definitions, civil society is the space that (a) exists between the family and the state, (b) connects different families and individuals, and (c) is independent of the state. (Varshney 2001) Civil society organizations are modern and voluntary and generally take the form of cultural, social, economic, or political associations. For example, in Darfuri villages, we attempted to establish agricultural extension networks, community water and health committees, women’s trade groups, and English classes.
Most scholars of conflict agree that civil society play an important role in mitigating violence because these associations connect people from diverse backgrounds, build trust and reciprocity, and facilitate the exchange of view on public issues. In Darfur, building civil society now is vital for peace-building for two reasons: First, civilian-led organizations will help offset the power and voice of armed rebel groups and promote the legitimate leadership of civilian tribal leaders. Second, these organizations can facilitate the ethnic reconciliation process in Darfur by gradually establishing links with civil society groups in rival tribes with similar interests.
Taken together, these steps will help resolve the impasse of negotiations over Darfur. Though international attention has shifted in the past year to the plight of South Sudan, this lingering crisis in the country is no less important.
Thursday, December 8, 2011
Since the inception of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) in September, critics and commentators have questioned both the motives and tactics of the populist movement. Perhaps the most common objection is that OWS protestors have failed to focus on a single, unifying demand. To be sure, their concerns are broad, and even at times seemingly conflicting. Issues that have been voiced include protesting social and economic inequality, high unemployment, corporate greed and corruption, and the undue influence of corporations – especially financial services firms – on the political process.
The fact is, their demands are far from simple. While some are fairly tangible (e.g. more progressive tax policies), others (like reducing the influence of Wall Street and corporations on the political process) are much more complex, requiring the overall of deeply-embedded systems.
For that reason alone, it was ultimately beneficial for the OWS movement that protestors were recently forced out of Zuccotti Park in New York City and other locations across the country. While an aggressive tactic such as ”occupation” was perhaps necessary to draw initial attention to their cause, over time it was bound to became a war of attrition, one that would be nearly impossible for the protestors to win given the lack of clear solutions to the issues they are protesting.
Semi-permanent encampments also require intense dedication from protestors, tending to draw a higher proportion of the more extreme (less understood, more easily attacked) supporters, while potentially scaring more moderate compatriots away. I, for instance, care deeply about economic and social inequality, but chose for various reasons not to join the protests. To be ultimately successful, the movement of the 99% must gain more support from the 99% of Americans they claim to represent.
In addition, to make changes within our current political system, the movement would be wise to make the distinction that they are protesting against policies which serve to protect the rich at the expense of the rest of us, not the rich themselves. Warren Buffett, who has come out against regressive tax policies, should serve as an example that the wealthiest 1% of Americans are not always the enemy.
The OWS movement does seem to be moving towards more mainstream acceptance, and is now publicly supported by a coalition of more than 70 liberal organizations, including MoveOn.org, several large labor unions, and Planned Parenthood, as well as hundreds of prominent and influential individuals. This could help to provide additional resources, legitimize the movement, and ultimately force a prioritization of demands.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the Occupy Wall Street movement will be able to have the electoral impact needed to achieve many of their stated goals. The Tea Party, a similarly ambitious and unfocused movement, was able to successfully attract candidates to run on a platform representing the movement, and to shift mainstream Republicans’ campaigns in an effort to please Tea Party constituents.
While the long-term impact of the OWS movement is still unclear, it has in many ways already been successful, primarily by starting to reframe the public discourse on inequality.
The top 1% of the individuals in the American economy take home 25% of total income, and own 40% of the wealth. Research has shown that most Americans support a much more equal distribution of resources, but are also optimistically ignorant of the level of inequality that currently exists. But this may be changing as more and more attention is drawn to the issue. The term “income inequality” is appearing more and more frequently in the media, rising from 90 mentions in the week before the protests started to nearly 500 by mid-November.
And while most Americans still think of the United States as a land of opportunity, a 2006 report from the Center for American Progress showed that among high-income countries, only the United Kingdom has a lower rate of intergenerational economic mobility than the United States. For example, children from low-income families in the US have only a 1% chance of reaching the top 5% of the income distribution, versus children of the rich, who have about a 22% chance of doing so. Simply bringing awareness to the current reality has the power to subtly change public opinion that may be based on rosier assumptions.
Getting Americans to understand current social and economic inequalities of opportunity would be an important accomplishment. Whether policies ultimately change to prevent them, however, will depend on whether the country as a whole decides that they no longer find them acceptable.
This January, about 300 Japanese Ground Self Defense Forces (JGSDF) will arrive in South Sudan to join the ongoing United Nations Peacekeeping Operation (PKO) there. Security challenges are mounting in this newborn country; accordingly, local leaders as well as their international friends face daunting tasks. Stepping up to face these challenges head-on, Japan can turn this PKO mission into a pivotal opportunity to further advance its commitment to peace and stability in the region and to make headway in synergizing the 3Ds – diplomacy, development, and defense – in its foreign policy.
Two months after Japan established diplomatic relations with South Sudan on July 9th, newly-minted Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced Japan’s new commitments to South Sudan at his debut at the UN General Assembly. As a start, Japan sent two JGSDF personnel as staff officers of the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) Headquarters in November at the UN’s request. Japan is now preparing to dispatch JGSDF’s engineering unit to Juba, the capital, next year. These efforts are commendable and the government should continue to expand its defense commitment in South Sudan and around the world.
Dispatching more defense forces is an excellent opportunity for Japan to further contribute internationally by combining two areas in which it already excels – Official Development Assistance (ODA) and PKOs. JICA, Japan’s aid implementation organization, has an outstanding presence in South Sudan and has long been contributing to nation-building in the country. But as impressive as Japanese diplomacy and development currently is, expanding its defense efforts could create true co-equal synergies across these components of international assistance.
Japan’s Self Defense Force (SDF) has a high reputation both inside and outside Japan. Domestically, SDF increased its public support through its work following the Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in 1995, and it played a critical role during this year’s natural disaster in the Tohoku area. Regarding international cooperation, the SDF is renowned for its fine-tuned and local-oriented approach, and its engineering units in particular have received special commendation. The technical training provided by Japan’s engineering units is highly regarded and the units are well-known for their diligence and politeness. SDF units have been sent to PKOs in Cambodia, Timor-Leste (East Timor), the Golan Heights, Haiti, and Mozambique.
Granted, in Japan there are legitimate concerns about sending an expanded contingent of SDF to South Sudan. SDF’s operations are constrained by the Constitution – which renounces the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes – and other relevant laws. The 1992 law on Peacekeeping Operations prohibits “the use of force” and constrains the use of small weapons to the minimum: Self-Defense officials may use stipulated weapons “within the limits judged reasonably necessary according to the circumstances, when reasonable grounds are found for the unavoidable necessity to protect the lives of others or prevent bodily harm to themselves, other SDF Personnel or Corps Personnel who are with them on the scene, or individuals who have come under their control during the performance of duties” (emphasis mine).
Let me paint you a picture as to what this truly means at the operational level. Suppose SDF personnel are facing a heavily-armed group. There is an imminent threat, but they are not allowed to fire immediately. Instead, they have to follow a four-level procedure: oral warning, warning shots, point-blank shots, and only then, finally, sharpshooting.
Yet despite the constraints that the SDF bears, Japan has been seeking to extend its support in the areas of nation-building and PKOs wherever possible. This is a welcome development and should be continued. On the whole, the Japanese public supports Japan’s contribution to PKOs; a public opinion poll conducted last year shows more than 85% of respondents supported the idea that Japan’s cooperation to PKOs should increase or at least remain at the current level. The international community also expects further contributions from Japan, not only because it is the third largest economy but also because of its good work.
There are three UN peacekeeping operations between the two Sudanese republics: UNAMID in Darfur, UNISFA in Abyei, and UNMISS in South Sudan. This not only represents the war-torn history of the two countries but also the attention granted to it by the international community. Although Juba is relatively calm, the border area is still haunted by a possibility of a full-scale war. Therefore, while an ever-growing presence of SDF may be good both for Japan and South Sudan, given the security concerns and the Japanese forces’ severe restrictions, a careful examination of some clauses of the Japanese PKO Act may be necessary to truly fulfill its higher mission.
Atsuko Tsuda is a foreign service officer for the government of Japan. This piece represents the personal observations and opinions of the author. It does not reflect the views, nor represent an official position, of the government of Japan.
In America, the debate lumbers on about the best way to coordinate the philanthropic sector and the US government. Meanwhile, one post-conflict West African country has jumped right in – the Liberia Philanthropy Secretariat is the fruit of collaboration between recently-reelected President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and private foundations. It is the world’s only national government office dedicated to engaging private philanthropy.
Launched in April 2009, the Secretariat is a five-person unit housed in the Liberian president’s office, co-financed by six philanthropic organizations.
Expand and improve philanthropic commitment to Liberia.
1) Is a government Philanthropy Secretariat a good idea?
Early on, some foundations worried that the Secretariat might become a bureaucratic barrier hindering direct impact funding in Liberia. However, after nearly three years of operation, philanthropist feedback indicates that the Secretariat has proven itself a valuable “on the ground” matchmaker, helping donors connect to trustworthy government and nonprofit contacts, information, and grantees. From the Liberian perspective, the Secretariat has increased philanthropic support and built capacity for entrepreneurial Liberian organizations addressing pressing social problems in their communities.
2) What have some achievements and challenges been so far?
Achievements: Increased funding, network leverage, donor satisfaction, grantee empowerment
The Secretariat has facilitated an estimated US$16.4 million in philanthropic giving. But impact is about more than just money – it’s about making connections, identifying and empowering good partners, and developing ideas for social change. The Secretariat has helped facilitate grants from 13 first-time grantmakers in Liberia. Some family foundations say the Secretariat inspired their giving because they know their investments are effectively contributing to priority, high-impact projects. The Secretariat has also engaged the Liberian government and civil society in an educational dialogue about philanthropy, how it works, and how it might help Liberians create long-term, equitable prosperity.
Challenges: Donor coordination, managing expectations
The Secretariat has tried to foster collaboration between foundations and increase philanthropic alignment with Liberia’s Poverty Reduction Strategy. They’ve had some success with strategic alignment but struggled with intra-foundation collaboration, due in part to the diversity of Liberia’s philanthropic partners. Additionally, local nonprofits had difficulty meeting donor expectations in the face of significant post-conflict human resource and infrastructure challenges (e.g. limited access to roads, computers, internet) and lack of experience with philanthropic practices (e.g. writing grant proposals, generating self-assessment metrics). While there has been progress, patience and flexibility remain essential on all sides.
3) Is the Secretariat a viable model for other countries?
As donors and governments in other countries consider a Philanthropy Secretariat or similar coordination mechanism, there are a few pre-conditions which may increase chances of success:
- significant external foundation interest
- appetite from at least a few key government officials to engage foundations
- a senior government official “champion” with credibility in government and donor communities and a sophisticated understanding of philanthropy
- some level of mutual trust between philanthropists and the government
THE BOTTOM LINE
The world’s only Secretariat for Philanthropy has been a promising experiment for donors and for Liberia. It is worth keeping an eye on it and exploring what this model might provide in other countries.
Heather Lord is a philanthropic strategy consultant and authors the blog www.PhilanthroMeme.com. Dan Hymowitz is a former program manager for the Liberia Philanthropy Secretariat. A version of this article was published earlier this month by the Council on Foundations RE:Philanthropy blog, and is accessible here.
Thursday, December 1, 2011
In January 2004, President Bush announced his Vision for Space Exploration, setting forth executive policy that would send us back to the moon and onto Mars. Though it meant that the end of the Shuttle Program – created in 1981 – was imminent, this promise ignited hope and inspiration in those of us who spent their youths dreaming of “slipping the surly bonds of Earth” (to quote Magee by way of Reagan) and setting foot on extraterrestrial soil, while honoring the legacy of those who’ve made space exploration possible.
And yet, on February 1, 2010, the fabric of our nation’s space program was effectively rewoven, as President Obama announced a new plan for the future of NASA. Constellation, the program that would take us to the moon and onto Mars, was abruptly cancelled. In its place, a crop of commercial efforts would soon be undertaken to ferry US crew and cargo to the International Space Station, effectively freeing resources for NASA to concentrate on developing the next generation of launch and crew vehicles and advanced technologies for future missions. In the meantime, as predicted, the shuttle program officially ended in August of this year, one month after the final flight of the space shuttle Atlantis. (Currently, without a shuttle program, the Russian Soyuz vehicle is our sole mode of transportation to the Space Station, for which the US pays on the order of $60M per seat.)
Many protested Obama’s radically different plan and today, a year and a half after that announcement, NASA sits at a pivotal juncture – one that will determine the future of our nation’s human spaceflight program. The recently passed FY12 budget promised the agency $17B for the fiscal year (which equates to roughly $0.005 per taxpayer), but NASA remains at an impasse. In this budget, Congress has not only cut funding to the commercial efforts, but also attached conditions to this funding contingent on progress made in the development of the next generation launch/crew vehicle, effectively forcing NASA to extend the schedules of both programs, or prematurely choose one commercial provider over another.
Regardless of funding allocations, we, as a nation, now have the opportunity to set the course for the future of human space exploration. Never before has NASA been faced with such apathy and lack of support and funding; and yet, it presents the agency and the nation with a challenge to overcome. How can NASA prove to the administration, Congress, the American public, our international partners, and the rest of the world that it is truly capable of pioneering the future of human spaceflight? Moreover, how can NASA demonstrate that investments in science and technology today are apt to yield dividends of various magnitudes for years to come?
Since the inception of the US human spaceflight program, countless individuals have devoted their livelihoods to further the cause of exploration, to test the limits of mankind’s knowledge and experience, and to expand the boundaries of our terrestrial existence. NASA has been, is, and forever will remain an agency of people who believe in space exploration. It is a collective group of passionate, dedicated workers who are inspired by the contributions of spaceflight to humanity. It is men and women who were awed by Sputnik, by Neil Armstrong’s first steps, by the first joint Russian-American venture in space, by the space shuttle’s maiden voyage, by the building of the International Space Station, piece by piece, before our eyes and who are still inspired on a daily basis by the feats that they themselves help accomplish. They are motivated by man’s innate desire to achieve the impossible, to paraphrase Kennedy, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.
Our nation now has the opportunity to draw on all of our many impressive years of experience and inspire others to not only marvel at our ingenuity and initiative, but to contribute and invest in it. With the end of the shuttle program, we now stand at a crossroads, at which we are fortunate to have the opportunity to honor those who have given their lives to help mankind escape the gravitational bonds that have tethered us to this lustrous planet for centuries, and explore the recesses of the unknown, bit by bit, in order to understand, appreciate, and provide for our species. No matter what path we ultimately take, let us not forget that we are all passionate about many common things; let us not ignore our inner child, who declared his/her desire to become an astronaut at age eight; and all the while, let us honor the legacies of the past, by embracing the possibilities and potential of the future. We owe those who have sacrificed their lives for the advancement of mankind, who accomplished seemingly impossible tasks, at the very least, that much.
A Real Remedy for Youth Unemployment in Saudi Arabia: Scrap "Saudization" and emphasize employment education
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been relatively unaffected by the Arab Awakening. So far, the government has been able to maintain stability by cracking down on protests while simultaneously providing generous handouts to appease its citizens. Saudi youth, however, are growing increasingly dissatisfied with their government because they cannot find employment. And as recently seen in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, a dissatisfied youth population has proven to be an important factor contributing to instability – and, ultimately, regime change.
Employment has significant cultural implications in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world: it is an essential prerequisite for marriage and transition to adulthood. Without employment, youth are stuck in social purgatory, feeling restless and unsuccessful. Yet Saudi Arabia has the highest youth unemployment rate in the Middle East and North Africa region excluding Iraq.
The Saudi government’s answer to youth unemployment is “Saudization,” a policy that sets employment requirements for Saudi nationals. This policy has been ineffective because it does nothing to address the underlying issue that Saudi graduates do not have the skills demanded by private companies. Furthermore, this policy disincentivizes non-hydrocarbon sector growth, which is critical to create more jobs in the Kingdom. The Saudi government should scrap Saudization and instead focus on education that will build skills for employment.
Structural Barriers to Employment in Saudi Arabia
Saudization is an artificial employment requirement that does not address the structural problems with the Saudi economy that contribute to youth unemployment, such as an overreliance on the hydrocarbon sector, a constantly growing social transfer system, and insufficient private sector growth.
Saudi Arabia’s economy is largely based on petroleum, but the hydrocarbon sector is not a reliable source of job creation. Oil and gas comprise about 45% of fiscal revenues, 55% of GDP, and 90% of export revenue – yet, the national oil company employs less than 1% of Saudi labor force. The hydrocarbon sector does create a source of revenues for the government’s generous social transfer programs; these programs, however, may not be sustainable, crowed out other social expenditures, and most of all, do nothing to address unemployment. As an example, in lieu of real social reforms, the Saudi government introduced new fiscal initiatives on February 23 and March 18, 2011 to quell domestic protests. Although these types of social transfers may help to immediately pacify the population, the IMF notes that these programs will require oil prices sustained higher than $90 per barrel for the next several years. That may not be sustainable and puts a huge burden on the Saudi government to control oil prices.
Given the problems created by reliance on the hydrocarbon sector for employment, the non-hydrocarbon sector of the Saudi economy is critical. This sector, however, has not been able to create enough jobs for Saudis. Over the next five years, the IMF estimates that private sector non-oil GDP will need to grow by 7.5% annually to create a sufficient number of employment opportunities for the domestic population. While Saudization addresses the issue that most private sector jobs are being allocated to more qualified expatriate workers, the policy increases the operating costs of private companies in the Kingdom, thereby reducing incentives for investment and hindering non-hydrocarbon growth. For example, a recent equity research report by EFG Hermes suggested that Saudi companies will meet Saudization requirements in the near term by hiring more Saudis rather than reducing the number of expatriates, given the skills mismatches of Saudi workers. Basically, companies are being forced to increase personnel costs simply to satisfy a legislative mandate.
Furthermore, both the appeasement tax and Saudization may have a feedback loop creating more pressure on the government. As Saudis become wealthier and more connected to the rest of the world, their expectations for employment and inclusion in the economy will continue grow. Higher expectations combined with growing dissatisfaction with unfulfilling employment opportunities will further increase the government’s cost of appeasement. Therefore, creating sustainable economic opportunities for its citizens will mitigate the long-run fiscal burden of providing appeasement handouts and remove the need for Saudization, as long as Saudis have the skills necessary to be competitive employees.
Education for Employment
The underlying cause of youth unemployment is that, even with a postsecondary degree, Saudi graduates lack the right skills for jobs in a modern, knowledge-based economy. The Saudi education system itself has flaws, but a main problem is that students choose to study subjects that have no direct linkages to labor markets. For example, in 2008, 40% of university students in Saudi Arabia were concentrating in arts and humanities (versus averages of 20% and 17% in Asia and Latin America, respectively), while only 24% chose to study science or engineering. Furthermore, there is a social stigma against technical and vocational training, and any type of university degree, even one that is very unlikely to lead to employment, is socially viewed as superior.
To reduce youth unemployment—and the risk of social instability in the Kingdom—the government ought to at least address skills mismatches by orienting the education system toward private sector employment opportunities. Ideally, Saudi Arabia should scrap Saudization and instead focus on making their graduates competitive employees. Forcing graduates to compete for jobs will ensure that they choose education tracks that are conducive to employment. Additionally, technical and vocational programs should be associated with prestigious universities and fellowships, which would alleviate some of the social stigma of choosing this track. Lastly, the government should adopt a national quality assurance framework to regulate private education companies doing business in the Kingdom to ensure that degrees and certificates are uniform across the country. These changes, paired with continued investments in upgrading the overall education sector, should help to link skill-based post-secondary education with employment opportunities.
Encouraging youth to select education for employment will result in more qualified workers that will naturally increase the demand for Saudi workers and ultimately reduce the cost of doing business in the country. The government and the royal family should act quickly on this issue, for their own sake and for the sake of the growing youth population in their kingdom.
Imagine a country where twelve-year-old children work twelve-hour days, where wage theft is rampant, and where child workers handle pesticides, operate hazardous machinery, and engage in other dangerous work that contravenes of the International Labor Organization’s Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor. In the US, these are the workplace conditions for roughly half a million children currently working on commercial farms. While most forms of child labor are strictly regulated, a farmwork exemption to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) allows children to work at younger ages, for longer hours, and under more dangerous conditions than in any other industry in the country.
When the FLSA was created in 1938, agricultural lobbyists convinced Congress that applying the same standards to agriculture would spell the end of the rural way of life. But most children working on farms today are not family farmers’ sons and daughters, rising early to milk cows before school or spending summers learning the family business. Most children today work on commercial farms. They are overwhelmingly migrant, poor, and vulnerable. They perform routine tasks for hours on end, leaving them susceptible to repetitive motion injuries, and are often exposed to highly toxic pesticides and other hazards. An average of 104 child agricultural workers die each year, and over 22,000 are injured – a rate more than four times that in other sectors. Sexual harassment and abuse are commonplace. Children employed on farms, like their adult colleagues, work long hours, are not entitled to overtime, and often move in order to follow the growing season. Half of all child agricultural workers never graduate from high school.
Current farm labor law fails to protect the rights of children in two ways. First, the laws themselves fail to require reasonable working conditions that respect the dignity of child workers and that provide sufficient support and time for schooling. For example, in addition to allowing children to perform hazardous work, current farm labor laws allow 14- and 15-year old children to work unlimited hours – even during the school year. In any other sector, the same children would be restricted to three hours of work a day on school days and eight hours on other days.
Second, agricultural labor laws that do exist are often poorly enforced. Children are particularly vulnerable to rights abuses. The 1983 Migrant and Seasonal Protection Act, for example, guarantees a minimum wage. Although farmers may pay by the pieces picked instead, they are required to make up the difference if that does not reach the set wage. But children often pick on family tickets, making it difficult to determine what they should have been paid and allowing employers to hide the hours worked if children ever try to recover unpaid wages.
A proposed Department of Labor rules change, designed to “bring parity between the rules for agricultural employment and the more stringent rules that apply to the employment of children in nonagricultural workplaces,” would, among other things, limit animal and pesticide handling, prevent children under 16 from working on tobacco farms, and restrict operation of power-driven equipment by children under 16. But even these relatively straightforward changes have faced opposition from a wide range of agricultural lobbyists.
Given the resistance to even these small changes, comprehensive child labor reform will be a political challenge. But it is nevertheless necessary; child workers in agriculture typically work out of economic necessity and are among our country’s most vulnerable workers. Workplace laws must protect their fundamental human rights.
One bundle of suggested reforms, the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE Act), HR 3564, would apply the same workplace standards to agricultural child workers as are currently applied to others. (It would still include a family farm exemption.) Crucially, because enforcement of labor law is often challenging, particularly in agriculture, it would require better data collection by the Department of Labor and would raise the fines for violations from $11,000 to $15,000 – making employers less willing to take a risk.
Advocates for the CARE Act are currently lobbying with a non-traditional coalition of agricultural unions, members of Congress, filmmakers, Hollywood stars, and human rights organizations. Successful advocacy will require continued public mobilization and creative alliance-building – perhaps drawing on coalitions of workers in other informal sectors, or parlaying the growing national interest in food policy to highlight labor practices in the food production chain. As Edward R. Murrow observed in The Harvest of Shame, a 1960 documentary that reflected agricultural working conditions strikingly similar to today’s, “The migrants have no lobby…Maybe we do.”