Best practices for social change and environmental action

Archive for the ‘Government’ Category

For economic growth…add water

In Economic, Government, Growth and Development, Policy, Public investment, Resources, Sustainability, Water on May 19, 2011 at 3:41 pm

We’ve been hearing a lot about water recently, and for good reason.  It is perhaps the most critical factor in climate change as well as adaptation strategies.  As my former colleagues at SIWI often emphasize,  a changing climate manifests its most important environmental effects through water. They come in floods, droughts, storms and the consequences for human health and quality of life.  Increasingly, the impacts are genuinely dramatic, as illustrated by this week’s dire situation along the Mississippi River.

The urgent climate story has recently overshadowed the strategic facets of the global water crisis, none more important than water’s fundamental role in stable, thriving economies. It’s not easy to understand – especially for anyone not directly involved in IWRM (Integrated Water Resource Management), strategic planning, or public finance.

This is where the folks at Global Water Partnership (GWP) have stepped up with a policy brief on the matter.  Full disclosure: I know the people at GWP because they share offices with SIWI in central Stockholm. They do good work.

With this clear, readable policy brief –  Investing in Water for Sustainable Growth – GWP has provided an excellent primer on the topic.

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The Finland Phenomenon

In Culture, Education, Education reform, Government, Media on May 6, 2011 at 6:31 pm

In the seemingly endless quest for meaningful education reform, positive examples naturally get lots of attention. Educators, experts, and policymakers all want to know the schools that serve their students well.  When they find examples, they usually set about analyzing what makes them successful.

The assumption is that the approaches applied in successful schools would likely work elsewhere, but there’s seldom much consideration applied to culture, context, and economies.

This is what makes the renowned education system of Finland such an intriguing case.  As a society and a nation, Finland is not like the United States … or Germany … or China. Yet, there is an abiding sense that there is much to learn from the Finnish system, widely considered to be the best in the world.

That’s the premise of a new documentary film currently making its debut – The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System.

Last night my wife and I attended the Boston premier of the film at MIT, hosted by Social Venture Partners Boston.  After the showing one of the producers, Harvard researcher Dr. Tony Wagner, led a panel discussion of experts from academia, public policy, and business.

The film goes to Finland and right into the classrooms to interview students, teachers, parents, administrators and Finnish government officials. It provides some excellent insights into the methods, philosophies, and policies that have helped Finland create a public education system that has consistently achieved top scores on the world’s most rigorous standardized tests for more than a decade now.


Between the film, the panel discussion, and comments from the audience, there was a lot to think about and more than a few unanswered questions.  One issue in particular looms large for me and my wife, who is an experienced, well credentialed educator.  Right at the outset of the film, an educational leader from Helsinki describes how Finland focused on a national mandate for a single high-performance public education system to serve everyone across all levels of society.  This policy has created a public system in which every citizen has a stake and from which everyone expects high standards.

There are some private schools in Finland, but they are few in number and they are not considered any more “elite” than the public schools. As a result, excellence is the public norm, starting with rigorous requirements for teachers, who are – not surprisingly – held in great esteem across Finnish society.

As we listened to the panel discussion  – which even included a business leader who made a point about sending her kids to a “prestigious” private school – we were struck by two major differences between Finland and the US.

The first is that Finland has relatively even levels of wealth across its society while the US is afflicted by a severe and rapidly growing economic gap between the wealthy and the middle class. The second difference seems related to the first. In Finland, education is seen as a pillar of democracy and the foundation of economic fairness…but in the US, an emphasis on so-called “elite” schools underscores an attitude that treats education with the zero-sum mentality that accepts (and even praises) the idea of economic winners and losers within society.

If the US is ever to achieve the level of excellence seen in Finland, it will probably have to cure its national obsession with “elite” schools – starting with the silly competition to get kids into certain preschools…and right up to the multitude of biased, destructive and often misleading “college rankings.”   It’s all part of the same ludicrous continuum.

See The Finland Phenomenon and draw your own conclusions.

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WEAP for freshwater

In Climate, Energy, Environment, Government, Growth and Development, Health, Mapping, Sustainability, Tools, Water, Weather on April 11, 2011 at 9:10 pm

Anyone who works in the fields of natural resources, environmental sustainability, or climate adaptation is likely to be familiar with the acronym IWRM — meaning Integrated Water Resource Management.   If that acronym actually describes their work, they are probably getting to know a newer one: WEAP the name of a software tool  for Water Evaluation And Planning.  This tool is especially useful for NGOs, agencies, and planners in the developing world where IWRM has become a cornerstone for healthy economic growth and community well being.

The creator of WEAP – the Stockholm Environmental Institute (SEI) – recently introduced version 3.0 of the software, which was developed by its US center based at Tufts University near Boston.  The great virtue of the software is that it encompasses much of the current practice and know-how of IWRM practitioners around the globe.

SEI describes WEAP as “a laboratory for examining alternative water development and management strategies.”   As such, it is a functional and versatile addition to the toolbox of models, databases, spreadsheets and even other software systems currently in use worldwide.

The software now has three operational modes:

  • A water balance database for maintaining water demand and supply information.
  • A scenario generation tool for simulating water demand, supply, runoff, streamflows, storage, pollution generation, treatment and discharge and instream water quality.
  • A policy analysis tool that evaluates water development and management options, and takes account of multiple and competing uses of water systems.

SEI has a licensing arrangement by which organizations in developing countries can obtain and use the software at no cost, supported by a progressive fee structure for individuals, institutions, and companies in higher-income nations. That certainly seems fair to this writer.

The WEAP site includes excellent tutorials and educational materials.  A trial version is also available.  To access all of this, you do need to sign up for the site’s WEAP Forum, but that shouldn’t be an issue for any professional involved in the conservation and management of the planet’s vital freshwater resources.