Regina Saphier: Gross National Income… “developing” and “developed” countries… and Coursera.

Regina Saphier: Gross National Income… “developing” and “developed” countries… and Coursera.

I have been asked about the challenges that Coursera-like MOOC models face in Developing Countries. In fact thank you for the interesting questions that you send me via e-mail (each time from international readers I have never met and I have never spoken to, but we are interested in the same issues), several of my blog notes were triggered by those questions, because I have been thinking about many questions and external impulses prioritize my writing. In a way demand is driving my blogging priorities and that is good.

First of all, I am not pretending to know enough about developing countries, but in a way I feel that even though Hungary is regarded as a developed country, we have many issues that are similar to developing nations. In fact I strongly believe that statistics are powerfully distorted, because living standards are very different within Hungary, and it still feels like a developing nation. Why do I have this feeling? There are millions of people living in poverty here. Obviously for those people Coursera is not on the horizon (not yet).

What is a developing nation? It is a terminology based on Gross National Income (GNI) per capita per year. Since I received the initial question from India (from an apparently middle class, educated male, with a job and perfect English), lets look at the numbers in a comparative manner. Below I give more information regarding the cut off GNI, but lets go with approximately 12 000 USD. Also keep in mind that according to global economist Dambisa Moyo a democracy is only sustainable in the long run above a per capita income of 6,000 USD… she did say so in her talk at TED Global in 2013 (I am assuming she was talking about GNI per capita per year).

In India GNI per capita per year was:
2008: 1,050 USD, 2009: 1,170 USD, 2010: 1,290 USD, 2011: 1,450 USD, 2012: 1550 USD
In China GNI per capita was:
2008: 3,050 USD, 2009: 3,610 USD, 2010: 4,240 USD, 2011: 4,900 USD, 2012: 5,720 USD

(It is approaching the USD 6,000 level of sustainable democracy, still has no intention to become a full market capitalist nation, according to Eric X. Li, another remarkable, yet controversial TED Global 2013 speaker.)

For the same time period, the numbers look like this for Hungary:

2008: 12,890 USD, 2009: 12,980 USD, 2010: 12,930 USD, 2011: 12,900 USD, 2012: 12,410 USD

In Greece GNI per capita was:
2008: 27,080 USD, 2009: 28,040 USD, 2010: 26,410 USD, 2011: 24,880 USD, 2012: 23,660 USD

(Still ousted from the developed countries index in 2013, so Hungary with much less average GNI per capita is in a very fragile position… also, the GNI per capita numbers, year by year for Greece were false. So, how do we know that the numbers are true for others?)

For the US these numbers apply:
2008: 49,350 USD, 2009: 48,040 USD, 2010: 48,960 USD, 2011: 50,650 USD, 2012: 52,340 USD

I mentioned Finland in a post, so here are the numbers for this small country:
2008: 47,960 USD, 2009: 46,540 USD, 2010: 47,140 USD, 2011: 47,560 USD, 2012: 46,490 USD
Here is Sweden:
2008: 52,390 USD, 2009: 48,830 USD, 2010: 50,860 USD, 2011: 52,990 USD, 2012: 56,120 USD
And Norway (finding oil and natural gas does a lot for per capita national income):
2008: 85,580 USD, 2009: 86,130 USD, 2010: 86,850 USD, 2011: 88,590 USD, 2012: 98,780 USD
Qatar (again, oil and gas…):
2008: 69,320 USD, 2009: 64,810 USD, 2010: 66,970 USD, 2011: 74,600 USD, 2012: No Data USD

Switzerland (high tech industry):

2008: 59,340 USD, 2009: 66,630 USD, 2010: 73,680 USD, 2011: 74,900 USD, 2012: 80,970 USD


Update on April 25., 2014.: I noticed the chart generator on the World Bank website, so I generated three different charts to make Hungary’s per capita income position clear to all readers. I mainly created comparative charts with a few countries where Hungarian expats live. As you can see, Hungary is a relatively poor country.

On the first chart I emphasized Switzerland instead of Hungary, because it is the Swiss who are voting on May 18 to support or to reject an Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) in a referendum. Hungary is the lowest trend line in blue in this chart. (In another blog post on another blog of mine I am arguing that even Hungary would be able to provide UBI to its citizens, even if below the high living standard of the richest EU countries.)


GNI per capita per year - high range - World Bank chart generator

GNI per capita per year – high range – World Bank chart generator



Here is another chart where Hungary is in the low middle income range (in comparison to the selected six countries).

GNI per capita per year - middle range - World Bank chart generator

GNI per capita per year – middle range – World Bank chart generator



Here is a comparison chart where Hungary is the richest, but two countries, Chile and Poland are getting ahead.

GNI per capita per year - very low range - World Bank chart generator

GNI per capita per year – very low range – World Bank chart generator


I recommend that you have a look at your own nation on the long list, and compare the numbers. Very revealing, and often also distorting. The countries I listed above, show an increasing trend, except for Hungary (and Greece). At the same time have a look at the numbers on the Use of IMF credit… India is swimming in IMF credit, while the Hungarian government decided to refuse IMF money lately. The deficit is similarly serious in India and in Hungary. When I try to compare the income share of the highest and lowest 10% or 20% in India and in Hungary, I can not find data here (but you can imagine, the gap is huge).

This site provides the definition for GNI: “Countries are divided into developed or developing according to their Gross National Income (GNI) per capita per year. Countries with a GNI of US$ 11,905 and less in 2010 are defined as developing (specified by the World Bank, September 2012).” At the same time, as I mentioned before: the World Bank features the excellent table for us to understand the GNI levels and the trends across the world.

However, when you look at the IMF list on wikipedia, the image is different: Hungary is a developing economy. According to my alma mater Columbia University, Hungary is an Emerging Market Global Player. If you ask me, Hungary is ‘ABC’: ‘A Broken Country’.

So, this is why I felt that Hungary was only a developed nation on paper. It is just a bit above approximately 12 000 USD, where the statistical differentiation is made. However, it is part of the EU. You might say that India is much lower in terms of GNI, true, but in fact there is another indicator that gives India an advantage: English knowledge of the middle class. Hungary does not even have a true middle class, and few people speak English well enough. We could go on and on about indicators, advantages and disadvantages.

I have an old friend in the area of “development” in the US and she used to question my enthusiasm for Coursera, saying that the least fortunate have no access to technology and won’t be able to benefit from Coursera, and other such surfaces. At this point I told her that she is not making much use of the social media technology at her disposal in the field of development studies in a developed country (as part of the intellectual elite in the US, while her husband is in IT), so how would she know what seriously determined people can do in developing countries with much less technology, much less opportunity and much less resources. And while I am aware that billions have no formal jobs, no regular income, and no access to proper services in education, health and technology, I also know that making something so widely available as Coursera will lead to increased spread of practical and useful technology and so more people will have e-learning options for example, if not on an individual level, at least on a community level. (Remember, millions have yet to learn to read and write in any language… and lets face it, some will always remain isolated from technology, because for some people rejecting something is the only reference point for self definition and identity. Sad but true.)

If I were one of you in the richest nations I would stop obsessing about getting a new car every two years (you can not imagine the veteran age of my car, I am sure) and start an NGO in less fortunate nations for online educational purposes (this job is not for everyone, obviously). When you look at initiatives around the globe, you notice that not all people need to know about artificial intelligence tomorrow, but many need to be urgently educated about how to make sun powered tools, and learn about water management.

I was somewhat surprised by her statement:
Daphne Koller, founder of Coursera [in Davos this year:]
“We’re at 2.4 million students now. The biggest lesson I’ve learned on this is I underestimated the amount of impact this would have around the world. I really didn’t envision this scale and this impact this quickly.”

This shows how even the smartest Americans (or the smartest of any developed country, like Daphne from Israel and Andrew from the UK) are often unable to have a properly self reflective positionthe inability of assuming the point of view of the world and its inhabitantsthe position of the outsider is unknown to them from an insider point of view from within academia*  I was not at all surprised by the sudden global impact and scale of Coursera. It is what I expected, because I was looking forward to this opportunity for years and I could see others around the world (among other things via TED) in need of this kind of open service in education on the highest level. A heroin unaware of her genius: Daphne Koller. 🙂 What can I say, thank you for being so “clueless” (just kidding) and seriously thank you for singlehandedly creating the future of global knowledge sharing at the Ivy League level with Andrew Ng. Even if this action was initially motivated by the eternal professor wanting to reach more people, it is now a learning circle, or rather an upward spiral, where the professor is learning daily. To project a clear picture of what Daphne and Andrew are doing, imagine a high IQ engineering team steering a new space ship while it is being assembled by their team and while the ship is transporting millions of people to a yet unexplored place in an unknown dimension.

*Note added on February 20.: Let me say that I get feedback and I do think about my writing and how it impacts people. Several of my readers from the US wrote that this part initially offended them or made them think, but in the end their conclusion was that I was actually right. The pain did not come from me wanting to hurt them (hurting my readers was not the intention at all). The pain came from the sudden and unexpected deep recognition that this is true, and has to do with the US education system and news editors (but now you have the internet and you can self educate… this makes me hopeful). I seriously appreciate the honesty and awakened self reflection in my readers. At the same time I am sure I have my share of ignorance and arrogance and I too need to be aware of that. Because who is more arrogant if I apparently say in your head: here is how all Americans are all the time… I should not generalize. It was not really my intention to sound like an idiot… so that part of me needs more work. At the same time I am focusing on confronting US citizens because how can a nation with such influence in the world have the same level of ignorance as Hungary has with near zero power? If you ask the average American and the average Hungarian about the world, the same lack of knowledge about other countries will show up, but at a very different power level for these two nations… As a powerful country, an older democracy, a richer nation, with much higher levels of technology, should you not be more knowledgeable about the world on average? I am sure Coursera is a platform that will make you more aware if you are ready to be open minded. As Elizabeth Warren says, rich people did not become rich on their own in the US, and I am telling you, America as a nation did not become richer in a global vacuum (the same is true for all other developed nations).

Why am I saying this here? Because I think the most serious challenge in developing countries is not the ignorance of the most disadvantaged. No. Rather, the most serious challenge is the unrecognized ignorance of the local and global “elites”.

Here is a typical scenario: a vocational school in Budapest, Hungary, for a visible minority in poverty. The biggest problem of the school (with technological resources) is the violence between students and the lack of a meaningful future for those students. Most parents of those kids are jobless. When I tell the deputy director about the online available educational resources and that those can be used even by non-English speaking students, his answer is: “my colleagues would not be interested in using those resources”. His own lovely children thrive in an elite school on the other side of the city, use technology, learn online, speak English, and go to university, even he himself got a second degree recently. The students at the vocational minority school where he is a leader end up jobless. He is using the resources of that minority school to further the wellbeing and social status of his own children (not the children in the school). This is a structural problem. He is one of the most helpful people I actually know. He is not rich. He is not living in luxury. I can say, he is a good person, with good intentions. But he sees nothing wrong with this picture. He is practical, he has the survival skills that you need in this country, and he adjusted his mentality and morals to his own community’s ethical standards. Why would he give this up if this is what structurally keeps him in the middle class?

So, the question is, how can we make these good people (with everyday connections to the most disadvantaged) on the verge of insight and action interested in seeing the light and actually taking action the right way?

The EU grants don’t really cover the living expenses of people like him in the longer term. You might say, well, development money should be injected from the US and let him persuade his colleagues to use e-learning tools… Now here is another shocker, that I discovered when I moved back to Hungary in 2002. I logged into the New York based Foundation Center’s database to see how much US money was devoted to Roma community development and education programs for several years. I was completely stunned by the enormous number compared to the totally devastating realities of the Roma people in Hungary. Where did the money go? Try to imagine based on the above story, but this time add actual political corruption to the equation.

So, until there are no programs that naturally support the living conditions of those who are able to make the change, well: real change will take much longer. I say, people between the elite and the least fortunate need to be sustained by people with a global perspective and sufficient resources. I would call them agents of change. Countries with high Gross National Income (GNI) per capita per year are in the position to support the local agents of change in low GNI/capita/year countries and reinforce the efforts made by Coursera and similar initiatives. If you wish to live in a safer and happier world, where the masses are reached by new technology, information and knowledge, this is one way to go: invest in their e-learning, adjusted to their real needs, invest in the people knowledgeable about their everyday existence. I am sure there are many other ideas and opinions, and you are welcome to share them.

In addition let me mention Aaron Swartz (you can find my eulogy for him on my facebook profile on January 13 and 14 of 2013), the brilliant young hero who gave his life during a fight for freedom of information. People need to be educated about how to search for information, how to learn, how to use technology, but it is also vital for unnecessarily hidden human knowledge to become truly public and researchable, no matter where you are in the world. This is what Aaron was fighting for. We simply must remember him and demand the freedom of published and organized human knowledge for further insight.

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