Having visions

Having visions - Child abuse - Coding with a blessing - Retro-walking

In the last couple of weeks I have heard nothing else but references to visions.  I remember an ex-Finance Minister having a vision of Mary, Mother of God, being very sorrowful that Malta was considering divorce way back in 2011.  Since then, he has had no further visions. 

Now we have other PN spokespersons referring to visions, but this time inspired by worldly figures. To be correct, the current lot of PN economic spokespersons are complaining not about having visions, but rather of the lack of them.  They accused the Minister of Finance that the Budget presented on Monday was one without… you guessed it… vision, though they also added for good measure that it was without direction and showed that the government had “given up” on governing the country.

What is this Vision business?  Well, one doesn’t need to be inspired by heavenly figures.  Anybody can have a vision that describes a long-term, idealistic state of the future and many people do.  Most parents have visions for their children where they see them succeeding in life, having children, etc.  Most youngsters have visions about transforming the world and overcoming the blinkers they think their parents and current leaders have.  I could go on.

So, I would say that it is pretty impossible that the Minister of Finance and his colleagues do not have a vision.  One could well argue that they might not have the right vision, but not that they do not have one at all. Only the dead do not have one.

By the way, no vision can be realised unless there is a roadmap to it.  The roadmap, or what strategists usually call a mission, describes how the vision will be achieved through specific measures within a specific timeframe.  When the Partit Laburista published its roadmap for the years beyond 2013, the PN of the time had ridiculed the use of the word. 

Has Minister Caruana set out a vision?  Definitely. In advance of the Budget speech, he talked about a future economy that does not rely too much on foreign labour and that has “moved up the value chain into higher-value goods and services that are not as labour-intensive”. 

Has the Minister set out a roadmap?  Definitely.  The Budget itself unveiled plans to invest millions within the manufacturing and financial services sectors in implementation of the said vision.  I’m not going to give a long list of the new initiatives he mentioned or existing ones that will be reinforced – everybody can look that up for himself.  Suffice to say that the budget for programmes and initiatives in the economic sector totals €45 million while capital expenditure totals €63 million.

Child abuse

The Malta Independent has reported a study by the University of Malta into child maltreatment and neglect.  Conducted by Dr Roberta Attard for the Department of Counselling within the Faculty for Social Wellbeing, the study argues that the indiscriminate use of smartphones and online content is having an adverse impact on the development of children and teens.  It further argues that parental controls on the online technologies used by young people are not as effective as imagined by the parents themselves.

It is well known that the rapid evolution of technologies and the spread of the influencer culture has led to the emergence of new risks such as cyberbullying, aggressive online behaviour, stalking, hate speech, racism, sexting, grooming, fake news, and issues related to self-esteem.  Unfortunately, parents are quite unprepared when it comes to online safety and lack practical ways of combatting unwanted intrusions on children’s wellbeing online.

But the study also delves into the issue of physical abuse.  A previous study conducted by the Faculty for Social Wellbeing had reported a staggering 587 cases of physical child abuse in 2021 alone.  The authors’ main preoccupation is the “severe understaffing of Maltese community-based programmes for people seeking help over child abuse”.  The authors concede that services provided by the State are easy to access, but they contend that “further intervention tailored to the individual, such as therapeutic services, is not.”

As rightly pointed out by the study, the belief that child maltreatment only occurs within low-income family units is mistaken.  My late wife who, together with her colleagues at the National Council of Women, tackled this issue used to tell me that she came across quite a few cases where this was happening in families hailing from the well-to-do and professional classes.

Photo: RDNE Stock project

I know of some 17 quasi-experimental studies which have found that changes in the economic conditions of family life alone – without any other factors – impact on rates of abuse and neglect. Increases in income reduced rates significantly.  For example, three studies that focused particularly on neglect as an outcome of raised income found a $1,000 increase in annual income to be associated with roughly a 3%-4% decrease in behavioural neglect and an 8%-10% decrease in Child Protection Service (CPS) involvement among low-income single-mother families.  A Danish study  found that a decrease in welfare payments increased the annual risk of out-of-home placement by 25%, while in a similar group of welfare recipients who were not affected by the policy shock there was only a negligible increase in the risk of out-of-home placement.  A third study found that families which experienced a negative earnings shock of 30% or more had an increased likelihood of CPS involvement of approximately 18%.

The risks also arise in situations of poverty, financial stress, inadequate housing, a previous history of unaddressed child abuse or domestic violence, substance misuse, sexual violence, and mental health.  The list of vulnerabilities is endless.  In addition, the gender, age, ethnicity, and health or disability of children and parents influence the ways in which adverse economic conditions affect family life.

I am not an expert in the field, but to my knowledge the Foundation for Social Welfare Services, Aġenzija Appoġġ, and the Foundation for the Well-being of Society are all involved in running programmes addressed at children and providing various services in this sector.  Naturally, one cannot expect miracles and it is said that, from time to time, there will be instances of children who have experienced abuse and fall between the gaps.

To the extent that this is the case, clearly it is desireable to have more collaboration between the various agencies to ensure that abuse is identified and prevented at an early stage, while the appropriate institutions intervene in a timely and professional manner.

Coding with a blessing

Pope Francis, who wrote a line of code in a computer programme for a UN initiative in 2019, recently encouraged young people to get into coding.  The Pope made his appeal when he met Miron Mironiuk, founder of artificial intelligence company Cosmose AI, at the Vatican. The Polish entrepreneur has launched an initiative by the name of “Code with the Pope” with a view to bridging the “glaring disparities in education across the globe”.

Mr Mironiuk admits he’s not anticipating that the pontiff will emulate his students in acquiring new skills in the coding language Python – one of the world’s most popular coding languages — but he still gave him a certificate for his efforts in helping start the programme.  It is hoped that the Pope’s endorsement will encourage children aged 11-15 across Europe, Africa, and Latin America to participate in a free online learning platform.

Photo courtesy of Hadi Partovi

Data released by the World Economic Forum earlier this year revealed that “the majority of the fastest growing roles are technology-related roles”, but a severe global shortage of tech skills threatens to leave 85 million job positions unfilled by 2030.  As a result, increasing access to high-quality programming education has become a necessity, particularly in low and middle-income countries – many of which are Catholic.

Poland is making significant strides in the tech scene, particularly in AI, with companies like Google Brain, Cosmose AI, and Open AI having significant numbers of Polish employees.  But Mr Mironiuk is also aware that many countries are not as fortunate and hopes this educational programme could help change that.

Back in 2017, “Young Children and Digital Technology”, a joint research between the University’s Centre for Literacy and the European Commission, had plotted the way forward.  Charles L. Mifsud and Rositsa Petrova, who had authored the research,  had made various recommendations to promote, amongst others, emergent literacy, internet safety, school curricula and teacher preparation, and strengthening of home-school links.

Subsequent to that report, a vast array of entities started providing training opportunities in IT for young children and youths.  The Education Ministry, the eSkills Foundation, MCAST, and dozens of private companies offer an extensive range of courses. Some good results have been achieved.  Thus, in 2021 the percentages of young males and females who had written code in a programming language were 21% and 13% respectively compared with 17% and 8% respectively in the ERU.

The challenge for policymakers within this domain is to ensure that the social and economic benefits from exploiting ICT is delivered in unison with the safe use of digital media, in particular for more vulnerable sections of society.

Retro-walking

Back in 1915, a 50-year-old cigar-shop owner called Patrick Harmon took up a curious challenge – he planned to walk backwards from San Francisco to New York City. With the aid of a friend and a small car mirror attached to his chest to help him see where he was going, Harmon made the 6,300km journey in 290 days. Harmon won a wager of $20,000.  He claimed the journey made his ankles so strong that “it would take a sledgehammer blow to sprain them”.   

Was he onto something?  Apparently so.  The practice of walking backwards for health purposes is thought to have originated in ancient China, but it has received new attention from researchers in the US and Europe.  Janet Dufek, an expert in biomechanics at the University of Nevada in the US, has found that walking backwards for just 10-15 minutes per day over a four-week period increased hamstring flexibility and reduced lower back pain.

I am not aware that this has ever happened in Malta, except perhaps as a joke.  Obviously, against the supposed benefits, there’s also an element of risk when it comes to retro-walking.  Care would need to be taken to avoid unseen obstacles such as rental e-kick scooters left haphazardly on roads and pavements, falls, and serious injuries due to falling into ditches left open during roadworks, tripping over uncollected garbage bags, or colliding with overweight wardens.

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