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New Policy Approach Needed for East Asia and Pacific to Achieve Inclusive Growth

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The countries of developing East Asia and Pacific – among the most successful in the world in reducing poverty and improving living standards – need to adopt a new thinking if they are to achieve inclusive growth going forward.

Growth that is inclusive – one that reduces poverty while providing upward mobility and economic security for all – will require countries to go beyond its successful “growth with equity” model, reports Riding the Wave: An East Asian Miracle for the 21st Century. Prospects for upward mobility are seen as increasingly elusive, reflecting a sense that income and wealth are becoming more concentrated while access to basic social services remains limited and often of poor quality. Achieving economic security for all is more difficult, particularly as the region faces newer challenges: rapid aging, less certain growth prospects, and greater urbanization.

Inequality is a growing concern to citizens across the region. Over 90 percent in China and over half in the Philippines think that income differences in their countries are too large. In Indonesia, almost 90 percent of the population thinks it is urgent to address inequality, while eight in ten urban residents of Vietnam worry about disparities in living standards.

It’s a historic achievement that nearly a billion people in East Asia moved out of extreme poverty in just one generation,” said Victoria Kwakwa, World Bank Vice President for East Asia and the Pacific. “But for the region to sustain inclusive growth, countries will need to address the challenges of fully eliminating extreme poverty, enhancing the prospects for economic mobility, and assuring economic security for all.”

The region has transformed from being comprised of mostly poor countries in the 1980s to a group of middle-income countries made up of varying economic classes. By 2015, almost two-thirds of the region’s population were either economically secure or middle class – up from 20 percent in 2002.

The share of the extreme and moderate poor has fallen dramatically, from almost half the population in 2002 to less than an eighth in 2015. But the percentage of individuals vulnerable to falling back into poverty – those who live with US$3.10 to US$5.50 a day – has remained constant between 2002 and 2015, at about a quarter of the population.

Policies for inclusive growth need to recognize and address the varying constraints faced by different economic classes. Policies for the remaining extreme poor need to ease their barriers accessing economic opportunities, as well as sustain broad-based growth, so as to help them move up the income ladder.  Access to services such as healthcare and infrastructure, as well as mechanisms to manage risks, will need to be improved to help the economically vulnerable. The priority for the economically secure and the middle class is to improve the provision and quality of public services, such as housing, water and sanitation. 

Three pillars can underpin the policy agenda. The first – fostering economic mobility – requires closing gaps in access to jobs and services, improving the quality of jobs, and promoting financial inclusion. The second pillar — providing greater economic security — includes bolstering social assistance systems, expanding social insurance, and increasing resilience to shocks. Strengthening institutions is the third pillar, and includes progressive taxation policies to raise resources and improvements in the effectiveness of inclusive spending programs. Better management of rapid aging and urbanization as well as enhancing competition will also help.

“The policy agenda for inclusive growth can constitute a new social contract for governments across the region,” said Sudhir Shetty, World Bank Chief Economist for the East Asia and Pacific region. “Its elements would address the needs of each economic class while remaining fiscally responsible and raising revenues in an efficient and equitable manner.”

The report uses a five-part grouping of countries and recommends tailored policies for each. Malaysia, and Thailand – ‘Progressive Prosperity’ countries that have largely eliminated extreme poverty and fostered a large middle class – can prioritize meeting the growing aspirations of the middle classes while mobilizing and using resources to address remaining disparities. China and Vietnam – ‘Out-of-poverty-into-prosperity’ countries with large swaths of their populations now economically secure or middle class – should also address the aspirations of their middle classes as well as the needs of their vulnerable populations, while also preparing for rapid aging.

Indonesia, the Philippines, and Cambodia, are described as ‘Out-of-extreme-poverty’ countries which have low levels of extreme poverty but also still small middle classes; they can prioritize improving economic mobility and integrating social protection programs. ‘Lagging progress’ countries such as Lao PDR and Papua New Guinea, with still high levels of extreme poverty, can strive to reduce poverty more quickly by investing in basic education and promoting financial inclusion while also strengthening social assistance and resilience. The Pacific Island countries are distinct and will need to focus their policies on exploiting existing economic opportunities such as tourism and fishing, leveraging labor migration opportunities, and investing in disaster mitigation and prevention.

Developing East Asia has led the world in showing how rapid and broadly shared growth can lift millions out of poverty. With these policies, countries across the region can effectively confront the new challenges they now face and achieve inclusive growth.

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Post-COVID-19, regaining citizen’s trust should be a priority for governments

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coronavirus people

The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated governments’ ability to respond to a major global crisis with extraordinary flexibility, innovation and determination. However, emerging evidence suggests that much more could have been done in advance to bolster resilience and many actions may have undermined trust and transparency between governments and their citizens, according to a new OECD report.

Government at a Glance 2021 says that one of the biggest lessons of the pandemic is that governments will need to respond to future crises at speed and scale while safeguarding trust and transparency. “Looking forward, we must focus simultaneously on promoting the economic recovery and avoiding democratic decline” said OECD Director of Public Governance Elsa Pilichowski. “Reinforcing democracy should be one of our highest priorities.”

 Countries have introduced thousands of emergency regulations, often on a fast track. Some alleviation of standards is inevitable in an emergency, but must be limited in scope and time to avoid damaging citizen perceptions of the competence, openness, transparency, and fairness of government.

 Governments should step up their efforts in three areas to boost trust and transparency and reinforce democracy:

 Tackling misinformation is key. Even with a boost in trust in government sparked by the pandemic in 2020, on average only 51% of people in OECD countries for which data is available trusted their government. There is a risk that some people and groups may be dissociating themselves from traditional democratic processes.

 It is crucial to enhance representation and participation in a fair and transparent manner. Governments must seek to promote inclusion and diversity, support the representation of young people, women and other under-represented groups in public life and policy consultation. Fine-tuning consultation and engagement practices could improve transparency and trust in public institutions, says the report. Governments must also level the playing field in lobbying. Less than half of countries have transparency requirements covering most of the actors that regularly engage in lobbying.

 Strengthening governance must be prioritised to tackle global challenges while harnessing the potential of new technologies. In 2018, only half of OECD countries had a specific government institution tasked with identifying novel, unforeseen or complex crises. To be fit for the future, and secure the foundations of democracy, governments must be ready to act at speed and scale while safeguarding trust and transparency.

 Governments must also learn to spend better, according to Government at a Glance 2021. OECD countries are providing large amounts of support to citizens and businesses during this crisis: measures ongoing or announced as of March 2021 represented, roughly, 16.4% of GDP in additional spending or foregone revenues, and up to 10.5% of GDP via other means. Governments will need to review public spending to increase efficiency, ensure that spending priorities match people’s needs, and improve the quality of public services.

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Sweden: Invest in skills and the digital economy to bolster the recovery from COVID-19

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Sweden’s economy is on the road to recovery from the shock of the COVID-19 crisis, yet risks remain. Moving ahead with a labour reform to facilitate adaptation in a fast-changing economic environment, and investing in digital skills and infrastructure, will be crucial to revive employment and build a sustainable recovery, according to the latest OECD Economic Survey of Sweden.

The pandemic triggered a severe recession in Sweden, despite mild distancing measures and swift government action to protect people and businesses. GDP fell by less than in many other European economies in 2020, thanks to reinforced short-time work, compensation to firms for lost revenue and measures to prop up the financial system, but unemployment still rose sharply. Solid public finances provided room for further stimulus in 2021 to buttress the recovery.

 The Survey recommends maintaining targeted support to people and firms until the pandemic subsides, then focusing on strengthening vocational training and skills and increasing investment in areas like high-speed internet and low-carbon transport. Addressing regional inequality, which is low but rising, should also be a priority as the recovery takes hold.

 The Survey shows that Sweden has been among the most resilient OECD countries in the face of a historic shock. Yet, like other economies, it faces challenges from demographic changes and the shift to green, digital economies. Investments in education and training, and labour reforms along the lines negotiated by the social partners, will support job creation and strengthen economic resilience. Building on Sweden’s leadership in digital innovation and diffusion will also be key for driving productivity.

 After a 3% contraction in 2020, interrupting several years of growth, the Survey projects a rebound in activity with 3.9% growth in 2021 and 3.4% in 2022 as industrial production resumes and exports recover. The recovery in world trade is bolstering the Swedish economy, however the country remains vulnerable to potential disruptions in global value chains.  

The pandemic has aggravated a mismatch in Sweden’s job market, with unfilled vacancies for highly qualified workers coinciding with high unemployment for low-skilled workers and immigrants. The public employment service needs strengthening to provide better support to jobseekers, including immigrants and women, and labour policies should strike the right balance between supporting businesses and workers and supporting transitions away from declining businesses towards growing sectors.

A rising share of youths and older people in the population, especially in remote areas, is affecting the finances of local governments, which provide the bulk of welfare services. Strengthening local government budgets and ensuring equal welfare provision across the country will require providing tax income to poorer regions more efficiently and raising the economic growth potential across regions through investments in innovation. Improving coordination between government entities and reinforcing the role of universities in local economic networks would help achieve that aim.

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Fewer women than men will regain work during COVID-19 recovery

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Generations of progress stands to be lost on women and girls' empowerment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: ILO

Fewer women will regain jobs lost to the COVID-19 pandemic during the recovery period, than men, according to a new study released on Monday by the UN’s labour agency.  

In Building Forward Fairer: Women’s rights to work and at work at the core of the COVID-19 recovery, the International Labour Organization (ILO) highlights that between 2019 and 2020, women’s employment declined by 4.2 per cent globally, representing 54 million jobs, while men suffered a three per cent decline, or 60 million jobs. 

This means that there will be 13 million fewer women in employment this year compared to 2019, but the number of men in work will likely recover to levels seen two years ago. 

This means that only 43 per cent of the world’s working-age women will be employed in 2021, compared to 69 per cent of their male counterparts. 

The ILO paper suggests that women have seen disproportionate job and income losses because they are over-represented in the sectors hit hardest by lockdowns, such as accommodation, food services and manufacturing. 

Regional differences 

Not all regions have been affected in the same way. For example, the study revealed that women’s employment was hit hardest in the Americas, falling by more than nine per cent.  

This was followed by the Arab States at just over four per cent, then Asia-Pacific at 3.8 per cent, Europe at 2.5 per cent and Central Asia at 1.9 per cent. 

In Africa, men’s employment dropped by just 0.1 per cent between 2019 and 2020, while women’s employment decreased by 1.9 per cent. 

Mitigation efforts 

Throughout the pandemic, women faired considerably better in countries that took measures to prevent them from losing their jobs and allowed them to get back into the workforce as early as possible. 

In Chile and Colombia, for example, wage subsidies were applied to new hires, with higher subsidy rates for women.  

And Colombia and Senegal were among those nations which created or strengthened support for women entrepreneurs.  

Meanwhile, in Mexico and Kenya quotas were established to guarantee that women benefited from public employment programmes. 

Building forward 

To address these imbalances, gender-responsive strategies must be at the core of recovery efforts, says the agency. 

It is essential to invest in the care economy because the health, social work and education sectors are important job generators, especially for women, according to ILO. 

Moreover, care leave policies and flexible working arrangements can also encourage a more even division of work at home between women and men. 

The current gender gap can also be tackled by working towards universal access to comprehensive, adequate and sustainable social protection. 

Promoting equal pay for work of equal value is also a potentially decisive and important step. 

Domestic violence and work-related gender-based violence and harassment has worsened during the pandemic – further undermining women’s ability to be in the workforce – and the report highlights the need to eliminate the scourge immediately. 

Promoting women’s participation in decision-making bodies, and more effective social dialogue, would also make a major difference, said ILO. 

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