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Dollar in doldrums

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Iranians have been dealing with an ever-increasing devaluation of the rial since the beginning of the present Iranian calendar (March 21, 2017) but the major and unexpected depreciation occurred almost a month ago, in mid-February, when is supposed to be the biggest crackdown on foreign exchanges in six years.

At the time, U.S. dollar broke all records and jumped to almost 50,000 rials in Tehran’s currency exchange shops, while it used to be bought almost 37,500 rials earlier in past April, 38,000 rials in past September, 41,000 rials in past December and 43,000 rials in early January, 2018.

What has contributed to recent events? 
Some critics discuss that since taking office in August 2013, Rouhani administration has tried to artificially keep the foreign exchange market at a level of stability in a bid to cover the inflationary impacts of rial devaluation, adding that the currency disturbances are due to a lack of clear monetary policy and mismanagement. The recent rial depreciation, as they further discuss, can be the result of government’s decision to benefit from the difference between the official and free market rates as a temporary solution to compensate for the wide budget deficit.

Some, in addition, blame Central Bank of Iran (CBI) for the volatility, since the state-run body has a full control over the free currency market and interferes with balance supply and demand as well as the prices by pumping dollar whenever it decides. The issue, in their view, is also justifiable via CBI’s short of funds to inject the needed hard currency to the market.

Besides, the recent decrease in banking interest rates made by CBI and the dominant stagnation in housing sector can also account for the forex market predicament. The two factors have increased Iranians’ demand for purchasing Bahar Azadi gold coins and hard currency as new investment options, for they believe via changing their cash money into dollar or gold, they can prevent devaluation of their assets.

Moreover, the impact of Iran’s current political tensions should not be neglected, they say. Trump is tightening its grip on Iran again, threatening it to re-impose sanctions lifted in 2015 and withdrawing from JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). There has been some news of a coordinated move by the U.S. and its Persian Gulf allies to up pressure on Iran by restricting its access to hard currencies. Iranians often obtain dollars via the United Arab Emirates, but implementation of new value added tax law in this country since the beginning of 2018 has practically locked the gateway of trade transactions between Iranian businessmen and their Emirati counterparts, which used to let the flow of dollar into Iranian market.

Major measures taken

To tackle one of the unprecedented slides in the value of the rial, which, if not curbed, would have a negative effect on attracting foreign investment and would end in inflationary consequences, the government took some major steps.

On February 14, Iranian police force and CBI initiated a joint operation to control the foreign exchange market when they detained almost 100 currency middlemen and frozen bank accounts reportedly worth 200 trillion rials ($5.3bn). The act could immediately pull down the dollar rate by 1,000 rials.

In late February, CBI issued permission for banks to issue rial bonds with an annual 20 percent interest rate and preselling of Bahar Azadi coin in the hope for absorbing some of the market liquidity. Furthermore, the central bank introduced hard currency bonds with a four percent to 4.5 percent return. In its other attempt to bolster rial, on February 28, CBI, who has always sought to switch to non-dollar based trade, clamped down on dollar trading and introduced new restrictions on it by blocking imports priced in the currency. Purchase orders by merchants which are based on U.S. currency are no longer allowed to go through import procedures in Iran’s customs offices since then. The decision, according to Iranian officials, is not expected to create major trouble for traders because the share of the greenback in Iran’s trade activities, as they say, is not high. The state-run body, moreover, has prepared a set of 19-sections policies as a blueprint to regulate the unsettlements of domestic monetary and foreign exchange markets, which is to be applied in near future.

Followingly, when currency prices cooled down a bit, CBI, which has always been seeking unification of the present dual forex regime in the market, issued permit for a limited number of currency exchange shops to sell foreign currency at official rate, less that the free market rate about 7,000 rials to 10,000 rials. The introduced exchange bureaus are allowed to sell up to $5,000 to customers who present their ID cards or passports and travel tickets.

Addressing the 57th annual general assembly of the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) on March 4, the central bank’s Governor Valiolah Seif announced that implementation of the described policies since mid-February has successfully curbed the fluctuations of Iran’s foreign exchange market and has restored confidence back.

Blaming the forex market fluctuations on currency traders, speculations in the market and the U.S. which was trying to destabilize Iran’s economy, Seif vowed that CBI will be able to manage the market not only by the current yearend but also by the end of the next Iranian calendar year (ending March 20, 2019).

However, some do not agree with him.

Controversy aroused

Referring back to the applied expanding policies and reduction of banking interest rates in September 2017, CBI critics explain that via doing proper analysis of domestic monetary system and foreign exchange market, the government could have managed to control foreign currency rate, but mismanagement has left the harvest ruined.

As they underline, the inappropriate policies of CBI, mainly injecting dollar to the market at official rates, has pulled out dollar from the economic wheel of Iran to Iranians’ piggy banks and in the pockets of the dealers. They explain that the issued rial bonds or the preselling of Bahar Azadi Coin are temporary remedies, effect of which will be removed in the short-run. Consequently, the future of forex market will not be brighter than its present.

Addressing the prohibition of dollar-based purchase order, which seems to be a win for the Euro, some express worry that the extra layer of currency swapping involved may add to the cost of imports into Iran and push the prices higher in the country.

Offering dollar and other currencies at official rates in some specific currency exchange shops is another tranquilizer which has caused major problems. Long queues are formed at the door of official foreign exchange bureaus and people are asked to stay in them since the sunrise. Some quarrels happen in the queues, which make the police interfere. A lot of non-official currency exchange shops are semi-closed; they do not sell dollar at all but buy if there is any.  An amalgamation of customers has been created; some are fake ones i.e. the middlemen who sell the purchased dollar at the official rate in the free market for making benefit, some customers are those who do not need foreign currency but just prefer to save them at home, and some are the Iranian travelers to foreign countries who face difficulties with finding hard currency. Foreign currency prices still experience fluctuations and even an increasing trend. Dealers and middlemen are still active although worried about the interference of the policemen. More importantly, the foreign currency price increase has already had its impact on inflation and the situation will predictably get aggravated.

Speaking on a televised program on Tuesday night, Seif admitted that dollar price should be matched with the reality of Iran’s economy. He criticized the opinion which accuses the government of controlling liquidity in an effort to reduce inflation, saying that despite the increase in liquidity, inflation is controlled and even decreased.

The central bank governor also discussed that the CBI act to reduce interest rates was an effort to convert short-term accounts into the long-term ones and to control inflation.

He underlined that the government’s monetary policies are not longstanding but flexible ones which can be changed in different conditions.

In fact, what is happening at the market does not entirely match with what is expected by the government to occur. Foreign currency rates are experiencing unsteadiness and the future seems murky but officials believe they have a good handle on the market.

Some economists suggest the CBI permit the rial to be devalued so that the economy can find a new balance, although the decision will be at the worth of another round of rampant inflation.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

Economy

The dimensions of BRICS geography

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Harnessing continental distance for the developing economies may be the single most important mission for BRICS and the New Development Bank (NDB) in the coming decades. The BRICS+ framework offers a platform to scale up investment cooperation through bringing on board the regional development institutions in which BRICS countries are members.

There have been numerous attempts to bring all BRICS under one common denominator — a common feature that would explain the rationale for the emergence of such a grouping. Among the many common factors for BRICS countries the more popular was the growth potential, with predictions of a rising share for BRICS in the world economy being prevalent in the initial phases of BRICS evolution. Another vision was that the BRICS economies represent the leading emerging markets (EM) with some of the most liquid assets and sizeable markets in the EM universe. But over and above some of these unifying themes, there appears to be a less explored commonality among BRICS related to their geographical peculiarities. In fact, geography in terms of the size of BRICS economies, the distance that separates them and the regional roles of BRICS in their respective continental neighborhoods appears to be one of the most fundamental and long-term themes that determines the pathways of BRICS future cooperation.


In terms of the centrality of geography as a defining and unifying feature of BRICS there is the simple fact that BRICS are among the largest countries by territory in the world. In particular, Russia is the largest country with a landmass of more than 17 million squared kilometers, with China taking the 3rd position, Brazil and India taking the 5th and 7th spot respectively. Furthermore, the top three spots in the world in terms of the number of countries that border the respective economies are taken by BRICS economies — China and Russia hold the number one spot with 14 border countries, while Brazil and India take the #3-4 ranking with 10 border countries each. Four BRICS economies also take the top 4 positions in the world in terms of the length of the border with neighboring economies. The number one spot is taken by China, followed by Russia and then Brazil and India.

Another way to picture the uniqueness of BRICS geography is the sheer distance that separates its members. If the distance were to be measured on the basis of the separation between the respective capitals, then the greatest distance among the two BRICS economies would be between Brazil and China — nearly 17000 km. The distance between Russia and Brazil is nearly 11700 km. These distances are several times higher than the longest separations of capitals within the EU (Warsaw-Lisbon separation is 2760 km) and still notably greater than the most extreme spatial separations in the developed world (London-Canberra is 10545 km and the New York — Canberra route is just over 10000 km).

But perhaps the most important common feature among the BRICS economies is that they serve as crucial regional hubs for their continental neighbors, particularly developing landlocked economies. Indeed, each BRICS economy neighbors several landlocked developing economies — in many cases these are some of the largest landlocked economies in the world. In the case of Brazil this is Paraguay and Bolivia. In the case of South Africa it is Botswana as well as Zimbabwe and Lesotho. In the case of India it is Bhutan and Nepal. In the case of China and Russia the two largest landlocked economies in the world — Kazakhstan and Mongolia — are in-between economies for the two largest countries of Eurasia (China and Russia). In Russia’s case there are also the landlocked CIS economies that border Russia (Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan). In all these cases, BRICS economies can potentially serve as outlets to the ports and global market routes for the respective landlocked economies that are their regional partners.

What do all these geographical factors mean for the vectors of economic cooperation among BRICS? The unprecedented spatial separation means that the intensity of trade among the BRICS economies will be limited by the gravity of distance (in line with the indications of the “gravity model” of international trade — the greater the distance and the smaller the size of the two economies, the less will be the intensity of bilateral trade). But at the same time there is tremendous scope for connectivity projects in view of the size of the BRICS countries and the needs for transportation connectivity in the regions of BRICS presence, most notably with respect to the land-locked countries.

The scope for connectivity projects for BRICS economies may be magnified to the scale of the landmass of the developing world via the BRICS+ platform uniting Africa, Latin America as well as Asia. This BRICS+ platform represents a formidable land mass that is significantly less connected via transportation compared to the part of territory occupied by the developed world. If in the case of BRICS+ the total land mass is nearly 100 million squared kilometers, in the case of the developed economies this is around a third of the land mass of the BRICS+ countries.

Harnessing continental distance for the developing economies may be the single most important mission for BRICS and the New Development Bank (NDB) in the coming decades. The BRICS+ framework offers a platform to scale up investment cooperation through bringing on board the regional development institutions in which BRICS countries are members. Accordingly, regional development banks, regional financing organizations together with NDB can act in concert in advancing sustainable development and connectivity across the Global South.

In sum, the two dimensions of BRICS geography, namely the intra-continental and the inter-continental expanses of the developing world, determine the pathways for future BRICS cooperation. The enormous intra-continental distances for BRICS can become an asset and an opportunity-set for advancing South-South cooperation through connectivity projects. At the same time, the scale of inter-continental divides points to the need to advance towards a Global South FTA, a project that is increasingly expedient given the rising tide of protectionism in the world economy.

from our partner RIAC

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China’s economic slowdown and its implications for the rest of Asia

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China’s economy has slowed down considerably since the past year. The key reasons for China’s slow growth are its stringent lockdowns, to achieve its objective of a zero covid policy. Here it would also be pertinent to point out, that many of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s policies especially tightening of credit for the real estate sector had an adverse impact on the real estate sector and the economy as a whole (according to estimates, real estate counts for 29% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). A number of Chinese real estate developers have been downgraded by Moody’s. A number of companies, including Evergrande are part of the B3 category, which denotes “speculative and are subject to high credit risk’.

  In August 2022, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang while commenting on the slowdown said:

‘A sense of urgency must be strengthened to consolidate the foundation for economic recovery’

There is a growing realisation that a further slowdown could lead to serious social problems, the stringent lockdowns have resulted in growing unemployment.

A number of steps have been taken to prevent the slowdown, such as Real Estate Sector and steps for Small Medium Enterprises. In August 2022, the Chinese government offered support to the tune of US $29 billion to Chinese real estate developers so that they can complete stalled projects and deliver them to home buyers. Earlier this year, China’s government announced that it would provide fiscal concessions and tax exemptions to MSME’s to small businesses in China. One of the key factors behind this course correction by Xi Jinping  was the 20th national congress of the Communist Party will be held from October 16, 2022 (Xi Jinping is likely to secure a third-term and also consolidate his hold over the party and consolidate his position as the most powerful leader after Mao Zedong)

Challenges still persist for China’s economy

Reports of multilateral agencies clearly point to China’s growth in 2022 being well below earlier estimates and targets. According to a World Bank Report, growth in 2022 for the Asia-Pacific region is likely to be a little over 3% (3.2%), while China’s growth is likely to be 2.8%. China had targeted a growth of 5%, and even multilateral agencies had estimated that the country would grow at over 5%

An Asian Development Bank (ADB) report which estimated that China’s growth will be a little over 3% states that ‘developing’ Asia  (which includes Cambodia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka etc) will grow at over 5% and highlights a significant point, that the last time China grew slower than the rest of Asia was in 1990, when China grew at below 4% (3.9%) and the rest of the region grew at 6.9%. Emerging Asian economies which include China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam are likely to grow at 4.3% in 2022 and 4.9% in 2023 again a drop from earlier estimates.

It would be pertinent to point out, that a number of foreign investors in China have also complained about the lockdowns and restrictions. While in the short run, it is unlikely that they will shift their operations in a big way, they are likely to look for alternatives.

In contrast to China, the rest of the region has benefited from easing out covid19 restrictions. Says the ADB report:

‘Easing pandemic restrictions, increasing immunization, falling Covid-19 mortality rates, and the less severe health impact of the Omicron variant are underpinning improved mobility in much of the region’

Can ASEAN and South Asia benefit from China’s slowdown?

    The case of Association of South East Asian Nations  (ASEAN) countries is especially important, because their policies with regard to covid have been fundamentally different from that of China. Opening up of borders has given a boost to the tourism sector in the region — especially Malaysia and Thailand.  This is important, because tourism accounts for a significant percentage of the GDP of these economies. Here it would also be pertinent to point out, that a number of companies have moved out of China, in the aftermath of covid 19, with Vietnam being a favoured destination due to its geographical location and other economic advantages (some companies have also moved to other ASEAN nations as well as India).

Even the stock markets of these countries have been doing reasonably well. In April 2022, analysts from JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs had picked Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore as their favourite markets, while last month Credit Suisse said its favourite market in the region was Thailand.

In conclusion, while there is no doubt that China has been driving economic growth not just in Asia, but globally, it is unlikely that its economic challenges are likely to reduce in the short run. It is not just covid, but Xi Jinping’s economic policies which have been responsible for the slowdown. The biggest beneficiaries of China’s covid19 policies as well, as it’s slowdown in the longer run, would be the ASEAN region — especially countries like Vietnam and Indonesia —  along with South Asian nations – especially India and Bangladesh who with investor friendly policies could attract more companies seeking to relocate from China.

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Russia Struggling to Explore Africa’s Market

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Building on post-Soviet relations with Africa, Russia has been struggling for strategies on how to establish economic footprints, promote investment and deepen cooperation in Africa. Despite the road map adopted at the end of the first Russia-Africa summit held in October 2019, little has been achieved since then.

Late September, the Regional Chamber of Commerce and Industry welcomed the participants to another round of conference under theme: “Russia-Africa: Prospects for Cooperation” held in St. Petersburg. That gathering featuring a few interested Russian enterprises was part of a series of steps brainstorm and discuss opportunities, developments and challenges with regards to the preparation of the forthcoming Russia-Africa summit planned for July 2023.

Additionally, the goal of this St Petersburg conference event was in line with the priorities on how to engage with credible investors who can partner with the government and private sector to exploit the market. It discussed the possibilities of strengthening partnership between Russia and Africa, as well as issues related to export/import, logistics and peculiarities of working with African partners.

Vice President of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation Vladimir Padalko welcomed the participants via video link from Moscow. In the video, Padalko emphatically reminded that “preparations for the second Russia-Africa summit, scheduled for July 2023 in St. Petersburg, are in full swing and we should come to it with concrete results in the form of agreements ready for signing.”

According to him, the Coordinating Committee for Economic Cooperation with African Countries should focus on conducting business missions that would identify specific areas for conducting business cooperation with African countries. It is necessary to help Russians to learn what the African market is, so that they are not afraid of taking investment risks in Africa. 

Padalko said that the prejudices that Russians have regarding Africa should be overcome. He referred to his own experience, emphasizing that the first trip to the African continent made him change his mind significantly about the opportunities offered by cooperation with Africa. Russia is trying hard to improve its commercial relations with its African partners. In 2009, it established the Coordinating Committee for Economic Cooperation with sub-Saharan Africa to assist in promoting Russian business interests in Africa.

Senator Igor Morozov, Chairman of the Coordinating Committee for Economic Cooperation with African Countries, called for increasing the pace and level of cooperation with African countries through, as he put it, “bringing small and medium-sized businesses to Africa.” 

According to him, Russia is far behind in its activity on the African continent from such countries as the United States, Britain, China, France and even India and Turkey. These countries are developing a network of technology parks, working in the continental free trade zone, participating in the development of the infrastructure of African countries, the construction of roads, bridges and railways.

Senator Morozov noted that “Russian business does not have the tools to enter Africa ​​and, above all, in the field of the banking system. No other banks give guarantees to Russian business. According to him, African countries are interested in the supply of agricultural machinery, and in this sense, the Kirov Plant in St. Petersburg may have good opportunities. And in this sense, we should take an example from our Belarusian friends.” 

That was not the first time analyzing the development of business and trade elations with Africa. The African market is competitive and complex, therefore Russian business needs to work thoroughly and systematically in it in order to achieve success.  It is necessary to help interested businesses willing to navigate African realities, find a niche for their work, learn about the conditions for entering certain markets.

According to Morozov, there is really the need for a specialized investment fund to support entrepreneurs. In general, with the prospect of working with African partners for many years, more serious state support is needed, and finally suggested that it is necessary to return to barter trade and concessions, which will make it possible to obtain minerals from Africa.

“We need to develop our international payment instruments – sanctions are already being imposed against the Mir system,” he said. A great deal of hope is being placed on the working group for developing new mechanisms in currency regulation and international settlements led by Kremlin aide Maxim Oreshkin, “which is supposed to work out these mechanisms soon,” Morozov said.

“We need to see how we will work within the framework of national currencies” and use them for settlements with African countries, he said. “We need to work in this direction, understanding that SWIFT will never again be [the main system for interbank payments] for us,” Morozov, who also serves on the Federation Council’s Economic Policy Committee, said.

Talks on options for settlements between Russia and African countries in the current economic circumstances are already being held, but “we shouldn’t get ahead of events. African central banks are already beginning to come [to Russia]. Everyone understands that we are leaders in grain exports, leaders in sunflower oil, mineral fertilizers, and it is necessary to settle up,” Morozov.

Other options for settlements could be barter and concessions. The outlook for cooperation and possible Russian projects in Africa, Morozov said Russia can offer its competencies in hydropower, electric passenger transport, automobile manufacturing, farm machinery and pharmaceuticals. Afrocom operates with the support of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Federation Council and government institutions, according to the committee’s website.

Associate Professor Ksenia Tabarintseva-Romanova, Ural Federal University, Department of International Relations, acknowledges huge existing challenges and perhaps difficult conditions in the current economic cooperation between Africa and Russia. Creating African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is the most important modern tool for the economic development of Africa, and this is unique for exploring the market and to get acquainted with the opportunities that it offers for business cooperation.

She, however, maintains that successful implementation requires a sufficiently high level of economic development of the participating countries, logistical accessibility, developed industry with the prospect of introducing new technologies. This means that in order for African Continental Free Trade Area to effectively fulfill its tasks, it is necessary to enlist the provision of sustainable investment flows from outside. These investments should be directed towards the construction of industrial plants and transport corridors.

Speaking earlier in an interview discussion, Tabarintseva-Romanova pointed to the fact that Russia already has vast experience with the African continent, which now makes it possible to make investments as efficiently as possible, both for the Russian Federation and for African countries. In addition, potential African investors and exporters could also explore business collaboration and partnerships in Russia.

Local Russian media, Rossiyskaya Gazeta also published an interview with Professor Irina Abramova, Director of the Institute of African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences, focusing on the economic cooperation with Africa. In this interview, Abramova reiterated explicitly that Russians have to do away with negative perceptions and attitudes toward Africa. The change in attitudes has to reflect in all aspects of the relationship with Africa and Africans.

“In Russians’ minds, Africa is synonymous with backwardness, poverty and hunger, which is not true at all. It is currently one of the most promising regions for foreign investment. In fact, it is a tiger ready to pounce. Africa today is in the same situation that China was in the 1990s. Today, China is the world’s number-one economy in purchasing capacity, a strong power which largely determines global development,” she explained.

“Africa is the zone where all big players overlap since its geographic location between the east and the west puts it at the peak of controversy and big game between all players, meaning between Europe and America, on the one hand, and China, India and other countries, on the other. And if Russia poses as a superpower it will lose its global influence without indicating its position in Africa as well,” she said.

According to her, seven African countries specifically Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, South Africa, Tunisia, Nigeria and Sudan, account for nearly 90% of Russia’s trade. “At the same time, China is present in almost all African countries. Millions of Chinese work in Africa today. It is a good moment for Russia now, because Western partners are trying to impose their values on the Africans, while China is dealing with its challenges at the expense of Africa,” the expert stressed.

The middle class is expanding very fast there, already amounting to 250-300 million people and this constitute a huge consumer market for products and services, according to her estimation.

Professor Abramova noted that it is a very good market for Russian products. The Chinese understood that long ago and are tapping the African market, having flooded it with their products, though Russia also has opportunities as it is fairly competitive in the energy, infrastructure and agriculture sectors, and exporting products such as fertilizers, trucks and aircraft supplies.

The fact that many prominent politicians and businessmen of the African continent graduated from Russian universities and speak Russian well contributes to strengthening of Russian-African relationship, the expert said, adding though that a new generation is about to take over in Africa, which is also reason why Moscow should maintain the existing solid social and cultural ties.

Senator Igor Morozov and Professor Irina Abramova are both members of the Kremlin’s Committee assigned the responsibility for coordinating and preparations for the next Russia-Africa summit in July 2023. Both Russia and Africa had problems finding a suitable African venue for the summit. The joint declaration adopted in Sochi says the summit be held every three years and the venue alternated between Russia and Africa.

Sampson Uwem-Edimo, President of the Nigerian Business Council and General Director of Trailtrans Logistic LLC, delivered a report “Nigeria as a Window to Africa” and further stressed that Russia does not have a common strategy on how to enter African markets, which exists, say, in China or France.

By removing barriers to trade in the region will create new entrepreneurial activities and spur innovations in technology. Now the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) seeks to create better conditions for investment. On the other hand, Russian corporate directors most often have problems with their business in Africa. The key obstacles ranging from their inconsistencies in approach, poor knowledge of the local political and business environment. Russians must also invest more in R&D collaborations with their African partners.

According to him, while Russians hope for brisk business, many African business leaders today are still Western mind-oriented, have various support from the United States and Europe. But the practical reality, Russia could still steadily transfer technologies for local processing of raw materials as a catalyst for Africa’s development.

Uwem-Edimo noted that such former colonial powers as France and Great Britain, although they left their colonies, keep control panels in their capitals. The Nigerian businessman, who spoke in Russian, introduced the conference participants to the opportunities and vast potential of the African continent, focusing on Nigeria, which makes up 18 percent of the continent’s population – 240 million people.

President of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Vladimir Katenev, also addressed the conference participants with a greeting. The moderator was Ekaterina Lebedeva, Vice-President of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce and Industry Union, who called on representatives of the business community, in spite of the emerging challenges, to consistently work towards prioritizing Africa.

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