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Record high remittances to low- and middle-income countries in 2017

MD Staff

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Remittances to low- and middle-income countries rebounded to a record level in 2017 after two consecutive years of decline, says the World Bank’s latest Migration and Development Brief.

The Bank estimates that officially recorded remittances to low- and middle-income countries reached $466 billion in 2017, an increase of 8.5 percent over $429 billion in 2016. Global remittances, which include flows to high-income countries, grew 7 percent to $613 billion in 2017, from $573 billion in 2016.

The stronger than expected recovery in remittances is driven by growth in Europe, the Russian Federation, and the United States. The rebound in remittances, when valued in U.S. dollars, was helped by higher oil prices and a strengthening of the euro and ruble.

Remittance inflows improved in all regions and the top remittance recipients were India with $69 billion, followed by China ($64 billion), the Philippines ($33 billion), Mexico ($31 billion), Nigeria ($22 billion), and Egypt ($20 billion).

Remittances are expected to continue to increase in 2018, by 4.1 percent to reach $485 billion. Global remittances are expected to grow 4.6 percent to $642 billion in 2018.

Longer-term risks to growth of remittances include stricter immigration policies in many remittance-source countries. Also, de-risking by banks and increased regulation of money transfer operators, both aimed at reducing financial crime, continue to constrain the growth of formal remittances.

The global average cost of sending $200 was 7.1 percent in the first quarter of 2018, more than twice as high as the Sustainable Development Goal target of 3 percent. Sub-Saharan Africa remains the most expensive place to send money to, where the average cost is 9.4 percent. Major barriers to reducing remittance costs are de-risking by banks and exclusive partnerships between national post office systems and money transfer operators. These factors constrain the introduction of more efficient technologies—such as internet and smartphone apps and the use of cryptocurrency and blockchain—in remittance services.

“While remittances are growing, countries, institutions, and development agencies must continue to chip away at high costs of remitting so that families receive more of the money. Eliminating exclusivity contracts to improve market competition and introducing more efficient technology are high-priority issues,” said Dilip Ratha, lead author of the Brief and head of KNOMAD.

In a special feature, the Brief notes that transit migrants—who only stay temporarily in a transit country—are usually not able to send money home. Migration may help them escape poverty or persecution, but many also become vulnerable to exploitation by human smugglers during the transit. Host communities in the transit countries may find their own poor population competing with the new-comers for low-skill jobs.

“The World Bank Group is mobilizing financial resources and knowledge on migration to support migrants and countries with the aim of reducing poverty and sharing prosperity. Our focus is on addressing the fundamental drivers of migration and supporting the migration-related Sustainable Development Goals and the Global Compact on Migration,” said Michal Rutkowski, Senior Director of the Social Protection and Jobs Global Practice at the World Bank.

Multilateral agencies can help by providing data and technical assistance to address adverse drivers of transit migration, while development institutions can provide financing solutions to transit countries. Origin countries need to empower embassies in transit countries to assist transit migrants.

The Global Compact on Migration, prepared under the auspices of the United Nations, sets out objectives for safe, orderly and regular migration. Currently under negotiation for final adoption in December 2018, the global compact proposes three International Migration Review Forums in 2022, 2026 and 2030. The World Bank Group and KNOMAD stand ready to contribute to the implementation of the global compact.

Regional Remittance Trends

Remittances to the East Asia and Pacific region rebounded 5.8 percent to $130 billion in 2017, reversing a decline of 2.6 percent in 2016. Remittance to the Philippines grew 5.3 percent in 2017 to $32.6 billion. Flows to Indonesia are expected to grow 1.2 percent to $9 billion in 2017, reversing the previous year’s sharp decline. Stronger growth in transfers from countries in Southeast Asia helped offset lower remittance flows from other regions, particularly the Middle East and the United States. Remittances to the region are expected to grow 3.8 percent to $135 billion in 2018.

Remittances to countries in Europe and Central Asia grew a rapid 21 percent to $48 billion in 2017, after three consecutive years of decline. Main reasons for the growth are stronger growth and employment prospects in the euro area, Russia, and Kazakhstan; the appreciation of the euro and ruble against the U.S. dollar; and the low comparison base after a nearly 22 percent decline in 2015. Remittances in 2018 will moderate as the region’s growth stabilizes, with remittances expected to grow 6 percent to $51 billion.

Remittances flows into Latin America and the Caribbean grew 8.7 percent in 2017, reaching another record high of nearly $80 billion. Main factors for the growth are stronger growth in the United States and tighter enforcement of U.S. immigration rules which may have impacted remittances as migrants remitted savings in anticipation of shorter stays in the United States. Remittance growth was robust in Mexico (6.6 percent), El Salvador (9.7 percent), Colombia (15 percent), Guatemala (14.3), Honduras (12 percent), and Nicaragua (10 percent). In 2018, remittances to the region are expected to grow 4.3 percent to $83 billion, backed by improvement in the U.S. labor market and higher growth prospects for Italy and Spain.

Remittances to the Middle East and North Africa grew 9.3 percent to $53 billion in 2017, driven by strong flows to Egypt, in response to more stable exchange rate expectations. However, the growth outlook is dampened by tighter foreign-worker policies in Saudi Arabia in 2018. Cuts in subsidies, increase in various fees and the introduction of a value added tax in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have increased the cost of living for expatriate workers. In 2018, growth in remittances to the region is expected to moderate to 4.4 percent to $56 billion.

Remittances to South Asia grew a moderate 5.8 percent to $117 billion in 2017. Remittances to many countries appear to be picking up after the slowdown in 2016. Remittances to India picked up sharply by 9.9 percent to $69 billion in 2017, reversing the previous year’s sharp decline. Flows to Pakistan and Bangladesh were both largely flat in 2017, while Sri Lanka saw a small decline (-0.9 percent). In 2018, remittances to the region will likely grow modestly by 2.5 percent to $120 billion.

Remittances to Sub-Saharan Africa accelerated 11.4 percent to $38 billion in 2017, supported by improving economic growth in advanced economies and higher oil prices benefiting regional economies. The largest remittance recipients were Nigeria ($21.9 billion), Senegal ($2.2 billion), and Ghana ($2.2 billion). The region is host to several countries where remittances are a significant share of gross domestic product, including Liberia (27 percent), The Gambia (21 percent), and Comoros (21 percent). In 2018, remittances to the region are expected to grow 7 percent to $41 billion.

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SMEs are driving job growth, but need higher investment in skills, innovation and tech

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Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have been a significant driver of employment growth in recent years, mainly through the creation of new firms, including in high-growth sectors such as information and communication technologies (ICT). But the new OECD SME and Entrepreneurship Outlook highlights that most SME job creation has been in sectors with below average productivity levels, with SMEs typically paying employees around 20 percent less than large firms.

While SMEs are more engaged in new organisational or marketing practices than large firms, and sometimes more innovative in developing new products and processes, many continue to struggle disproportionately to navigate the increasing complexity in technologies and markets.

“We need a fundamental rethinking of SME and entrepreneurship policies to improve business conditions and access to resources. This will enable workers to have higher wages and greater productivity, as smaller employers harness major trends like digitalisation,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, launching the report at the annual OECD Forum. “We need a renewed policy and measurement agenda to understand how countries, regions and cities can capitalise on their many diverse small businesses as drivers for inclusive and sustainable growth.”

Bringing together unique data and evidence on SME performance and policies, this first edition of the OECD SME and Entrepreneurship Outlook offers policymakers new benchmarking tools and insights on good practices to help frame national SME and entrepreneurship policies. The report illustrates that SMEs are more dependent on the business ecosystem and the policy environment than large companies, and identifies a number of key challenges:

  • While the wage gap is smaller for exporting SMEs, trade barriers are disproportionately large, and recent trade tensions may further hamper their ability to benefit from globalisation.
  • SMEs struggle to combine different types of innovation, and continue to face size-related barriers in accessing strategic resources, such as skills, finance and knowledge. A quarter of SMEs in the EU reported a lack of skilled staff or experienced managers as their most important problem and, in most OECD countries, less than one-quarter of small firms provided ICT training in 2018.
  • The digital transformation provides scope for productivity growth but large adoption gaps exist compared to larger firms, with half as many small firms in the OECD investing in cloud computing services in 2016, for example.

Governments have been proactive in their efforts to improve framework conditions and address size-related barriers for SMEs. The 36 country profiles in the OECD SME and Entrepreneurship Outlook show that, in the OECD area, governments are focused on accelerating innovation diffusion to SMEs; ensuring SMEs keep pace with the digital transformation; engaging SMEs in upskilling; scaling-up innovation networks and MNE-SME linkages; and levelling the playing field in product markets, public procurement and ‘lead’ innovative markets. Small businesses are also benefiting from the strengthening of e-government services and from reforms undertaken in OECD countries aiming to lower administrative and tax burdens and enforce smart regulation.

Despite these efforts, the complexity of regulatory procedures remains a major obstacle for SMEs and entrepreneurs. Furthermore, the pace of structural reform has slowed in recent years and progress remains uneven in areas that are key for business creation and SME investment, such as insolvency regimes, civil justice and enforcement of competition laws.

The report argues for more efficient governance and more coherent arrangements across national and subnational levels, regions and cities. It also calls for fostering international peer learning and enhanced monitoring and evaluation capacity.

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Urgent action needed to address growing opioid crisis

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Governments should treat the opioid epidemic as a public health crisis and improve treatment, care and support for people misusing opioids. Overdose deaths continue to rise, fuelled by an increase in prescription and over-prescription of opioids for pain management and the illicit drugs trade, according to a new OECD report.

Addressing Problematic Opioid Use in OECD Countries examines how, over the past few years, the crisis has devastated families and communities, especially in North America. It documents that deaths are also rising sharply in Sweden, Norway, Ireland, and England and Wales.

Between 2011 and 2016, in the 25 OECD countries with available data, opioid-related deaths increased by more than 20%. In Canada, for example, there were more than ten thousand opioid-related deaths between January 2016 and September 2018, with rates increasing from 8.4 per 100,000 people to 11.8 over this period. Opioid abuse has also put a growing burden on health services through hospitalisation and emergency room visits.  

“The opioid epidemic has hit the most vulnerable hardest,” said Gabriela Ramos, OECD Chief of Staff and G20 Sherpa, launching the report in Paris. “Governments need to take decisive action to stop the tragic loss of life and address the terrible social, emotional and economic costs of addiction with better treatment and health policy solutions. But the most effective policy remains prevention.”

The majority of those who die in Europe are men, accounting for 3 out of 4 deaths. However, in the United States, opioid use has been rising among pregnant women, particularly among those on low incomes. Having a mental health disorder was also associated with a two-fold greater use of prescription opioids in the US.

Prisoners too are vulnerable. The prevalence rate of opioid use disorders in Europe was less than 1% among the general public but averaged 30% in the prison population. Social and economic conditions, such as unemployment and housing, have also contributed to the epidemic.

An increase in prescription and over-prescription of opioids for pain management is among the factors driving the crisis. Governments should review industry regulations to ensure they protect people from harm as, since the late 1990s, manufacturers have consistently downplayed the problematic effect of opioids.

Doctors should improve their prescribing practices, for instance through evidence-based clinical guidelines and increased surveillance of opioid prescriptions. Governments can also regulate  marketing and financial relationships with opioid manufacturers. Coverage for long-term medication-assisted therapy, such as methadone and buprenorphine, should be expanded, in coordination with harm minimisation specialised services for infectious diseases management, such as HIV and hepatitis.

Strengthening the integration of health and social services, such as unemployment and housing support, and criminal justice systems would help improve treatment for people with Opioid Use Disorder.

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Italy should boost spending and strengthen cooperation and integration of employment services

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Italy should boost spending and cooperation at national and regional levels as part of broader efforts to help more people into work and reduce the country’s high unemployment rate, according to a new OECD report.

Strengthening Active Labour Market Policies in Italy says that the country faces greater labour market challenges than most other OECD countries. The employment rate and labour productivity are low, youth unemployment is still around 30% and the gender employment gap and long-term unemployment are decreasing only slowly.

Regional disparities are high and persistent compared to most other OECD countries. Spending on active labour market policies (0.51% of GDP) is close to the OECD average but well below the average of EU countries and levels in countries with similar unemployment rates. Moreover, active labour market policies are not well targeted to the most effective programmes and people in need, relying heavily on employment incentives. Only 2% of the budget is devoted to services that have internationally proved to be more cost-effective, such as job mediation, job placement and related services.

Public employment services play only a modest role as job brokers. Only about half of unemployed persons in Italy are registered with the public employment service (centri per l’impiego) and only half of them use these services to look for work. Access to and quality of employment services vary greatly across the country.

“To improve the performance of employment services, there is a need for further funding, boosting the local offices’ staff and their skills and modernising the IT infrastructure,” said Stefano Scarpetta, OECD Director for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, launching the report in Rome. “The ongoing reform started by the Jobs Act and the recent additional financial allocations to the system of public employment services have the potential to improve the performance of employment services in Italy.” 

However, for the real gains to the labour market to emerge, cooperation and co-ordination should be simultaneously introduced in the system. Within the decentralised governance system, national and regional authorities need to agree on a binding framework for accountability, enabling to measure performance of employment offices according to a set of indicators and their regionally-adjusted target levels.

The funding of local offices from the state budget should be somewhat contingent not only on the number of clients to serve but also on improvements in performance indicators, thus providing incentives to improve the quality and effectiveness of services provided.

The recent introduction of the citizen income (Reddito di cittadinanza) adds further responsibilities to the system of employment services as the new benefit recipients should receive support with job-search and should be provided the necessary active measures to succeed in that. As such, improvements in the investment and performance of the system of employment services become today more critical than ever.

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