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South Asia Firms Up Its Growth Lead, Despite Budget Woes

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With growth topping 6.9 percent in 2018 and set to accelerate to 7.1 percent next year, South Asia is firming up its position as the world’s fastest-growing region, further extending its lead over East Asia and the Pacific, says the World Bank in its twice-a-year regional economic update.

The latest edition of the South Asia Economic Focus, Budget Crunch, finds however that the region’s growth performance is uneven across countries—with Afghanistan notably bucking the upward trend—and mainly driven by domestic demand.

Further, the report warns that a more turbulent external environment, manifested by trade wars and capital outflows from emerging markets, calls for prudent economic policy and fiscal discipline. Instead, most South Asian countries generate low tax revenue and run large budget deficits, often made worse by economic shocks and election cycles. At 4.4 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), South Asia’s fiscal deficit is projected to be the second largest in the world this year after the Middle East and North Africa region. The average fiscal deficit over the last three years has been around 5.5 percent in Pakistan and above 6 percent in Maldives, India, and Sri Lanka.

“Budget deficits in South Asia are among the highest in the world, and this could be storing up trouble for the future,” said Hartwig Schafer, World Bank Vice President for the South Asia Region. “South Asia’s fiscal weaknesses reduce its ability to address external shocks or economic slowdowns. It would be wise to use these good economic times for countries to get their budgets in better shape.”

While fiscal challenges vary across the region, the report notes that tax revenue is consistently low across most South Asian countries and at rates below that of other developing countries with a similar income per capita, sometimes by a vast margin. Although some countries have expanded their tax bases and curbed tax exemptions and fraud, revenue remains lower than government expenditures, creating large fiscal deficits that need to be financed through public borrowing.

South Asian countries have also favored procyclical approaches to spending—with expenditures going up fast as their economies expand—that amplifies boom-and-bust cycles.

Together with public debt, hidden liabilities, arising from non-viable borrowing by state-owned enterprises, the failure of infrastructure projects involving the private sector, and non-performing loans in commercial banks, should be closely monitored.

While fiscal outcomes vary across the region, the fiscal situation in each country reveals more profound development challenges, which range from large security expenditures in conflict-affected countries, weak discipline by sub-national governments in federal states, to the high cost of service delivery in island nations.

“Substantial government spending is understandable, even beneficial if well-invested, given South Asia’s enormous development needs,” said Martin Rama, World Bank Chief Economist for the South Asia Region. “But South Asian economies need to address their fiscal challenges to give themselves room to maneuver and sustain their journey toward greater prosperity.”

Afghanistan. Growth is projected to pick up, but only to 3.2 percent by 2020. Importantly, this projection presumes a recovery of confidence after a temporary weakening due to security challenges and political uncertainty in the context of the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

Bangladesh. Growth will be strong, driven by consumption and public investment, but it is projected to slow to an average of 6.9 percent over the forecast horizon. This is due to a projected slowdown of private investment and an increase of imports.

Bhutan. Growth will accelerate with the commissioning of two major hydropower projects, Mangdechhu and Punatsangchhu-II. The growth rate is projected to jump from 4.6 percent in this fiscal year to 7.6 percent in FY 2019/20, before moderating again to 6.4 percent in FY 2020/21.

India. Prompted by the adoption of the Goods and Services Tax and the recapitalization of banks, growth in India is firming up and it is projected to accelerate further. Growth is projected to rise to 7.3 percent in FY 2018/19, and to 7.5 percent in the following two years, with stronger private spending and export growth as the key drivers.

Maldives. Growth is projected at a strong 8.0 percent this year, based on the dynamism of the construction and tourism sectors. But is projected to decelerate in the next two years as new capital investment projects gradually begin to taper off.

Nepal. Economic activity is set to grow on average 6 percent over the medium term. However, performance could be less impressive if the challenging transition to a federalist system affects infrastructure provision and service delivery.

Pakistan. Macroeconomic stabilization policies will take a toll on growth this fiscal year. GDP growth is expected to fall to 4.8 percent in FY 2018/19, reflecting a tighter fiscal and monetary policy. However, with improved macroeconomic conditions, growth could reach 5.2 percent in FY 2019/20, provided that there is a firming of exports and continued implementation of CPEC.

Sri Lanka. Economic growth is projected to recover from the effects of last year’s weather disruptions, which negatively affected agriculture, and to remain around 4 percent in the next two years.

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Curbing Corruption in the Midst of a Pandemic is More Important Than Ever

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Progress against corruption can be made even under the most challenging conditions, a new World Bank report finds. At a time when unprecedented levels of emergency funds have been mobilized to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, the report offers a fresh look at some of the most effective approaches and tools to enhance government accountability.

Enhancing Government Effectiveness and Transparency: The Fight Against Corruption focuses on ways to enhance the effectiveness of anti-corruption strategies in the sectors most affected. It serves as a reference guide to policy makers and anti-corruption champions as further work is needed to sharpen the application of traditional tools.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in large scale emergency spending by governments at rapid speed to revive the economy as well as protect the poor and vulnerable who suffer disproportionately. As countries embark on the road to a more resilient and inclusive recovery, prudent use of scarce resources in a transparent manner is critical,” said World Bank Managing Director Mari Pangestu, “Progress is possible in all environments and we are committed to work closely with our partners in government, civil society, and the private sector to address corruption and its corrosive impacts.”

Some of the unprecedented emergency spending against COVID-19 has occurred without adhering to the regular checks and balances. While speed is understandable, without proper controls, it exposes governments to a variety of corruption risks that may undermine the effectiveness of their responses. To foster greater accountability, the report calls on governments to clearly articulate their actions, enforce rules, address violations, and remedy problems as quickly as possible, and in a transparent manner.

The report covers five key thematic areas: public procurement, infrastructure, state-owned enterprises, customs administration, and service delivery, and cross-cutting themes such as open government initiatives and GovTech, with case study examples from around the world. It will help equip public sector officials and civil society with a modular set of approaches and tools that can be drawn upon and adapted to their specific country context. 

The report’s case studies show that measures to curb corruption are often opportunistic, targeting specific areas of vulnerability where and when the political space allows. But even when actions have apparently limited impact, they can provide important foundation for future progress.

In Bangladesh, the implementation of the e-Government Procurement, combined with increased transparency and citizen participation, halved the number of single bidder tenders which improved competition significantly; increased the number of contracts awarded to non-local firms; and led to better prices with successful bidders.

Colombia updated its e-procurement system to publish data in an open way following international standards.  As a result, single bid tenders in the public roads agency, INVIAS, went down from 30% to 22%, while cities like Cali saw competitive processes increase from 31% to 56% in about two years.

In Ukraine, making wealth declaration forms of public officials available online was recognized by citizens and the international community as a key tool in the fight against corruption. The latest data shows that close to 5,3 million documents in the e-declarations system are accessible to the public. As of mid-2020, the High Anti-Corruption Court of Ukraine had 19 cases against officials accused of submitting false information in the Asset and Interest Declaration or intentionally not submitting a declaration.

In Afghanistan, the customs department has been progressively implementing a countrywide computerization of customs clearance operations. Although significant vulnerabilities exist and revenue loss at the borders remains a substantial challenge, revenue collected by customs has increased seven-fold between 2004 and 2019, and clearance time and the transparency of trade transactions has improved significantly.

The land reform program in Rwanda helped manage the conflicts around land and led to increased efficiency, transparency, citizen participation, and development of viable land governance institutions. Automation of land records reduced bribes paid to land registry officials as the information was in public domain.

“Institutions are incredibly important for implementing government policies, engaging civil society, and ensuring greater transparency in government operations,” said Ed Olowo-Okere, World Bank Global Director for Governance, “The global report highlights the importance of complimenting the traditional methods of dealing with corruption with advanced ones like GovTech and e-Procurement to address corruption, even in the most challenging and fragile environments.”

The World Bank Group, one of the largest sources of funding and knowledge for developing countries, is taking broad, fast action to help developing countries strengthen their pandemic response. We are supporting public health interventions, working to ensure the flow of critical supplies and equipment, and helping the private sector continue to operate and sustain jobs. We will be deploying up to $160 billion in financial support over 15 months to help more than 100 countries protect the poor and vulnerable, support businesses, and bolster economic recovery. This includes $50 billion of new IDA resources through grants and highly concessional loans.

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A rapid rise in battery innovation is playing a key role in clean energy transitions

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Affordable and flexible electricity storage technologies are set to catalyse transitions to clean energy around the world, enabling cleaner electricity to penetrate a burgeoning range of applications. Between 2005 and 2018, patenting activity in batteries and other electricity storage technologies grew at an average annual rate of 14% worldwide, four times faster than the average of all technology fields, according to a new joint study published today by the European Patent Office (EPO) and the International Energy Agency.

The report, Innovation in batteries and electricity storage – a global analysis based on patent data, shows that batteries account for nearly 90% of all patenting activity in the area of electricity storage, and that the rise in innovation is chiefly driven by advances in rechargeable lithium-ion batteries used in consumer electronic devices and electric cars. Electric mobility in particular is fostering the development of new lithium-ion chemistries aimed at improving power output, durability, charge/discharge speed and recyclability. Technological progress is also being fuelled by the need to integrate larger quantities of renewable energy such as wind and solar power into electricity networks.

The joint study shows that Japan and Korea have established a strong lead in battery technology globally, and that technical progress and mass production in an increasingly mature industry have led to a significant drop in battery prices in recent years. Prices have declined by nearly 90% since 2010 in the case of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles, and by around two-thirds over the same period for stationary applications, including electricity grid management.

Developing better and cheaper electricity storage is a major challenge for the future. According to the IEA’s Sustainable Development Scenario, for the world to meet climate and sustainable energy goals, close to 10 000 gigawatt-hours of batteries and other forms of energy storage will be required worldwide by 2040 – 50 times the size of the current market.

“IEA projections make it clear that energy storage will need to grow exponentially in the coming decades to enable the world to meet international climate and sustainable energy goals. Accelerated innovation will be essential for achieving that growth,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. “By combining the complementary strengths of the IEA and the EPO, this report sheds new light on today’s innovation trends to help governments and businesses make smart decisions for our energy future.”

“Electricity storage technology is critical when it comes to meeting the demand for electric mobility and achieving the shift towards renewable energy that is needed if we are to mitigate climate change,” said EPO President António Campinos. “The rapid and sustained rise in electricity storage innovation shows that inventors and businesses are tackling the challenge of the energy transition. The patent data reveals that while Asia has a strong lead in this strategic industry, the US and Europe can count on a rich innovation ecosystem, including a large number of SMEs and research institutions, to help them stay in the race for the next generation of batteries.”

The joint study follows the publication earlier in September of the major IEA report Energy Technology Perspectives 2020, which has deepened the IEA’s technology analysis, setting out the challenges and opportunities associated with rapid clean energy transitions.

As governments and companies seek to make informed investments in clean energy innovation for the future, sector-specific insights like those offered by the joint study will be highly valuable, including for helping bring about a sustainable economic recovery from the Covid-19 crisis. The innovation study provides an authoritative overview of the technologies and applications receiving research attention – and of those that are underserved. It also shows where they stand in the competitive landscape.

Innovation is increasingly recognised as a core part of energy policy, and this year the IEA has been introducing more tools to help decision-makers understand the technology landscape and their role in it – and to track progress in innovation and the deployment of technologies. This includes a comprehensive new interactive guide to the market readiness of more than 400 clean energy technologies.

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Russia Among Global Top Ten Improvers for Progress Made in Health and Education

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Russia is among the top ten countries globally for improvements to human capital development over the last decade, according to the latest update of the World Bank’s Human Capital Index (HCI).

The 2020 Human Capital Index includes health and education data for 174 countries covering 98 percent of the world’s population up to March 2020.

Russia’s improvements were largely in health, reflected in better child and adult survival rates and reduced stunting. Across the Europe and Central Asia region, Russia, along with Azerbaijan, Albania, Montenegro, and Poland, also made the largest gains in increasing expected years of schooling – mainly due to improvements in secondary school and pre-primary enrollments. The report also shows that over the last 10 years Russia has seen a reduction in adult mortality rates. However, absolute values of this indicator remain high in the country with this progress now at risk due to the global Covid-19 pandemic.

Human capital contributes greatly to improving of economic growth in every country. Investments in knowledge and health that people accumulate during their lives are of paramount concern to governments around the world. Russia is among the top improvers globally in the Index. However, challenges persist and much needs to be done to improve the absolute values of Index indicators,” said Renaud Seligmann, the World Bank Country Director in Russia.

The HCI, first launched in 2018, looks at a child’s trajectory, from birth to age 18, on such critical metrics as child survival (birth to age 5); expected years of primary and secondary education adjusted for quality; child stunting; and adult survival rates. HCI 2020, based on data up to March of this year, provides a crucial pre-pandemic baseline that can help inform health and education policies and investments for the post-pandemic recovery.

Of the 48 countries in Europe and Central Asia included in the 2020 Human Capital Index (HCI), 33 are among the upper-third in the world, and almost all are in the top half. However, there are significant variations within the region.

In Russia, a child born today can expect to achieve 68 percent of the productivity of a fully educated adult in optimal health. It is at the average level for Europe and Central Asia countries and the third result globally among the countries of the same income group. There is a stark contrast between education and health subscales in Russia. While the education outcomes of the country are high and outperform many high-income peers, its health outcomes are below the global average.

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