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Navigating Sri Lanka’s Demographic Change

MD Staff

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The latest edition of the World Bank’s Sri Lanka Development Update (SLDU) finds the island in a challenging macroeconomic landscape. The post-conflict high growth momentum has decelerated. A volatile global environment and structurally weak competitiveness continue to weaken growth and external sector performance. High interest costs mask limited fiscal improvement.

The report’s special focus examines the challenges associated with a change in demographic composition and suggests that a multi-year program of policy reforms and institutional strengthening could help prepare Sri Lanka for the decades ahead.

The SLDU, which analyses key developments in Sri Lanka’s economy over the past six months, notes that while post-conflict growth has decelerated, the outlook remains stable, conditional on political stability and reform implementation.

Sri Lanka is stepping up to the plate at a time when the global environment remains turbulent. Key reforms, such as the implementation of the Inland Revenue Law, passing of the Active Liability Management Act, are helping to prepare for heightened external debt refinancing risks in 2019 and beyond.

It is important to consolidate on previous reforms to ensure maximum benefits,” says Fernando Im, an author of the SLDU and the senior country economist for Sri Lanka-Maldives. He explains that future reforms could yield high development impacts, such as further strengthening public finance management and supporting the implementation of a social registry to improve coverage and targeting of social safety nets.

Below are some of the recent developments highlighted in the report:

Sri Lanka’s debt portfolio carries significant risks

At an estimated 83 percent of its Gross Domestic Product, Sri Lanka’s central government debt level is high. As the country approached upper middle-income status, it has been borrowing on more commercial terms with increased cost and risk.

The majority of foreign currency denominated debt is now largely made up of market borrowings including International Sovereign Bonds (ISBs) and Sri Lanka Development Bonds (SLDBs), which in 2017 accounted for 53 percent, up from just 3 percent of total foreign currency denominated debt in 2000.

In total, maturities of bullet repayments on Eurobonds from 2019 to 2023 and from 2025 to 2028 alone amount to USD 12.15 billion. The SLDU notes that this is new territory for the country and could expose the island nation to refinancing risks.

In response, the government has adopted policies designed to address these risks, however, the slow progress of key structural reforms remains a cause for concern. It is hoped that improvements in debt management will help manage costs and risks of the portfolio, develop the domestic financial market and improve access to finance.

Despite the fast poverty reduction, there remain areas with significant poverty

Over the past two decades, Sri Lanka’s economy expanded at a rapid pace and the country has done much to address extreme poverty with a decline from 15.4 percent in 2013 to 9.7 percent in 2016, as measured against the World Bank’s international poverty line of $3.20 per day for lower middle-income countries.

Measures, such as the expansion of the Samurdhi programme in 2015, offered dividends although better targeting of social assistance would have resulted in larger gains. However, it is vital to note that a large number of people remain just a small shock away from falling back into poverty, says the report, noting that adverse weather conditions have become increasingly influential in recent years.

Critically, there is a disparity between various districts, with the highest poverty headcount being reported in the Northern and Eastern provinces, where regions like Ratnapura, Kandy and Badulla account for more than a quarter of the poor population combined. It is clear, Sri Lanka must design different strategies to address the varied issues around human capital, basic services, the availability of jobs and access to markets.

Sri Lanka is undergoing profound demographic change – the country needs to do more to prepare

Like many other countries in the world, Sri Lanka is staring down a dramatic demographic shift – Sri Lanka’s share of working-age population peaked in 2005 and it is expected to gradually decline over time. This has implications for labor supply, service delivery in sectors such as health and education, and of course for pensions, employment and public finances overall.

A particular concern are the limited savings and instructional support mechanisms in place to support this rapidly expanding elderly population. Increasing costs mean that programs such as the Public Servants Pension Scheme (PSPS) could struggle to deliver on their benefit promises over the long run, while the EPF – the employer-based defined contribution saving scheme for formal private sector workers – appears inadequate to meet the costs associated with over two decades of retirement.

As can be expected formidable challenges exist, but improving various aspects of delivery systems will prove critical to broadening worker coverage. By prioritising educational attainment, addressing the skills mismatch that hurts new graduates in the market, and nurturing entrepreneurship, younger people could be encouraged to participate in the workforce. Finally, improving female labour force participation could also help buffer the adverse impacts of demographic factors on growth.

World Bank

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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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