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Sustainable development: Within reach in Iran and Asia and the Pacific

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana

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Climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of natural disasters in Asia and the Pacific. The tragic loss of life and the destruction wrought by recent flooding in the Islamic Republic of Iran is a reminder of the threat to lives, livelihoods and societies posed by extreme weather events. A reminder that only an integrated response to economic, social and environmental challenges can pave the way to sustainable development.

The floods which swept across the Islamic Republic of Iran in spring this year were devastating. They affected 10 million people and 500,000 people were displaced of which half were children. Hospitals and schools were destroyed, denying 100,000 children and education and thousands access to basic health care. Large sections of the country’s road network were affected, which will weigh on the economy, but also impact on many families’ daily lives. Damages have been estimated at $4.7 billion, a third of which concern the agricultural sector, critical to many livelihoods.

Yet as tragic and costly as the recent floods have been, they are also part of a wider phenomenon: the increasing risk of natural disasters outpacing resilience in the Islamic Republic of Iran and in Asia and the Pacific. Sand and dust storms, drought, desertification and wind erosion are all expected to rise in South-West Asia by 2030. Intensified by climate change, these disasters are becoming increasingly frequent. They hit the poor and vulnerable hardest, particularly in informal settlements. Some of Iran’s least developed provinces have suffered the most, with successive sand and dust storms destroying crops and infrastructure, and undermining people’s health, study and work.

These challenges exemplify why economic, social and environmental considerations must be considered together, if we are to effectively mitigate the consequences of natural disasters and achieve sustainable development. Evidence from across the globe tells us ignoring the social impact of economic growth can place a huge strain on societies, and at its worst lead to instability and conflict. Ignoring the environmental cost of economic growth in many parts of our region has led to climate change and an increased risk of natural hazards, which entrench poverty and perpetuate inequality. Nowhere is an integrated, multilateral response needed more than in Asia and the Pacific, the most disaster-prone region in the world.

With this in mind, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) has worked with the Islamic Republic of Iran to establish the Asian and the Pacific Centre for the Development of Disaster Information Management (APDIM) in Tehran. It will deliver targeted capacity development for disaster information management and knowledge sharing. A regional cooperation mechanism for combatting the sand and dust storms has already been adopted. This will work to reduce the causes of risk of multiple hazards, develop a sand and dust storms alert system and tap regional partnership networks to enhance technical support where it is most needed.

My ambition is for APDIM to fit into a broader regional development and cooperation effort. One to reduce the inequality and environmental degradation which have accompanied recent exponential economic growth in our region. Our analysis shows the investment needed to achieve sustainable development in Asia and the Pacific is within reach. Developing countries’ investment needs stand at an additional $1.5 trillion per year, or five percent of their combined GDP. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, we estimate investments needed to climate-proof basic infrastructure are equivalent to roughly 1 per cent of Iran’s GDP in 2018. Further investment would be required in education and people centered approaches to build resilient communities and economy.

Sustainable development which balances economic growth with the need for social inclusion and environmental protection is essential to ensure a prosperous Iran today and a clean, compassionate and safe future for our children. Investing in people, as well as investing in skies, land and water can ensure that future. The Islamic Republic Iran has the means and the will. Yet persistence will be required to achieve this ambition, and the United Nations family stands ready to assist in any way it can in the months and years ahead.

UNESCAP

Ms. Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

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Economy

Building Back Better: The new normal development path

Alek Karci Kurniwan

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Global stock markets such as Footsie, Dow Jones Industrial Average and Nikkei has decreased the profit since the outbreak of Covid-19 Pandemic in early 2020. Dow Jones fell to its lowest point, minus 35%, in April 2020 (Bloomberg, 4/27/2020). In US, more than 1 in 4 workers have lost their jobs since the coronavirus crisis shut down much of the economy in March.(National Public Radio, 28/3/2020).

Even the trend of Covid-19 death case has decrease, but still worried. Will the second wave happen? Because of that a new normal order is needed, when the spread of the pandemic stops and then the economy returns to normal.

There are at least two potential scenarios for the recovery of the economic crisis which were affected by Covid-19. The first scenario, gross domestic product will be pushed in such a way as to make the economy grow faster. By stimulating consumption, investment, government spending, and commodity exports.  At the same time, industrialization will grow stronger than the pre-Covid-19 conditions.

Environmental conditions that had improved during the emergence of Covid-19 might be polluted again. Carbon emissions are predicted to rise into the air, to pre-Covid-19 levels, and will even be higher than before. This is what is called the “revenge pollution” phenomenon. Like the recession and the global financial crisis in 2008, which is comparable to the scale of the crisis impact of the Pandemic Covid-19, even in very different kinds. Governments in the world responded with an economic rescue package and a stimulus worth by billions of USD. But in the last decade, greenhouse gas emissions have increased.

China has a real precedent. In response to the global financial crisis in 2008, the Chinese government launched a USD 586 billion stimulus package focused on massive infrastructure projects. That is why China’s industry has grown rapidly over the years. But for the environmental impact, their emission levels increased. Known as “airpocalypse” as the worst smog in city centers, such as Beijing in the winter of 2012 and 2013.

Besides, the world also creates a level of inequality that is far greater than that seen since the Second World War. The world shows a very striking difference between the super-rich and the very poor in terms of health, job security, education and other matters. As stated by Oxfam (2017), the wealth of 1% of the rich is equal to the combined wealth of 99% of the world’s population.

Then the second scenario, where we depart from the revenge pollution precedent after 2008. Pandemics give opportunities, when the economy back to begin normally and new rules, there is an opportunity to make the impossible to possible – or the last ignored things can be applied. This is the best time for the green agenda includes in the order that we want to renew.

Oxford University recently published an interesting study related to the global crisis recovery plan, entitled “Building back better: Green COVID-19 recovery packages will boost economic growth and stop climate change.” The focus of the research is to compare between green stimulus projects with traditional stimulus, such as the taken steps after the 2008 global financial crisis. The researchers found that, green projects create more work, provide higher short-term returns, and lead to long-term increased cost savings.

In economic development, to quickly recover from the crisis, the Government needs projects, which is called by experts with the term ‘shovel ready’ infrastructure projects. It exceeds labor-intensive projects, it also does not need high-level skills or extensive training, and gives profitable infrastructure for the economy. An example is the clean energy infrastructure, which produces twice as much work as a fossil fuel project.

We can see the need for bicycle-friendly and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure in cities. Then build a broadband internet network connection, because online systems for schools and work will be used massively. And the network for charging electric vehicles. Therefore, in the future we will definitely need more electricity. It also needs mass projects for solar, wind and biogas power plants.

According to WRI (2017), the main sources of global greenhouse gas emissions are electricity (31%), agriculture (11%), transportation (15%), forestry (6%) and manufacturing (12%). All types of energy production contribute 72% of all emissions. The energy sector is the most dominant factor causing greenhouse gas emissions. That’s how our lives are still dependent on fossil energy in the “old normal”. “New normal” should be able to replace old energy sources with renewable energy.

In April 2020, EU Ministers of environment launched “The European Green Deal” as the point of the post Covid-19 recovery process. At least 100 billion Euros were mobilized during the 2021-2027 period in the most affected regions for investment in environmentally friendly technology, decarbonate energy sector, and other new green norms.

CEOs of large companies such as Ikea, H&M and Danone have signed commitments representing the private sector in this alliance. The Contracting Parties understand that the fight against climate change is the point of Europe’s new economic policy, with an emphasis on renewable energy, zero emissions and new technology. This should be an example for the world in crisis recovery from the impact of the Corona virus pandemic. There is an opportunity to redesign a sustainable and inclusive economy.

In the Paris Agreement 2015, countries in the world have agreed to responsible for reducing the impact of climate change, with different portions and capabilities.The target is quite high, the world must reduce emissions by more than 45% if global warming is limited to 1.5 °C. Without the great new adaptation, the goals won’t be achieved easily.

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Of IMF’s Debt Trap and Chinese Debt Peonage

Abdul Rasool Syed

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With the mandate of fostering global monetary corporations, securing financial stability, facilitating international trade, promoting high employment and sustainable growth, and reducing poverty around the world, IMF formally came into existence in 1945 at Bretton Wood conference. Ever since its inception, the fund has been under severe criticism by economic luminaries, celebrated academicians, and the enlightened political scientists belonging to different parts of world exclusively to the third world countries.

For many observers, the problems of the fund are congenital; Bretton Wood produced a deformed infant and a little has been done through the years to overcome such deformities. The assertion is often made the fund was created by and for industrial countries with no concern for the developing countries. Much of the criticism on fund revolves around the conditions attached to its lending facility.

According to well-versed economists, when the fund prescribes austerity to the recipient country, the health budgets are cut down, children are forced to leave schools and the workers are thrown out of work. Education and health sectors suffer the worst consequences of IMF’s prescribed austerity drive. IMF with utter disregard to domestic affairs of the host country prescribes its own recipe to cure the ills of borrowing economy.

It dispatches a team to assess the economy of the host country, measure its performance, and to recommend corrective measures and remedial actions; of what Joseph Stieglitz– a former World Bank chief economist famously scorned as second-rate economists from first-rate universities–says, “They are well-meaning people and I am sure they want to help. But their visits are painful reminders of riots in Bolivia, Indonesia, and strikes in Nigeria…”

Another renowned economist Jeffery Sachs argues that the IMF’S “usual prescription is budgetary belt-tightening to the countries who are too poor to buy such belts”. Furthermore, it reminds me the prophetic words of Harry White former assistant to Secretary of the U.S treasury who once said “I don’t think the fund should butt into every country’s business and say “we don’t like this or that”.

Moreover, for the developing country like Pakistan, the IMF prescriptions are force-fed and according to one economist, we have to swallow the IMF prescribed medicine because we have no other choice. He adds that some of the recommendations of the fund are like a doctor stemming the bleeding of your arm by stopping your heart. Thus, such prescription incompatible with the domestic market of the borrowing country does not bear any fruit. It rather redoubles the difficulties for the host country to cope with its socio-economic challenges.

In addition, there is also a widespread perception in developing countries that by giving its own program, the fund entraps the borrowing country and thereby penetrates deep into its economic system. The fund’s undue intervention in the country’s internal economic dispensation results in economic chaos and uncertainty. The policymakers are therefore unable to craft economic programs in accordance with requirements of the home economy. Consequently, the country is forced to surrender its economic independence and financial sovereignty.

Another allegation leveled against the IMF is that it is a tool of U.S foreign policy that furthers its strategic and economic interests.
Being the only nation with an outright veto helps Washington sway decisions to its benefits. The U.S, therefore, exploits the fund to lure the borrowing country into a debt trap and thereby makes it as its lackey. Such entrapment helps U.S advance her imperialist agenda and meet her global interests. This can be plainly grasped in our relations with the fund, whose pockets are generous to us when we serve the interests of the U.S as it happened after 9/11 and penny-pinching otherwise.

The undue clout of Washington on IMF has raised many questions on its credibility.  Rightly did Lord Keynes describe the views of America on the future of IMF. He wrote in 1944, before Bretton Wood Conference. “In their eyes, the fund should have wide discretionary and policing powers and should exercise something of the same measure of the grandmotherly influence and control over the central banks of the member countries, that these central banks, in turn, are accustomed to exercise control over the other banks of their own countries”… this is how the game to control the economy of the borrowing country is played by U.S in cahoots with IMF.

It seems that China too is following the footprints of IMF. It is employing the same tactics to create its global hegemony as that of the U.S. by using its heavy influence on IMF. It has been keenly observed by political cognoscenti and leading defense analysts that China is colonizing smaller countries by lending them massive amounts of money that they can never repay. The country is accused of leveraging massive loans it holds over small states worldwide to snatch their assets and increase its military footprints.

Developing countries from Pakistan to Djibouti, the Maldives to Fiji all owe huge amounts to China. There are examples of many defaulters being pressured into surrendering control of their assets or allowing military basis on their land. This move of China is being dubbed by its detractors as “debt-trap diplomacy” or debt colonialism- offering enticing loans to countries unable to repay and then demanding concessions when they default. Sri Lanka provided a prime example of last year.

Owing more than $1 billion in debts to China, Sri Lanka was forced to hand over Hambantota port to the companies owned by the Chinese government on a 99 years lease. And Djibouti, home to US military base in Africa, also looks likely to cede control of a port terminal to a Beijing-linked firm. Apart, America is eager to stop the Doraleh container terminal falling into Chinese hands, particularly because it sits next to China’s only overseas military base.

While commenting on the Chinese debt- trap diplomacy, Rex Tillerson said” Bejing encouraged “dependency using opaque contracts, predatory loan practices, and corrupt deals that mire nations in debt and undercut their sovereignty”.

Additionally, China’s debt empire has also been rearing its head in the Pacific, prompting fears the country intends to leverage the debt to expand its military footprint into south pacific. Beijing’s creation of man-made islands in the disputed South China Sea for use as military bases suggests the concern may be warranted.

Another case worth mentioning here is of Tonga. It also carries some big debts and is struggling hard for the repayment. Tonga’s Prime Minister, Akilisi Pohvia voiced his concerns saying that Beijing was planning to seize assets from his country. Inter alia, a report from the Center for Global Development offers some insight into spreading China debt. It depicts that the infrastructure project loans to the likes of Magnolia, Montenegro, and Laos have resulted in millions or even billions in debts, which often account for huge percentages of countries’ GDPs.

Many of these projects are linked to the belt and road initiative- a bold project to create trade routes through the swathes of Eurasia, with China at the center. Mahathir Mohammad, the Malaysian Prime Minister while talking to press expressed his reservations about Chinese investment in the following words” We welcome foreign direct investment from anywhere certainly from China. But when it involves giving contracts to China, borrowing huge sums of money from China- and Chinese contractors prefer to use their own workers from China, use everything imported from China even payment is made in China. So we gain nothing at all”.

Therefore, Pakistan in dealing with both IMF and China must remain cautious so that it might neither fall prey to Chinese debt peonage nor to IMF’s debt trap. It may not be possible in case of IMF because a beggar cannot be a chooser while in case of engagement with China, we need to maintain caution and outline our own rules of engagement based on monitoring, evaluating, and allowing discussions to weigh the pros and cons of each and every development project.

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Armenia’s inability to solve pandemic-related economic problems

Orkhan Baghirov

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According to data from the Armenian government, in 2019 the country’s economy grew by about 7.6%,which was the highest figure since 2008. Further data from the Statistical Committee of Armenia show that the trade and service sectors were the main drivers of economic development. In the same period, 9% growth in industrial output and a 4% reduction in agricultural output were also recorded. Inspired by these growth numbers, during a cabinet meeting in January, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said that he was confident that, as a result of the joint efforts of government members, even higher figures will be registered in 2020. However, as a result of subsequent pandemic-related events, his confidence disappeared and difficulties in solving economic problems have proven the inability of the Armenian government to act independently.

Since the declaration of an emergency situation on March 16, economic activity has significantly slowed, thus leading to the creation of various economic problems and a financial deficit. Even though some restrictions were softened in May, that did not lead to a noticeable increase in economic activity. As a result, the economic forecasts for Armenia in 2020 worsened. According to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the economy of Armenia will contract by about3.5% in 2020 as a result of global uncertainty and falling demand. However, the Armenian government is more optimistic in its prediction of a decline in GDP of 2%.

One of the main problems created by the pandemic-related economic restrictions is the impossibility of implementation of government-approved budget projects for 2020. As the forecast for Armenia’s GDP worsens, it will lead to lower tax revenues than initially planned for. According to the Finance Minister, Atom Janjughazyan, with the forecast 2% decline of GDP at the end of the year, tax revenues will decrease by about 10% compared with the planned volume. If the economy diminishes by more than 2%,that will lead to an even greater reduction in tax revenues. Janjughazyan also noted that the government plans to keep budget spending unchanged in order to mitigate the negative consequences and create the preconditions for a quick recovery. Although this decision could help to prevent social discontent and avert some economic problems, it could have long-lasting economic consequences by significantly increasing the budget deficit. With a reduction in taxes generated of about 10%, the budget deficit will double, reaching 5% of the projected GDP or $676.4 million (1 Armenian Dram=0.0021 USD). To run the budgeted projects with such a high level of deficit, the government will have to amend the budget legislation in order to exceed existing restrictions.

Another financial problem for Armenia is related to the implementation of support programs. As the emergency situation has substantially impacted economic development, the government has had to implement support programs. Even though these programs have been important in supporting the economy, they have also created financial problems as the government does not have enough resources to implement them independently. To support the economy, the government approved a support package of $315 million. Of these funds, $168 million will be used for long-term economic development programs;$52.5 million for the elimination of economic problems, social tension and liquidity issues; and $42 million for the redistribution of reserve funds. So far, the Armenian government has approved 20 crisis measures for the implementation of support programs.

Financing the high budget deficit and extensive support programs creates financial problems as Armenia does not have sufficient financial resources. Therefore, Armenia must attract funds from other countries or international financial institutions. Based on the calculations of the Armenian government for financing the combined support programs and budget deficit,it needs to raise an additional$546 million. Armenia already has a large volume of external debt (40% of GDP in 2019) and raising additional funds will significantly increase that debt. Taking on an additional $546 million of debt will increase the government’s external debt by about 10%. Taking into account that, during 2019, the total public debt of Armenia increased by about 14.8%, the increase of external debt by about 10% from only one source shows how seriously it will affect the financial security of the country.

Armenia also is facing economic problems in the energy sector. On April 1,GazpromArmenia, the Russian-owned natural gas distributing company, declared that it was going to ask the Public Services Regulatory Commission (PSRC) for changes to gas prices in Armenia. It proposed to set the same price for all customers beginning from July 1. This change would eliminate the discount for low-income families, thus leading to a 35% increase in price for them but a2.2% decrease for consumers that use up to 10,000 cubic meters of gas per month. The Armenian government was dissatisfied with the offered gas rates as it was already dealing with pandemic-related economic problems and it requested that Russia decrease the price of gas that they sell to Armenia.

As the talks with Russia did not lead to desired results, the PSRC accepted the changes but kept the price for domestic users and low-income families unchanged. The PSRC wants the average weighted price of 1,000 cubic meter of gas be set at $266.7 USD,$16.43 below the price that Gazprom Armenia had proposed. The price of natural gas will increase from $212 to $224 per thousand cubic meters for agricultural companies, and from $242 to $255.92for consumers who use more than 10,000 cubic meters of gas per month. The new prices will enter into force on July 19, except for thermal power plants. Despite the fact that PSRC was able to prevent price changes for ordinary citizens, the new rates will create unemployment problems. In order to operate with accepted price changes Gazprom Armenia has to lay off about 1500 employees and reduce its annual revenues about 6%.

The inability of the Armenian government to solve its economic problems with its own financial resources or to diversify its energy imports will lead to significant economic problems. Many countries around the world are facing economic and financial problems and are therefore looking to obtain foreign assistance, and this reduces opportunities to access foreign finance by intensifying competition. Therefore, it is not currently easy for Armenia to attract financial resources. The dependence of the energy sector on the price policies of other countries also creates economic instability. Even though the PSRC was able to avoid natural gas price rises for ordinary citizens, it cannot prevent unemployment issues and price rises for businesses. Therefore, countries that are dependent on foreign financial assistance and are unable to implement independent economic and energy policies during the pandemic and in the post-pandemic period will face serious economic issues. Taking into account that social and economic problems were among the main drivers of the change of government in Armenia in 2018,the pandemic-related economic problems will also have political consequences.

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