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Success of China’s Belt & Road Initiative Depends on Deep Policy Reforms

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China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) could speed up economic development and reduce poverty for dozens of developing countries—but it must be accompanied by deep policy reforms that increase transparency, improve debt sustainability, and mitigate environmental, social, and corruption risks, a new World Bank Group study on the BRI transportation corridors has found.

Through independent, empirical analysis, the Belt and Road Economics study is designed to help policymakers in developing countries weigh the potential benefits and risks of participating in BRI projects. It assesses the network of proposed transportation projects in about 70 countries along land and maritime BRI corridors that connect Asia, Europe, and Africa. It also provides a series of policy recommendations to help developing countries along those corridors maximize potential benefits while mitigating a variety of risks.

“Achieving the ambitions of the Belt and Road Initiative will require equally ambitious reforms from participating countries,” said Ceyla Pazarbasioglu, the World Bank’s Vice President for Equitable Growth, Finance, and Institutions. “Improvements in data reporting and transparency—especially around debt—open government procurement, and adherence to the highest social and environmental standards will help significantly.”

If implemented fully, the initiative could lift 32 million people out of moderate poverty—those who live on less than $3.20 a day, the analysis found. It could boost global trade by up to 6.2 percent, and up to 9.7 percent for corridor economies. Global income could increase by as much 2.9 percent. For low-income corridor economies, foreign direct investment could rise by as much as 7.6 percent. At the same time, the cost of BRI-related infrastructure could outweigh the potential gains for some countries.

The study, by a team of World Bank Group economists led by Michele Ruta, found that complementary policy reforms will be essential for countries to unlock BRI-related gains. Real income for BRI economies could be two to four times larger if trade facilitation is improved and trade restrictions are reduced. In addition, stronger labor-mobility and adjustment policies would ensure that gains are more equally shared.

Yet, the analysis found, BRI also entails significant risks that are exacerbated by a lack of transparency and weak institutions in participating economies. Many BRI projects cross borders, so coordination among all economies within a corridor is critical. Among the 43 corridor economies for which detailed data is available, 12—most of which already face elevated debt levels—could suffer a further medium-term deterioration in their outlook for debt sustainability. It could boost global carbon emissions by 0.3 percent—and by up to 7 percent in countries with low emissions levels.

 “BRI’s success depends on the implementation of policy measures in three broad categories: transparency, country-specific gaps, and multilateral cooperation,” said Caroline Freund, the World Bank’s Director for Macroeconomics, Trade, and Investment. “Greater transparency is necessary at all levels, from project planning to budgeting and procurement and public reporting of debt levels. For countries to benefit fully from BRI, they will need to work together. In addition, many countries need to strengthen environmental standards, adopt social safety nets, and improve labor mobility.”

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4IR Tech Can Fast Track 70% of Sustainable Development Goals

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2030 is the “Decade of Delivery” to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals – yet the gap between where we are, and where we need to be is significant. A new report, Unlocking Technology for the Global Goals, finds that 4IR technology can play a major role in bridging this gap, but new commitments and partnerships will be necessary to move beyond technological optimism.

Over 300 use cases of emerging technologies, including Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain, Internet of Things, 5G and drones were analysed to build the case for how 4IR technologies could do more to accelerate progress towards the Global Goals.

Across the Goals, and their 169 targets, 70% could be enabled by 4IR technology applications already in use today. Current 4IR tech was found to play an important role for 10 of the Global Goals, in particular: Health (Goal 3), Clean Energy (Goal 7), and Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure (Goal 9).

The World Economic Forum report, written in collaboration with PWC, found that the extent to which these technologies are already providing positive contributions. It highlights barriers and risks to scaling up 4IR solutions and outlines what needs to be done to unlock the enormous potential. Overall new technologies are shown to offer ‘high’ impact on more than half of the Goals. The study also finds that big data platforms and AI are already supporting progress on every Global Goal.

“There is a huge untapped opportunity to harness new technologies to accelerate progress on the Global Goals,” said Celine Herweijer, Partner and Global Innovation and Sustainability Leader, PwC UK. “It’s time to move from celebrating so-called Tech for Good use cases to assertively directing technology at society’s biggest challenges – such as climate change and inequality.”

The analysis shows that today’s applications of 4IR technologies related to the Global Goals tend to focus on areas with strong private sector commercial benefits, including energy, industry and healthcare. Underlying barriers, from lack of basic infrastructure, expertise and data, to adequate market incentives and business models, must be addressed to shift this reality.

To help close the gap between technology’s potential and the slow rate of progress, the Forum is supporting the launch of Frontier 2030 at the 2020 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos. Frontier 2030 sets out an ambitious aim: to mobilize technology companies, governments, international organizations, investors and civil society to tackle the barriers that prevent 4IR technology from being scaled up to address the Global Goals.

“We have good reason for technology optimism, but we also need a good dose of technology realism,” said Antonia Gawel, Head of Innovation and Circular Economy, World Economic Forum. “4IR technologies are tools that still require commitment, policies and partnerships to put them to work in the service of the Global Goals. With Frontier 2030 and UpLink – our digital platform to engage Gen Z and entrepreneurs in meeting the SDGs – we will make this happen.”

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Higher Productivity is Key to Thailand’s Future Economic Growth and Prosperity

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Thailand’s growth slowed to an estimated 2.5 percent in 2019 from 4.1 percent in 2018, due to external and domestic factors. The economy is projected to pick up moderately to 2.7 percent in 2020 as private consumption recovers and investment picks up due to the implementation of large public infrastructure projects. As Thailand seeks to transition to high-income status by 2037, boosting productivity and reviving private investment will be critical, according to the World Bank’s Thailand Economic Monitor report, released today.

Global economic growth is forecast to edge up to 2.5 percent in 2020 as investment and trade gradually recover from last year’s significant weakness but downward risks persist. These risks include a re-escalation of trade tensions and trade policy uncertainty, a sharper-than expected downturn in major economies, and financial turmoil in emerging market and developing economies.

“A continued deceleration of economic activity in large economies, China, the Euro Area, and the United States, could have adverse repercussions across the East Asia region, through weaker demand for exports and the disruptions of global value chains,” said Birgit Hansl, World Bank Country Manager for Thailand. “Financial investment, commodity, and confidence channels could further weaken the global economy and adversely impact Thailand’s exports.”

In 2019, declining exports and growing weaknesses in domestic demand were the key drivers of the slowdown in growth in Thailand. Agricultural commodity exports declined by 7 percent in the first three quarters of 2019, led by sharp decreases in export volumes for major products such as rice and rubber. Manufacturing exports declined by 6 percent in the same period, with electronics exports hardest hit. Thailand’s strong currency, which has appreciated by 8.9 percent since last year, making the baht the strongest it has been in six years, has also impacted international tourism and merchandise exports.

The government has responded swiftly to the growth slowdown, through accommodative monetary policies and a fiscal stimulus package to boost economic growth. Going forward, the report recommends the governments consider policies to enhance the effectiveness of the stimulus by focusing on implementing major public investment projects, improving the efficiency of public investment management, and providing social protection coverage for vulnerable families.

The recent growth slowdown has highlighted Thailand’s long-run structural constraints, with slowing investments and low productivity growth. In the last decade, Thailand’s productivity growth has fallen to 1.3 percent over 2010-2016 from 3.6 percent over 1999-2007. Private investment has halved from 30 percent of GDP in 1997 to 15 percent in 2018, as foreign direct investments slowed, and progress stalled on projects under the Eastern Economic Corridor.

The report projects that if current trends continue, with no significant pickup in investment and productivity growth, Thailand’s average annual growth rate will remain below 3 percent. To achieve its vision of being a high-income country by 2037, Thailand will need to sustain long-run growth rates of above 5 percent, which would require a productivity growth rate of 3 percent and increase investment to 40 percent of GDP.

“Boosting productivity will be a critical part of Thailand’s long-term structural reform,” said Kiatipong Ariyapruchya, World Bank Senior Economist for Thailand. “Increasing productivity, particularly of manufacturing firms, will depend on increasing competition and openness to foreign direct investments, and improving skills.”

Sustaining higher productivity growth will require removing constraints that prevents new firms, especially foreign firms, and skilled professionals from entering the domestic market. These constraints include lifting restrictive laws, particularly for the services sector, implementing the new Competition Act with clear guidelines related to state-owned enterprises and price controls, and developing policies to build the skills and human capital needed for an innovative knowledge-based economy.

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ADB History Book Explains Asia’s Five Decades of Economic Success

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Sound economic policies and strong institutions have transformed Asia and the Pacific over the past five decades into a center of global dynamism, according to a new book from the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The book—Asia’s Journey to Prosperity: Policy, Market, and Technology Over 50 Years—explains the reasons for Asia’s economic success, while cautioning against complacency.

Developing Asia’s share of global gross domestic product (GDP) rose from 4% in 1960 to 24% in 2018. Including Australia, Japan, and New Zealand, the share increased from 13% to 34%. During the same period, developing Asia’s per capita GDP grew 15-fold (in constant 2010 United States dollars), from $330 to $4,903, boosting incomes and lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty.

“In 1966, when ADB was established, developing economies in the Asia and Pacific region were very poor. There was pessimism about prospects for industrialization and broad development. But the region’s performance over the past 50 years has surpassed expectations by any measure—be it economic growth, structural transformation, poverty reduction, or improvement in health and education,” said ADB President Mr. Takehiko Nakao.

The book emphasizes that there is no such thing as a unique “Asian Consensus” in the region’s journey to prosperity. Rather, the policies pursued in Asia can be explained by standard economic theories, not so different from those prescribed by the “Washington Consensus” set of policies. Economic transformation in the region came about in much the same ways as in many developed economies. What was important was that many Asian countries took a pragmatic approach. They implemented import liberalization, opening up of foreign direct investment, financial sector deregulation, and capital account liberalization in a sequential way and based on meeting certain conditions.

In the past half century, many Asian countries enjoyed a “demographic dividend” and benefited from rapid technological progress, globalization, and the generally open trade and investment regimes of developed countries. However, even with favorable demographic and external conditions, the process of economic growth is not automatic.

Asia’s postwar economic success owed much to creating effective policies and strong institutions. It was supported by governments’ pragmatism in making policy choices, decisiveness in introducing reforms, and an ability to learn from their own and other’s achievements and mistakes. In many countries, a clear vision for the future, which is often championed by forward-looking leaders and shared across a wide spectrum of social groups, contributed to broad-based growth and made a difference, especially when backed by a competent bureaucracy.

Over time, Asian economies adopted open trade and investment policies; facilitated agricultural modernization and industrial transformation; supported technological progress; invested in education and health; mobilized the high level of domestic savings for productive investments; promoted infrastructure development; pursued sound macroeconomic policies; and implemented policies for poverty reduction and inclusiveness.

The book notes that Asia should not be complacent and that it is too early to describe the 21st century as the “Asian Century”. Developing Asia still faces pockets of persistent poverty, increasing income inequality, large gender gaps, environmental degradation, and climate change. Millions still lack adequate access to health, education, electricity, and safe drinking water. Mr. Nakao also pointed out that it will take more time for Asia to become as influential as the West has been over the last five centuries. Asia must continue to make efforts to strengthen its institutions, contribute to the development of science and technology, assume more responsibilities in tackling global issues, and articulate its own ideas.

The book was produced by a diverse ADB team, led by the management group of the Economic Research and Regional Cooperation Department and the President himself, over 3 years. It provides a broad historical overview of rapid transformation in all ADB’s 46 developing economies, beyond the newly industrialized economies and several Southeast Asian countries discussed by the well-known 1993 World Bank publication, The East Asian Miracle. It considers a longer time horizon from the immediate postwar period to the present, capturing the transition from centrally planned systems to market-oriented economies. In writing, the team tried to make the book as interesting as possible by including anecdotes, data, and country examples.

The book consists of 15 chapters: (i) an overview of 50 years of development; (ii) the roles of markets and the state; (iii) industrial transformation; (iv) land reform and green revolution; (v) technological progress; (vi) education, health and demographics; (vii) investment and saving; (viii)  infrastructure (energy, transport, water, and telecommunication); (ix) trade and foreign direct investment; (x) macroeconomic policies; (xi) poverty reduction and income equality; (xii) gender and development; (xiii) environmental sustainability and climate change; (xiv) multilateral and bilateral development finance; and (xv) regional cooperation. Several chapters benefit from contributions by staff engaged in ADB operations.

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