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MENA Faces Another Year of Subdued Growth, with Bolder Reforms Needed to Boost Private Sector

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Economic growth in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is projected to slow to 0.6% this year compared with 1.2% last year, according to a new World Bank report. The growth forecast for 2019 is revised down by 0.8 percentage points from the April 2019 projection due to lower oil prices since April 2019 and a larger-than expected contraction in Iran. MENA’s economic outlook is subject to substantial downside risks—most notably, intensified global economic headwinds and rising geopolitical tensions.

The latest edition of the MENA Economic Update titled “Reaching New Heights: Promoting Fair Competition in the Middle East and North Africa” discusses the current sluggish growth due to conservative oil production outputs, weak global demand for oil, and a larger-than-expected contraction in Iran. On the other hand, a boost in non-oil activities in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates), most prominently in construction, partially offset the dampening effect on the region’s average growth numbers as a result of Iran’s economic contraction.

Egypt’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) continues to lead growth in the region as its overall macroeconomic environment has improved following the country’s exchange rate, fiscal, and energy reforms. As a result, Egypt’s economy grew to 5.4% in the first half of 2019, up from 5.2% in 2018.

“Countries in the region have implemented bold reforms to restore macroeconomic stability, but the projected growth rate is a fraction of what is needed to create enough jobs for the fast-growing, working-age population,” said Ferid Belhaj, World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa region. “It is time for courageous and far-sighted leadership to deepen the reforms, to bring down the barriers to competition and to unlock the enormous potential of the region’s 400 million people as a source of collective demand that could drive growth and jobs.

In the medium-term, the World Bank expects real GDP in the MENA region to grow at 2.6% in 2020 and 2.9% in 2021. The projected pickup in growth is largely driven by increasing infrastructure investment in GCC countries and the recovery in Iran’s economy as the effects of current sanctions wane.

However, the report warns that a further escalation in regional tensions could severely weaken Iran’s economy and spill over to other countries in the region. While rising oil prices would benefit many regional oil exporters in the short run, the overall impact would be to hurt regional trade, investment, and spending on infrastructure.

In addition to providing economic growth forecasts for each country, the report highlights how unfair competition results from markets dominated by state-owned enterprises and politically-connected firms which deters private investment, reducing the number of jobs and preventing countless talented young people from prospering.

“The lack of fair competition is holding back the development of the region’s private sector, which history has shown to be the source of broad-based growth and jobs,” said Rabah Arezki, World Bank MENA Chief Economist. “Countries in the region have an opportunity to transform their economies by levelling the economic playing field, and creating business environments that encourage risk-taking and reward innovation and higher productivity.”

Unleashing regional demand accompanied by arm’s length regulation that fosters competition and fights anti-competitive practices could prevent the perpetuation of oligarchies—the powerful few who often seize control of liberalization attempts, with the unfortunate result that the idea of reform is sullied among the citizens. The report calls for strengthening competition laws and enforcement agencies. It also calls for more efficient management leading to potential corporatizing of state-owned enterprises, promoting the private sector, and setting up watchdogs to rebalance contestability between them.

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Greater Innovation Critical to Driving Sustained Economic Recovery in East Asia

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Innovation is critical to productivity growth and economic progress in developing East Asia in a rapidly changing world, according to a new World Bank report launched today.

Countries in developing East Asia have an impressive record of sustained growth and poverty reduction.  But slowing productivity growth, uncertainties in global trade, and technological advances are increasing the need to transition to new and better modes of production to sustain economic performance.

To support policy makers in meeting this challenge, The Innovation Imperative for Developing East Asia examines the state of innovation in the region, analyzes the key constraints firms face in innovating, and lays out an agenda for action to spur innovation-led growth.

A large body of evidence links innovation to higher productivity,” said Victoria Kwakwa, World Bank Vice President for East Asia and Pacific. “The COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, along with the fast-evolving global environment, have raised urgency for governments in the region to promote greater innovation through better policies.

While developing East Asia is home to several high-profile innovators, data presented in the report show that most countries in the region (except China) innovate less than would be expected given their per capita income levels. Most firms operate far from the technological frontier. And the region is falling behind the advanced economies in the breadth and intensity of new technology use.

“Aside from some noteworthy examples, the vast majority of firms in developing East Asia are currently not innovating,” said Xavier Cirera, a lead author of the report. “A broad-based model of innovation is thus needed – that supports a large mass of firms in adopting new technologies, while also enabling more-sophisticated firms to undertake projects at the cutting edge.”

The report identifies several factors that impede innovation in the region, including inadequate information on new technologies, uncertainty about returns to innovation projects, weak firm capabilities, insufficient staff skills, and limited financing options. Moreover, countries’ innovation policies and institutions are often not aligned with firms’ capabilities and needs.

To spur innovation, the report argues that countries need to reorient policy to promote diffusion of existing technologies, not just invention; support innovation in the services sectors, not just manufacturing; and strengthen firms’ innovation capabilities. Taking this broader view of innovation policy will be critical to enabling productivity gains among a broader swath of firms in the region.

“It is important for governments in the region to support innovation in services, given their rising importance in these economies – not only for better service quality but increasingly as key inputs for manufacturing,” said Andrew Mason, also a lead author of the report.

Countries also need to strengthen key complementary factors for innovation, including workers’ skills and instruments to finance innovation projects. Building stronger links between national research institutions and firms will also be critical to fostering innovation-led growth in the region.

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Sea transport is primary route for counterfeiters

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More than half of the total value of counterfeit goods seized around the world are shipped by sea, according to a new OECD-EUIPO report.

Misuse of Containerized Maritime Shipping In the Global Trade of Counterfeits says that seaborne transport accounts for more than 80% of the volume of merchandise traded between countries, and more than 70% of the total value of trade.

Containerships carried 56% of the total value of seized counterfeits in 2016. The People’s Republic of China was the largest provenance economy for container shipments, making up 79% of the total value of maritime containers containing fakes and seized worldwide. India, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates are also among the top provenance economies for counterfeit and pirated goods traded worldwide.

Between 2014 and 2016, 82% of the seized value of counterfeit perfumes and cosmetics by customs authorities worldwide, 81% of the value of fake footwear and 73% of the value of customs seizures of fake foodstuff and toys and games concerned sea shipments. Additional analysis showed that over half of containers transported in 2016 by ships from economies known to be major sources of counterfeits entered the European Union through Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. There are also some EU countries, such as Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece and Romania, with relatively low volumes of containers trade in general, but with a high level of imports from counterfeiting-intense economies.

To combat illicit trade, a number of risk-assessment and targeting methods have been adapted for containerised shipping, in particular to enforce against illicit trade in narcotics and hazardous and prohibited goods. But the analysis reveals that the illicit trade in counterfeits has not been a high priority for enforcement, as shipments of counterfeits are commonly perceived as “commercial trade infractions” rather than criminal activity. Consequently, existing enforcement efforts may not be adequately tailored to respond to this risk, according to the report.  Tailored and flexible governance solutions are required to strengthen risk-assessment and targeting methods against counterfeits.

As well as infringing trademarks and copyright, counterfeit and pirated goods entail health and safety risks, product malfunctions and loss of income for companies and governments. Earlier OECD-EUIPO work has shown that imports of counterfeit and pirated goods amounted to up to USD 509 billion in 2016, or around 3.3% of global trade.

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Confident in managing liquidity, organizations still face challenges forecasting

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Most responding C-suite and other executives (84.6%) feel confident in their organizations’ abilities to manage cash and liquidity, according to a Deloitte poll. But as uncertainty persists, it’s important for organizations to continue to improve and strengthen their cash and liquidity management abilities so as not to provide a false sense of security.

 “With increased disruption from the pandemic, it’s important for executives to build long-term, sustainable strategies for liquidity versus focusing on short-term fixes which can provide a false sense of security. Bettering processes like forecasting can help give better visibility into cash-flows which in turn can help attain liquidity objectives.”

While forecasting can help give organizations better visibility into their financials, doing so has been difficult for many organizations amid the pandemic. Respondents stated that forecasting was either their top challenge (13.8%) or among their top challenges (54%) with liquidity and cash management during COVID-19.

“The pandemic has shifted executives’ focus from long-term planning to addressing more immediate business concerns—putting forecasting capabilities into the spotlight, which has shown weak points in these efforts. Gaining better visibility into forecasting to fully understand the liquidity impacts in their business is critical in navigating a path forward,” Jackson continued.

Advanced technologies are here to help but few are taking advantage

With forecasting challenging executives, especially in a time of increased disruption, leveraging advanced technologies can help. However, only 13.5% of respondents stated they are currently doing so and 18.8% of respondents plan to implement in the next 12 months. Almost half of respondents (46.8%) stated that they have no plans to use advanced technology in their liquidity management efforts.

Jackson said, “Utilizing technologies like advanced analytics can help executives save time and gain valuable insight that might not have otherwise been available—identifying trends and issues throughout areas like forecasting efforts. Ultimately, advanced technologies can help executives evaluate the most strategic ways to strengthen their liquidity.”

Through disruption, organizations are regularly updating liquidity management efforts
Executives stated that their organizations are updating cash flow and liquidity management plans in a regular cadence. Nearly a third (31.4%) of respondents are updating their plans monthly and nearly a quarter (24.5%) are updating their plans on a weekly basis. Only 7.2% of respondents stated they were not making changes to their cash flow and liquidity management plans.

Jackson concluded, “Efforts in managing cash flow and liquidity have usually been reserved for companies in distress. However, with the pandemic and increased disruption, these efforts are now relevant for almost every organization. Executives should recognize that now is the time to act by updating or creating better processes, gaining visibility and enhancing capabilities to make proactive and informed decisions that affect liquidity.”

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