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Leaving No Place Behind Within the MENA Is Critical for Economic Growth and Social Inclusion

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Where someone is born in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) should not determine their ability to succeed in life, according to a new World Bank report launched today at the World Urban Forum (WUF10).

Convergence: Five Critical Steps Toward Integrating Lagging and Leading Areas in the Middle East and North Africa, says that enhancing opportunities and social services in governorates, towns, and villages that are economically distant from large metropolitan areas is key for faster economic growth and social inclusion in MENA. However, leaving no place behind does not mean doing the same policies and investments across the region – actions need to be tailored to local constraints and institutional systems.

“In the Middle East and North Africa, place matters for prosperity. Governments in the region have tried many ways to respond to the needs of people in lagging areas – much money has been spent on investment in these places,” said Sameh Wahba, World Bank Global Director for Urban, Disaster Risk Management, Resilience, and Land.  “To add jobs in poorer areas, policymakers have tried to insert new production facilities into these areas. To meet the need for decent homes and amenities in poor urban neighborhoods, money has been poured into massive housing projects.”

“However,” stressed Wahba, “spatial disparities continue to grow, or are closing more slowly than would be expected given the volume of investment directed to these locations. The main reason: the causes of spatial exclusion are not locational and physical but are economic and institutional.”  

Why is MENA so economically fragmented? The report identifies the following reasons:

Challenging business environments – most lagging areas in MENA have not been able to fully leverage their assets and abilities because the business environment and infrastructure in their cities and towns makes it hard for new firms to start and grow. One reason is that outside the capital city in MENA countries, smaller cities invariably lack the authority to raise their own revenues and to manage local service provision.

Lack of mobility – most residents in lagging areas are “stuck in place,” unable to take full advantage of jobs that more vibrant urban economies offer. Credentialist education systems may be most to blame for making people immobile.

Barriers to trade – MENA’s governments have created formidable obstacles to trade and migration. The main barriers are limits on news and information and practical constraints on travel and trade. For example, visa difficulties, weak infrastructure, and logistics hurdles.

“The Middle East and North Africa is suffering from spatially divergent development. The uprisings of the Arab Spring in part reflected grievances of citizens who were – or were perceived to have been – left behind, particularly by accidents of where they were born,” says Somik Lall, World Bank Global Lead on Territorial Development Solutions, Lead Economist for Sustainable Development in Middle East and North Africa, and co-author of the report.  “Although the trajectory of every nation in the region varies, one stated objective is clear for them all: improve outcomes for people in areas that have been left behind.”

Convergence addresses the economic and institutional causes of these spatial disparities and focuses on five actions that can put countries in the MENA region on a path to territorial convergence:

Strengthen coordination and complementarities across initiatives. Development strategies are more likely to succeed if they are multidimensional, including access to energy, transport, land, and markets—in the same place, whether sequentially or concurrently. A good place to start is by anchoring investments in and around cites.

Redistribute roles and responsibilities across tiers of government. Citizens in different parts of the country have varying needs, and local conditions require flexible service delivery models. Redistributing responsibilities for local revenue generation and local service provision to local governments can make them better equipped and more accountable.

Enable mobility of people between lagging and leading areas. On average, people in MENA are half as mobile domestically as people in other parts of the world. Our research shows that living standards of people moving internally to major cities can increase by an average of 37 percent in the region. Education systems across the region need to be reoriented toward marketable skills.

Build dense and connected cities. Well-functioning cities offer a wide variety of jobs – for women and men. Making land markets in cities more efficient is critical for agglomeration and specialization – two dynamics that enhance job creation and economic prosperity. Whether in larger or in smaller (secondary) cities, agglomeration and specialization require the benefits from high economic density, which concentrates economic activity geographically. For this, the fabric of cities needs to be spatially connected, dense with people, and transit-oriented—not sprawling that perpetuates the dispersion of people and jobs. Planners and regulators can attract firms to invest in cities by reducing frictions such as zoning regulations, impediments to property acquisition and new construction (costs, height limits, density limits), challenges to local business registration and licensing, limits on news and information, and obstacles to developing local business networks.

Enhance market access nationally and regionally. Historically, MENA’s cities were part of economically important global trade networks. Many of these cities persisted into modern times as large urban areas. But governments in the region have managed to shrink the networks from global to local. These networks have, at a minimum, to be expanded to national and regional dimensions. A good place to start would be to improve the links across national borders—reducing tariffs, improving logistics, and facilitating trade, and instituting migration protocols. Such efforts will grow the economies, providing much-needed resources to redistribute in areas left behind.

In fact, the publication encourages regional integration across the MENA region, contending that integration will break down the walls between countries, connect firms to larger markets, and foster ever-larger scale and agglomeration economies specializing in tradable goods and services.

Lall highlighted that, “All levels of government have roles to play – the national, the provincial, and the local.  By requiring that interventions across the board be responsive to the basic needs of all, we can bring more people in forgotten places into jobs than ever before.”

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Amidst Strong Economic Rebound in Russia, Risks Stemming from COVID-19 and Inflation

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Following a strong economic rebound in 2021, with 4.3 percent growth, Russia’s growth is expected to slow in 2022 and 2023, with a forecast of 2.4 percent and 1.8 percent growth, respectively, according to the World Bank’s latest Regular Economic Report for Russia (#46 in the series).

The Russian economy has now recovered to above its pre-pandemic peak, with growth driven by a strong rebound in consumer demand. In 2022, growth will be supported by continued strength in commodity markets, but will likely also be hampered by COVID-19 control measures and tighter interest rates.

Household consumption in the second quarter increased to more than 9 percent on the previous quarter (seasonally adjusted), showing the fastest rate of growth in a decade. Labor markets also saw a substantial upswing, with unemployment falling to a four-year low and real wages growing.

Russia’s current account surplus has also been exceptionally strong, on the back of high commodity prices and low levels of outbound tourism. The federal budget has been consolidated, led by a strong growth in revenue, and is on track to meet the authorities’ target of meeting the fiscal rule next year.

“This surge in spending resulted from the release of pent-up demand created by pandemic restrictions,” said David Knight, Lead Economist and Program Leader, World Bank. “It was aided by increased credit, Russian tourists staying at home for the holidays this year, and resource inflows via the energy sector.”

The report assesses the short-term risks weighing on Russia’s growth and finds that  low vaccination rates are necessitating stricter COVID-19 control measures that may reduce economic activity, while more persistent inflation will likely call for tighter interest rates for a longer period, limiting the growth outlook.

The report also analyzes how Russia could be impacted by global economic growth under three different green transition scenarios, and suggests that domestic climate action can help mitigate some of the possible impacts of a global green transition and create new opportunities for Russia.

The country’s new low-carbon development strategy, which aims for a 70 percent reduction in net emissions by 2050 and net carbon neutrality by 2060, will become an important first step for Russia. A focus on enabling the transition to a more diversified and faster growing economy will call for strengthening of a broad range of assets including human capital, knowledge, and world-class market institutions.

“Environmental sustainability is becoming central to the global economic agenda. Increased commitments by countries and firms to carbon neutrality signal that wholesale changes to policy frameworks will be needed in the coming years,” said Renaud Seligmann, World Bank Country Director for Russia. “With Russia’s pledge to become carbon neutral by 2060, the country now needs to take concrete actions of moving towards decarbonization.”

To accomplish these goals, the report recommends the implementation of carbon pricing and the consolidation of energy subsidies for consumers in Russia. At the same time, measures should be taken to ensure people are protected from the costs and any adverse impacts of the transition.

The report estimates that consumer energy subsidies on electricity, gas and petroleum in Russia amounted to 1.4 percent of the country’s GDP in 2019. By redeploying these resources, the authorities could increase GDP and ensure that no consumers are left worse off. At the same time, this would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move Russia closer to its goal of a green and sustainable economy.  

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World trade reaches all-time high, but 2022 outlook ‘uncertain’

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Global trade is expected to be worth about $28 trillion this year – an increase of 23 per cent compared with 2020 – but the outlook for 2022 remains very uncertain, UN economists said on Tuesday.

This strong growth in demand – for goods, as opposed to services – is largely the result of pandemic restrictions easing, but also from economic stimulus packages and sharp increases in the price of raw materials.

According to UN trade and development body UNCTAD, although worldwide commerce stabilized during the second half of 2021, trade in goods went on to reach record levels between July and September.

Services still sluggish

In line with this overall increase, the services sector picked up too, but it has remained below 2019 levels.

From a regional perspective, trade growth remained uneven for the first half of the year, but it had a “broader” reach in the three months that followed, UNCTAD’s Global Trade update said.

Trade flows continued to increase more strongly for developing countries in comparison to developed economies overall in the third quarter of the year, moreover.

The report valued the global goods trade at $5.6 trillion in the third quarter of this year, which is a new all-time record, while services stood at about $1.5 trillion.

For the remainder of this year, UNCTAD has forecast slower growth for the trade in goods but “a more positive trend for services”, albeit from a lower starting point.

Among the factors contributing to uncertainty about next year, UNCTAD cited China’s “below expectations” growth in the third quarter of 2021.

“Lower-than-expected economic growth rates are generally reflected in more downcast global trade trends,” UNCTAD noted, while also pointing to inflationary pressures” that may also negatively impact national economies and international trade flows.

The UN body’s global trade outlook also noted that “many economies, including those in the European Union”, continue to face COVID-19-related disruption which may affect consumer demand in 2022.

Semiconductor stress test

In addition to the “large and unpredictable swings in demand” that have characterized 2021, high fuel prices have also caused shipping costs to spiral and contributed to supply shortages.

This has contributed to backlogs across major supply chains that could continue into next year and could even “reshape trade flows across the world”, UNCTAD cautioned.

Geopolitical factors may also play a role in this change, as regional trade within Africa and within the Asia-Pacific area increases on the one hand, “diverting trade away from other routes”.

Similarly, efforts towards a more socially and environmentally sustainable economy may also affect international trade, by disincentivizing high carbon products.

The need to protect countries’ own strategic interests and weaknesses in specific sectors could also influence trade in 2022, UNCTAD noted, amid a shortage of microprocessors called semiconductors that “has already disrupted many industries, notably the automotive sector”.

“Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the semiconductor industry has been facing headwind due to unanticipated surges in demand and persisting supply constraints…If persistent, this shortage could continue to negatively affect production and trade in many manufacturing sectors.”

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Small Businesses Adapting to Rapidly Changing Economic Landscape

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The World Economic Forum has long been at the forefront of recognizing the strategic importance of sustainable value creation objectives for business. While interest has mostly focused on how large corporations contribute to the global economy and sustainable development objectives, small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs) are often overlooked as major drivers of economic activity, as well as social and environmental progress around the world.

A new report released today finds factors that previously disadvantaged SMEs can lead them to new opportunities. Nine case studies from multiple industries and regions highlight what SMEs can do to increase their future readiness.

Developed in collaboration with the National University of Singapore Business School, the University of Cambridge Judge Business School and Entrepreneurs’ Organization, the report also finds that SMEs are lagging behind in terms of societal impact. Although there is a clear need to operate in line with sustainability goals, many SMEs have yet to include explicit strategies and performance measurement centred on societal impact.

The top challenges cited by SME executives include talent acquisition and retention (for 52.5% respondents), survival and expansion (43.8%), funding and access to capital (35.7%), non-supportive policy environment (21%), the difficulty of maintaining a strong culture and clear company purpose and value (20%).

SMEs can leverage their size, networks, people and the strengths of technology to support their goals of sustainable growth, positive societal impact and robust adaptive capacity. While it is essential for SMEs and the wider economy to increase their future readiness, they can thrive only insofar as the necessary supporting infrastructure and regulatory frameworks exist.

“We hope this will inspire and encourage SMEs and mid-sized companies to harness their potential in becoming a major driver of sustainable and inclusive economic growth and innovation by focusing on several core dimensions of future readiness,” said Børge Brende, President, World Economic Forum.

“Through this report, the Forum aims to highlight the significant role SMEs can play not just locally but also globally. The New Champions Community is a step towards bringing these smaller companies into the forefront of global discourse around socioeconomic development and engaging them in a community of forward-thinking companies from across the world,” said Stephan Mergenthaler, Head of Strategic Intelligence and Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum.

The report aims to develop a deeper understanding of organizational capabilities and orientations needed for SMEs to successfully generate lasting financial growth, affect society and the environment positively, and develop high levels of resilience and agility.

It relies on robust research methods and combines rigorous primary and secondary research. The takeaways and conclusions presented in the research have been derived from an analysis of over 200 peer-reviewed articles and engagement of more than 300 CEOs and founders of SMEs through surveys and in-depth interviews.

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