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Coronavirus-driven debt crisis threatens poor countries already at risk

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As governments struggle to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, billions of people living in countries teetering on the brink of economic collapse are being threatened further by a looming debt crisis, according to a new UN report released on Thursday.

In its report, the UN-led Inter-Agency Task Force on Financing for Development explores the steps that governments must take to avert debt overload and address the economic and financial havoc wrought by the pandemic. 

“The global community was already falling behind in efforts to end poverty, take climate action and reduce inequalities”, said UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed. “We have one chance to build back better together for people and for the planet”.

With recommendations based on joint research and analysis from more than 60 UN agencies and international institutions, the 2020 Financing for Sustainable Development Report outlines measures to address the impact of the unfolding global recession and financial turmoil – particularly in the world’s poorest countries. 

Least Developed Countries

The COVID-19 crisis has shaken global financial markets with heavy losses and intense volatility that has prompted investors to move around $90 billion out of emerging markets – the largest outflow ever recorded. 

Particularly alarming for many Least Developed Countries (LDCs) is the prospect of a new debt crisis. 

To mitigate this, 2020 Financing for Sustainable Development calls, among other things, suspending debt payments from LDCs and other low-income countries; strengthening the global financial safety net; and reversing the decline in official development assistance.

“We are far from having a global package to help the developing world to create the conditions both to suppress the disease and to address the dramatic consequences in their populations”, said UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, during the recent launch of his Report on the Socioeconomic Impact of COVID-19.

“What is needed is a large-scale, coordinated and comprehensive multilateral response amounting to at least 10 per cent of global GDP”, he added.

Long-overdue measures

Beyond the immediate crisis response, the coronavirus pandemic should prompt the implementation of long-overdue measures to reset the world on a sustainable development path and make the global economy more resilient to future shocks.

To do this, the report recommends accelerating investment in resilient infrastructure; strengthening social protections; enhancing regulatory frameworks; and strengthen the international financial safety net and framework for debt sustainability.

While highlighting gaps, new challenges and risks, the current crisis also provides a timely example of the potential of digital technologies. 

As lockdowns and physical distancing have become the norm, digital communication tools have helped keep people connected and provided online platforms for children to continue their education.

But many workers in the so-called “gig economy”, dominated by service sector start-ups, are poorly protected against income losses in a recession. 2020 Financing for Sustainable Development addresses these gaps and other opportunities and challenges of digital finance. 

“Only a collective response, inspired by shared responsibility and solidarity, will suffice to address the unprecedented  challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic”, said Liu Zhenmin, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs and Chair of the Task Force that issued the report. 

“Governments, development partners, the private sector and other stakeholders must work together to combat COVID-19 and support every effort to address its social and economic impacts,” he underscored.

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Fewer women than men will regain work during COVID-19 recovery

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Generations of progress stands to be lost on women and girls' empowerment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: ILO

Fewer women will regain jobs lost to the COVID-19 pandemic during the recovery period, than men, according to a new study released on Monday by the UN’s labour agency.  

In Building Forward Fairer: Women’s rights to work and at work at the core of the COVID-19 recovery, the International Labour Organization (ILO) highlights that between 2019 and 2020, women’s employment declined by 4.2 per cent globally, representing 54 million jobs, while men suffered a three per cent decline, or 60 million jobs. 

This means that there will be 13 million fewer women in employment this year compared to 2019, but the number of men in work will likely recover to levels seen two years ago. 

This means that only 43 per cent of the world’s working-age women will be employed in 2021, compared to 69 per cent of their male counterparts. 

The ILO paper suggests that women have seen disproportionate job and income losses because they are over-represented in the sectors hit hardest by lockdowns, such as accommodation, food services and manufacturing. 

Regional differences 

Not all regions have been affected in the same way. For example, the study revealed that women’s employment was hit hardest in the Americas, falling by more than nine per cent.  

This was followed by the Arab States at just over four per cent, then Asia-Pacific at 3.8 per cent, Europe at 2.5 per cent and Central Asia at 1.9 per cent. 

In Africa, men’s employment dropped by just 0.1 per cent between 2019 and 2020, while women’s employment decreased by 1.9 per cent. 

Mitigation efforts 

Throughout the pandemic, women faired considerably better in countries that took measures to prevent them from losing their jobs and allowed them to get back into the workforce as early as possible. 

In Chile and Colombia, for example, wage subsidies were applied to new hires, with higher subsidy rates for women.  

And Colombia and Senegal were among those nations which created or strengthened support for women entrepreneurs.  

Meanwhile, in Mexico and Kenya quotas were established to guarantee that women benefited from public employment programmes. 

Building forward 

To address these imbalances, gender-responsive strategies must be at the core of recovery efforts, says the agency. 

It is essential to invest in the care economy because the health, social work and education sectors are important job generators, especially for women, according to ILO. 

Moreover, care leave policies and flexible working arrangements can also encourage a more even division of work at home between women and men. 

The current gender gap can also be tackled by working towards universal access to comprehensive, adequate and sustainable social protection. 

Promoting equal pay for work of equal value is also a potentially decisive and important step. 

Domestic violence and work-related gender-based violence and harassment has worsened during the pandemic – further undermining women’s ability to be in the workforce – and the report highlights the need to eliminate the scourge immediately. 

Promoting women’s participation in decision-making bodies, and more effective social dialogue, would also make a major difference, said ILO. 

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Global electricity demand is growing faster than renewables

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Renewables are expanding quickly but not enough to satisfy a strong rebound in global electricity demand this year, resulting in a sharp rise in the use of coal power that risks pushing carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity sector to record levels next year, says a new report from the International Energy Agency.

After falling by about 1% in 2020 due to the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, global electricity demand is set to grow by close to 5% in 2021 and 4% in 2022 – driven by the global economic recovery – according to the latest edition of the IEA’s semi-annual Electricity Market Report released today. The majority of the increase in electricity demand is expected to come from the Asia Pacific region, primarily China and India.

Based on current policy settings and economic trends, electricity generation from renewables – including hydropower, wind and solar PV – is on track to grow strongly around the world over the next two years – by 8% in 2021 and by more than 6% in 2022. But even with this strong growth, renewables will only be able to meet around half the projected increase in global electricity demand over those two years, according to the new IEA report.

Fossil fuel-based electricity generation is set to cover 45% of additional demand in 2021 and 40% in 2022, with nuclear power accounting for the rest. As a result, carbon emissions from the electricity sector – which fell in both 2019 and 2020 – are forecast to increase by 3.5% in 2021 and by 2.5% in 2022, which would take them to an all-time high.

Renewable growth has exceeded demand growth in only two years: 2019 and 2020. But in those cases, it was largely due to exceptionally slow or declining demand, suggesting that renewables outpacing the rest of the electricity sector is not yet the new normal.

“Renewable power is growing impressively in many parts of the world, but it still isn’t where it needs to be to put us on a path to reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century,” said Keisuke Sadamori, the IEA Director of Energy Markets and Security. “As economies rebound, we’ve seen a surge in electricity generation from fossil fuels. To shift to a sustainable trajectory, we need to massively step up investment in clean energy technologies – especially renewables and energy efficiency.” 

In the pathway set out in IEA’s recent Roadmap to Net Zero by 2050, nearly three-quarters of global emissions reductions between 2020 and 2025 take place in the electricity sector. To achieve this decline, the pathway calls for coal-fired electricity generation to fall by more than 6% a year.

However, coal-fired electricity generation is set to increase by almost 5% this year and by a further 3% in 2022, potentially reaching an all-time high, according to the Electricity Market Report. Gas-fired generation, which declined 2% in 2020, is expected to increase by 1% in 2021 and by nearly 2% in 2022. The growth of gas lags that of coal because it plays a smaller role in the fast-growing economies in the Asia Pacific region and it faces competition from renewables in Europe and North America.

Since the IEA’s last Electricity Market Report in December 2020, extreme cold, heat and drought have caused serious strains and disruptions to electricity systems across the globe – in countries ranging from the United States and Mexico to China and Iraq. In response, the IEA is establishing an Electricity Security Event Scale to track and classify major power outages, based on the duration of the disruption and the number of affected customers. The Texas power crisis in February, where millions of customers were without power for up to four days because of icy weather, was assigned the most severe rating on this scale.

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COVID-19 Crisis Lowers Thailand’s Growth, Continued Support for the Poor Needed

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Thailand’s economy continues to take a heavy toll due to the COVID-19 pandemic and is projected to expand modestly at 2.2 percent in 2021, revised down from the 3.4 percent growth projected in March, according to the World Bank’s latest Thailand Economic Monitor “The Road to Recovery” published today. Continued assistance to the poor and vulnerable, including informal workers, will be necessary as COVID-19 continues to impact Thailand’s economy.

The weaker outlook reflects the impact of the ongoing third wave of the virus on private consumption, and the likelihood that international tourist arrivals will remain very low through the end of 2021. Thailand recorded 40 million tourist arrivals in 2019, but the expected number of tourist arrivals in 2021 has been revised sharply downward from a previous forecast of 4-5 million to just 0.6 million.

“The economic shock associated with COVID-19 has adversely affected employment, incomes, and poverty, but the government’s comprehensive social protection response has been impressive in mitigating its impact,” said Birgit Hansl, World Bank Country Manager for Thailand. “Thailand’s fiscal space is still sufficient to allow supporting measures to protect the poor and most in need in the months to come.”

Thailand has performed relatively well in terms of the scale and speed of its fiscal response. The government expanded what was previously a relatively modest set of cash transfer programs to implement one of the largest such responses to COVID-19 in the world. Preliminary simulations suggest that more than 780,000 additional people could have fallen into poverty in 2020 if the government had not scaled up social assistance.

“The crisis in 2020 demonstrated Thailand’s ability to leverage its robust and universal digital ID, sophisticated and interoperable digital platform, and a number of administrative databases to filter eligibility for new cash transfer programs. Going forward Thailand would need to consolidate these efforts and be better prepared to respond to crisis through setting up a social registry.” said Francesca Lamanna, Senior Economist at the World Bank.

Economic activity is not expected to return to its pre-pandemic levels until 2022, with the GDP growth rate projected to rise to 5.1 percent. However, the pace of recovery will depend on Thailand’s vaccination progress, the effectiveness of fiscal support, and the extent to which international tourism resumes. Exports of goods are expected to support the Thai economy in 2021, due to recovering global demand for automotive parts, electronics, machinery, and agricultural products. Risks are further tilted to the downside as the COVID-19 recovery might be delayed due to new COVID-19 variants becoming resistant to treatments or vaccines.

“Adequate testing-tracing-isolation and further progress on vaccinations will be necessary to avoid the need for lockdowns, spur a sustained increase in domestic mobility and consumption, and allow the country to reopen to foreign tourists,” according to Kiatipong Ariyapruchya, World Bank Senior Economist for Thailand. “In the long-term, reforms that lower trade costs and barriers could help maximize the benefits of the ongoing recovery of global economic activity.”

The report also recommends that the government will need to invest in strengthening Thailand’s social protection system. In the years to come it should be a priority to provide adequate support to vulnerable people, while ensuring that this support is targeted effectively to limit the overall fiscal burden. The crisis also further underscores the need to ensure that the social protection system covers the large informal sector at all times, not only during crises.

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