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COVID-19 Drives Sub-Saharan Africa Toward First Recession in 25 Years

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Growth in Sub-Saharan Africa has been significantly impacted by the ongoing coronavirus outbreak and is forecast to fall sharply from 2.4% in 2019 to -2.1 to -5.1% in 2020, the first recession in the region over the past 25 years, according to the latest Africa’s Pulse, the World Bank’s twice-yearly economic update for the region.

The COVID-19 pandemic is testing the limits of societies and economies across the world, and African countries are likely to be hit particularly hard,” said Hafez Ghanem, World Bank Vice President for Africa. “We are rallying all possible resources to help countries meet people’s immediate health and survival needs while also safeguarding livelihoods and jobs in the longer term – including calling for a standstill on official bilateral debt service payments which would free up funds for strengthening health systems to deal with COVID 19 and save lives, social safety nets to save livelihoods and help workers who lose jobs, support to small and medium enterprises, and food security.

The Pulse authors recommend that African policymakers focus on saving lives and protecting livelihoods by focusing on strengthening health systems and taking quick actions to minimize disruptions in food supply chains. They also recommend implementing social protection programs, including cash transfers, food distribution and fee waivers, to support citizens, especially those working in the informal sector.

The analysis shows that COVID-19 will cost the region between $37 billion and $79 billion in output losses for 2020 due to a combination of effects. They include trade and value chain disruption, which impacts commodity exporters and countries with strong value chain participation; reduced foreign financing flows from remittances, tourism, foreign direct investment, foreign aid, combined with capital flight; and through direct impacts on health systems, and disruptions caused by containment measures and the public response.

While most countries in the region have been affected to different degrees by the pandemic, real gross domestic product growth is projected to fall sharply particularly in the region’s three largest economies – Nigeria, Angola, and South Africa— as a result of persistently weak growth and investment. In general, oil exporting-countries will also be hard-hit; while growth is also expected to weaken substantially in the two fastest growing areas—the West African Economic and Monetary Union and the East African Community—due to weak external demand, disruptions to supply chains and domestic production. The region’s tourism sector is expected to contract sharply due to severe disruption to travel.

The COVID-19 crisis also has the potential to spark a food security crisis in Africa, with agricultural production potentially contracting between 2.6% in an optimistic scenario and up to 7% if there are trade blockages. Food imports would decline substantially (as much as 25% or as little as 13%) due to a combination of higher transaction costs and reduced domestic demand.

Several African countries have reacted quickly and decisively to curb the potential influx and spread of the coronavirus, very much in line with international guidelines. However, the report points out several factors that pose challenges to the containment and mitigation measures, in particular the large and densely populated urban informal settlements, poor access to safe water and sanitation facilities, and fragile health systems. Ultimately, the magnitude of the impact will depend on the public’s reaction within respective countries, the spread of the disease, and the policy response. And these factors together could lead to reduced labor market participation, capital underutilization, lower human capital accumulation, and long-term productivity effects.

In addition to containment measures, we have seen that in responding to COVID-19, countries are opting for a combination of emergency fiscal and monetary policy actions with many central banks in the region taking important actions like cutting interest rates and providing extraordinary liquidity assistance,” said Albert Zeufack, Chief Economist for Africa at the World Bank. “However, it is important to ensure that fiscal policy builds in space for social protection interventions, especially targeting workers in the informal sector, and sows the seed for future resilience of our economies.”

The authors emphasize the need for a customized policy response to reflect the structure of African economies (especially the large informal sector) and the peculiar constraints policymakers currently face, particularly the deteriorating fiscal positions and heightened public debt vulnerabilities, and the overall low operational capacity to respond.

The immediate measures are important but there is no doubt there will be need for some sort of debt relief from bilateral creditors to secure the resources urgently needed to fight COVID-19 and to help manage or maintain macroeconomic stability in the region,” said Cesar Calderon, Lead Economist and Lead author of the report.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, economic circumstances within countries and regions are fluid and change on a day-by-day basis. The macroeconomic analysis in the report is based on data available by the first quarter of March 2020.

The World Bank Group is taking broad, fast action to help developing countries strengthen their pandemic response, increase disease surveillance, improve public health interventions, and help the private sector continue to operate and sustain jobs. It is deploying up to $160 billion in financial support over the next 15 months to help countries protect the poor and vulnerable, support businesses, and bolster economic recovery.

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Philippines: Reducing Inequality Key to Becoming a Middle-Class Society Free of Poverty

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Policies that support employment and workers, raise education quality and improve access, boost rural development, and strengthen social protection can reduce inequality, thus enhancing Filipino peoples’ chances for improving their well-being.

In a report titled “Overcoming Poverty and Inequality in the Philippines: Past, Present, and Prospects for the Future” released today, the World Bank said that the Philippines has made important gains in poverty reduction. Driven by high growth rates and the expansion of jobs outside agriculture, poverty fell by two-thirds—from 49.2 percent in 1985 to 16.7 percent in 2018. By 2018, the middle class had expanded to nearly 12 million people and the economically secure population had risen to 44 million.

Yet inequality remains high: the top 1 percent of earners together capture 17 percent of national income, with only 14 percent being shared by the bottom 50 percent. With an income Gini coefficient of 42.3 percent in 2018, the Philippines had one of the highest rates of income inequality in East Asia.

“The Philippines aims to become a middle-class society free of poverty by 2040, but we know from global experience that no country has managed to make this transition while maintaining high levels of inequality,” said Ndiamé Diop, World Bank Country Director for Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand. “Inequality of opportunity and low mobility across generations wastes human potential and slowdown innovation, which is crucial for building a competitive and prosperous economy that will in turn improve the well-being and quality of life of all Filipinos.”

The report highlights that the expansion of secondary education, mobility to better-paying jobs, access to basic services, and government social assistance have started to reduce inequality since the mid-2000s. However, unequal opportunities, slow access to tertiary education among low-income households, inequality in returns to college education, and social norms putting the heavier burden of childcare on women has slowed down the narrowing of inequality in the Philippines.

Despite the strong recovery of growth and the labor market, COVID-19 pandemic has partly reversed decades-long gains in reducing poverty and inequality in the Philippines. It halted economic growth momentum in 2020, and unemployment shot up in industries that require in-person work. In 2021, the national poverty rate rose to 18.1 percent despite government assistance.

Recovery in the Philippines is uneven across the income distribution and the poorest who suffered the most from COVID have yet to fully recover their incomes. With food prices going up, many families coped by reducing their consumption, including eating less. These coping strategies can have serious consequences on the health and nutrition of children in these vulnerable households.

The report says that inequality starts even before birth and is perpetuated over the life cycle. It starts with maternal nutrition and health during pregnancy. Differences continue into childhood, where disparities in access to health care, proper nutrition, safe drinking water, sanitation, and quality education determine the extent to which a child’s human capital develops.

“Inequality shapes outcomes later in life, such as employment opportunities and income, which in turn influence how much support adult Filipinos are able to provide for their children to help maximize their potential,” said Nadia Belhaj Hassine Belghith, Senior Economist with the East Asia Poverty Global Practice covering Thailand and the Philippines who led the study.

The report says that policy priorities to reduce inequality in the Philippines can be structured around three themes, including healing the pandemic’s scars and building resilience, setting the stage for a vibrant and inclusive recovery, and promoting greater equality of opportunity.

Healing pandemic’s scars will require promoting greater vaccine booster uptake, overcoming the learning loss due to COVID-19, strengthening social assistance, unemployment insurance programs for the informal sector, and taming inflation.

Setting the stage for vibrant recovery entails reskilling of workers, promoting entrepreneurship, increasing the participation of women in the labor force, and raising the productivity of agriculture.

Promoting greater equality of opportunity entails increasing access to quality health care, increasing equality of opportunity in education, and improving access to quality housing, among others. Equality of opportunity needs to target the lagging regions and other people disadvantaged in accessing these because of the circumstances of their birth.

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Germany in secret talks to buy Iranian oil: report

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An Israeli paper has claimed that Germany is in “secret” talks with Tehran to buy Iranian oil as part of its efforts to wean itself off Russia’s energy supplies.

The Jerusalem Post quoted the chief economist for the partially state-owned bank LBBW in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg as saying that Germany is engaged in secret talks with the Islamic Republic to buy Iranian oil.

“Intensive talks are already being held behind the scenes with Venezuela, Iran or Algeria to cover Germany’s oil and gasoline needs,” said Moritz Kraemer, the chief economist of the Landesbank Baden-Württemberg (LBBW).

Bernd Wagner, a spokesman for LBBW, told the Jerusalem Post that “as a matter of principle, LBBW does not conduct any Iran-related business.”

When asked about Kraemer’s statement about secret talks with Iran, Wagner said, “There seems to be a misunderstanding. The chief economist is talking about the national economy, not about LBBW’s business. We have a very clear distinction here.”

No official announcements have so far been made about the alleged secret talks between Tehran and Berlin. But tensions have been on the rise between the two sides over German officials’ statements regarding Iran’s internal developments. 

On Monday, the Iranian foreign ministry summoned the German ambassador to Tehran, Hans-Udo Muzel, over German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s “meddlesome” remarks about Iran.

“Following the meddlesome and irresponsible statements of the German chancellor towards the Islamic Republic, Hans-Udo Muzel the German ambassador to Tehran was summoned to the foreign ministry on Monday,” the Iranian foreign ministry said in a statement.

The statement added, “During the session, the director general of the west European affairs of the foreign ministry condemned the irresponsible statement of the German official. He conveyed strong protest of the Islamic Republic of Iran about Germany’s destructive approach towards the domestic developments of Iran to the German envoy.”

It continued, “The foreign ministry official said the German side should bear the consequences of the continuation of such non-constructive statements and acts on the future of the mutual ties. He stressed that the Islamic Republic of Iran is monitoring the stances and actions of the other sides with dignity and grandeur, taking into account its national interests, and will give them proportionate responses.”

The statement concluded, “The German ambassador, for his part, said he will convey the message of the Islamic Republic of Iran to his government at the earliest. During the meeting the formal notice of protest of the Islamic Republic was handed over to the German ambassador.”

Tehran Times

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India’s Urban Infrastructure Needs to Cross $840 Billion Over Next 15 Years

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A new World Bank report estimates that India will need to invest $840 billion over the next 15 years—or an average of $55 billion per annum—into urban infrastructure if it is to effectively meet the needs of its fast-growing urban population. The report, titled “Financing India’s Urban Infrastructure Needs: Constraints to Commercial Financing and Prospects for Policy Action” underlines the urgent need to leverage more private and commercial investments to meet emerging financial gaps.

By 2036, 600 million people will be living in urban cities in India, representing 40 percent of the population. This is likely to put additional pressure on the already stretched urban infrastructure and services of Indian cities – with more demand for clean drinking water, reliable power supply, efficient and safe road transport amongst others. Currently, the central and state governments finance over 75 percent of city infrastructure, while urban local bodies (ULB) finance 15 percent through their own surplus revenues.

Only 5 percent of the infrastructure needs of Indian cities are currently being financed through private sources. With government’s current (2018) annual urban infrastructure investments topping at $16 billion, much of the gap will require private financing. 

“Cities in India need large amounts of financing to promote green, smart, inclusive, and sustainable urbanization. Creating a conducive environment for ULBs, especially large and creditworthy ones, to borrow more from private sources will therefore be critical to ensuring that cities are able to improve living standards of their growing populations in a sustainable manner,” said Auguste Tano Kouamé, Country Director, World Bank, India.

The new report recommends expanding the capacities of city agencies to deliver infrastructure projects at scale. Currently, the 10 largest ULBs were able to spend only two-thirds of their total capital budget over three recent fiscal years. A weak regulatory environment and weak revenue collection also adds to the challenge of cities accessing more private financing. Between 2011 and 2018, urban property tax stood at 0.15 percent of GDP compared to an average of 0.3-0.6 percent of GDP for low- and middle-income countries. Low service charges for municipal services also undermines their financial viability and attractiveness to private investment.

Over the medium term, the report suggests a series of structural reforms including those in the taxation policy and fiscal transfer system – which can allow cities to leverage more private financing. In the short term, it identifies a set of large high-potential cities that have the ability to raise higher volumes of private financing.

“The Government of Indiacan play an important role in removing market frictions that cities face in accessing private financing. The World Bank report proposes a range of measures that can be taken by city, state, and federal agencies to bend the arc towards a future in which private commercial finance becomes a much bigger part of the solution to India’s urban investment challenge,” said Roland White, Global Lead, City Management and Finance, World Bank, and co-author of the report. 

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