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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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65% of Adults Think Race, Ethnicity or National Origin Affects Job Opportunities

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A recent Ipsos-World Economic Forum survey has found that 65% of all adults believe that, in their country, someone’s race, ethnicity, or national origin influences their employment opportunities. When considering their own race, ethnicity, or national origin, more than one-third say it has impacted their personal employment opportunities.

The online survey was conducted between 22 January and 5 February 2021, among more than 20,000 adults in 27 countries. It also reveals that 60% of adults think that someone’s race, ethnicity, or national origin plays a role in education opportunities, access to housing, and access to social services.

As Black History Month in the United States draws to a close, awareness of the impacts of race, ethnicity and national origin on opportunities in life is exceptionally high. It follows a tumultuous year when the pandemic put inequality into the spotlight, and events in the US sparked international protests as long-simmering, systemic racial inequities came to the forefront.

Of those surveyed, 46% say the events of the past year have increased differences in opportunities as well as access to housing, education, employment and/or social services in their country. In comparison, 43% say the events have had no impact on differences and 12% say they have decreased differences.

About 60% of respondents in Latin America, Spain and South Africa, and nearly half in France, Italy, Malaysia, Japan, Sweden, Belgium and the US say recent events have increased race, ethnicity, or national origin-based differences in opportunities in their country, compared to only about one in three in Germany, Poland and Saudi Arabia, one in four in China, and one in seven in Russia.

Perceptions versus the reported personal experience of inequality also vary significantly in countries. Compared with the 27-country average for all four types of opportunities measured, several countries stand out.

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‘Industry 4.0’ tech for post-COVID world, is driving inequality

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Developing countries must embrace ground-breaking technologies that have been a critical tool in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, or else face even greater inequalities than before, UN economic development  experts at UNCTAD said on Thursday.

“Very few countries create the technologies that drive this revolution – most of them are created in China and the US – but all countries will be affected by it”, said UNCTAD’s Shamika Sirimanne, head of Division on Technology and Logistics. “Almost none of the developing countries we studied is prepared for the consequences.”

The appeal, which is highlighted in a new UNCTAD report, relates to all things digital and connective, so-called “Industry 4.0” or “frontier technologies”, that include artificial intelligence, big data, blockchain, 5G, 3D printing, robotics, drones, nanotechnology and solar energy.

Gene editing, another fast-evolving sector, has demonstrated its worth in the last year, with the accelerated development of new coronavirus vaccines.

Drone aid

In developing countries, digital tools can be used to monitor ground water contamination, deliver medical supplies to remote communities via drones, or track diseases using big data, said UNCTAD’s Sirimanne.

But “most of these examples remain at pilot level, without ever being scaled-up to reach those most in need: the poor. To be successful, technology deployment must fulfil the five As: availability, affordability, awareness, accessibility, and the ability for effective use.”

Income gap widening

With an estimated market value of $350 billion today, the array of emerging digital solutions for life after COVID is likely to be worth over $3 trillion by 2025 – hence the need for developing countries to invest in training and infrastructure to be part of it, Sirimanne maintained.

“Most Industry 4.0 technologies that are being deployed in developed countries save labour in routine tasks affecting mid-level skill jobs. They reward digital skills and capital”, she said, pointing to the significant increase in the market value of the world’s leading digital platforms during the pandemic.

Innovation dividends

“The largest gains have been made by Amazon, Apple and Tencent,” Sirimanne continued. “This is not surprising given that a very small number of very large firms provided most of the digital solutions that we have used to cope with various lockdowns and travel restrictions.”

Expressing optimism about the potential for developing countries to be carried along with the new wave of digitalisation rather than be swamped by it, the UNCTAD economist downplayed concerns that increasing workforce automation risked putting people in poorer countries out of a job.

This is because “not all tasks in a job are automated, and, most importantly, that new products, tasks, professions, and economic activities are created throughout the economy”, Sirimanne said.

‘Job polarization’

“The low wages …for skills in developing countries plus the demographic trends will not create economic incentives to replace labour in manufacturing – not yet.”

According to UNCTAD, over the past two decades, the expansion in high and low-wage jobs – a phenomenon known as “job polarization” – has led to only a single-digit reduction in medium-skilled jobs in developed and developing countries (of four and six per cent respectively).

“So, it is expected that low and lower-middle income developing countries will be less exposed to potential negative effects of AI and robots on job polarization”, Sirimanne explained.

Nonetheless, the UN trade and development body cautioned that there appeared to be little sign of galloping inequality slowing down in the new digital age, pointing to data indicating that the income gap between developed and developing countries is $40,749 in real terms today, up from $17,000 in 1970.

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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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