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Transparency is Key to Weathering Shocks, Investing in Growth, and Enhancing Trust in Government

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— Transparency about critical economic issues — such as public debt and employment — will be the key to driving growth and enhancing trust in the governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, according to the World Bank’s latest regional economic update.

The need for greater transparency comes as the MENA region faces unprecedented dual shocks from the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic and the collapse in oil prices. The shocks have exacerbated already slow economic growth in the region, due, in part, to lack of data transparency.

The new report, entitled How Transparency Can Help the Middle East and North Africa, shows that estimates of the costs of the current crisis are fluid because it is difficult to predict how the global economy, national policies and societies will react as the pandemic spreads. Consequently, estimates of the costs can vary in a matter of days. As an example, the report shows how the spread of COVID-19, along with the collapse in oil prices, brought changes in private-sector and World Bank growth forecasts for 2020. As of April 1, changes in forecasts implied that the costs for MENA were about 3.7% of the region’s 2019 GDP (approximately US$116 billion) compared to 2.1% as recently as March 19.

“More than any other region, MENA is confronting two distinct but related shocks with the spread of the virus and the collapse in oil prices. The World Bank is ramping up efforts to help governments weather these shocks and leave no one behind,” Ferid Belhaj, World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa, said. “But to bring new hope to citizens, we must learn and change. Across the region, transparency can help lead to growth with enhanced trust in government in the years and decades to come.”

According to the new report, the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting MENA economies across four channels: the deterioration of public health; falling global demand for the region’s goods and services; declines in MENA’s domestic supply and demand because of social distancing measures; and, importantly, falling oil prices. The collapse of oil prices hurts both oil exporters directly, and oil importers indirectly, through declines in regional remittances, investment and capital flows.

The report recommends that countries respond with policies in two parallel steps: address the health emergency and the associated economic contraction; and start in the enactment of transformative and largely budget-neutral reforms such as debt transparency and restructuring of state-owned enterprises.

“Investing in transparency now will break the vicious cycle of distrust and lack of government accountability in the region,” said Rabah Arezki, World Bank Chief Economist for the Middle East and North Africa Region.

In addition to estimating the effects of these latest shocks, the report examines the challenges across MENA that predate the crisis — most notably slow growth. The authors estimate that if the region’s growth of output per capita had been the same as that of typical peer economies over the last two decades, the region’s real output per capita would be at least 20% higher than what it is today.

The report argues that a large part of MENA’s slow growth is due to a lack of transparency. MENA is the only region that has dropped in data capacity and transparency since 2005.

“The decline in MENA’s transparency between 2005 and 2018 is associated with an expected loss of the region’s income per capita ranging from 7 to 14%,” said Daniel Lederman, World Bank Deputy Chief Economist and lead author of the report.

The report highlights two areas where the lack of transparency hinders credible analyses of important issues:

Lack of data transparency hampers credible analyses of MENA’s debt sustainability, which will be an important issue to examine after the crisis. MENA countries vary greatly in their debt reporting standards, and World Bank economists and other external analysts do not have access to vital information about many types of public debt.

Unemployment and informality numbers in the region are ambiguous because MENA countries rely on varying definitions of employment. There is little harmonization — across the region, or with respect to international standards — which affects analyses of informality and unemployment.

On April 2, the World Bank announced an initial surge of support to help countries across the Middle East and North Africa.

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.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, economic circumstances within countries and regions are fluid and change on a day-by-day basis. The analysis in this regional report is based on the latest country-level data available as of April 1.

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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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