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Women’s Economic Activity in the Mashreq Countries Would Boost Growth and Prosperity

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gender equality

Women’s labor force participation in the Mashreq countries remains among the lowest in the world and is likely to be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Addressing prevailing social norms, legal constraints, and market failures can boost women’s share of the labor market participation in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon and help their economies grow, according to a new World Bank report released today.

In fact, if the three countries’ targeted increases in participation of five percentage points over five years are not only met but also continued for a further decade, annual economic growth would be increased by 1.6 percentage points in Iraq, 2.5 points in Jordan, and 1.1 points in Lebanon by 2035.

The State of Mashreq Women report provides a comprehensive, data-driven picture of women’s access to economic opportunities in the region. It examines the reasons behind low women’s labor force participation and calls for action to provide the needed support systems, services, and legal framework to incite more women to access the labor market.

Less than 15 percent of women work in Iraq and Jordan, placing these countries among those with the lowest female participation rates in the world, only after war-torn Syria and Yemen.

In Lebanon, only 26 percent of women work. Participation is particularly low for the less educated. While two-thirds of women with tertiary education are either employed or seeking a job, this amounts to only a small proportion of the total female population in these countries (around 12 percent in Iraq, 27 percent in Jordan, and 31 percent in Lebanon). Labor force participation is generally higher among younger women.

In Lebanon, women aged 15 to 44 are twice as likely to participate than those aged 45 to 64, suggesting a generational shift that is not seen in Iraq and only partly in Jordan. Younger women are also more likely to work in Jordan, but for those aged 25-34 participation rates reach only around 35 percent.  In contrast, for those older than 35 it is 20 percent or lower.

In all three countries, getting married and having children is associated with lower probability of participating in the labor market, albeit with some noticeable differences. It is worth noting that in all three countries men experience the opposite profile, with higher participation rates for married men and those with younger children than their unmarried counterparts. 

Securing and expanding economic opportunities for women is at the heart of the World Bank’s agenda,” said Saroj Kumar Jha, World Bank Regional Director for the Mashreq. “Women should have equal chances to engage in economic life, make their voices heard and fulfill their aspirations. This can promote growth, prosperity, peace and stability in the Mashreq countries.

While low female labor force participation rates are partly due to low job creation in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon due to structural economic problems and challenges, additional barriers related to the role of women in society and within their families specifically affect the access of women to the labor market.

The report summarizes the barriers to women’s economic participation—combining a life-cycle approach to analyze each constraint as it occurs at a particular critical point in a woman’s life, while recognizing that this experience will be different for women of different socioeconomic backgrounds. It argues that women encounter barriers at four critical turning-points of their lives: getting ready, entering and remaining, getting married and having a child. At each of these turning points, societal views and expectations of the role of women can influence how they see themselves and what they aspire to and significantly affect their decision to withdraw from the labor market or never enter it. Additional barriers that restrict women from taking on paid work include employer discrimination, legal restrictions, violence against women in the workplace, access to assets, and mobility constraints. The report also quantifies how relevant each of these barriers are. 

Going forward, the report offers policy recommendations to enhance female labor force participation in Mashreq countries. Beyond the creation of additional jobs, governments can boost women’s access to the labor market by making public transportation safer; reviewing certain laws and regulations and closing certain gaps between the law on paper and the law in practice; increasing the supply of childcare services of good quality; and addressing social norms that prevent women from earning their own income. 

The digital economy can also contribute to promoting women’s labor force participation by allowing women to work from home with flexible hours,” said Matthew Wai-Poi, one of the lead authors of the report. “However, the prevailing digital gender divide means women have less access to the internet and mobile connectivity and fewer digital skills than men.  This issue is exacerbated for less educated women. Without action to close the digital gender gap, those opportunities could become another barrier.

This first State of the Mashreq Women report was produced as part of the Mashreq Gender Facility, which provides technical assistance to Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to enhance women’s economic empowerment and opportunities as a catalyst towards more inclusive, sustainable, and peaceful societies, where economic growth benefits all. 

About the Mashreq Gender Facility: 

The Mashreq Gender Facility (MGF) is a 5-year Facility (2019-2024) that provides technical assistance to Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon to enhance women’s economic empowerment and opportunities as a catalyst towards more inclusive, sustainable, and peaceful societies, where economic growth benefits all. Working with the private sector, civil society organizations, and development partners, the MGF supports government-led efforts, country level priorities, and strategic regional activities that strengthen the enabling environment for women’s economic participation and improve women’s access to economic opportunities. The MGF is a World Bank – IFC initiative in collaboration with the governments of Canada and Norway. It is mainly supported by the Umbrella Facility for Gender Equality (UFGE) with contributions from the governments of Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Latvia, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States, and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Top Trends Impacting Global Economy, Society and Technology

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The new technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, such as artificial intelligence (AI), the cloud and robotics, are changing the way we live, learn and do business at a rate unprecedented in human history. This seismic shift is playing out in a world characterized by unreliable political landscapes and increasing environmental instability.

Scenario planning in this environment can be very difficult for businesses, affecting their ability to plan for the future, and properly assess the risks and opportunities that may present themselves. The Technology Futures report, released in collaboration with Deloitte, provides leaders with data analysis tools to scenario plan and forecast future technology trends.

“The rapid pace of technological change, alongside the global crisis caused by COVID-19, means that leaders today need new tools to understand challenges and develop strategies in the face of an increasingly uncertain future. This report provides three new analytical tools for business leaders to think about the future in a dynamic environment,” said Ruth Hickin, Strategy and Impact Lead, Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, World Economic Forum.

“We are delighted to collaborate with the World Economic Forum to take a disciplined look into the future, particularly as we emerge from a world-altering event, like COVID-19,” said Mike Bechtel, Managing Director and Chief Futurist, US Consulting, Deloitte, and lead author of the report. “We hope that by providing a clearer picture of how today’s nascent technologies will impact our future, we can play a meaningful part in driving innovation, collaboration and economic growth that improves life for all people.”

The report breaks down future trends into four categories for business leaders and provides some examples of what is likely to remain constant in the years ahead.

  • Information: With the volume of accessible data exploding and more of our personal lives lived online, the report projects the probable implications for remote learning, remote working and healthcare.
  • Locality: Since the onset of COVID-19, even more of our interpersonal interaction is virtual and physical experiences have dwindled. The report projects more niche, readily available virtual experiences available to consumers.
  • Economy: The report forecasts a growing likelihood that flexible and clean energy production will continue rising.
  • Education: Personalized education will likely grow, along with the availability of digitized and virtualized content.

In addition to strategic modelling, the report gives leaders a baseline history of how the Fourth Industrial Revolution has progressed. It highlights just how fast technology is evolving and outlines one way risk management could evolve to better address and adapt to it.

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South Asian Economies Bounce Back but Face Fragile Recovery

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Prospects of an economic rebound in South Asia are firming up as growth is set to increase by 7.2 percent in 2021 and 4.4 percent in 2022, climbing from historic lows in 2020 and putting the region on a path to recovery. But growth is uneven and economic activity well below pre-COVID-19 estimates, as many businesses need to make up for lost revenue and millions of workers, most of them in the informal sector, still reel from job losses, falling incomes, worsening inequalities, and human capital deficits, says the World Bank in its twice-a-year regional update. 

Released today, the latest South Asia Economic Focus: South Asia Vaccinates shows that the region is set to regain its historical growth rate by 2022. Electricity consumption and mobility data is a clear indication of recovering economic activity. India, which comprises the bulk of the region’s economy, is expected to grow more than 10 percent in the fiscal year 2021-22—a substantial upward revision of 4.7 percentage points from January 2021 forecasts. 

The outlook for Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan has also been revised upward, supported by better than expected remittance inflows: Bangladesh’s gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to increase by 3.6 percent in 2021; Nepal’s GDP is projected to grow by 2.7 percent in the fiscal year 2021-22 and recover to 5.1 percent by 2023; Pakistan’s growth is expected to reach 1.3 percent in 2021, slightly above previous projections. 

The improved economic outlook reflects South Asian countries’ efforts to keep their COVID-19 caseload under control and swiftly roll out vaccine campaigns. Governments’ decisions to transition from widespread lockdowns to more targeted interventions, accommodating monetary policies and fiscal stimuli—through targeted cash transfers and employment compensation programs—have also propped up recovery, the report notes. 

“We are encouraged to see clear signs of an economic rebound in South Asia, but the pandemic is not yet under control and the recovery remains fragile, calling for vigilance,” said Hartwig Schafer, World Bank Vice President for the South Asia Region. “Going forward, South Asian countries need to ramp up their vaccination programs and invest their scarce resources wisely to set a foundation for a more inclusive and resilient future.” 

While laying bare South Asia’s deep-seated inequalities and vulnerabilities, the pandemic provides an opportunity to chart a path toward a more equitable and robust recovery. To that end, the report recommends that governments develop universal social insurance to protect informal workers, increase regional cooperation, and lift customs restrictions on key staples to prevent sudden spikes in food prices. 

South Asia, which grapples with high stunting rates among children and accounts for more than half of the world’s student dropouts due to COVID-19, needs to ramp up investments in human capital to help new generations grow up healthy and become productive workers. Noting that South Asia’s public spending on healthcare is the lowest in the world, the report also suggests that countries further invest in preventive care, finance health research, and scale up their health infrastructure, including for mass and quick production of vaccines. 

“The health and economic benefits from vaccinations greatly exceed the costs involved in purchasing and distributing vaccines for all South Asian countries,” said Hans Timmer, World Bank Chief Economist for the South Asia Region. “South Asia has stepped up to vaccinate its people, but its healthcare capacity is limited as the region only spends 2 percent of its GDP on healthcare, lagging any other region. The main challenge ahead is to reprioritize limited resources and mobilize more revenue to reach the entire population and achieve full recovery.”

The World Bank, one of the largest sources of funding and knowledge for developing countries, is taking broad, fast action to help developing countries respond to the health, social and economic impacts of COVID-19. This includes $12 billion to help low- and middle-income countries purchase and distribute COVID-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments, and strengthen vaccination systems. The financing builds on the broader World Bank Group COVID-19 response, which is helping more than 100 countries strengthen health systems, support the poorest households, and create supportive conditions to maintain livelihoods and jobs for those hit hardest.

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Georgia’s Economy Unlikely to Recover to Pre-COVID Levels Until Late 2022

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Emerging and developing economies in the Europe and Central Asia region are expected to grow by 3.6 percent this year, as a recovery in exports and stabilizing industrial commodity prices partly offset a resurgence of the pandemic late in 2020 and a recent flareup in new cases, says the latest edition of the World Bank’s Economic Update for the region, released today.

The modest growth in 2021 follows a contraction of 2 percent in 2020 due to COVID-related disruptions. The contraction was smaller than anticipated due to a stronger than forecast recovery in Turkey and resilience in Russia, the region’s largest economies. Rebounding industrial production, increased export external demand, higher commodity prices and fiscal and monetary support contributed to this outcome. Hardest hit are economies that are heavily dependent on services and tourism, since social distancing measures and mobility restrictions led to sustained weaknesses.

Regional growth is expected to strengthen to 3.8 percent in 2022, as the effects of the pandemic gradually wane and trade and investment gather momentum. The outlook remains highly uncertain, however, and growth can be weaker if the pandemic takes longer than expected to fade; there are delays in vaccination; external financing conditions worsen due to a rise in global interest rates or deterioration in investor sentiment; or due to geopolitical tensions.

After suffering the sharpest collapse among the subregions of Europe and Central Asia in 2020, amid conflict and high COVID-19 infection and fatality rates, growth in the South Caucasus is projected to rise to 3.1 percent in 2021 and to accelerate to 4.2 percent in 2022.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Georgia hard. Mobility restrictions, a sudden halt to international tourist arrivals, and weak external demand drove an estimated economic contraction of 6.2 percent in 2020. The poverty rate increased by an estimated 5.4 percentage points. Job and income losses were severe. The fiscal deficit and public debt rose above statutory levels as the crisis put pressure on fiscal and external balances.

Georgia’s economy is projected to expand to 4 percent in 2021 and then to firm to 5 percent in 2022. Despite this improvement, output is unlikely to recover to pre-COVID levels until late 2022, in part owing to a subdued outlook for international tourism over the forecast horizon. The recovery is subject to considerable downside risks, including from delayed vaccinations, additional or extended COVID-19 restrictions, tightening global financial conditions, and prolonged political tensions.

“The pace of Georgia’s recovery beyond 2021 will be contingent on vaccine rollout and the restoration of international trade and investment,” said Sebastian Molineus, World Bank Regional Director for the South Caucasus. “For a sustained and resilient recovery, Georgia will need a continued focus on slowing the spread of COVID-19 infections, large-scale vaccination, and addressing longer-term challenges, including human capital, strengthening institutions and promoting a digital and green recovery.”

The pandemic is expected to erase at least five years of per capita income gains in several of the region’s economies and raise the poverty headcount, largely due to job losses. Overall, despite the rebound in growth, the recovery in per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of the region is subdued and below pre-pandemic trends.

“The pandemic continues to cast a shadow on economic activity in Europe and Central Asia. However, as policymakers grapple with the short term impacts on health, education and the economy, they should seize the opportunity to address the long term challenges of boosting productivity, building a more vibrant private sector, improving institutions and moving towards low-carbon, greener and inclusive economies,” said Anna Bjerde, World Bank Vice President for the Europe and Central Asia region.”

Fundamental to achieving these long-term development goals is good governance. The pandemic has underscored the need for good governance given the important role governments around the world have played in mitigating the health, economic and social impacts of the virus. The range of measures have included restrictions on movement to control the spread of the infection to vaccination programs, relief packages to protect individuals and businesses from the economic fallout of the pandemic, and devising ways for virtual learning for millions of school children.  

In Europe and Central Asia, good governance is all the more important given the historically large role governments play in shaping the economy. Government expenditures in the region represent nearly 40 percent of the economy and governments employ more than a quarter of the region’s most educated and productive workers, with women constituting 57 percent of public sector employees. And the role of government in the region’s countries is likely to further increase in the coming years, driven largely by the need for expansion of health and long-term care for aging populations and public support for government interventions to tackle inequality and, in the face of COVID, improve health and education systems.

In a special analysis on ‘Data, Digitalization, and Governance in Europe and Central Asia’, the report examines the potential role of data and digitalization in improving governance in the region.

“To effectively address the challenges brought on by COVID-19, improving governance has assumed an even greater importance in the region,” said Asli Demirgüç-Kunt, World Bank Chief Economist for Europe and Central Asia. “Digital technology and the data revolution offer the potential to increase efficiency, transparency, responsiveness, and citizen trust, all of which directly improve the quality of government.”

Data lay the ground for improved decision making, optimized government functioning, and more effective resource allocation, while digitalization strengthens these processes and enables greater efficiency and transparency.

To expand the impact of the data revolution, enhancing government digitalization and coordination of decentralized data systems across institutions are necessary. The quality of government is increasingly informed by the extent to which governments harness digital tools and apply technology to government practices to improve management, service delivery and overall state capacity. Governments should implement incentive structures to encourage the adoption and adaptation of data systems within the civil service.

The data revolution and digitalization also offer an opportunity to strengthen trust by fostering effective collaboration between governments and civil society. One of the most promising mechanisms for doing so is Open Government Data, which reduces the transaction costs of gathering, analyzing, and disseminating public sector data and allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the quality of governance. Enabling open access to government data could also help counter the spread of misinformation and disinformation across social media channels. Promoting direct feedback mechanisms between citizens and government not only improves provision of public services, but also builds trust and legitimacy.

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