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Amid fears of worst recession in decades, urgent calls for solidarity, a united economic front

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With multilateral cooperation under strain, senior UN officials, Nobel laureates and eminent academic experts, gathered virtually on Wednesday for the launch of a new report recommending “an adjusted approach” to economic development, and a policy dialogue exploring how countries can recover from COVID-19, in ways that lead to real structural transformation.

‘Parallel threats’

“Parallel threats linked to health, economic and social crises have crippled countries and left us at a standstill”, said Liu Zhenmin, Under Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), as he presented a new report by the High-level Advisory Board on Economic and Social Affairs.

Titled Recover Better: Economic and Social Challenges and Opportunities, it analyses economic trends critical to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and recovery from COVID-19.

Among its recommendations is a greater focus on the environment, he said, as well as promotion of research and development, investment in infrastructure and education, and improvement in economic equality.

“Overcoming the crisis and getting back on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals will require a strengthened multilateralism”, he said. COVID-19 has laid bare how much leadership, foresight and collaboration among all Governments and stakeholders, matter.

First global poverty rise since 1998

In a video message, UN deputy chief Amina Mohammed, said as many as 100 million people are expected to be pushed back into extreme poverty in 2020 – the first rise in global poverty since 1998.

“We need all hands on deck if we are to rebuild our economies sustainably and inclusively”, she assured. Noting that the report calls for better international tax cooperation and more equitable access to digital technologies, she said the sustainable management of natural resources, and value-added approaches to trading goods, will also be critical.

The 2030 Agenda remains the agreed framework for recovering in ways that accelerate progress on climate change, poverty and gender inequality, and address the fragilities exposed or exacerbated by the pandemic. “We must all do more,” she said.

Equality, structural reform

During two policy dialogues, 12 experts wrestled with whether the world is currently in a recession and if so, what it will take to recover in ways that can thoroughly reform underlying vulnerabilities.

“There is no trade-off between economic efficiency and equality”, said Alicia Barcena, Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), who contributed a chapter on the topic.

45 million at risk

During a panel on the theme, “Ensuring a sustainable recovery through more inclusive and strengthened multilateralism”, she underscored the urgent need for structural change. Between 2000 and 2010, 60 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean moved out of poverty. Now, 45 million risk being pulled back in.

“The market is not going to equalize society. We need a new social and political compact altogether”, she said, pointing out that Costa Rica, Uruguay and Cuba – societies that have high trust in government – have fared better during the pandemic than others.

She also called for a progressive tax system, as countries in the region have a 23 per cent tax burden, lower than those in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as well as more regional integration. “The post-pandemic world is going to be a world of regions, a world of blocs.”

Ricardo Lagos, former President of Chile, suggested the creation of an internationally binding agreement on pandemics, forged under the auspices of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Europe’s social contract

Along similar lines, Marcel Fratzscher of research institute DIW Berlin, said that on 21 July, European countries agreed to establish a €750 billion ($850 billion) recovery fund, transferring resources from stronger to weaker countries with the goal of rebuilding Europe.

“There is an institutional framework being put into place that could ultimately lead to fiscal union help strengthen capital market union”, he said.

Trade Woes

Others drew attention to the significant drop in global trade, which Merit Janow, Dean of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, said was occurring in the context of growing nationalism, geopolitical tensions and strain around multilateral institutions – all of which underscores the vulnerability of global supply chains.

The first priority should be to keep the global trading system open, she said. Practical, problem-solving approaches will be needed, which countries might undertake regionally or through “coalitions of the willing”. She pointed out that when the World Trade Organization appellate body disbanded, a cluster of countries agreed on arbitration for some purposes.

Africa needs 4 million teachers

In a second discussion on “Assessing the state of the global economy and recovery pathways”, Cristina Duarte, the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Africa, who is the former Minister of Finance, Planning and Public Administration of Cabo Verde, said that for Africa, recovering better requires a look at why, after 25 years of uninterrupted growth, systems are still lacking.

She said Africa must mobilize itself – beyond emergency solutions – to understand the nature and quality of economic growth. The continent was not socially inclusive before the pandemic hit, lacking jobs for 60 per cent of its young people.

She said Africa needs 4 million more teachers and a further 1 to 2 million health professionals – and importantly – to break away from ideas that equate poverty management with development management. Income redistribution, rather than economic growth, must be at the centre of all recovery strategies.

Heizo Takenaka of Toyo University, said Japan’s experience with COVID-19 revealed the need to carefully consider the governance systems in place during an emergency. “We should be very careful about the possibility of asset inflation from here on, considering that monetary authorities are applying a huge amount of money in many countries.”

Historical lens

Broadly speaking, Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz said that at a moment when more global cooperation is badly needed, strong forces are fraying the global economy.

While the “Trump-kind of protectionism” will go by the wayside, he argued, the deeper problem is that supply chains have not been resilient and instead made countries more vulnerable.

He described the disappearance of optimism prevailing after the US-Soviet Cold War era, that countries were converging around liberal democratic models and free-market economies.

Under the turmoil of COVID-19, authoritarianism is now flourishing in some parts of the world, which has led to a split among nations.

“Post-COVID-19, the world is going to have a very different architecture, no matter who is in the White House, no matter what is going on around the world”, he explained.

Worse than the Great Depression?

He said the global economic downturn will be the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s – and in many dimensions, worse than that seismic failure of the global system. “We should use the massive amount of Government intervention in countries…to create a new world that is more in accordance with our views of what our societies should be”.

Countries that have done well, he said, have high trust in Government, high social solidarity, an understanding of the externalities associated with disease spread, and trust in science.

“Forty years of denigrating the role of the State means that in some countries, the State was not able perform a role that was essential,” he added.

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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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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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