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Building confidence crucial amid an uncertain economic recovery

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With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to threaten jobs, businesses and the health and well-being of millions amid exceptional uncertainty, building confidence will be crucial to ensure that economies recover and adapt, says the OECD’s Interim Economic Outlook.

After an unprecedented collapse in the first half of the year, economic output recovered swiftly following the easing of containment measures and the initial re-opening of businesses, but the pace of recovery has lost some momentum more recently. New restrictions being imposed in some countries to tackle the resurgence of the virus are likely to have slowed growth, the report says.

Uncertainty remains high and the strength of the recovery varies markedly between countries and between business sectors. Prospects for an inclusive, resilient and sustainable economic growth will depend on a range of factors including the likelihood of new outbreaks of the virus, how well individuals observe health measures and restrictions, consumer and business confidence, and the extent to which government support to maintain jobs and help businesses succeeds in boosting demand.

The Interim Economic Outlook projects global GDP to fall by 4½ per cent this year, before growing by 5% in 2021. The forecasts are less negative than those in OECD’s June Economic Outlook, due primarily to better than expected outcomes for China and the United States in the first half of this year and a response by governments on a massive scale. However, output in many countries at the end of 2021 will still be below the levels at the end of 2019, and well below what was projected prior to the pandemic.

If the threat from COVID-19 fades more quickly than expected, improved business and consumer confidence could boost global activity sharply in 2021. But a stronger resurgence of the virus, or more stringent lockdowns could cut 2-3 percentage points from global growth in 2021, with even higher unemployment and a prolonged period of weak investment.

Presenting the Interim Economic Outlook, covering G20 economies, OECD Chief Economist Laurence Boone said: “The world is facing an acute health crisis and the most dramatic economic slowdown since the Second World War. The end is not yet in sight but there is still much policymakers can do to help build confidence.”

She added: “It is important that governments avoid the mistake of tightening fiscal policy too quickly, as happened after the last financial crisis. Without continued government support, bankruptcies and unemployment could rise faster than warranted and take a toll on people’s livelihoods for years to come. Policymakers have the opportunity of a lifetime to implement truly sustainable recovery plans that reboot the economy and generate investment in the digital upgrades much needed by small and medium-sized companies, as well as in green infrastructure, transport and housing to build back a better and greener economy.”

The report warns that many businesses in the service sectors most affected by shutdowns, such as transport, entertainment and leisure, could become insolvent if demand does not recover, triggering large-scale job losses. Rising unemployment is also likely to worsen the risk of poverty and deprivation for millions of informal workers, particularly in emerging-market economies.

The rapid reaction of policymakers in many countries to buffer the initial blow to incomes and jobs prevented an even larger drop in output. The Interim Outlook says it is essential for governments not to repeat mistakes of past recessions but to continue to provide fiscal, financial and other policy support at the current stage of the recovery and for 2021. Such measures should be flexible enough to adapt to changing conditions and become more targeted.

Continued state support needs to be increasingly conditioned on broader environmental, economic and social objectives. Better targeting of support to where it is needed most will improve prospects, particularly for the unemployed and the low skilled – groups who too often miss out on training – and for youths. The report acknowledges that a balance needs to be struck between providing immediate support to strengthen the recovery while encouraging workers and businesses in hard-hit sectors to move into more promising activities.

Support also needs to be focussed on viable businesses, moving away from debt into equity, to help them to invest in digitalisation, and in the products and services our society will need in the decades ahead. Far stronger commitment needs to be devoted to address climate change in recovery plans, in particular conditioning support on greater investment in green energy, infrastructure, transport and housing.

At the same time, and with the virus continuing to spread, investing in health professionals and systems must remain a priority. The OECD says global co-operation and co-ordination are essential, as greater funding and multilateral efforts will be needed to ensure that affordable vaccines and treatments will be deployed rapidly in all countries when available.

The release of the Interim Economic Outlook follows an OECD Ministerial Roundtable at which Secretary-General Angel Gurría called for countries to go further in greening the stimulus packages they have announced to tackle the impact of the COVID-19 crisis in order to drive sustainable, inclusive, resilient economic growth and improve well-being.

“Climate change and biodiversity loss are the next crises around the corner and we are running out of time to tackle them,” he said. “Green recovery measures are a win-win option as they can improve environmental outcomes while boosting economic activity and enhancing well-being for all.”

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Post-COVID-19, regaining citizen’s trust should be a priority for governments

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coronavirus people

The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated governments’ ability to respond to a major global crisis with extraordinary flexibility, innovation and determination. However, emerging evidence suggests that much more could have been done in advance to bolster resilience and many actions may have undermined trust and transparency between governments and their citizens, according to a new OECD report.

Government at a Glance 2021 says that one of the biggest lessons of the pandemic is that governments will need to respond to future crises at speed and scale while safeguarding trust and transparency. “Looking forward, we must focus simultaneously on promoting the economic recovery and avoiding democratic decline” said OECD Director of Public Governance Elsa Pilichowski. “Reinforcing democracy should be one of our highest priorities.”

 Countries have introduced thousands of emergency regulations, often on a fast track. Some alleviation of standards is inevitable in an emergency, but must be limited in scope and time to avoid damaging citizen perceptions of the competence, openness, transparency, and fairness of government.

 Governments should step up their efforts in three areas to boost trust and transparency and reinforce democracy:

 Tackling misinformation is key. Even with a boost in trust in government sparked by the pandemic in 2020, on average only 51% of people in OECD countries for which data is available trusted their government. There is a risk that some people and groups may be dissociating themselves from traditional democratic processes.

 It is crucial to enhance representation and participation in a fair and transparent manner. Governments must seek to promote inclusion and diversity, support the representation of young people, women and other under-represented groups in public life and policy consultation. Fine-tuning consultation and engagement practices could improve transparency and trust in public institutions, says the report. Governments must also level the playing field in lobbying. Less than half of countries have transparency requirements covering most of the actors that regularly engage in lobbying.

 Strengthening governance must be prioritised to tackle global challenges while harnessing the potential of new technologies. In 2018, only half of OECD countries had a specific government institution tasked with identifying novel, unforeseen or complex crises. To be fit for the future, and secure the foundations of democracy, governments must be ready to act at speed and scale while safeguarding trust and transparency.

 Governments must also learn to spend better, according to Government at a Glance 2021. OECD countries are providing large amounts of support to citizens and businesses during this crisis: measures ongoing or announced as of March 2021 represented, roughly, 16.4% of GDP in additional spending or foregone revenues, and up to 10.5% of GDP via other means. Governments will need to review public spending to increase efficiency, ensure that spending priorities match people’s needs, and improve the quality of public services.

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Sweden: Invest in skills and the digital economy to bolster the recovery from COVID-19

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Sweden’s economy is on the road to recovery from the shock of the COVID-19 crisis, yet risks remain. Moving ahead with a labour reform to facilitate adaptation in a fast-changing economic environment, and investing in digital skills and infrastructure, will be crucial to revive employment and build a sustainable recovery, according to the latest OECD Economic Survey of Sweden.

The pandemic triggered a severe recession in Sweden, despite mild distancing measures and swift government action to protect people and businesses. GDP fell by less than in many other European economies in 2020, thanks to reinforced short-time work, compensation to firms for lost revenue and measures to prop up the financial system, but unemployment still rose sharply. Solid public finances provided room for further stimulus in 2021 to buttress the recovery.

 The Survey recommends maintaining targeted support to people and firms until the pandemic subsides, then focusing on strengthening vocational training and skills and increasing investment in areas like high-speed internet and low-carbon transport. Addressing regional inequality, which is low but rising, should also be a priority as the recovery takes hold.

 The Survey shows that Sweden has been among the most resilient OECD countries in the face of a historic shock. Yet, like other economies, it faces challenges from demographic changes and the shift to green, digital economies. Investments in education and training, and labour reforms along the lines negotiated by the social partners, will support job creation and strengthen economic resilience. Building on Sweden’s leadership in digital innovation and diffusion will also be key for driving productivity.

 After a 3% contraction in 2020, interrupting several years of growth, the Survey projects a rebound in activity with 3.9% growth in 2021 and 3.4% in 2022 as industrial production resumes and exports recover. The recovery in world trade is bolstering the Swedish economy, however the country remains vulnerable to potential disruptions in global value chains.  

The pandemic has aggravated a mismatch in Sweden’s job market, with unfilled vacancies for highly qualified workers coinciding with high unemployment for low-skilled workers and immigrants. The public employment service needs strengthening to provide better support to jobseekers, including immigrants and women, and labour policies should strike the right balance between supporting businesses and workers and supporting transitions away from declining businesses towards growing sectors.

A rising share of youths and older people in the population, especially in remote areas, is affecting the finances of local governments, which provide the bulk of welfare services. Strengthening local government budgets and ensuring equal welfare provision across the country will require providing tax income to poorer regions more efficiently and raising the economic growth potential across regions through investments in innovation. Improving coordination between government entities and reinforcing the role of universities in local economic networks would help achieve that aim.

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Fewer women than men will regain work during COVID-19 recovery

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Generations of progress stands to be lost on women and girls' empowerment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: ILO

Fewer women will regain jobs lost to the COVID-19 pandemic during the recovery period, than men, according to a new study released on Monday by the UN’s labour agency.  

In Building Forward Fairer: Women’s rights to work and at work at the core of the COVID-19 recovery, the International Labour Organization (ILO) highlights that between 2019 and 2020, women’s employment declined by 4.2 per cent globally, representing 54 million jobs, while men suffered a three per cent decline, or 60 million jobs. 

This means that there will be 13 million fewer women in employment this year compared to 2019, but the number of men in work will likely recover to levels seen two years ago. 

This means that only 43 per cent of the world’s working-age women will be employed in 2021, compared to 69 per cent of their male counterparts. 

The ILO paper suggests that women have seen disproportionate job and income losses because they are over-represented in the sectors hit hardest by lockdowns, such as accommodation, food services and manufacturing. 

Regional differences 

Not all regions have been affected in the same way. For example, the study revealed that women’s employment was hit hardest in the Americas, falling by more than nine per cent.  

This was followed by the Arab States at just over four per cent, then Asia-Pacific at 3.8 per cent, Europe at 2.5 per cent and Central Asia at 1.9 per cent. 

In Africa, men’s employment dropped by just 0.1 per cent between 2019 and 2020, while women’s employment decreased by 1.9 per cent. 

Mitigation efforts 

Throughout the pandemic, women faired considerably better in countries that took measures to prevent them from losing their jobs and allowed them to get back into the workforce as early as possible. 

In Chile and Colombia, for example, wage subsidies were applied to new hires, with higher subsidy rates for women.  

And Colombia and Senegal were among those nations which created or strengthened support for women entrepreneurs.  

Meanwhile, in Mexico and Kenya quotas were established to guarantee that women benefited from public employment programmes. 

Building forward 

To address these imbalances, gender-responsive strategies must be at the core of recovery efforts, says the agency. 

It is essential to invest in the care economy because the health, social work and education sectors are important job generators, especially for women, according to ILO. 

Moreover, care leave policies and flexible working arrangements can also encourage a more even division of work at home between women and men. 

The current gender gap can also be tackled by working towards universal access to comprehensive, adequate and sustainable social protection. 

Promoting equal pay for work of equal value is also a potentially decisive and important step. 

Domestic violence and work-related gender-based violence and harassment has worsened during the pandemic – further undermining women’s ability to be in the workforce – and the report highlights the need to eliminate the scourge immediately. 

Promoting women’s participation in decision-making bodies, and more effective social dialogue, would also make a major difference, said ILO. 

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