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Brazil: Reforms to spur competitiveness would strengthen COVID-19 recovery

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Brazil was pulling out of a long recession when the COVID-19 outbreak hit, bringing the economy back into another, even deeper recession. However, swift government support has helped millions of vulnerable households, including those without formal employment and social protection. A strong and inclusive recovery from the crisis that benefits all Brazilians will require additional ambitious reforms to boost jobs, productivity and trade, as well as to strengthen public finances and improve social protection, according to a new OECD report.

The latest OECD Economic Survey of Brazil says that while the decisive response spared Brazil from a more severe economic impact, the pandemic will still significantly affect well-being and prosperity, taking a toll on people and businesses in the informal economy. The Survey estimates the COVID-19 crisis will cause GDP to shrink by 5% this year, followed by a return to growth of 2.6% in 2021 and 2.2% in 2022. Reforms to help firms to grow and compete internationally would enable Brazil to reap the benefits of integrating into global trade and to address rising poverty and inequality.

“Brazil was making good progress on structural reforms prior to the pandemic, including its successful 2019 pension reform. The shock to the economy and society from COVID-19 makes it paramount to keep momentum going and tackle outstanding barriers to competition, productivity growth and foreign trade, as well as address pressing environmental challenges,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, presenting the Survey. “The OECD is committed to work with Brazil to ensure a strong, inclusive and sustainable recovery and to build a better future for all Brazilians.” (Read the speech in full)

The Survey estimates that an ambitious package of reforms to improve domestic regulation and competition, reduce barriers to foreign trade and improve institutions and economic governance would boost per-capita GDP growth by 0.9 percentage points per year over 15 years. Lowering trade barriers could also bring down the prices of many goods, with a tangible impact on the lives of ordinary Brazilians.

The COVID-19 crisis has accentuated the need to further lighten the cumbersome regulations, including complex procedures for taxation, which hamper entrepreneurship and competition. An average medium-sized company in Brazil spends around 1,500 hours a year on procedures to pay taxes compared to 317 hours in Latin American countries or 159 hours in OECD countries. Investment in education, vocational training and adult skills would in turn help to build a more productive workforce ready for a more globally integrated economy. Evidence suggests that adult training programmes can make a real difference for workers seeking to move into better-paying jobs, provided that course content is well-aligned with local labour market needs.

Inequality and poverty have edged up in Brazil over the last few years, reversing progress since 2000 due to strong growth, social transfers and improved education outcomes. The richest 10% of the population earn over four times that of the bottom 40%. Almost half of social benefits go to the wealthiest 20% of households. The Survey recommends better targeting transfers to those most in need, accelerating benefit concession for people who lose their jobs and withdrawing them more gradually. This would help to support the 40% of workers employed in the informal economy and not covered by unemployment schemes, and ensure an inclusive recovery from the crisis.

The efficiency of public spending should be improved, as the pandemic is adding to Brazil’s already high public debt. There is scope to make significant savings with no impact on well-being. The Survey recommends reviewing tax exemptions and subsidies that account for almost 5% of GDP and trimming civil service costs.

Brazil should also use the recovery as an opportunity to strengthen protection of the Amazon rainforest including through stronger enforcement of its forest law to stop illegal deforestation, focusing instead on the sustainable use of the Amazon’s economic potential.

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Lighthouse Partnerships Gain Momentum on Social Justice

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Crises in climate, health and inequality are compelling organizations to align business strategies with equity and social justice values.

In a new whitepaper, Lighthouse Action on Social Justice Through Stakeholder Inclusion, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) and Laudes Foundation, shines a light on emerging corporate momentum supporting stakeholder inclusion and social justice.

Through the case studies of nine “lighthouse examples,” the report chronicles how the following companies and coalitions are establishing stakeholder inclusion models and best business practices in three key areas:

Making investments targeting impacted communities in value chains and ecosystems:

– The Resilience Fund for Women in Global Value Chains (UN Foundation, BSR, Women Win/Win-Win, Gap Foundation, PVH Foundation, H&M Foundation, the VF Foundation, and the Ralph Lauren Corporate Foundation)

– In Solidarity Program (Mastercard)

– Replenish Africa Initiative (The Coca-Cola Foundation)

Influencing public policy and speaking out as corporate citizens:

– Open for Business Coalition (39 major corporations)

– Racial Equality and Justice Task Force (Salesforce)

Applying rigorous accountability practices and sharing power with workers in supply chains and communities:

– Unilever’s Living Wage commitment (Unilever)

– Farmer Income Lab (Mars, ABinBev, Danone, Oxfam, IDH, Livelihoods Fund for Family Farming, UNDP)

– Amul Supplier Cooperative Ownership (Amul)

– Patagonia’s Implementation of Regenerative Organic Certified Standards in its Apparel Supply Chain (Patagonia)

The whitepaper outlines successes and pain points as these leading lighthouse partnerships between business and civil society strive for more meaningful participation with communities most impacted by systemic injustices. Each business is unique in its culture and path to long-term value creation, but all are committed to the belief that stakeholder primacy leads to optimal outcomes.

The time to move forward with these ideals is now, and the conclusion is clear in that, “…the crises of pandemic, protest and social disruption have created an inflection point for many companies to evaluate their corporate sustainability strategies,” said David Sangokoya, Head, Civil Society and Social Justice, World Economic Forum. “Stakeholder inclusion must be at the centre of any corporate action on equity and social justice in our unequal world…positioning business on the path towards redesigning business models that shift power and value towards stakeholder primacy.”

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Lebanon crisis: More international assistance needed urgently

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lebanon beirut
Photo: Marten Bjork/Unsplash

Lebanon’s enduring economic crisis risks reversing decades of gains in people’s wellbeing, the head of the UN World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday.    

Speaking from the capital, Beirut, at the end of a two-day visit to the beleaguered Mediterranean country, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described finding shortages of “basic and essential medicines”. 

Although the WHO has done what it can to fill gaps in healthcare there for the last 15 years, the WHO Director-General said that the situation had become “very dire” and that international support was needed immediately.  

“It’s not just COVID, almost all services are being affected,” he said. “We visited two hospitals today… they told us that you know, they had, patients, cancer patients or other patients, but a shortage of medicines and those who cannot afford not having access to, they can’t have medicine, so meaning other services are being disrupted, and this is life, life, life and death.” 

Lebanon’s unprecedented political and economic crisis has been made worse by the COVID pandemic and last August’s port explosion. 

Fuel and power shortages

Tedros said that when he went to meet top Government officials, a power cut interrupted their encounter. 

Similar fuel shortages have left hospitals functioning at 50 per cent capacity, the WHO Director-General said, adding that he had agreed to send a team of health experts to Lebanon to offer technical support as soon as possible. 

The UN health agency has also provided “Band-Aid” assistance to the country’s medical sector, Tedros added. 

This includes the purchase of essential medicines for 450,000 patients with acute and chronic conditions last year and this year. 

But Dr Iman Shankiti, WHO Representative in Lebanon, told journalists that the caseload is now increasing and that demand is growing for medications to treat cancer, dialysis and emergency patients. 

“At one point in time we were able to support 2,000 cancer paediatric cases and we were able to support 17,000 persons with catastrophic medications, but this is not enough,” she said. “I cannot say that we have filled the gap, we have closed the shortage. The needs are huge….It needs a whole-of-Government approach (to solving the shortages)”. 

Regional insecurity risk 

While in Beirut, Tedros visited several health facilities, including the newly renovated Central Drug Warehouse that had been destroyed by the Beirut port blast.

Accompanying him, Dr Ahmed Al Mandhari, Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean, highlighted the threat to regional instability if Lebanon’s health sector was not propped up.

The country was rapidly losing its longstanding status as a key provider of medical professionals, he warned, as its youngsters left the country to seek work elsewhere.

Lebanon’s strong vaccination and immunisation system was also under threat, said Dr Al Mandhari, noting that it had “protected the children of Lebanon and all those living in Lebanon, which helped us in the region and beyond to control communicable diseases like for example polio, measles and other communicable diseases that affect adults and children. So, if there is a break or a weakness in this expanded programme of immunisation in the country it will definitely hit other countries in the region.”

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77 million children have spent 18 months out of class

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The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says the world is facing an education crisis due to the COVID pandemic, that has left nearly 77 million children shut out of the classroom for the past 18 months.  

This Thursday, the UN agency is closing down its social media channels for the next 18 hours to send one message to the world: #ReopenSchools for in-person learning as soon as possible. 

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is joining UNICEF, together with the World Bank, the European External Action Service (EEAS), the European Commission Humanitarian Aid operation, the LEGO Foundation and the WEF Global Shapers community of world youth.  

Right to education 

For UNICEF, the right to go to school is central to every child’s development, safety and well-being. Yet in too many countries, classrooms remain closed while social gatherings continue to take place in restaurants, salons and gyms. 

The agency believes “this generation of children and youth, cannot afford any more disruptions to their education.” 

New numbers from UNESCO, released this Thursday, show that schools are now fully open in 117 countries, with 539 million students back in class, ranging from pre-primary to secondary levels. 

This represents 35 per cent of the total student population across the world, compared to 16% who returned to school in September 2020, when schools were only open, or partially-open, in 94 countries. 

Around 117 million students, representing 7.5 per cent of the total, are still affected by complete school closures in 18 countries. The number of countries with partly open schools, has declined from 52 to 41 over the same period.  

In all countries that had prolonged full school closures, education was provided through a combination of online classes, printed modules, as well as tuition through TV and radio networks. 

Schools can reopen safely 

UNESCO and its Global Education Coalition partners have been advocating for the safe reopening of schools, urging full closures to be used as a measure of last resort. 

Since the onset of the pandemic, schools were completely closed for an average of 18 weeks (4.5 months) worldwide. If partial closures are accounted for, the average duration of closures represents 34 weeks (8.5 months) worldwide, or nearly a full academic year. 

For UNESCO, the past two academic years have resulted in learning losses and increased drop-out rates, impacting the most vulnerable students disproportionately.  

Schools in most countries have adopted some forms of sanitation protocol such as wearing masks, using hand sanitizers, improving ventilation and social distancing, which were also key to re-opening schools last year. 

Some countries have also introduced large scale testing as well as temporary classroom and school closures when the virus is detected.  

Vaccination key 

Rising vaccination rates among both general population and teaching staff, has also been a key factor in reopening schools. 

The vaccination of teachers has been prioritized in around 80 countries, allowing for the inoculation of some 42 million teachers. In a handful of countries, the vaccination of students aged 12 and over, is an important factor in determining the full re-opening of schools. 

Action to accelerate the recovery of learning losses remains an essential component of national COVID-19 education responses. For that, UNESCO says teachers and educators need adequate support and preparation. 

Connectivity and bridging the digital divide also remain key priorities in building the resilience of education systems and providing hybrid learning opportunities. 

For that reason, UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank have partnered in an initiative called Mission: Recovering Education 2021, that supports governments in bringing all learners back to school, run programmes to help them catch up on lost learning, and prepare teachers to address learning losses and incorporate new digital technology.

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