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Reskilling and Labour Migration Vital to the Pacific’s Economic Recovery

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While the Pacific and Papua New Guinea (PNG) have avoided some of the worst health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the closure of international travel and lockdowns to curb the spread of COVID-19 have had serious impacts on employment, international labour mobility, and livelihoods across the region.

A new World Bank report, Pacific Island Countries in the era of COVID 19: Macroeconomic impacts and job prospects details the potential extent of job losses and labour market impacts in the region, while also suggesting how the Pacific may benefit from changing employment trends and other opportunities.  

Fewer local jobs and sluggishness in new international opportunities are all taking their toll on labour markets in the seven Pacific countries examined in the report (Fiji, Kiribati, PNG, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu). Of these, countries that are more reliant on international tourism such as Fiji, Vanuatu and Samoa have borne the brunt of these effects, with tourism-related employment dropping by an estimated 64 percent in Vanuatu and unemployment claims in June 2020 nearly tripling the 2019 total in Fiji. Employment figures in countries where tourism plays a smaller role are also sobering, with job advertisements in PNG dropping by 76 percent between February and May 2020 as a result of lockdowns and travel restrictions. Flow-on effects to other industries, including retail and food services, together with reductions in commodity prices and remittance inflows, have added to this significant economic hardship across the region.

The changes that we have seen in labour markets and employment across the Pacific are profound and are hitting the most vulnerable hardest – but importantly they are also leading families who would have been previously secure into vulnerable positions, especially workers in the tourism sector,” said Yasser El-Gammal, Practice Manager, Social Protection and Jobs, the World Bank

The report also highlights opportunities to mitigate the economic and employment shocks presented by the pandemic. These include prioritizing retraining and skill development of workers in affected industries, such as tourism, so they can move into sectors that require similar skill sets; promoting digital literacy skills to help Pacific islanders participate in remote working opportunities; and exploring new employment opportunities for low- and semi-skilled Pacific workers in Australia and New Zealand in the long term.

“Ultimately, workers from the Pacific will remain in demand in Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere for a long time to come,” said report author Matthew Dornan, Senior Economist at the World Bank. “The various Pacific labour mobility schemes that are focused on employment in rural and regional areas are not only crucial to livelihoods and employment in the Pacific, but beneficial for employers and businesses in Australia and New Zealand.”

Of particular focus in the report is the need to support skills development and employment services in response to the crisis and as part of the economic recovery. This could include subsidizing the reskilling of workers, support for work-study and apprenticeship schemes, the provision of temporary wage subsidies for the unemployed, and an expansion of international labour mobility opportunities for Pacific Islanders. The latter can be facilitated by efforts to improve the employability of Pacific workers (e.g., through upskilling), reducing the costs associated with cross-border labour migration, and by improved marketing and relationship management with international employers. Recipient countries can also play a role through labour policies.

“Labour mobility requires close cooperation between countries,” said co-author Soonhwa Yi, Senior Economist at the World Bank. “While policy improvements from Pacific governments could help expand the overseas employment opportunities available to Pacific Islanders, receiving countries also need to ensure their migration and working visa policies support future demand for increased labour mobility.”

The report stresses that moderating the employment and livelihoods impacts of COVID-19 across the region requires supportive policy responses from governments. While support to affected populations is a priority, governments could also consider support to businesses, as has been provided in Tonga and PNG; safeguarding cash-flow through tax and import duty relief, as has been undertaken in PNG, Samoa and Solomon Islands; and exploring opportunities for direct cash transfers and social assistance to vulnerable populations.

“The COVID-19 pandemic also crisis highlights the urgency for Pacific countries to expand IT-related infrastructure and increase their engagement in the digital economy,” said Soonhwa Yi. “This would provide opportunities for workers in the digital economy and better position Pacific countries to export digital services across borders.”

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Critical Reforms Needed to Reduce Inflation and Accelerate the Recovery

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While the government took measures to protect the economy against a much deeper recession, it would be essential to set policy foundations for a strong recovery, according to the latest World Bank Nigeria Development Update (NDU).

The NDU, titled “Resilience through Reforms”, notes that in 2020 the Nigerian economy experienced a shallower contraction of -1.8% than had been projected at the beginning of the pandemic (-3.2%). Although the economy started to grow again, prices are increasing rapidly, severely impacting Nigerian households. As of April 2021, the inflation rate was the highest in four years. Food prices accounted for over 60% of the total increase in inflation. Rising prices have pushed an estimated 7 million Nigerians below the poverty line in 2020 alone.

The report acknowledges notable government’s policy reforms aimed at mitigating the impact of the crisis and supporting the recovery; including steps taken towards reducing gasoline subsidies and adjusting electricity tariffs towards more cost-reflective levels, both aimed at expanding the fiscal space for pro-poor spending. In addition, the report highlights that both the Federal and State governments cut nonessential spending and redirected resources towards the COVID-19 response. At the same time, public-sector transparency has improved, in particular around the operations of the oil and gas sector.

The report however, notes that despite the more favorable external environment, with recovering oil prices and growth in advanced economies, a failure to sustain and deepen reforms would threaten both macroeconomic sustainability and policy credibility, thereby limiting the government’s ability to address gaps in human and physical capital which is needed to attract private investment.

“Nigeria faces interlinked challenges in relation to inflation, limited job opportunities, and insecurity”, said Shubham Chaudhuri, the World Bank Country Director for Nigeria. ”While the government has made efforts to reduce the effect of these by advancing long-delayed policy reforms, it is clear that these reforms will have to be sustained and deepened for Nigeria to realize its development potential.”

This edition of the Nigeria Development Update proposes near-term policy option organized around three priority objectives:

  • Reduce inflation by implementing policies that support macroeconomic stability, inclusive growth, and job creation;
  • Protect poor households from the impacts of inflation;
  • Facilitate access to financing for small and medium enterprises in key sectors to mitigate the effects of inflation and accelerate the recovery.

“Given the urgency to reduce inflation amidst the pandemic, a policy consensus and expedite reform implementation on exchange-rate management, monetary policy, trade policy, fiscal policy, and social protection would help save lives, protect livelihoods, and ensure a faster and sustained recovery” said Marco Hernandez, the World Bank Lead Economist for Nigeria and co-author of the report.

In addition to assessing Nigeria’s economic situation, this edition of the NDU also discusses how the COVID-19 crisis has affected employment; how inflation is exacerbating poverty in Nigeria; how reforming the power sector can ignite economic growth; and how Nigeria can mobilize revenues in a time of crisis.

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Indonesia: How to Boost the Economic Recovery

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Indonesia’s economy is projected to rebound from the 2020 recession with 4.4 percent growth in 2021. The rebound is predicated on the pandemic being contained and the global economy continuing to strengthen, according to the World Bank’s latest Indonesia Economic Prospects report (“Boosting the Recovery”), released today.

The report highlights that although consumption and investment growth were subdued during the first quarter of 2021, consumer sentiment and retail sales started to improve during the second quarter suggesting stronger growth momentum. However, it also notes that pandemic related uncertainty remains elevated due to risks of higher viral transmission.

“Accelerating the vaccine rollout, ensuring adequate testing and other public health measures, and maintaining strong monetary and fiscal support in the near term are essential to boosting Indonesia’s recovery,” said Satu Kahkonen, World Bank Country Director for Indonesia and Timor-Leste. “Parallel reforms to strengthen the investment climate, deepen financial markets, and improve fiscal space for longer-term sustainability and growth will be important to further build consumer and investor confidence.”  

The report recommends the government to develop a well sequenced medium-term fiscal strategy, including clear plans to improve tax revenues and fiscal space for priority spending. It also highlights the importance of maintaining accommodative monetary policy and stimulating private credit to support the real sector while monitoring external and financial vulnerabilities.

The report highlights the critical role of adequate social assistance in mitigating rising poverty risks. It finds that maintaining the 2020 social assistance package in 2021 could potentially keep 4.7 million Indonesians out of poverty.  

This edition of the report also looks at the possibilities for Indonesia to boost higher productivity jobs and women’s economic participation.

“Indonesia has reduced poverty through job creation and rising labor incomes over the past decade. The next stage is to create middle-class jobs that are more productive, earn higher incomes, and provide social benefits,” said Habib Rab, World Bank Lead Economist for Indonesia. “While the crisis risks have exacerbated Indonesia’s employment challenges, it is also an opportunity to address the competitiveness and inclusion bottlenecks to creating middle-class jobs and strengthening women’s participation in the economy.”

The report recommends a four-pronged reform strategy to address these jobs-related challenges:

  • Mitigate employment losses by maintaining adequate job retention programs, social assistance, training, and reskilling programs until the recovery is stronger.
  • Boost productivity and middle-class jobs by promoting competition, investment, and trade.
  • Equip the Indonesian workforce to hold middle-class jobs by investing in education and training systems and programs to improve workers’ skills.
  • Bring more women into the labor force and reduce earning gaps between men and women by investing in child and elderly care and promoting private sector development in the care economy.

The Indonesia Economic Prospects Report is supported by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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Inequality Has Likely Increased in PNG, with Bottom 40% Hit Hardest by Latest Outbreak

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A joint World Bank and UNICEF report based on mobile phone surveys of Papua New Guinean families has found that while there was a slight recovery in employment between June and December 2020, people in the bottom 40% of wealth distribution remain the hardest hit by the Coronavirus pandemic.

Conducted in December 2020, this second World Bank survey (the first was conducted in June 2020), shows that inequality has likely increased in PNG in the year since the pandemic began, and that the current COVID-19 outbreak is expected to deepen inequalities even further.

“According to the report, there were positive signs that PNG was starting to recover from the initial shocks of the pandemic between June and December 2020,” explained Stefano Mocci, World Bank Country Manager for Papua New Guinea. “However, it was largely wealthier households who were experiencing the fastest recovery in employment and income. In contrast, in areas with above average poverty, there were still high job losses.”

“Given a possible third wave of COVID-19 infections has strong potential to cause further declines in employment and income, social and economic support needs to be targeted to those most vulnerable – the bottom 40% – to try and lessen the widening inequality gap.”

“Little is known about how COVID-19 affects children in PNG,” expressed Judith Bruno, acting UNICEF PNG Representative. “Overwhelmingly, households with children under the age of 15 considered COVID-19 as a major threat to household finances and reported decreases in access to basic services, including water supply, sanitation, health care, and mental health and psychosocial support.”

“This World Bank and UNICEF collaboration will help policy makers and responders to better protect children from the virus, promote safe and continued access to services, and prevent children and their families from further economic hardship.”

Other key findings from the second of five planned World Bank surveys include:

·        For those still working, more than 75% of respondents reported receiving the same income as usual in the past week, compared to less than 50% in June (the strongest gains were for those in the top 40% of wealth distribution);

·        Rural households, and those in the bottom 40% of wealth distribution, were most likely to see decreases in money sent by friends or family.

·        77% of households were somewhat worried, or very worried, about their household finances in the next month.

·        33% of households in the bottom 40% of wealth distribution were unable to buy their preferred protein, compared to just four percent of households in the top 40%.

·        Less than 10% of primary and elementary school students participated in distance learning while schools were closed, but there were no significant differences between boys and girls returning to school and no evidence that the pandemic has widened the education gender gap.

·        Compared to the rest of the country, households in the National Capital District (NCD) were more likely to report deteriorations in theft, alcohol and drug abuse, violence by police and domestic abuse since June 2020 – all indicators of rising tensions in the capital, Port Moresby.

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