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Kazakhstan’s Economy to Recover Modestly in 2021, But COVID-19-induced Poverty on the Rise

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Kazakhstan’s economy is expected to grow modestly by 2.5 percent in 2021 and support higher growth by 3.5 percent in 2022, but significant downside risks remain due to uneven worldwide economic recovery and higher debt-related risks on the global financial market. These key finding of the World Bank’s latest Kazakhstan Economic UpdateA slow recovery through the COVID-19 crisis, were discussed today at an online event with participation of national experts.

World Bank experts name 2020 as the most challenging year for Kazakhstan’s economy in the last two decades. The fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the economy harder than the crises in 2008 and 2015. The spread of the pandemic halted global activity in the second quarter of 2020 and depressed global demand and price of oil, which is Kazakhstan’s main export commodity. The pandemic also significantly depressed domestic economic activities, with the national economy projected to shrink by 2.5 percent in 2020.

“The economy is expected to grow modestly in 2021 based on an improved global economic outlook, higher demand for exports, resumption of domestic economic activities, and higher disposable income,” said Sjamsu Rahardja, Senior Economist, World Bank Country Office in Kazakhstan. “The risks to the economy are on the downside. However, smooth implementation of COVID-19 vaccinations and continuation of the economic reforms are important for  sustaining growth.”

Experts highlight that the depressed economy will hit the most vulnerable. The pandemic has severely impacted the retail, hospitality, wholesale, and transport sectors, which account for around 30 percent of employment in cities: however, the country’s rural population will experience the strongest shock. According to World Bank estimates, Kazakhstan’s poverty rate will increase to 12-14 percent in 2020 from a baseline of 6 percent in 2016.

“The most significant increase in the number of the poor is expected to come from rural areas, which threatens to increase inequality in Kazakhstan,” said Jean-Francois Marteau, World Bank Country Manager for Kazakhstan. “The country’s average GDP growth has declined after each economic crisis, weighed down by the lackluster productivity growth and over-dependency on hydrocarbons. Therefore, more than ever, Kazakhstan needs to focus on delivering reforms for inclusive economic recovery and higher productivity, as well as ensuring the effectiveness of government programs.”

Panel experts discussed the factors that impact the Kazakh economy’s path to recovery, potential policy response to enhance resilience of the Kazakh economy, as well as the emerging challenges, such as increasing poverty, weaker global demand for fossil fuels, higher regional competition to attract investments, and higher risks of instability in the financial sector.

At the same time, Chairperson of Corporate Fund “NAC Analytica” Aktoty Aitzhanova was more optimistic on the growth projections, stating that “Given the assumption on oil price and world trade, real GDP of Kazakhstan is expected to contract 2.5 percent in 2020 before recovering by 4.0 percentin 2021. The domestic output is expected to reach its pre-pandemic level in quarter 3 of 2021.”

The Kazakhstan authorities have implemented strong policy measures to minimize the pandemic’s impact on people and the economy. The Panel discussed the support given to firms and poor households. In this regard, Olzhas Khudaibergenov, Founder & Senior Partner of Center for Strategic Initiatives (CSI) highlighted that “Measures to support the Kazakh economy during the pandemic should not be short-term. They should assume that the pandemic will have an impact for another 2-3 years.”

Experts agreed on the urgency to addressing the long-standing problems that diminish productivity growth and strengthening the quality of social measures to protect the most vulnerable.

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Azerbaijan Can Accelerate Its Green Economic Transformation

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A report launch and policy dialogue organized by the World Bank jointly with the Republic of Azerbaijan National Coordination Council on Sustainable Development, the Ministry of Economy, and the United Nations reviewed the findings and recommendations of a recent World Bank report on how Azerbaijan can accelerate its transition towards a green and sustainable economic model.

Prepared as part of a country environmental assessment study carried out in close collaboration with the government of Azerbaijan and in consultation with a broad set of national and international stakeholders, the report: Azerbaijan: Towards Green Growth (executive summary in Azerbaijani) explores the long-run growth prospects and policy options to help the country pivot away from the economic model primarily based on fossil fuel exports.

The report’s recommendations provide a blueprint on how the country can accelerate towards a green economic transition and the goals of its national development strategy under the recently adopted Azerbaijan’s 2030: National Priorities for Socio-Economic Development  and the Strategy of Socio-Economic Development in 2022-2026. Both strategies place green growth and a clean environment among five key priorities for the country’s development up to 2030.

The December 7, 2022 session represented a coordinated and sustained joint effort among the Government of Azerbaijan policy makers, leading experts, the private sector, civil society, and development partners as part of a broader policy dialogue on sustainable development goals (SDG). It followed the 1st SDG Dialogue on Green Transformation in Azerbaijan, held on November 2, 2022 jointly organized by the National Coordination Council for Sustainable Development, the Ministry of Economy of the Republic of Azerbaijan, and World Bank, the United Nations, 

“Global transition towards a low-emissions economic model offers opportunities for Azerbaijan to be globally and regionally competitive. To make the best of it, Azerbaijan needs to focus on decarbonizing and diversifying the economy, bolstering innovation, and natural and human capital development,” noted Sarah Michael, World Bank Country Manager for Azerbaijan.  “Greening of a number of existing sectors, developing new green ones and increasing climate action can diversify Azerbaijan’s economy and address environmental challenges while reducing greenhouse emissions and associated risks and vulnerabilities.”

The government of Azerbaijan recognizes that the global green transition creates new opportunities for the country to overcome the limits of its fossil fuel-dependent growth model. It has prioritized an agenda that aims to pivot the country towards a greener, more sustainable, and resilient economy while meeting international commitments. These commitments include the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and pledges to reduce GHG emissions set in its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) under the Paris Agreement.

“Building on 30-years of partnership with the government of Azerbaijan, the World Bank supports the country’s green aspirations. A Country Climate and Development Report, currently under development by the World Bank jointly with Azerbaijan, will help identify concrete near-, medium-, and long-term actions to promote the low-carbon transition, reduce GHG emissions, and boost climate adaptation,” said Sebastian Molineus, World Bank Regional Director for the South Caucasus. “Beginning now and with the help of public resources and revenues from fossil fuel exports, Azerbaijan can chart a new course towards a greener and cleaner future and the World Bank stands ready to support Azerbaijan on this path.”

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Digitalization Advances Financial Inclusion for Women and Micro Business Owners but More Is Needed

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The World Economic Forum launched today the ASEAN Digital Generation Report 2022, the sixth edition of the report since 2017. This year’s report examines digital financial services, gaps in access and where businesses, governments and civil society organizations need to improve financial inclusion.

The report builds on insights from a survey of more than 90,000 respondents from Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam. Some 70% of respondents were aged between 16 and 35, 52% were women, and a third (27,000) were micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs).

Produced in collaboration with Sea Limited, a global consumer internet company founded in Singapore, the report indicates that usage of digital financial services is increasing across the region. Digital payment apps were most widely used after social media, with 84% of survey respondents having used digital payments. Respondents stressed the importance of better access to financial services for daily personal and business needs, from cash flows and savings to a safety net for business expansion.

Digitalization offers the potential to improve access to finance, promoting inclusivity for underserved groups such as women, rural dwellers and micro business entrepreneurs. Accessing digital financial services has become common practice among the majority of surveyed rural dwellers. MSMEs, particularly micro businesses, are getting more loans from fintech, as well as complementing loans from banks. In addition, one woman in five respondents who needed loans borrowed through fintech and online services, making them an important source of formal borrowing.

Access to finance remains an issue

Access to finance is not uniform among ASEAN’s digital generation. Among those who sought credit support, nearly half could not access formal sources of lending. Some 28% of those who needed loans did not get any and almost a fifth had to rely on family and friends, cooperatives and other informal lenders.

Women also had less access to financial services compared to men. For instance, only 22% of women who needed loans actually received credit from commercial banks, compared to 28% of men. There were also fewer women (19%) using advanced financial products – namely credit, investment and insurance – compared to men (24%). However, the survey indicated that women were adopting digital finance apps (65%) more than men (59%).

The report found that possession of financial management skills is correlated with access to financial products, particularly more advanced ones such as insurance, loans and investment.

Obstacles for ASEAN’s digital generation

Complex financial language used in financial services contracts constitutes a serious barrier for ASEAN’s digital generation. Respondents cited cumbersome processes or unfriendly interfaces (particularly for digital payments and lending services), fear of hidden costs and ambiguous contract terms (particularly for saving/investment and lending services).

The survey also looked into concerns that cut across various financial services and found security and fraud to be common themes. This underscores safety as a basic requirement for any form of financial service.

As ASEAN has been promoting ASEAN intra and international trade, the report examines the relationship between access to financial services and cross-border trade opportunities. The data indicates there is a gap in cross-border payments where only 33% of the respondents have used international payments. Some 42% of MSME entrepreneurs reported that inability to receive and/or send payment internationally has hampered their ability to buy or sell products from and to overseas.

The identified obstacles were consistent in all six countries surveyed. As such, multistakeholder and regional joint actions are needed to enhance digital financial inclusion in the region.

“Digital literacy and financial literacy are both critical not only to raise financial inclusion but also to enabling ASEAN’s digital generation to navigate financial services safely and seamlessly,” said Santitarn Sathirathai, Group Chief Economist at Sea, a Singapore-based global consumer internet company. “We have seen from the survey how digitalization can promote more inclusivity in finance for underserved groups such as rural dwellers and micro businesses. Raising digital and financial literacy can help to further increase access to financial services. And we also found that different groups have different learning needs. These call for multistakeholder actions to design targeted approaches in financial literacy education.”

“The future of ASEAN’s digital economy can be even brighter with collaboration from all relevant stakeholders to address identified challenges in a timely and coordinated manner. We sincerely hope that insights revealed in this report will inform impactful actions towards an inclusive future for ASEAN’s economy and people,” added Joo-Ok Lee, Head of the Regional Agenda, Asia-Pacific, World Economic Forum.

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Small Business, Big Problem: New Report Says 67% of SMEs Worldwide Are Fighting for Survival

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Small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and mid-sized companies are the backbone of the global economy. They create close to 70% of jobs and GDP worldwide. But, amid warnings of a global recession, research from the World Economic Forum and the National University of Singapore Business School indicates that 67% of executives from SMEs cite survival and expansion as their main challenge.

They mention low margins, the challenge of scaling the business and expanding to new markets, and clients/consumers as the main pressure points.

The report, Future Readiness of SMEs and Mid-Sized Companies: A Year On, looks at companies emerging from the pandemic. It builds on analysis of over 200 peer-reviewed articles and the quantitative and qualitative surveying of about 800 leaders and executives from SMEs and mid-sized companies. Business leaders also cite talent acquisition and retention (48%), culture and values (34%), funding and access to capital (24%), as well as non-favourable business policy environments (22%) as their biggest challenge.

The report also identifies pragmatic ways for smaller companies to embed future readiness into corporate strategies and highlights sustainability and digital transformation as two overlooked challenges. It focuses on how smaller companies can boost their resilience through stronger business frameworks. It also highlights how their high level of agility can benefit the development and implementation of:

– A strategic approach to talent management

– A staged approach to digital transformation

– Specific sustainability measures depending on the company’s level of maturity in this space

While smaller companies can increase their future readiness, the wider policy environment – such as the infrastructure for digital trade and finance – has a direct and important impact on their ability to thrive. It is, therefore, key for policy-makers, investors and other stakeholders to do what is in their capabilities to contribute to building the future readiness of this segment of the economy.

“The business community is stepping up to tackle the biggest issues facing the world. SMEs and mid-sized companies are key enablers in this pursuit. This report sheds light on some key opportunity spaces for SMEs and mid-sized to do exactly that,” said Børge Brende, President, World Economic Forum.

Rashimah Rajah, Professor at the National University of Singapore and co-lead author of the report, added: “SMEs and mid-sized companies have unique strengths in their ability to pivot their business models to be more future ready and, by hiring and developing the right talent, they can mobilize positive internal and external change faster than larger companies. However, to fully realize their potential, they also need the support of policy-makers in recognizing their credentials as well as in rewarding sustainability initiatives.”

The report was developed in collaboration with the National University of Singapore Business School, as well as with expert contributions from UnternehmerTUM, Aston Business School, TBS Education, the Aspen Institute, Asia Global Institute and the International Chamber of Commerce.

The World Economic Forum will be leveraging the insights generated in this report to further support SMEs and mid-sized companies in their future-readiness journey. This will be done through the creation of additional resources including the continuous development of the Forum’s self-assessment and benchmarking tool on future readiness, as well as the creation of a space for informal peer-to-peer learning between companies as well as meet-ups with key experts.

With some of the key insights of the report coming from the New Champions Community, the Forum aims to amplify the voices of purpose-driven mid-sized businesses. This community and its more than 100 members share and learn from best practices, proven innovations and support new partnerships for the common good in the mid-sized landscape.

The Forum is now accepting applications from forward-looking mid-sized companies that are pioneering new business models, emerging technologies and sustainable growth strategies.

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