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Recovery Offers Chance to Build Back Better in Latin America and the Caribbean

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Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) suffered more health and economic damage from the COVID 19 pandemic than any other region, although there is potential for significant transformation in key sectors as the region begins to rebound, according to a new World Bank Report.

Because of the pandemic, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the Latin America and Caribbean region (excluding Venezuela) fell 6.7% in 2020. A return to growth of 4.4% is expected in 2021. That compares to the Bank’s late 2020 forecast of a 7.9% GDP decline in 2020, and 4% expansion in 2021.

The immense disruption from the pandemic may lay the groundwork for higher productivity through economic restructuring and digitization. Other growth opportunities stem from innovations in the electricity sector, according to the World Bank LAC Semiannual report Renewing with Growth.

The damage has been severe and we’re seeing a lot of suffering, particularly among the most vulnerable,” said Carlos Felipe Jaramillo, World Bank Vice President for the Latin America and the Caribbean Region. “But we must always look ahead and seize on this opportunity to embrace the transformations needed to ensure a brighter future.”

The sharp contraction last year because of the pandemic had huge economic and social costs. Unemployment rates have generally increased and poverty rates shot up, although in some countries massive social transfers did much to cushion the social impact of the crisis.

The Covid-19 crisis will have a long-lasting impact on the economies of the region. Less learning and lower employment are bound to reduce future earnings, while high public and private debt may create stress for in financial sector and slow the recovery.

Despite the challenges, there are some bright spots. Global trade in goods held up relatively well, despite the sharp drop of trade in services, especially tourism. Most commodity prices are now higher than before the Covid-19 crisis, partly due to China’s quick rebound. This is good for exporters of agricultural and mining products. Remittances to the region are up compared to before the pandemic, which is very important to several countries in the Caribbean and Central America.

In addition, capital markets remained open to most countries in the region. Borrowing from abroad actually increased, which helped mitigate the economic and social impact of the Covid-19 crisis. Most countries in the region ran substantial budget deficits since the beginning of the pandemic, with the additional spending devoted to strengthening health systems, providing transfers to households, and helping firms. At the same time proactive measures helped debtors and reduced the risk of financial crises.

As economies rebound this year, some sectors and firms will gain and others will lose,” said Martín Rama, World Bank Chief Economist for the Latin America and the Caribbean region. “The pandemic has triggered a process of creative destruction that may lead to faster growth but may also amplify inequality within and across countries in the region.”

For example, hospitality and personal services may suffer long-term damage, but information technology, finance and logistics will expand. In the medium term, the gains could be larger than the losses. The biggest transformation could come from accelerated digitization, which could lead to greater dynamism in financial intermediation, international trade and labor markets.

Technology also brings the opportunity to transform the power sector. Latin America and the Caribbean has the cleanest electricity generation matrix of all developing regions, mainly due to the abundance of hydropower. The region should have the cheapest electricity in the developing world, but instead has the most expensive, mostly due to inefficiencies.

Firms and households in the region pay substantially more for the electricity they consume than it would cost to produce it. Inefficiencies are reflected in frequent power outages, technical and commercial losses, over-staffed state-owned utilities, and abuse of market power by private generators.

With the right institutional framework, technology could increase competition in the sector, bringing electricity prices down and increasing the share generated from renewable sources. For example, distributed generation could allow firms and households to rely on their own power sources, such as solar panels, to sell electricity to the grid or to buy from it depending on the hour of the day. In addition, increased cross-border electricity trade could capitalize on differences in installed capacity, generation cost and the timing of peak demand to generate mutual gains. However, these efficiency gains will only materialize if electricity can be sold and bought at the right price.

While there are signs that the economies of the region are rebounding and hopes that the disruption could have some positive outcomes, the outlook for this year remains uncertain. Vaccine rollout has been slow in most the region, and herd immunity may not be attained before the end of 2021 at the earliest. In addition, new waves of infection may come as new variants of the virus emerge. While actively preparing to build back better, protecting lives and livelihoods remains the priority.

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Climate Finance: Climate Actions at Center of Development and Recovery

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The Asian Development Bank (ADB) called access to climate finance a key priority for Asia and the Pacific as governments design and implement a green and resilient recovery from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Speaking at the United Kingdom Climate and Development Ministerial—one of the premier events leading up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in November—ADB President Masatsugu Asakawa said expanding access to finance is critical if developing economies in Asia and the Pacific are to meet their Paris Agreement goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change.

“We can no longer take a business-as-usual approach to climate change. We need to put ambitious climate actions at the center of development,” Mr. Asakawa said. “ADB is committed to supporting its developing member countries through finance, knowledge, and collaboration with other development partners, as they scale up climate actions and push for an ambitious outcome at COP 26 and beyond.”

ADB is using a three-pronged strategy to expand access to finance for its developing members as they step up their response to the impacts of climate change.

First, ADB has an ambitious corporate target to ensure 75% of the total number of its committed operations support climate change mitigation and adaptation by the end of the decade, with climate finance from ADB’s own resources to reach $80 billion cumulatively between 2019 and 2030. ADB has also adopted explicit climate targets under its Asian Development Fund (ADF), which provides grant financing to its poorest members. ADF 13, which covers the period of 2021–2024, will support climate mitigation and adaption in 35% of its operations by volume and 65% of its total number of projects by 2024.

Second, ADB is enhancing support for adaptation and resilience that goes beyond climate proofing physical infrastructure to promote strong integration of ecological, social, institutional, and financial aspects of resilience into ADB’s investments.

Third, ADB is increasing its focus on supporting the poorest and most vulnerable communities in its developing member countries by working with the United Kingdom, the Nordic Development Fund, and the Green Climate Fund on a community resilience program to scale up the quantity and quality of climate adaptation finance in support of local climate adaptation actions.

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Improving Transport Connectivity in Central Asia Requires a Coherent Approach

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The combination of infrastructure and logistics improvements, reduction in border delays and tariffs, and harmonized standards across countries could have a significant positive impact on Central Asian economies, said experts during an online regional briefing “Connectivity in Central Asia: Challenges and Opportunities” hosted by the World Bank.

Studies show that improved transport corridors generate economic development around them. Better road accessibility also allows more people to have access to jobs, education, healthcare, and opportunities, leading to poverty reduction.

“Connectivity is a complex issue and has wide-ranging impacts, affecting businesses, consumers, trade, logistics, economic growth and a country’s overall development,” said Jean-François Marteau, World Bank Country Manager for Kazakhstan. “In Kazakhstan, our analysis shows a clear link between investments in infrastructure and the level of the gross regional product of the oblasts.”

Countries in Central Asia are some of the least connected economies in the world, with the region’s connectivity indicator averaging below 60 percent in terms of the ratio of access to the global GDP – the lowest on the spectrum. The cost to import and export from or to Central Asia remains high, undermining the competitiveness of Central Asian products abroad and resulting in expensive imported goods. For example, the cost of shipping a container from any of the Central Asian countries to Shanghai is five times more expensive than from Poland or Turkey.

“Countries in Central Asia are yet to realize the enormous potential of internal and external trade, and the key here is improving transport connectivity in a holistic way,” said Antonio Nunez, Program Leader for Infrastructure at the World Bank Central Asia. “We see significant returns on investments when they are combined with other improvements in reducing delays and trade tariffs. These measures together could boost the regional GDP by about 15 percent.”

Connectivity within countries in Central Asia is also limited with most areas in the countries suffering from insufficient infrastructure and expensive services, limiting access to services, activities, and jobs, and hindering the tourism potential.

In the past two decades, Central Asian countries invested heavily in improving infrastructure; however, the region still lags behind middle-income countries in terms of both investing and maintaining the infrastructure. Central Asia ranks low on key trade indicators, such as the number of days to clear imports and exports and the Logistics Performance Index.

Despite some recent progress, the latter has either remained at the same level or declined compared with 2010 for all Central Asian countries. According to CAREC data, investing in corridors has paid off in saved travel time due to higher speeds. However, these time savings are often lost at the borders due to inefficient procedures and capacity constraints.

Key challenges in improving connectivity in Central Asia include tackling the low productivity of the state-owned enterprises that dominate the transport sectors in the region, harmonizing the different standards, improving infrastructure quality at local, national, and regional levels, as well as improving governance and efficiency.

“Over the years, the region has launched or become part of numerous connectivity initiatives that vary across types of infrastructure and geographical scope. What is needed now is for the countries to prioritize the connectivity initiatives that work best for their economies,” said Lilia Burunciuc, World Bank Regional Director for Central Asia. “We at the World Bank will continue supporting Central Asia in understanding and improving connectivity through our advice as well as investments, which in the last 10 years have reached over $5 billion in this sector.”

Speakers underlined the importance of greener, more sustainable and smarter transport solutions that are integrated with urban planning to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve air quality management systems and reduce air pollution. Globally, transport accounts for a quarter of energy-related GHG emissions. In the Central Asian capitals and larger cities, transport generates particulate emissions that exceed the WHO maximum levels, leading to various diseases and premature deaths.

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Political and Security Uncertainty Slow Down Afghanistan’s Economic Recovery

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 Afghanistan faces a sluggish economic recovery from COVID-19 amid continued political uncertainties and possible decline in international aid, says the World Bank in its latest country update. 

Released today, Setting Course to Recovery shows that robust agricultural growth has partially buoyed Afghanistan’s economy, which shrunk by around two percent in 2020—a smaller contraction than previous estimates. However, lockdowns, weak investment, and trade disruptions have hit hard services and industries, increasing hardship and unemployment in cities.

Growth is expected to reach one percent in 2021 and top around three percent in 2022 as the COVID-19 crisis fades. Per capita incomes are unlikely to recover to pre-COVID levels until 2025 due to fast population growth.

“The current political and security uncertainties have created serious hurdles to Afghanistan’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. A slower pace of recovery means higher unemployment, lower government revenues, and – ultimately – more difficult living conditions for Afghans,” said Henry Kerali, World Bank Country Director for Afghanistan.

A full recovery will be challenging as many firms have closed and jobs were lost. Private sector confidence has weakened amid difficult security conditions, uncertainty about the outcome of the ongoing peace talks, the possible withdrawal of international troops, and potential sharp declines in future international aid support. Droughts are expected in 2021 and will likely reduce agricultural activity, further weakening growth prospects.

The report emphasizes that a strong and sustainable partnership between the Afghan government and its international partners is key to driving recovery and restoring private sector confidence. In that effort, the government needs to accelerate reforms to improve governance, fight corruption, mobilize revenue, and boost business. Simultaneously, donors can support private sector confidence through clearer multi-year aid commitments and by defining measurable priority reforms that condition continued grant support. 

The Afghanistan Development Update is a companion piece to the South Asia Economic Focus, a twice-a-year World Bank report that examines economic developments and prospects in the South Asia region and analyzes policy challenges faced by countries. The Spring 2021 edition titled “South Asia Vaccinates,” launched on March 31, 2021, shows that economic activity in South Asia is bouncing back, but growth is uneven, recovery remains fragile, and the economic outlook is precarious. The report also focuses on the different dimensions of vaccine deployment and provides a cost-benefit analysis of vaccination in the region.

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