Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s new cabinet is confronted with a number of economic challenges, exacerbated by the economic hit to the global economy caused by the pandemic In 2021, North Macedonia will take economic decisions that will shape the course of the country’s future.
The issues Skopje faces
Despite a modest population of 2-million, North Macedonia repeatedly makes headlines, often due to apparently intractable disputes with neighbouring countries. Athens’s trade embargo imposed on North Macedonia in the 1990s marked the start of a 27 year deadlock between the two countries, which ultimately stalled North Macedonia’s accession to the EU. Only recently did Skopje resolve the dispute with neighbouring Greece over its official name which Greece had previously taken issue with due to the fact that ‘Macedonia’ is also a region of Greece, and the use of this name was interpreted by Greece to be an assertion of territorial ambitions in the region.
This dispute affected the country’s other diplomatic ventures. In 1999, North Macedonia was one of the first post-Yugoslav signatories of the NATO membership action plan, only to have its accession vetoed by Greece in 2008. Ultimately, North Macedonia’s Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU has not been the diplomatic catalyst that Skopje hoped would ease localised tensions and draw it into a closer relationship with Brussels.
Under the leadership of Nikola Gruveski (2006-2016), corruption and state capture were endemic in North Macedonia. Gruveksi was averse to opening negotiations with mainstream governments in Greece and it was not until the centre-left Social Democratic Union of Macedonia ousted Gruveski out of power, that there was a breakthrough. Gruveski’s successor, Zoran Zaev, capitalised on Greek Prime Minister Tsipras’s reformism to broker the controversial Prespa Agreement which settled the name dispute. Two years later, North Macedonia was finally admitted to NATO, demonstrating that Greece was the final hurdle to NATO membership.
A tamed economy
However, North Macedonia soon found that NATO membership was not a passport to joining the EU. Internal ethnic tensions have created friction with EU member states. Relations with Bulgaria soured during the election campaign for July 2020 during which the campaigns of both main political parties played on anti-Bulgarian sentiment..Zaev managed to gain power by agreeing to a coalition with the main part of the Albanian minority. The new cabinet’s economic hurdles, specifically fiscal redistribution, could be exacerbated by renewed ethnic tensions between the Slav majority and the Albanian minority. Should tensions reach the levels of the 2001 civil conflict, the deepening of this fracture would slow down reforms and deter investments.
Bouncing back after the fall
The Balkan countries suffered greatly during the Great Recession due to their proximity to the Greek economy at a time when Athens navigated the worst slowdown of recent history. As Greece’s second largest export partner, the RNM was particularly hard hit(Figure 3a). The region had barely entered recovery before lockdown measures crippled world economic growth
. In addition, North Macedonia’s small internal market is heavily reliant on external demand which the crisis has depleted. In Q1-Q2 2020, exports fell by 22.3% and industrial production by 14.6% compared to the same period of the previous year. Thus, GDP fell by 14.9% in Q2 of 2020 and another 3.3% in Q3 contrary to the projected 3.2 percent growth (Figure 7). Whilst forecasts suggest growth of 5.5% in 2021, the unpredictability of the pandemic’s economic influence may yet compromise this figure.
Meanwhile, rating agencies downgraded North Macedonia’s national debt, in turn raising financing costs. the RNM’s debt was downgraded by some rating agencies, raising financing costs. Fitch, the American credit rating agency, as well as Moody’s, another US-based credit rating agency, both value North Macedonia’s debt as a non-recommended investment asset to be reserved for short-term gain. Since May 2020 the outlook has been negative, suggesting the situation will worsen. Yet, with one of the comparatively smallest debt-GDPs of the region, these ratings are still the best in South-Eastern Europe after Bulgaria meaning the RNM has a relatively solid economic base (Figure 4).
The country’s effective response to the pandemic is in part the reason that North Macedonia is economically stronger than some of its neighbours. The caretaker government introduced a furlough scheme, worth approximately 5.5 percent of GDP, as well as a helicopter money initiative. Going forward, the government is prioritising policies that will stimulate economic growth such as slashing parafiscal charges and cutting VAT. Yet, since North Macedonia lacks the economic resources to commit to long-term reform, recovery will be slow.
North Macedonia’s Shifting Demographics
North Macedonia is contending with mass emigration in tandem with declining fertility rates (Figure 5) — both of which reduce human capital. The official estimate of two-million residents is dubitable, with some experts hypothesising an actual figure of approximately 1.5 million. Inaccurate projections of a state’s total population jeopardises effective government decision making. In the RNM, where the resources are redistributed amongst ethnic groups pro quota, this makes fiscal management particularly difficult. If, for example, the proportion of Albanians of the total population was lower than estimated, then this group will be receiving more public resources that they are entitled to.
Given that the EU acts in a starkly-protectionist way by restricting trade with third countries, greater cooperation is in the RNM’s interest. In fact, Brussels could reduce trade barriers in the context of a stronger association with Skopje even before the latter formally joins the Union.
There are steps the government can take to encourage citizens not to emigrate . The first and most crucial step would be to improve the education system. Overall, North Macedonia spends much less of its GDP than the average EU country on education. As a result, few people complete their secondary-level education, and therefore either end up in low-paying jobs or unemployed, andare forced to emigrate. Another step would be investment in the underfunded Research and Development (R&D) sector. In fact, North Macedonia’s budget allocates only 0.36% of GDP to R&D, compared to an EU average of 2.2% and neighbouring Bulgaria’s 0.77%. Research and development is essential to creating high-paying jobs, driving productivity, and boosting the economy through innovation and market competition.
Infrastructures as the drive for future growth
The silver lining in North Macedonia’s economic strategy is infrastructure development. This especially true for roads and highways. Grueveski’s administration was instrumental in the investment into road infrastructure, starting works for two new highways in 2014.
Still, roads can be rather useless if they do lead nowhere. Thus come trade infrastructures. In addition to new road, the building of new border checkpoints and crossing points with Greece and Bulgaria, will bolster the trade infrastructure that North Macedonia shares with the EU, thereby driving trade with a global economic powerhouse. These investments will also reduce the RNM’s dependence on the Yugoslav-time north-south arteries, which currently present a barrier for the development of the “functioning market economy” that is a requirement for EU membership. To achieve this goal, the RNM needs to improve, road connections towards the west (with Albania) and the east (with Bulgaria, an important trading partner). Building better connections within the country and with non-Yugoslav neighbours will boost the country’s internal cohesion by making it easier to move from one part of the country to another proving supplemental infrastructures to foster international trade.
Figure 6 Highways represent a key segment of the RNM’s investments.
A secondary and related benefit of improving connectedness with EU trade routes is reduced economic dependence on Russia. This should reduce Moscow’s potential diplomatic leverage in future disputes in the region. As a matter of fact, pulling out of Moscow’s orbit is almost a precondition to full membership in the EU — which would bring in more funding opportunity and increase financial stability. Yet, Russia’s main asset is not trade tout court, but energy. In fact, the Balkans serve as a strategic crossroad for oil and gas coming from Moscow and Baku through Bucharest and Ankara. Thus, North Macedonia should also consider developing its energy infrastructure as a route to closer integration with the EU. In order to reduce the Western Balkan’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels, the region needs investments. For cash-strapped countries, like North Macedonia, the opportunity to make real progress in this field may come from ‘green’ funds the EU has earmarked for energy projects in both current member states and candidate countries . In addition, Greece has established an LNG terminal on the Aegean to which links the RNM is planning to adjoin its grid. There are also talks of an electric-grid link to Albania, through which the RNM could import as much as needed and even export eventual surpluses.
Forecast: The RNM can make it… with some help
Without radical reform, the extant corruption, bureaucracy and public-sector inefficiency will stymy growth in the coming years. Luckily, the EU might be the answer to Skopje’s economic woes. The Union is expected to grant €3.3 billion to Western-Balkan countries to kickstart economic recovery following the pandemic. The package does however come with strings attached: the country will have to accelerate progress towards regulatory harmonisation with the EU. This is a notoriously difficult and resource-consuming task, which may hinder other reforms.
Furthermore, North Macedonia must confront pre-pandemic economic struggles. The government could revert to coalition infightings and therefore prolong the process of economic reform. For investors, a cautious approach is recommended, in preparation for positive economic developments.
Acknowledgments The Author thanks Charlotte Millington, parliamentary researcher at the UK House of Commons specialising in European politics and international security for her suggestions.
The Covid After-Effects and the Looming Skills Shortage
The shock of the pandemic is changing the ways in which we think about the world and in which we analyze the future trajectories of development. The persistence of the Covid pandemic will likely accentuate this transformation and the prominence of the “green agenda” this year is just one of the facets of these changes. Market research as well as the numerous think-tanks will be accordingly re-calibrating the time horizons and the main themes of analysis. Greater attention to longer risks and fragilities is likely to take on greater prominence, with particular scrutiny being accorded to high-impact risk factors that have a non-negligible probability of materializing in the medium- to long-term. Apart from the risks of global warming other key risk factors involve the rising labour shortages, most notably in areas pertaining to human capital development.
The impact of the Covid pandemic on the labour market will have long-term implications, with “hysteresis effects” observed in both highly skilled and low-income tiers of the labour market. One of the most significant factors affecting the global labour market was the reduction in migration flows, which resulted in the exacerbation of labour shortages across the major migrant recipient countries, such as Russia. There was also a notable blow delivered by the pandemic to the spheres of human capital development such as education and healthcare, which in turn exacerbated the imbalances and shortages in these areas. In particular, according to the estimates of the World Health Organization (WHO) shortages can mount up to 9.9 million physicians, nurses and midwives globally by 2030.
In Europe, although the number of physicians and nurses has increased in general in the region by approximately 10% over the past 10 years, this increase appears to be insufficient to cover the needs of ageing populations. At the same time the WHO points to sizeable inequalities in the availability of physicians and nurses between countries, whereby there are 5 times more doctors in some countries than in others. The situation with regard to nurses is even more acute, as data show that some countries have 9 times fewer nurses than others.
In the US substantial labour shortages in the healthcare sector are also expected, with anti-crisis measures falling short of substantially reversing the ailments in the national healthcare system. In particular, data published by the AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges), suggests that the United States could see an estimated shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034, including shortfalls in both primary and specialty care.
The blows sustained by global education from the pandemic were no less formidable. These affected first and foremost the youngest generation of the globe – according to UNESCO, “more than 1.5 billion students and youth across the planet are or have been affected by school and university closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic”. On top of the adverse effects on the younger generation (see Box 1), there is also the widening “teachers gap”, namely a worldwide shortage of well-trained teachers. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), “69 million teachers must be recruited to achieve universal primary and secondary education by 2030”.
From our partner RIAC
Accelerating COVID-19 Vaccine Uptake to Boost Malawi’s Economic Recovery
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries including Malawi have struggled to mitigate its impact amid limited fiscal support and fragile health systems. The pandemic has plunged the continent into its first recession in over 25 years, and vulnerable groups such as the poor, informal sector workers, women, and youth, suffer disproportionately from reduced opportunities and unequal access to social safety nets.
Fast-tracking COVID-19 vaccine acquisition—alongside widespread testing, improved treatment, and strong health systems—are critical to protecting lives and stimulating economic recovery. In support of the African Union’s (AU) target to vaccinate 60 percent of the continent’s population by 2022, the World Bank and the AU announced a partnership to assist the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT) initiative with resources, allowing countries to purchase and deploy vaccines for up to 400 million Africans. This extraordinary effort complements COVAX and comes at a time of rising cases in the region.
I am convinced that unless every country in the world has fair, broad, and fast access to effective and safe COVID-19 vaccines, we will not stem the spread of the pandemic and set the global economy on track for a steady and inclusive recovery. The World Bank has taken unprecedented steps to ramp up financing for Malawi, and every country in Africa, to empower them with the resources to implement successful vaccination campaigns and compensate for income losses, food price increases, and service delivery disruptions.
In line with Malawi’s COVID-19 National Response and Preparedness Plan which aims to vaccinate 60 percent of the population, the World Bank approved $30 million in additional financing for the acquisition and deployment of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. This financing comes as a boost to Malawi’s COVID-19 Emergency Response and Health Systems Preparedness project, bringing World Bank contributions in this sector up to $37 million.
Malawi’s decision to purchase 1.8 million doses of Johnson and Johnson vaccines through the AU/African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT) with World Bank financing is a welcome development and will enable Malawi to secure additional vaccines to meet its vaccination target.
However, Malawi’s vaccination campaign has encountered challenges driven by concerns regarding safety, efficacy, religious and cultural beliefs. These concerns, combined with abundant misinformation, are fueling widespread vaccine hesitancy despite the pandemic’s impact on the health and welfare of billions of people. The low uptake of COVID-19 vaccines is of great concern, and it remains an uphill battle to reach the target of 60 percent by the end of 2023 from the current 2.2 percent.
Government leadership remains fundamental as the country continues to address vaccine hesitancy by consistently communicating the benefits of the vaccine, releasing COVID data, and engaging communities to help them understand how this impacts them.
As we deploy targeted resources to address COVID-19, we are also working to ensure that these investments support a robust, sustainable and resilient recovery. Our support emphasizes transparency, social protection, poverty alleviation, and policy-based financing to make sure that COVID assistance gets to the people who have been hit the hardest.
For example, the Financial Inclusion and Entrepreneurship Scaling Project (FInES) in Malawi is supporting micro, small, and medium enterprises by providing them with $47 million in affordable credit through commercial banks and microfinance institutions. Eight months into implementation, approximately $8.4 million (MK6.9 billion) has been made available through three commercial banks on better terms and interest rates. Additionally, nearly 200,000 urban households have received cash transfers and urban poor now have more affordable access to water to promote COVID-19 prevention.
Furthermore, domestic mobilization of resources for the COVID-19 response are vital to ensuring the security of supply of health sector commodities needed to administer vaccinations and sustain ongoing measures. Likewise, regional approaches fostering cross-border collaboration are just as imperative as in-country efforts to prevent the spread of the virus. United Nations (UN) partners in Malawi have been instrumental in convening regional stakeholders and supporting vaccine deployment.
Taking broad, fast action to help countries like Malawi during this unprecedented crisis will save lives and prevent more people falling into poverty. We thank Malawi for their decisive action and will continue to support the country and its people to build a resilient and inclusive recovery.
This op-ed first appeared in The Nation, via World Bank
An Airplane Dilemma: Convenience Versus Environment
Mr. President: There are many consequences of COVID-19 that have changed the existing landscape due to the cumulative effects of personal behavior. For example, the decline in the use of automobiles has been to the benefit of the environment. A landmark study published by Nature in May 2020 confirmed a 17 percent drop in daily CO2 emissions but with the expectation that the number will bounce back as human activity returns to normal.
Yet there is hope. We are all creatures of habit and having tried teleconferences, we are less likely to take the trouble to hop on a plane for a personal meeting, wasting time and effort. Such is also the belief of aircraft operators. Add to this the convenience of shopping from home and having the stuff delivered to your door and one can guess what is happening.
In short, the need for passenger planes has diminished while cargo operators face increased demand. Fewer passenger planes also means a reduction in belly cargo capacity worsening the situation. All of which has led to a new business with new jobs — converting passenger aircraft for cargo use. It is not as simple as it might seem, and not just a matter of removing seats, for all unnecessary items must be removed for cargo use. They take up cargo weight and if not removed waste fuel.
After the seats and interior fittings have been removed, the cabin floor has to be strengthened. The side windows are plugged and smoothed out. A cargo door is cut out and the existing emergency doors are deactivated and sealed. Also a new crew entry door has to be cut-out and installed.
A new in-cabin cargo barrier with a sliding access door is put in, allowing best use of cargo and cockpit space and a merged carrier and crew space. A new crew lavatory together with replacement water and waste systems replace the old, which supplied the original passenger area and are no longer needed.
The cockpit gets upgrades which include a simplified air distribution system and revised hydraulics. At the end of it all, we have a cargo jet. If the airlines are converting their planes, then they must believe not all the travelers will be returning after the covid crisis recedes.
Airline losses have been extraordinary. Figures sourced from the World Bank and the International Civil Aviation Organization reveal air carriers lost $370 billion in revenues. This includes $120 billion in the Asia-Pacific region, $100 billion in Europe and $88 billion in North America.
For many of the airlines, it is now a new business model transforming its fleet for cargo demand and launching new cargo routes. The latter also requires obtaining regulatory approvals.
A promising development for the future is sustainable aviation fuel (SAP). Developed by the Air France KLM Martinair consortium it reduces CO2 emissions, and cleaner air transport contributes to lessening global warming.
It is a good start since airplanes are major transportation culprits increasing air pollution and radiative forcing. The latter being the heat reflected back to earth when it is greater than the heat radiated from the earth. All of which should incline the environmentally conscious to avoid airplane travel — buses and trains pollute less and might be a preferred alternative for domestic travel.
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