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Equitable Human Capital Is a Top Priority for Kazakhstan

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The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected Kazakhstan’s progress in strengthening human capital, warned experts during a virtual roundtable this week organized by the World Bank and the Agency for Strategic Planning and Reforms under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan. The discussion aimed to facilitate a holistic and equity-oriented policy dialogue for informing investments and strategic plans to boost skills and productivity in the country.

Human capital is the knowledge, skills, and health that people accumulate throughout their lives, which enable them to realize their potential as productive members of the society. From 2017, the World Bank has led on a global effort on the human capital development to accelerate more and better investments in people for greater equity and economic growth.

During the event, the World Bank presented key findings of the Equitable Human Capital Development Framework Report for Kazakhstan that showcase declining productivity, growing inequality in the regions, as well as deteriorating health indicators amongst the population.

While Kazakhstan has made impressive economic progress, largely driven by rising exports of oil and gas and increasing productivity, since 2009 the country has seen a marked slowdown in economic growth. Contribution of the human capital to the Kazakh economy beyond extractive industries significantly went down, limiting the country’s ability to produce high-value products.

Today Kazakhstan’s economy lags in some key measures of innovation and competitiveness, and the state of skills development in the country is lower than in countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly lowered domestic economic activity with GDP falling by 2.6 percent in 2020 after expanding by 4.5 percent in 2019 and the poverty rate increasing from 6% in 2016 to 14 percent in 2020.  Building back from this economic shock requires strategic and targeted reforms to diversify the economy into more complex, skill-based sectors in order to meet Kazakhstan’s 2050  goals.

“COVID-19 has significantly undermined human capital development gains in Kazakhstan achieved over the last decade. The poorest and the most disadvantaged have been hit the hardest, and this will negatively impact their lifelong learning, future earnings, and socio-economic well-being. For Kazakhstan to enjoy sustainable growth, public policies and investments need to cater to the needs of the poorest and most disadvantaged regions and people. Greater emphasis is needed on the quality of education, skills development, and adult survival”, said Ayesha Vawda, Lead Education Specialist at the World Bank Office for Central Asia.

The report argues that there are substantial inequalities in human capital indicators across regions, gender, and in terms of socio-economic status in Kazakhstan. A child born in the richest 20 percent of households in the country can expect to accomplish 64 percent of his/her productivity, compared to 53 percent for a child born in the poorest 20 percent of households. The regional difference is especially profound in learning outcomes. For example, the HCI score for Atyrau is equal to that of much poorer countries such as Kosovo and Georgia. In contrast, the highest regional HCI score – Nur-Sultan City – is equal to that of Luxembourg and just below that of the United States. Quality of education and education expenditures also differ significantly across the country’s regions. Education policies and financing disincentivize teachers and school leaders to support low achievers. Also, despite ongoing health reforms, there are huge gaps between Kazakhstan and OECD countries in terms of quality control of risk factors, appropriate treatment delivery, and equality of health expenditures across regions.

“If the country continues to strengthen its human capital at the same pace as it did in 2010-2020, it will take 44 years to reach the levels of the 30th ranked country for GDP per capita, assuming the rest of the world does not grow. To join the ranks of the top 30 economies of the world, Kazakhstan will need to revise its economic model, moving aggressively into economic diversification, and building the skills of its next generation—all of them,” said Lilia Burunciuc,  World Bank Regional Director for Central Asia.

In his speech, Kairat Kelimbetov, Chairman of the Agency for Strategic Planning and Reforms under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, highlighted “Human development has been identified as a priority in all high-level strategic documents endorsed by the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan. In particular, the new system of state planning, the updated National Development Plan 2025 and the new Concept of Public Administration 2030 are all human oriented meaning that all activities under the specified reforms target to improving the life of each country resident as an ultimate goal. The implementation of the National Development Plan until 2025, among other things, is aimed at recovery from the pandemic and improvement of human capital. Based on this document, the reforms will be carried out in all the spheres.”

Both international and national experts agreed that strengthened human capital, as reflected in improved health, education and social protection outcomes would support economic transformation by allowing the economy to move towards skills-based sectors, increasing labor productivity and adaptability to the global knowledge-based economy.

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Rush for new profits posing threat to human rights

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The finance industry’s demand for new sources of capital worldwide to satisfy investors, is having a serious negative impact on the enjoyment of human rights, a group of UN-appointed independent rights experts have warned

Among the rights at risk from increasing speculation in the financial markets by hedge funds and other investment funds, are the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, food, adequate housing, development, and a healthy and sustainable environment, among others.  

Exploiting the marginalized 

In a statement, the independent Special Rapporteurs and other experts, expressed their concern over the gradual encroachment of financial speculators into new areas of the economy, putting human rights at risk

They highlighted in particular, trading in areas essential for the enjoyment of human rights of marginalized, indigenous peoples, Afro-descendant and peasant communities, persons with disabilities and persons living with Albinism, as well as those living in areas of conflict. 

The experts also pointed out that so-called financialisation – the growth in new financial instruments since the 1980s managed by new financial services – has a disproportionate impact on the enjoyment of their rights by women and girls, who are systematically victims of discrimination. The impact on older people was also highlighted. 

Effect on housing 

According to a former Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, in recent years massive amounts of global capital have been invested in housing as a commodity, as security for financial instruments that are traded on global markets, and as a means of accumulating wealth. 

However, when the 2008 global financial crisis hit, many houses suddenly lost much of their value, and individuals and families were made homeless overnight. 

The expert also pointed out that in the Global South, informal settlements in Southern cities are regularly demolished for luxury housing and commercial development intended for the wealthiest groups of the population

This process of financialisation of assets, has only been reinforced during the COVID-19 pandemic, the expert said. 

‘Speculative food bubble’ 

In agricultural markets, the experts described how the same big international banks responsible for the global financial crisis, invested billions of dollars in food futures, generating an increase in the prices of raw materials such as wheat, corn and soybean, which doubled and even tripled in a few months, creating a new speculative food bubble

According to the World Bank, between 130 and 150 million more people were pushed into extreme poverty and hunger, mainly in low-income countries depending on food imports to feed their populations. 

The experts highlighted how the financialisation of housing and food has exacerbated inequalities and exclusion, disproportionately affecting heavily indebted households and those on low incomes. 

Applying speculative logic in these areas violates the human rights of people in poverty, exacerbates gender inequality and aggravates the vulnerability of marginalized communities, they said. 

Commodifying nature 

The growing monetization and commodification of ecosystem services, such as carbon storage, were also noted by the experts. 

They warned that it threatens the sustainability of ecosystems, marginalizes natural and cultural values that have no apparent economic value, and weakens the control of indigenous peoples and local communities over their territories

The right to pollute and destroy nature is gradually being legitimized and commercialized, they said. 

They also pointed out that addressing the climate emergency often ignores both the impacts on people in poverty, and undermines the human rights and livelihoods of the poorest. 

The eviction of indigenous peoples from forests or the replacement of complex old-growth forests with monocultures of fast-growing non-native tree species was highlighted as an example of this. 

Treating housing, food, or the environment, as assets to be traded by hedge funds and other financial actors in financial derivatives markets, represents a direct attack on people’s exercise and enjoyment of human rights such as the right to housing, to food, to a healthy environment, or to drinking water and sanitation, the experts stated. 

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Iraq: An Urgent Call for Education Reforms to Ensure Learning for All Children

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A girl student in Basra, Iraq, who benefits from a UNICEF/WFP education stipend programme. UNICEF

Learning levels in Iraq are among the lowest in the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region and are likely to decline even further because of the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on education service delivery, including prolonged school closures.

These low learning levels are putting the future of Iraqi children and the country at risk. A new World Bank report says that while, now more than ever, investments are needed in education to recover lost learning and turn crisis into opportunity, these investments must be accompanied by a comprehensive reform agenda that focuses the system on learning outcomes and builds a more resilient education system for all children. 

The World Bank Group’s new report, Building Forward Better to Ensure Learning for All Children in Iraq: An Education Reform Path, builds on key priorities in education recently identified in the Government of Iraq’s White Paper and the World Bank Group’s Addressing the Human Capital Crisis: A Public Expenditure Review for Human Development Sectors in Iraq report, and provides actionable reform recommendations to boost learning and skills.

Human capital is essential to achieve sustainable and inclusive economic growth. However, according to the World Bank’s 2020 Human Capital Index (HCI), a child born in Iraq today will reach, on average, only 41% of their potential productivity when they grow up. 

At the heart of Iraq’s human capital crisis is a learning crisis, with far-reaching implications. Iraq’s poor performance on the HCI is largely attributed to its low learning levels. COVID-19 has led to intermittent school closures across Iraq, impacting more than 11 million Iraqi students since February 2020. This report highlights that, with schools closed over 75% of the time and opportunities for remote learning limited and unequal, Iraqi children are facing another reduction of learning‑adjusted years of schooling. Effectively, students in Iraq are facing more than a “lost year” of learning. 

Iraq can use lessons learned from the current health crisis, turn recovery into opportunity, and “build forward better,” to ensure it provides learning opportunities for all Iraqi children especially its poorest and most vulnerable children” said Saroj Kumar Jha, World Bank Mashreq Regional Director. “The World Bank is ready to support Iraq in building a more equitable and resilient post-COVID-19 education system that ensures learning for all children and generates the dividends for faster and more inclusive growth”.  

The report Building Forward Better to Ensure Learning for All Children in Iraq: An Education Reform Path puts forward for discussion sector-wide reform recommendations, focusing on immediate crisis response as well as medium and long-term needs across six key strategic areas:  

1. Engaging in an Emergency Crisis response through the mitigation of immediate learning loss and prevention of further dropouts.

2. Improving foundational skills to set a trajectory for learning through improved learning & teaching materials and strengthened teacher practices with a focus on learning for all children.

3. Focusing on the most urgently needed investments, while ensuring better utilization of resources.

4. Improving the governance of the education sector and promoting evidence‑based decision‑making.

5. Developing and implementing an education sector strategy that focuses on learning and “building forward better”.

6. Aligning skills with labor market needs through targeted programs and reforms.

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More Funding for Business and Trade to Help Lao PDR Recover from Pandemic

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The World Bank and the Government of Lao PDR have agreed to scale up a Competitiveness and Trade Project that will improve the ability of businesses to recover from the economic effects of COVID-19 as part of the government’s emergency response to the pandemic. The additional financing will provide a US$6.5 million grant through the Lao Competitiveness and Trade Multi-Donor Trust Fund supported by Australia, Ireland, and the United States.

The extra funding follows a request by the Ministry of Industry and Commerce for additional resources to help the government and private sector respond to the challenges posed by COVID-19 and related restrictions. The Lao economy, which had already been slowing since 2018 following floods, drought and crop disease outbreaks, has been hit badly by the pandemic since early 2020, causing poverty to rise by an estimated 4.4 percentage points.

This additional financing complements the government’s approach of providing rapid and direct relief to vulnerable firms and to adjusting government services to the effects of COVID-19. Helping viable businesses to survive and grow will help them maintain and create jobs, thereby driving economic recovery.

The ministry has been implementing the original Lao PDR Competitiveness and Trade Project since late 2018 with $13 million of credit and grants from the World Bank and the trust fund. The project works to improve the processes required to start and operate a business, and to reduce the costs of doing business in Laos. Measures to lower trade costs and facilitate trade flows include streamlining regulations to reduce the time that goods spend at borders. Business Assistance Facility grants are available to help companies improve their competitiveness, while the project also supports improved policy making and transparency, along with stronger public-private policy dialogue.

According to H.E. Somchith Inthamith, Deputy Minister of Industry and Commerce, “the new financing will be used to scale up and extend activities under the original project, such as decreasing the time required for goods to clear customs, and increasing the ability of our producers to connect to markets. Additional resources will be used to help new Lao firms set up, and aid existing companies seeking grants to mitigate the impact of COVID-19”.

Mariam Sherman, Country Director for the World Bank in Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos, said that over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the country has faced significant economic stress, especially considering the effects of the crisis on important trade partners. “This project has been prepared with urgency”, she said. “It can help the Lao government accelerate policy changes and regulatory reforms that will improve the ease of doing business, facilitate trade, and support company competitiveness. Such reforms will help Lao firms weather shocks, increase their ability to do business on the ground, and provide access to international markets for necessary inputs and outputs”.

The Lao Competitiveness and Trade Multi-Donor Trust Fund is a continuing effort to improve the efficiency of development assistance for trade in the Lao PDR, by pooling resources from the World Bank, Australia, and Ireland for increased efficiency of implementation, reduced transactions costs and greater impact on-the-ground.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Bank Group has committed over $125 billion to fight the health, economic, and social impacts of the pandemic, the fastest and largest crisis response in its history. The financing is helping more than 100 countries strengthen pandemic preparedness, protect the poor and jobs, and jump start a climate-friendly recovery. The Bank is also providing $12 billion to help low- and middle-income countries purchase and distribute COVID-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments.

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