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Defying Predictions, Remittance Flows Remain Strong During COVID-19 Crisis

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Despite COVID-19, remittance flows remained resilient in 2020, registering a smaller decline than previously projected. Officially recorded remittance flows to low- and middle-income countries reached $540 billion in 2020, just 1.6 percent below the 2019 total of $548 billion, according to the latest Migration and Development Brief.

The decline in recorded remittance flows in 2020 was smaller than the one during the 2009 global financial crisis (4.8 percent). It was also far lower than the fall in foreign direct investment (FDI) flows to low- and middle-income countries, which, excluding flows to China, fell by over 30 percent in 2020. As a result, remittance flows to low- and middle-income countries surpassed the sum of FDI ($259 billion) and overseas development assistance ($179 billion) in 2020.

The main drivers for the steady flow included fiscal stimulus that resulted in better-than-expected economic conditions in host countries, a shift in flows from cash to digital and from informal to formal channels, and cyclical movements in oil prices and currency exchange rates. The true size of remittances, which includes formal and informal flows, is believed to be larger than officially reported data, though the extent of the impact of COVID-19 on informal flows is unclear.

“As COVID-19 still devastates families around the world, remittances continue to provide a critical lifeline for the poor and vulnerable,” said Michal Rutkowski, Global Director of the Social Protection and Jobs Global Practice at the World Bank. “Supportive policy responses, together with national social protection systems, should continue to be inclusive of all communities, including migrants.”

Remittance inflows rose in Latin America and the Caribbean (6.5 percent), South Asia (5.2 percent) and the Middle East and North Africa (2.3 percent). However, remittance flows fell for East Asia and the Pacific (7.9 percent), for Europe and Central Asia (9.7 percent), and for Sub-Saharan Africa (12.5 percent). The decline in flows to Sub-Saharan Africa was almost entirely due to a 28 percent decline in remittance flows to Nigeria. Excluding flows to Nigeria, remittances to Sub-Saharan Africa increased by 2.3 percent, demonstrating resilience.

The relatively strong performance of remittance flows during the COVID-19 crisis has also highlighted the importance of timely availability of data. Given its growing significance as a source of external financing for low- and middle-income countries, there is a need for better collection of data on remittances, in terms of frequency, timely reporting, and granularity by corridor and channel.

The resilience of remittance flows is remarkable. Remittances are helping to meet families’ increased need for livelihood support,” said Dilip Ratha, lead author of the report on migration and remittances and head of KNOMAD. “They can no longer be treated as small change. The World Bank has been monitoring migration and remittance flows for nearly two decades, and we are working with governments and partners to produce timely data and make remittance flows even more productive.” 

The World Bank is assisting member states in monitoring the flow of remittances through various channels, the costs and convenience of sending money, and regulations to protect financial integrity that affect remittance flows. It is working with the G20 countries and the global community to reduce remittance costs and improve financial inclusion for the poor.

With global growth expected to rebound further in 2021 and 2022, remittance flows to low- and middle-

income countries are expected to increase by 2.6 percent to $553 billion in 2021 and by 2.2 percent to $565 billion in 2022. Even as many high-income nations have made significant progress in vaccinating their populations, infections are still high in several large developing economies and the outlook for remittances remains uncertain.

The global average cost of sending $200 remained high at 6.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020, more than double the Sustainable Development Goal target of 3 percent. Average remittance costs were the lowest in South Asia (4.9 percent), while Sub-Saharan Africa continued to have the highest average cost (8.2 percent). Supporting the remittance infrastructure and keeping remittances flowing includes efforts to lower fees.

Regional Remittance Trends

Formal remittance flows to the East Asia and Pacific region fell by an estimated 7.9 percent in 2020 to around $136 billion due to the adverse impact of COVID-19. Positive growth in remittances from the United States and Asia helped to mostly offset declines from the Middle East and Europe, which fell by 10.6 percent and 10.8 percent respectively in 2020. The top recipients in terms of the share of remittances in GDP in 2020 include many smaller economies such as Tonga (38 percent), Samoa (19 percent), and Marshall Islands (13 percent). For 2021, a modest growth of about 2.1 percent is expected due to anticipated recovery in major host economies such as Saudi Arabia, the United States and the United Arab Emirates. Remittance costs: According to the World Bank Remittances Prices Worldwide, the average cost of sending $200 to the region fell slightly to 6.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020. The lowest-cost corridors in the region averaged 3 percent for transfers primarily to the Philippines, while the highest-cost corridors, excluding South Africa to China, which is an outlier, averaged 13 percent.

Remittances to Europe and Central Asia fell by about 9.7 percent to $56 billion in 2020 as the global pandemic and weak oil prices had a significant impact on migrant workers across the region. The economic crisis of 2020 was not unprecedented compared to the past crises of 2009 and 2015, which saw remittances to the region fall by 11 and 15 percent, respectively. Nearly all the countries in the region experienced declines in remittances in 2020. The depreciation of the Russian ruble significantly lowered the US dollar value of remittance flows to the region. For 2021, remittance flows are estimated to fall further by 3.2 percent as the region’s economies are expected to recover from the crisis slowly. Remittance costs: The average cost of sending $200 to the region fell modestly to 6.4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020. Russia remained the lowest-cost sender of remittances globally, with the cost of remitting from the country falling from 2.1 percent to 1 percent. Within the region, the differences in costs across corridors are substantial: the highest costs for sending remittances were from Turkey to Bulgaria, while the lowest costs for sending remittances were from Russia to Georgia.

Remittances flows to Latin America and the Caribbean grew an estimated 6.5 percent to $103 billion in 2020. While COVID-19 caused a sudden decrease in the volume of remittances in the second quarter of 2020, remittances rebounded during the third and fourth quarters. The improvement in the employment situation in the United States, although not yet to pre-pandemic levels, supported the increase in remittance flows to countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras and Jamaica, for whom the bulk of remittances originate from migrants working in the United States. On the other hand, the weaker economic situation in Spain negatively affected remittance flows to Bolivia (-16 percent), Paraguay (-12.4 percent) and Peru (-11.7 percent) in 2020. In 2021, remittance flows to the region are expected to grow by 4.9 percent. Remittance costs: The cost of remittance transfers to the region was 5.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020. In many smaller remittance corridors, however, costs continue to be exorbitant. For example, the cost of sending money to Cuba exceeds 9 percent. Sending money from Japan to Brazil is also expensive (11.5 percent).

Remittance flows to the Middle East and North Africa region rose by 2.3 percent to about $56 billion in 2020. The growth is largely credited to strong remittance flows to Egypt and Morocco. Flows to Egypt increased 11 percent to a record high of nearly $30 billion in 2020, while flows to Morocco rose 6.5 percent. Also registering an increase was Tunisia (2.5 percent). In contrast, other economies in the region experienced losses in 2020, with Djibouti, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan posting double-digit declines. In 2021, remittances to the region is likely to grow 2.6 percent due to moderate growth in the euro area and weak outflows from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Remittance costs: The cost of sending $200 to the region fell slightly in the fourth quarter of 2020 to 6.6 percent. Costs vary greatly across corridors: the cost of sending money from high-income countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to Lebanon remained very high, mostly in the double digits. On the other hand, sending money from GCC countries to Egypt and Jordan costs around 3 percent in some corridors.

Inward remittance flows to South Asia rose by about 5.2 percent in 2020 to $147 billion, driven by surge in flows to Bangladesh and Pakistan. In India, the region’s largest recipient country by far, remittances fell by just 0.2 percent in 2020, with much of the decline due to a 17 percent drop in remittances from the United Arab Emirates, which offset resilient flows from the United States and other host countries. In Pakistan, remittances rose by about 17 percent, with the biggest growth coming from Saudi Arabia followed by the European Union countries and the United Arab Emirates. In Bangladesh, remittances also showed a brisk uptick in 2020 (18.4 percent), and Sri Lanka witnessed remittance growth of 5.8 percent. In contrast, remittances to Nepal fell by about 2 percent, reflecting a 17 percent decline in the first quarter of 2020. For 2021, it is projected that remittances to the region will slow slightly to 3.5 percent due to a moderation of growth in high-income economies and a further expected drop in migration to the GCC countries. Remittance costs:The average cost of sending $200 to the region stood at 4.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020, the lowest among all the regions. Some of the lowest-cost corridors, originating in the GCC countries and Singapore, had costs below the SDG target of 3 percent owing to high volumes, competitive markets, and deployment of technology. But costs are well over 10 percent in the highest-cost corridors.

Remittances to Sub-Saharan Africa declined by an estimated 12.5 percent in 2020 to $42 billion. The decline was almost entirely due to a 27.7 percent decline in remittance flows to Nigeria, which alone accounted for over 40 percent of remittance flows to the region. Excluding Nigeria, remittance flows to Sub-Saharan African increased by 2.3 percent. Remittance growth was reported in Zambia (37 percent), Mozambique (16 percent), Kenya (9 percent) and Ghana (5 percent). In 2021, remittance flows to the region are projected to rise by 2.6 percent, supported by improving prospects for growth in high-income countries. Data on remittance flows to Sub-Saharan Africa are sparse and of uneven quality, with some countries still using the outdated Fourth IMF Balance of Payments Manual rather than the Sixth, while several other countries do not report data at all. High-frequency phone surveys in some countries reported decreases in remittances for a large percentage of households even while recorded remittances reported by official sources report increases in flows. The shift from informal to formal channels due to the closure of borders explains in part the increase in the volume of remittances recorded by central banks. Remittance costs: Sub-Saharan Africa remains the most expensive region to send money to, where sending $200 costs an average of 8.2 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020. Within the region, which experiences high intra-regional migration, it is expensive to send money from South Africa to Botswana (19.6 percent), Zimbabwe (14 percent to), and to Malawi (16 percent).

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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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