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Pandemic Crisis Fuels Decline of Middle Class in Latin America and the Caribbean

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The COVID-19 pandemic pushed 4.7 million people out of the middle class and into vulnerability or poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) last year, likely reversing decades of social gains, according to a new World Bank report. The impact was even more dramatic if the effect of a massive, temporary social transfer program in Brazil is excluded from the projections. Without that offset from Brazil, a total of 12 million people across the region slipped from the middle class in 2020.

The same holds true for poverty. Regionwide, there were 400,000 less poor in 2020, but without the offset from Brazil, an estimated 20 million people fell into poverty in 2020, with another 1.4 million increase due to population growth , according to The Gradual Rise and Rapid Decline of the Middle Class in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Over the past two decades, the number of people living in poverty in the region fell by nearly half. The middle class (per capita daily income between $13 and $70 per day) surpassed the vulnerable (living on $5.50 to $13 per day) and poor (below the $5.50 per day poverty line) as the largest single group in 2018, but growth stalled in recent years and the region has been one of the hardest hit in health and economic costs during the Coronavirus pandemic. In 2020 the middle class fell to 37.3% of the population, the vulnerable class rose to 38.5% and the poor made up 21.8% of the population in LAC.

“The Latin America and the Caribbean region is at a crossroads, and the reversal of hard-won social gains is at risk of becoming permanent unless bold reforms are carried out,” said World Bank Vice President for Latin America and the Caribbean Carlos Felipe Jaramillo. “The emergency cash transfer supports that helped lessen the impact of the pandemic will not be sustainable for too long, so the region needs to move forward with policies that will ensure a strong recovery and bring about a more sustained, resilient and inclusive growth that will combat persistent poverty and inequality.”

While mitigation measures including social protection programs helped limit the negative impacts in the short term, without a fast and inclusive economic recovery and similar levels of mitigation measures, poverty may rise again in 2021. Ensuring broad access to vaccines, developing efficient and effective systems to distribute and administer them and fortifying health systems across the region will be key to the recovery.

In addition, the crisis has magnified the damaging effects of inequality in the region. Over half (54.4%) of the region’s workers are in the informal sector, 9 out of 10 workers living in poverty are in the informal sector, and nearly a third are self-employed.

“Those who were worse off to begin with will likely be the most affected, leading to increases in income inequality in an already very unequal region,” said Ximena Del Carpio, Practice Manager for the World Bank Poverty and Equity Practice Group. “Access to basic services such as electricity, adequate water, sanitation, and even the internet has become even more essential under lockdown measures.”

However, less than 1 in 4 poor households have adequate sanitation, 9% do not have access to electricity, and only 25% use the internet at home. Faced with the ongoing pandemic and uncertainty, Governments need to prioritize equitable access to essential services.

The lockdowns highlighted the importance of broad internet access and alternative methods of purchasing goods and services. Countries should continue to invest in digital infrastructure to accelerate these changes and enact legislation for the expansion of the digital economy.

In addition, social protection programs should be re-assessed to adjust their reach and incorporate new beneficiaries. Income transfers are helpful to provide vulnerable groups some income security during containment periods, but they are temporary and may not be enough to prevent the sharp decline of the middle class.

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Philippines: Reducing Inequality Key to Becoming a Middle-Class Society Free of Poverty

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Policies that support employment and workers, raise education quality and improve access, boost rural development, and strengthen social protection can reduce inequality, thus enhancing Filipino peoples’ chances for improving their well-being.

In a report titled “Overcoming Poverty and Inequality in the Philippines: Past, Present, and Prospects for the Future” released today, the World Bank said that the Philippines has made important gains in poverty reduction. Driven by high growth rates and the expansion of jobs outside agriculture, poverty fell by two-thirds—from 49.2 percent in 1985 to 16.7 percent in 2018. By 2018, the middle class had expanded to nearly 12 million people and the economically secure population had risen to 44 million.

Yet inequality remains high: the top 1 percent of earners together capture 17 percent of national income, with only 14 percent being shared by the bottom 50 percent. With an income Gini coefficient of 42.3 percent in 2018, the Philippines had one of the highest rates of income inequality in East Asia.

“The Philippines aims to become a middle-class society free of poverty by 2040, but we know from global experience that no country has managed to make this transition while maintaining high levels of inequality,” said Ndiamé Diop, World Bank Country Director for Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand. “Inequality of opportunity and low mobility across generations wastes human potential and slowdown innovation, which is crucial for building a competitive and prosperous economy that will in turn improve the well-being and quality of life of all Filipinos.”

The report highlights that the expansion of secondary education, mobility to better-paying jobs, access to basic services, and government social assistance have started to reduce inequality since the mid-2000s. However, unequal opportunities, slow access to tertiary education among low-income households, inequality in returns to college education, and social norms putting the heavier burden of childcare on women has slowed down the narrowing of inequality in the Philippines.

Despite the strong recovery of growth and the labor market, COVID-19 pandemic has partly reversed decades-long gains in reducing poverty and inequality in the Philippines. It halted economic growth momentum in 2020, and unemployment shot up in industries that require in-person work. In 2021, the national poverty rate rose to 18.1 percent despite government assistance.

Recovery in the Philippines is uneven across the income distribution and the poorest who suffered the most from COVID have yet to fully recover their incomes. With food prices going up, many families coped by reducing their consumption, including eating less. These coping strategies can have serious consequences on the health and nutrition of children in these vulnerable households.

The report says that inequality starts even before birth and is perpetuated over the life cycle. It starts with maternal nutrition and health during pregnancy. Differences continue into childhood, where disparities in access to health care, proper nutrition, safe drinking water, sanitation, and quality education determine the extent to which a child’s human capital develops.

“Inequality shapes outcomes later in life, such as employment opportunities and income, which in turn influence how much support adult Filipinos are able to provide for their children to help maximize their potential,” said Nadia Belhaj Hassine Belghith, Senior Economist with the East Asia Poverty Global Practice covering Thailand and the Philippines who led the study.

The report says that policy priorities to reduce inequality in the Philippines can be structured around three themes, including healing the pandemic’s scars and building resilience, setting the stage for a vibrant and inclusive recovery, and promoting greater equality of opportunity.

Healing pandemic’s scars will require promoting greater vaccine booster uptake, overcoming the learning loss due to COVID-19, strengthening social assistance, unemployment insurance programs for the informal sector, and taming inflation.

Setting the stage for vibrant recovery entails reskilling of workers, promoting entrepreneurship, increasing the participation of women in the labor force, and raising the productivity of agriculture.

Promoting greater equality of opportunity entails increasing access to quality health care, increasing equality of opportunity in education, and improving access to quality housing, among others. Equality of opportunity needs to target the lagging regions and other people disadvantaged in accessing these because of the circumstances of their birth.

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Germany in secret talks to buy Iranian oil: report

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An Israeli paper has claimed that Germany is in “secret” talks with Tehran to buy Iranian oil as part of its efforts to wean itself off Russia’s energy supplies.

The Jerusalem Post quoted the chief economist for the partially state-owned bank LBBW in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg as saying that Germany is engaged in secret talks with the Islamic Republic to buy Iranian oil.

“Intensive talks are already being held behind the scenes with Venezuela, Iran or Algeria to cover Germany’s oil and gasoline needs,” said Moritz Kraemer, the chief economist of the Landesbank Baden-Württemberg (LBBW).

Bernd Wagner, a spokesman for LBBW, told the Jerusalem Post that “as a matter of principle, LBBW does not conduct any Iran-related business.”

When asked about Kraemer’s statement about secret talks with Iran, Wagner said, “There seems to be a misunderstanding. The chief economist is talking about the national economy, not about LBBW’s business. We have a very clear distinction here.”

No official announcements have so far been made about the alleged secret talks between Tehran and Berlin. But tensions have been on the rise between the two sides over German officials’ statements regarding Iran’s internal developments. 

On Monday, the Iranian foreign ministry summoned the German ambassador to Tehran, Hans-Udo Muzel, over German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s “meddlesome” remarks about Iran.

“Following the meddlesome and irresponsible statements of the German chancellor towards the Islamic Republic, Hans-Udo Muzel the German ambassador to Tehran was summoned to the foreign ministry on Monday,” the Iranian foreign ministry said in a statement.

The statement added, “During the session, the director general of the west European affairs of the foreign ministry condemned the irresponsible statement of the German official. He conveyed strong protest of the Islamic Republic of Iran about Germany’s destructive approach towards the domestic developments of Iran to the German envoy.”

It continued, “The foreign ministry official said the German side should bear the consequences of the continuation of such non-constructive statements and acts on the future of the mutual ties. He stressed that the Islamic Republic of Iran is monitoring the stances and actions of the other sides with dignity and grandeur, taking into account its national interests, and will give them proportionate responses.”

The statement concluded, “The German ambassador, for his part, said he will convey the message of the Islamic Republic of Iran to his government at the earliest. During the meeting the formal notice of protest of the Islamic Republic was handed over to the German ambassador.”

Tehran Times

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India’s Urban Infrastructure Needs to Cross $840 Billion Over Next 15 Years

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A new World Bank report estimates that India will need to invest $840 billion over the next 15 years—or an average of $55 billion per annum—into urban infrastructure if it is to effectively meet the needs of its fast-growing urban population. The report, titled “Financing India’s Urban Infrastructure Needs: Constraints to Commercial Financing and Prospects for Policy Action” underlines the urgent need to leverage more private and commercial investments to meet emerging financial gaps.

By 2036, 600 million people will be living in urban cities in India, representing 40 percent of the population. This is likely to put additional pressure on the already stretched urban infrastructure and services of Indian cities – with more demand for clean drinking water, reliable power supply, efficient and safe road transport amongst others. Currently, the central and state governments finance over 75 percent of city infrastructure, while urban local bodies (ULB) finance 15 percent through their own surplus revenues.

Only 5 percent of the infrastructure needs of Indian cities are currently being financed through private sources. With government’s current (2018) annual urban infrastructure investments topping at $16 billion, much of the gap will require private financing. 

“Cities in India need large amounts of financing to promote green, smart, inclusive, and sustainable urbanization. Creating a conducive environment for ULBs, especially large and creditworthy ones, to borrow more from private sources will therefore be critical to ensuring that cities are able to improve living standards of their growing populations in a sustainable manner,” said Auguste Tano Kouamé, Country Director, World Bank, India.

The new report recommends expanding the capacities of city agencies to deliver infrastructure projects at scale. Currently, the 10 largest ULBs were able to spend only two-thirds of their total capital budget over three recent fiscal years. A weak regulatory environment and weak revenue collection also adds to the challenge of cities accessing more private financing. Between 2011 and 2018, urban property tax stood at 0.15 percent of GDP compared to an average of 0.3-0.6 percent of GDP for low- and middle-income countries. Low service charges for municipal services also undermines their financial viability and attractiveness to private investment.

Over the medium term, the report suggests a series of structural reforms including those in the taxation policy and fiscal transfer system – which can allow cities to leverage more private financing. In the short term, it identifies a set of large high-potential cities that have the ability to raise higher volumes of private financing.

“The Government of Indiacan play an important role in removing market frictions that cities face in accessing private financing. The World Bank report proposes a range of measures that can be taken by city, state, and federal agencies to bend the arc towards a future in which private commercial finance becomes a much bigger part of the solution to India’s urban investment challenge,” said Roland White, Global Lead, City Management and Finance, World Bank, and co-author of the report. 

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