Two recently released World Bank reports — one on commodities and the other on remittances — lend insight into an unfolding dynamic in the world today. As oil prices dropped from more than $100 per barrel in June 2014 to as low as $27 in the last few months, the money sent home from people working abroad in oil-producing countries also fell. This drop is a major reason remittances to developing countries declined in 2015 to their lowest growth rate since the 2008-2009 financial crisis.
My father is a long-distance trucker based in Belarus. As a young girl, I spent long hours on the road with him. I loved traveling to neighboring and faraway cities and—even though I could barely reach the pedals at the time—dreamed of becoming a truck driver myself one day. Life ended up taking me on another path, but it wasn’t until I was older that I learned that the option of being a truck driver was never open to me to begin with.
Because my native country prohibits women from being truck drivers, one of the 182 professions out of bounds for women.
Over the past several years much has been written about the significant potential for solar energy generation in the Middle East and North Africa, where there is no shortage of sunshine. The International Energy Agency estimated that the potential from concentrated solar power technology alone could amount to 100 times the electricity demand of North Africa, the Middle East and Europe combined.
In the wake of commitments at the Paris climate conference (COP21), it is time to develop this rich source of low-carbon energy sitting close to Europe’s southern shores, and bolster efforts to agree on a framework to import clean, sustainable energy from North Africa.
As recently as 2012 there have been efforts to adopt a framework that would allow importing renewable energy from Morocco to Germany—through France and Spain—but electricity trade between countries typically becomes reality when there are economic benefits for all sides. Electricity trade has the added benefit of fostering closer political ties.
Expanding regional trade between North Africa and Europe has also been hindered by inadequate physical electrical connections between the two continents and poor physical integration in European electricity grids. There is currently only one electrical transmission interconnection between North Africa and Europe, namely the Morocco-Spain connection. Further, Spain’s interconnection with the rest of Europe is limited, with no new transmission projects undertaken to expand this capacity for the past three decades. At the same time, Spain had excess generation capacity because of the economic downturn experienced in Europe over the past several years. That made impractical the notion of allowing North African renewable energy into the Spanish market. Italy, another potential electricity gateway from North Africa, was in a similar situation.
The enchanting city of Saint Petersburg, Russia, boasts the canals of Venice, the cathedrals of Paris, the architecture of Stockholm, and the non-stop festival atmosphere of white nights in July and August. It is Russia’s second largest city, with around 4 million people and a bustling economy. Saint Petersburg has also learned hard-won lessons in public-private partnership (PPP) creation and implementation, including:
Lesson 1: Start with the basics
Saint Petersburg started with very big, very bold PPP projects, like a €6 billion toll road and a €1 billion tunnel, followed by a €1 billion light rail line and a €1.2 billion airport expansion. The toll road and tunnel came to bid in late 2008, mid-financial crisis—leading to Lesson 1a: Timing is everything. But rather than get discouraged, the city restructured the tunnel, flipping it around so that the concessionaire finalized the design first, thereby delaying the search for financing until the markets could recover. The toll road bid process was cancelled and the project broken up (more on this later). The light rail project was also restructured to fit with evolving ridership in the city. The airport, the last project to be launched, was the first to reach financial close, so here we simply note that hard currency revenues and an existing asset and revenue stream are convenient advantages when financial markets are lean. Lesson 1b: Roll with the punches.
A study group from Moscow and five regions of Russia recently visited Canada and the US to learn more about initiatives in those two countries and to bring discussion about financial issues into the classroom – with the idea of turning today’s students into active and responsible citizens of the future, able to make well-informed personal financial decisions and to engage in discussions about public finances on behalf of themselves and their communities.
In the previous decade the government opted for interventionist policies aiming to develop an industrial base and jumpstart a knowledge economy. More recently, as a reaction to declining oil prices and economic sanctions, the Anti-Crisis Plan launched by the Government in January 2015 fleshes out an active import substitution strategy to replace imports with domestic production. So far, 19 roadmaps have been adopted to promote import substitution in a number of priority sectors, including metallurgy, agriculture, machine-building, chemicals, light industry, as well as the medical and pharmaceutical industries.
However, in Central Asia, the story is more complicated. This is because the region’s poorer countries, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, depend critically on Russia through trade and remittances.
Falling remittances, reflecting the weakness of the Russian Ruble
According to just-released Russian Central Bank data, outward remittances from Russia fell sharply in the first half of the year, in USD terms. In the first six months of 2015 (relative to the same time in 2014) private transfers from Russia to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are reported to have fallen by over 45% and 30% respectively. While less exposed, Uzbekistan has experienced a loss of even greater magnitude: -48%.
Russia’s economic woes continue: the recession deepened in the first half of 2015, severely impacting households, while the economy continued to adjust to the 2014 terms-of-trade shock, which saw oil prices being halved within a few months. In addition, investment demand has contracted for a third consecutive year.
Economic policy uncertainty, arising from an unpredictable geopolitical situation and the ongoing sanctions, caused private investment to decline rapidly as capital costs rose and consumer demand evaporated.
The record drop in consumer demand was driven by a sharp contraction in real wages, which fell by an average of 8.5% in the first six months of 2015 - illustrating the severity of the recession. The erosion of real incomes significantly increased the poverty rate and exacerbated the vulnerability of households in the lower 40% of the income distribution.
So, if oil prices remain low, how can Russia grow out of its recession?
We have all seen the numbers before: Over the coming decades, many countries in the developed and developing world alike will significantly age. One particular number to describe this development is the “old-age dependency ratio.” It measures the number of those aged above 65 years (currently defined as old age) as a share of those between 15 to 64 years (currently defined as working age). In other words, this ratio tells us how many retired people a potential worker has to sustain. With global aging, it will deteriorate dramatically in most countries over the coming decades. This raises serious concerns about the sustainability of pension systems.
In most developed countries, anywhere from one-third to half of all national income is managed by the government - but how much does the average person really understand about the budget or the difficult choices and trade-offs being made by governments every day?
Should taxes be raised or lowered?
Should they spend on schools? Better hospitals? Pensions?
Is it better to run a deficit and let future taxpayers settle the bills or save today to pay down the debt?
Why is this barely discussed in schools?
To help address this basic question, the Russian Ministry of Finance, helped by the World Bank, is piloting an initiative designed to encourage responsible citizenship and greater engagement in the budget process. The idea is that high school seniors will debate and discuss these issues, using real life cases and information from government budgets.