Some Myths about Informal Trade in Developing Countries
By definition, informal trade is difficult to measure because even if everyone has seen it, there is no evidence of it in official statistics. Thus, estimates are often difficult to arrive at and quite costly because they require the collection of data from several sources (customs data, data from border surveys, local economic and social statistics, interviews with actors and stakeholders in the sectors concerned).
However, such efforts appear to be bearing fruit: as information and data production improves, a number of assertions based on rumors or even beliefs are contradicted by actual figures. It is especially interesting to note that the phenomena and characteristics of informal trade are the same, whether in central Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, or North Africa.
Middle East and North Africa
Some Myths about Informal Trade in Developing Countries
This is a surfer’s dream: catching a great wave, far from the shore, and riding it for long beautiful moments as it stretches further and further gathering momentum until the very end, when it breaks right at the beach. This is how my generation, born in the 1970s (when the Beach Boys released their iconic Surf’s Up album), should feel, as we are riding on a “global demographic wave” which keeps extending further and further.
Guest workers have played an integral role in the Gulf since the 1970s where the demographic changes accompanying these labor flows occurred at an extraordinarily rapid pace. The region’s aggregate population has increased more than tenfold in a little over half a century, but in no other region of the world do citizens comprise such a small proportion of the population. While this ‘demographic imbalance’ makes the Gulf unique, what differentiates it is not its economic and demographic expansion through migration but the degree to which the region’s governments have excluded foreign workers from being integrated into the national polity. This exclusion of foreign workers is a result of a conscious policy.
Labor migration to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are mostly governed under a sponsorship system known as Kafala. Migrant workers require a national sponsor (called Kafeel) and are only allowed to work for the visa sponsoring firm. The workers must obtain a no-objection certificate from the sponsor to resign and have to leave the country upon termination of the usual 2 to 3 years’ contract before being allowed to commence a new contract under a new sponsor. Tied to the sponsor, the migrants become immobile within the internal labor market for the duration of the contract. Consequently the sponsors benefit from non-competitive environments where they extract substantial economic rents from migrant workers at the expense of inducing significant inefficiencies in production.
The Kafeels pay workers an income above the wage in their country of origin and obtain economic rents equal to the difference between such earnings and the net marginal return from employing the migrant worker. Migrant workers are paid the initial nominal wage throughout the entire contractual period. They are even made to accept lower wages than contracted initially. Immobilized by labor restrictions, workers cannot command a higher wage even when there is demand for their services by rival firms willing to hire them in order to avoid the cost of hiring from abroad. Kafeels have also found other ways of extracting rents in recent decades by indulging in visa trading. They allow their names to be used to sponsor foreign workers in exchange for monetary gains.
Arguably, rents per-se should not directly create adverse effects because they are essentially redistributive transfers. Earnings paid to migrants are sufficient to motivate them to migrate. The migrants do not leave. But this view is over-simplistic. The combination of short contracts, flat wages, and lack of internal mobility kills the incentives for migrant workers to exercise higher effort levels in production and engage in activities that enhance their human capital. Any productivity gain would go to the sponsor in the form of rents. The system provides incentives to entrepreneurs to concentrate on low-skills, labor-intensive activities where the extraction of economic rents is easier. Such sponsor-worker behavior explains for instance why despite the massive investments in Dubai, the economy-wide efficiency levels (average labor productivity) have not improved in the last two decades while in Hong Kong, they doubled and in Singapore quadrupled.
A puzzle: Sanitation is one of the most productive investments a government can make. There is now rigorous empirical evidence that improved sanitation systems reduce the incidence of diarrhea among children. Diarrhea, in turn, harms children’s nutritional status (by affecting their ability to retain nutrients). And inadequate nutrition (stunting, etc.) affects children’s cognitive skills, lifetime health and earnings. In short, the benefits of sanitation investment are huge. Cost-benefit analyses show rates of return of 17-55 percent, or benefit/cost ratios between 2 and 8.
But if the benefits are so high (relative to costs), why aren’t we seeing massive investments in sanitation? Why are there 470 million people in East Asia, 600 million in Africa and a billion people in South Asia lacking access to sanitation? Why are there more cellphones than toilets in Africa?
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December 17 marked the third anniversary of the Arab Awakening. On that date, three years ago, Mohammed Bouzazizi set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid,Tunisia. The political tsunami that has shaken Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria is well known. What is less known is the impact that the Arab Awakening has had on Arab youth. They were the driving force behind the revolution, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia. However, youth are far from having reaped the fruits in either country.
Companies that include women among their executives and employees and do business with female entrepreneurs gain in terms of profitability, creativity, and sustainability, speakers said at the World Bank Group’s Gender and the Economy event this week in Washington, D.C.
A convincing business case for gender inclusion was made by H.E. Sheikh Abdullah al Thani, chairman of Ooredoo Group; Cherie Blair, founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women; and Beth Comstock, senior vice president and chief Marketing Officer at General Electric.
“Women are bringing new insights and experiences to workplaces and markets that were previously male-dominated,” said Comstock “Diversity breeds innovation."
Sri Mulyani Indrawati, the Bank Group's managing director and chief operating officer, said closing the economic gender gap and increasing opportunities for both women and men in the private sector are key to ending extreme poverty and boosting prosperity in developing countries.
The epic battle of man against machine has been fought on many occasions. One of the most memorable encounters was the chess game between IBM’s Deep Blue and Gary Kasparov. Deep Blue was the first computer to beat a reigning chess champion in 1996 (the machine still lost 2 to 4 after six games). A year later, at their “rematch”, the machine won on the overall score: 3.5 to 2.5.
However, it is surprising that, 18 years later, we still have not figured out the ultimate winning strategy in chess. Any game with limited combinations and full disclosure of information must have ‘safe strategies’ and can be ‘solved’ (as has happened with the game checkers in 2007). The solution, in chess, would from what we know today involve strategies whereby the white player would win or the black player would force a draw. Yet no human or super computer to date has managed to solve chess’ mathematical puzzle. How much more computing power do we need to succeed?
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Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries differ from SMEs elsewhere in that they employ mostly expatriate workers and very few of their own nationals. How do we know this? We see it in the labor force statistics: The share of expatriates in the private sector labor force ranges from 80% to 98% in the six GCC countries— Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)— the lowest being in Oman and Bahrain, and the highest in Qatar and the UAE.
For a very long time, the rich have known to some extent how the poor around the world live. What’s new in today's world is that the best-kept secret from the poor, namely, how the rich live, is now out. Through the village television, the Internet and hand-held instruments, which a rapidly increasing number of the poor possess, life-styles of the rich and the middle class are transmitted in full color to their homes every day.
Last year, when I traveled with President Evo Morales to a Bolivian village 14,000 feet above sea level, villagers snapped pictures on their smartphones of our arrival. In Uttar Pradesh, the state in India with the highest number of poor people, I found Indians watching Korean soap operas on their smartphones.
We live in an unequal world. But while the rich world may be blind to the suffering of the poor, the poor throughout the world are very much aware of how the rich live. And they have shown they are willing to take action.
It’s the first class of an adult literacy program for young Moroccan women. Ghita comes to the front of the class, picks up a piece of chalk and carefully draws a line on the blackboard. It is the letter alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, one of the simplest to recognize and write: a single downward stroke.