A view from Central Europe and the Baltics
Being busy with everyday life many of us, including myself, do not spend much time thinking how our lives will look like in 20 or 30 years. However, when I travel to the countries I work on, I see the challenges faced by the elderly, especially in rural areas. These challenges include poor access to social and health services, exclusion and simply loneliness.
The countries in Central Europe and the Baltics are ageing. As a result, the size of the working age population is shrinking, creating labor shortages which could potentially challenge future growth. Ageing is also putting government budgets under pressure from the rise in age-related spending on pensions and healthcare, and the shrinking base of tax contributors.
All of this is well known. Less appreciated, however, is the fact that in many countries there is a distinct geographical pattern to ageing. Sparsely populated rural areas are seeing an increasing share of elderly people, while urban areas still attract most of the young generation. The greying of the rural population creates a challenge for public policy as rural municipalities often have fewer resources with which to address the needs of their elderly population.
A view from Central Europe and the Baltics
This is the story of a country located next to the largest and most connected economic block in the world, with fairly low labor costs and a relatively well educated workforce. You would expect that country to do well. However, the state of Serbia’s economy is problematic. Today, Serbia’s output is below what it was in the 1980s (in the time of Yugoslavia) and only half of its working age population has a job in the formal sector.
At the heart of Serbia’s problems are two interconnected imbalances, which explain why the country appears to be stuck on its path to prosperity. First, the economy is running on domestic consumption, which was fueled by financial inflows since 2000, while exports remain well below potential. Second, employment is driven by the state, not the private sector, with almost half (45%) of all formal jobs in the government or State Owned Enterprises.
Over the past decade there has been growing interest in using the internet and other communication technologies for conflict management and peacebuilding. Two key areas have emerged: (1) using publicly available data on events and social dynamics to monitor and predict escalations of tensions or violence, and (2) harnessing the increased access to the internet and mobile telephones to promote positive peace. In both areas exciting innovations have developed as well as encouraging results.
In the first area, perhaps the most comprehensive information source is Kalev Leetaru’s “Global Database of Society” or GDELT Project that “monitors the world's broadcast, print, and web news from nearly every corner of every country in over 100 languages and identifies the people, locations, organizations, counts, themes, sources, and events driving our global society”. The event database alone covers 300 categories of peace-conflict activities recorded in public media since January 1979, while the identification of people, organizations and locations enables network graphing of connections in media records.
In a recent article called “Economic Convergence: The Headwinds Return”, The Economist magazine called the rapid convergence of income levels between developing countries and the United States an aberration. It presented data showing that the difference between income per capita growth in developing countries and in developed countries had peaked around 2008 and had since become steadily smaller. When China is excluded from the calculations, the difference becomes smaller still.
So should we dismiss convergence as a trend whose time is past? I would argue that this would be premature, and that convergence is still a feature of our time. The different conclusion is not because of different data--both of us use the IMF’s World Economic Outlook series for GDP per capita at purchasing power parity terms, and its forecasts until 2019—but a different approach to convergence.
Once upon a time, development seemed straightforward. Sound technical analysis identified what to do– and the rest followed. But experience has taught us that it is harder than that. As Shanta’s recent post signals, there are three competing camps – the ‘whats’, the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys’. I wonder, though, whether in clarifying the differences, we might be missing the chance to learn across these different perspectives?
Certainly, the differences are large. At one end are the old-time-religion ‘whats’, who confidently prescribe ‘best practices’ to help countries stay on the right path – and who sometimes turn to the ‘whys’ to identify the political and institutional blockages to good policies. At the other end, the ‘hows’ argue that every country is unique, that the crucial knowledge for shaping and implementing policy is local, and tend to be dismissive of efforts (especially by outsiders) to analyze political and institutional obstacles.
My new book, Working with the Grain tries to steer a middle ground. The book explores a small number of alternative development pathways that are very different from each other – with each characterized by a distinctive set of political and institutional incentives and constraints, and thus distinctive options for policymaking and implementation.
About twenty years ago, while working for BRAC in Bangladesh, I was accompanying some visitors to one of BRAC’s non-formal education schools in a village about two hours out of the capital city Dhaka. To my surprise, instead of the usual sight of a classroom full of children, we found that only about 10 out of the 30 enrolled had showed up. Upon enquiry the teacher pointed out what seemed obvious to her: it was December and many children were in the fields helping harvest the rice crop or doing household chores. To be honest I didn’t think much more of the issue at the time.
The 2008-2009 global financial crisis led to a number of large–scale government interventions across the world. These included massive provisions of liquidity, the takeover of weak financial institutions, the extension of deposit insurance schemes, purchases by the government of troubled assets, bank recapitalization and, of course, packages of fiscal stimulus, sometimes of a scale not seen since World War II. Even the IMF, the world’s traditional guardian of sound public finance, came out strongly in favor of fiscal loosening, arguing through its managing director that “if there has ever been a time in modern economic history when fiscal policy and a fiscal stimulus should be used, it's now” and that it should take place “everywhere where it's possible. Everywhere where you have some room concerning debt sustainability. Everywhere where inflation is low enough not to risk having some kind of return of inflation, this effort has to be made".
Some Thoughts on Shanta's Anniversary Blog
I have extracted what I find to be the key points in Shanta’s blog post “It’s not the How; It’s the Why” and have commented on them:
1. “Bad policies or institutions exist and persist because politically powerful people benefit from them.”
Bad policies or institutions are bad for those who are excluded from their benefits in the short-run, but they also harm the supposed beneficiaries in the long run. Further careful analysis can corroborate this, and show the long-term harm caused by bad policies to virtually everyone in a particular country.
انقضى أسبوع تقريبا دون أن أسمع عبارة "لا يتعلق الأمر بالكيفية بل بالسبب." ففي مجال إصلاح دعم الطاقة في الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا، على سبيل المثال، لا يتركز النقاش على ما إذا كان ينبغي إصلاح الدعم (يتفق الجميع على ضرورة ذلك) بل على كيفية إجراء الإصلاح. وتثار نقاط مماثلة بشأن تنظيم ممارسة الأعمال أو التعليم أو الزراعة أو الصحة. واعترف بأني أنا نفسي كتبت أمورا مشابهة. ولا يوجد نقص في مثل هذه المقترحات على هذه المدونة.
فالإصلاحات مطلوبة لأنه توجد سياسات أو ترتيبات مؤسسية قائمة باتت معوقة. لكن قبل أن نقترح كيفية إصلاحها ينبغي أن نسأل لماذا وُجدت هذه السياسة من الأصل، ولماذا استمرت فترة طويلة، ولماذا لم يتم إصلاحها حتى اليوم. فهذه السياسات لم تأت مصادفة. ولم تستمر لأن شخصا ما نسي تغييرها. ولن يتم إصلاحها على الأرجح لمجرد أن أحد صانعي السياسات قرأ كتابا أو مقالا أو مدونة بعنوان "كيف تصلح..."
Hardly a week goes by without my hearing the statement, “It’s not the What; it’s the How.” On the reform of energy subsidies in the Middle East and North Africa, for instance, the discussion is focused not on whether subsidies should be reformed (everyone agrees they should be), but on how the reform should be carried out. Similar points are made about business regulations, education, agriculture, or health. I confess to having written similar things myself. And there is no shortage of such proposals on this blog.
Reforms are needed because there is a policy or institutional arrangement in place that has become counterproductive. But before suggesting how to reform it, we should ask why that policy exists at all, why it has persisted for so long, and why it hasn’t been reformed until now. For these policies didn’t come about by accident. Nor have they remained because somebody forgot to change them. And they are unlikely to be reformed just because a policymaker happens to read a book, article or blog post entitled “How to reform…”