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Jobs or Privileges?

Marc Schiffbauer's picture
Also available in: العربية

Unleashing the Employment Potential of the Middle East and North Africa

The majority of working-age people in MENA face a choice: they can be unemployed; or they can work in low-productivity, subsistence activities often in the informal economy. In particular, only 19% of the working age people in MENA have formal jobs.

The main reason is that the private sector does not create enough jobs. Between 42% and 72% of all jobs are in micro firms in MENA, but these micro firms do not grow. In Tunisia, the probability that a micro firm grows beyond 10 employees five years later is 3%.

Why has private sector job creation been so weak?

Given the jobless growth in the region, one might suspect that the determinants of job creation are different in the Middle East and North Africa. They are not! The types of firms that create most jobs in the region are the same as in other faster growing regions.

  1. Startups create the most jobs. Micro startups accounted for 92% of total net job creation in Tunisia between 1996 and 2010 and 177% of total net job creation in Lebanon between 2005 and 2010.
  2. More productive firms create more jobs. Firms with higher initial productivity create more jobs in the subsequent five years in all countries in the region with data.
The problem is that there are not enough startups and productivity growth has been weak. For instance, for every 10,000 working-age persons, only six new limited liability firms are created annually in MENA countries compared to an average of 26 new firms among all developing countries worldwide. Moreover, firms in Egypt and Tunisia barely increase their productivity in the first 35 years after entry, while firms in Mexico, India or Turkey increase their productivity 2-3 fold over the same period.

Why have firm startup and productivity growth been so low?

Jobs or Privileges shows that the reason is policies that privilege a few dominant firms by insulating them from competition. Four examples of such policies that stifle fair competition in the region:
  1. Restrictions on foreign firms to enter service sectors are among the highest in the world. Removing the restrictions on foreign direct investment into service sectors in Jordan would create more jobs in domestic service firms: a 1% increase in the industry share of employment in foreign service firms would increase employment growth among domestic service firms by 1 %-point over a five years period.
  2. Red tape in Morocco reduces job creation. In particular, unequal and unpredictable treatment by tax administrations, corruption and obstacles in the judicial system, and high cost of finance limit the growth of startups which are the engine of job creation.
  3. The generous energy subsidies to industry in Egypt undermine competition and cost jobs. As a result, despite lower wages in Egypt relative to Turkey, labor-intensive manufacturing firms in Egypt employ 320,000 fewer workers.
  4. Discriminatory policy implementation in the Middle East and North Africa crates an uneven playing field reducing competition among firms. For instance, firms with deep political connections in Egypt receive fewer tax inspections by government officials.
Given that these policies cost jobs, why are they still in place?

Policies in the region have often been captured by a handful of politically connected firms which created privileges rather than jobs. While the problem is regional, we focus on Egypt and Tunisia. In both countries, politically connected firms are firms that are managed or owned by businessmen either controlling a high political post in the government or ruling party, or whose assets have been confiscated in 2011 because they were owned by the (former) ruling family.

Jobs or Privileges finds that the activities of the 469 politically connected firms in Egypt and 215 connected firms in Tunisia are widespread across economic sectors. And these were the sectors that obtained generous policy privileges.

For instance, 45% of connected firms in Egypt operate in high-energy-intensive industries compared to only 8% of all manufacturing firms. Energy subsidies lead to privileges rather than jobs!

Moreover, 43% of sectors with at least one connected firm in Tunisia are protected from foreign entry into service sectors compared to only 14% of non-connected sectors.

When tariffs started to decline in Egypt, non-tariff technical barriers to import increased. These barriers were not imposed randomly: 71% of politically connected firms but only 4% of all firms sell goods that are protected from foreign competition by non-tariff barriers (The Economist: Friends in high places).

Privileges suppress the firm dynamics associated with job creation. In Egypt there are fewer startups in sectors dominated by politically connected firms despite the generous privileges in these sectors. The bottom line is that, when a politically connected firm enters a non-connected sector in Egypt, job growth declines by 1.4 percentage points annually.

Where do we go from here?

The simple answer is: reform the policies that privilege a few connected firms at the expense of the millions of workers and non-connected entrepreneurs. But how can such policies be reformed against the interest of few influential beneficiaries? What does it take to create institutions that safeguard competition? What is the role of citizens in institutions that are supposed to safeguard competition?


Submitted by Omer on

Nicely done indeed. So, what we surmised earlier on cronyism and its negative impacts is now evidence-based. Indeed, while WHERE we go from here is a critical question, an even more pressing one is HOW does one get there? What are the levers that one uses to prompt mostly complicit governments to bring greater competition to their markets and do away with priveleges? Especially in environments in which others are able to come in and "rescue" economies such as Egypt with little focus on policy changes in the direction of greater competition.Barring the clarifying/disciplining(!) effects of massive crisis and a push to open up the economy how indeed does one move forward? Does the Bank proceed on the path of business as usual with small incremental steps here and there with minimal impact but much hope or is there another way? At the end of the day presumably our Articles of Agreement do impose limitations but the question of how one becomes part of the solution rather than the problem is a critical one. Clearly studies such as these are an important element in pushing the agenda and the more the better, especially as word gets out to civil society groups (not that they are likely to be surprised by these links)and to the broader public. What the Bank does beyond additional research on the costs of cronyism and awareness raising is the real question and it will be interesting to watch that debate as it develops.

Submitted by Tony Manero on

Seems to me this is enough -- "pushing the agenda" is a political cause. Getting it right with willing partners is already challenging to the Bank, and if it can do that right the FIRST time, that would fulfill the mission. Revolutions are left to the people and cold war warriors

Submitted by Marc on

Thank you for your great comment, Omer! I agree with you that the necessary changes must primarily come from within the country. Thus, the aim of the "Jobs or Privileges" Report is to feed into or spur a public debate within MENA countries. The report provides not only new numbers for this debate but also highlights for the first time the far-reaching impact of cronyism on economic dynamics and policymaking. That is, it shows that cronyism does not just imply that few people abuse their political connections to enrich themselves. Instead, and much more importantly, it provides for the first time numbers and hard facts that cronyism is the major reason why MENA economies are stagnant, why policies are in place that undermine firm creation and productivity growth , and why there are not enough Jobs.

While it is the role of governments to safeguard fair competition and the role of citizens to hold governments accountable for this, "Jobs or Privileges" suggests a practible checklist against which each government policy should be benchmarked. That is, if any of the following questions is negatively answered, the corresponding policy is likely to create privileges and cost jobs:

1.) Is the policy designed to encourage those excluded from the market to participate?

2.) Will all or nearly all benefits of the interventions flow to those currently excluded from the market?

3.) Will benefits be conditioned on rigorous measures of performance and will they be reversed if these performance targets are not met?

4.) Will the bureaucracy and courts implement policy accurately, fairly, transparently?

Let's take a policy that promotes access to finance for SMEs which has been implemented in most MENA countries such as Egypt, Jordan, etc. This policy violates 1.) since young firms NOT small firms create Jobs and are growth constrained; thus it does not address a market failure. It violates 3.) since binding performance measures and program evaluations are absent in MENA. Judge yourself in which countries 4.) will be met. Thus, SME loans create privileges rather than Jobs!

"Jobs or Privileges" contains a more detailed discussion and graphical representation on how to use this checklist.

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