A decade of elevated oil prices brought prosperity to many developing countries. Incomes rose, poverty shrank, macroeconomic buffers were rebuilt. The fiscal space for investing more in education and infrastructure increased, resulting in better sharing of prosperity. At the same time, higher commodity prices and surging global demand resulted in much more concentrated exports in all developing oil-rich countries. "Diversifying exports" became a priority for policy makers and development economists around the world. Historical experience and evidence to the contrary from successful resource rich countries notwithstanding, many widely believe that a more diversified export structure should be an important national goal and may well be a synonym for development, a goal that government can target and achieve. And a more diversified export structure typically meant a smaller share of commodity exports in total shipments abroad or a reduced concentration – as measured by the Herfindahl-Hirschmann index – of exports.
Macroeconomists for the Poor
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?
Hopes are high for Tunisia’s economy to improve after Tunisians voted for a new parliament in October. Pre-election polls consistently highlighted that the economy was the foremost preoccupation of Tunisians. Yet, political debates in the run up to the elections largely ignored longstanding economic problems.
Absurdly complex regulations divide the Tunisian economy between a protected “onshore” sector that sells to Tunisian consumers and a competitive “offshore” sector that exports, mostly to Europe. "It's pointless trying to understand the logic of it - there is no logic," says Belhassen Gherab, head of Aramys, one of Tunisia's largest textile and clothing groups. He gives an example: "Suppose I have a machine that breaks down because one small circuit board needs replacing. If I'm an offshore company, I call up DHL and have it delivered within 24 hours. If I'm an onshore business, I'll have to bring it in through customs. I may be waiting 30 days, with my entire production halted, just for that one circuit board."
Economic development theorists and practitioners are increasingly using the term “middle-income trap” to describe the situation where developing economies’ convergence to the development frontier comes to a halt once their income per capita reaches a middle-income level. The term is ambiguous: is it a halt in convergence or slowdown in growth, and what exactly is the definition of middle-income? Nevertheless, the concept has been successfully used to create a scare that developing countries are more likely to run out of breath or even give up the race in the middle of the track than to continue catching up with the leading economies. Eichengreen et al. and several IMF economists are among those who provide empirical evidence that the “middle-income trap” is real and that developing countries do get stuck at some low-level equilibrium.
The stroke of the pen is powerful indeed; it has led to wars, peace, and lots of other things in between, including changes in a country’s business environment. A large part of what defines the environment for doing business in a country is set in legislation. In many countries around the world, business regulations are more difficult than necessary, and some have taken great efforts to remove unneeded impediments with the aim of stimulating entrepreneurship and investment.
As a wave of newly resource-rich countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, looks to the best means of managing resource wealth, one compelling recommendation has come to the fore: to distribute at least some portion of resource revenues to the public through direct dividend payments (DDPs). The case is laid out in papers published at the Center for Global Development by Todd Moss and the World Bank’s Shanta Devarajan and Marcelo Giugale. The DDP proposal has several foundations. Payment technology has increased the feasibility of large-scale transfers, as Alan Gelb and Caroline Decker explain. There are already cases of developing countries scaling up identity card systems associated with cash transfers quite quickly. As for rationale, given the poor track record of public expenditure efficiency, especially in resource-rich countries, it seems clear that general welfare could be targeted more effectively through DDPs, and without any of the distortionary effects or distributional flaws of price subsidies. Finally, from a political economy perspective, DDPs coupled with taxation could restore the accountability of a government to its citizens, which is otherwise weakened by its ability to draw on revenues directly from the source.
Can a good thing eventually become bad and is there such a point when it becomes too much? Thinking about Nepal’s development, remittances appear to be precisely such an ambiguous driver. Strikingly, despite the growing importance of remittances worldwide and its increasingly high level recognition, we are missing a consistent narrative of growth and development for highly remittance dependent countries (HRDCs – a new acronym, for once, may be needed) like Nepal.
While remittances have an unambiguous direct impact on household welfare, the evidence on how they affect macroeconomic variables is mixed. Moreover, their contribution to national well-being is often under-acknowledged in those very countries they support and mixed with a sense of collective shame and fear of dependence. Here, we deliberately leave aside the thorny issue of migrant rights, recently highlighted by a feature story in the Guardian (Qatar’s World Cup ‘Slaves’), and focus on the economic impact of remittance inflows.
Nepal is an interesting case study. It is part of a small league of countries that receive a significant proportion of their income via private transfers (equivalent to 25% of GDP) and the world leader among the ones with over 10 million people.