Africa is growing fast but transforming slowly. This is the message of the 2014 African Transformation Report, launched last week by the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET). The report addresses a worry on the minds of many: in spite of impressive growth, the structure of most sub-Saharan African economies has evolved little in the past 40 years, with a poorly diversified export base, limited industrialization and technological progress, and a large informal economy whose economic potential remains mostly overlooked. In many African economies, manufacturing—the sector that has led rapid development in East Asia—is declining as a share of GDP. The worry is that without a major transformation Africa’s recent growth may soon run out of steam. The report argues that for growth to continue, Africa needs to invest in “DEPTH”–diversification, export competitiveness, productivity, and technological upgrading, all for the purposes of human well-being.
Private Sector Development
A couple of weeks ago, just after International Women’s Day, we had a coffee hour in the World Bank’s Ankara office to watch short videos of five women that have recently started up their own business and transformed their lives and that of their families (stay tuned for the release of these films, currently being edited). Their stories were uplifting, but the discussion quickly turned to the dismal field of statistics. Commentators stressed that female labor force participation in Turkey remains at only half of the OECD level, that Turkey loses around 25 percent of its potential GDP because of this, and lamented that social norms and mixed political messages on the role of women in society were preventing greater progress towards gender equality.
The Western Balkans Case
The Western Balkans have a lot going for them: ideal location next to the world’s largest economic bloc, a well-educated workforce, relatively low wages and decent infrastructure. FDI and investors should be rushing in … but are they?
Southeast Europe is the next frontier of EU expansion and includes six countries: Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. These countries have a lot in common and an equal amount of differences. They are all relatively small open economies, with a growth strategy premised on deeper international integration. Some, especially Macedonia, are more advanced in attracting international investors but as a whole, the region seems to be stuck in a classical Middle Income Trap: they are too rich to compete on low-cost manufacturing but are too poor to be global innovators. After a strong recovery following war and conflicts in the 1990s, the growth momentum has stalled over the last five years and the region has been particularly vulnerable to external shocks.
Europe faces a significant job challenge. At an average of 11 percent, unemployment remains stubbornly high while labor force participation, at 58 percent of the working age population, lags behind most other regions of the world. This means, that only every second person in working age currently has a paying job across the region. Addressing the job challenge requires multifaceted labor market policies. We argue however that reducing the tax burden on labor, which remains high across the region, holds the promise of improving labor market outcomes. Such tax cuts could especially target low-wage workers, which often face the highest marginal tax rates and very elastic labor demand and are therefore most likely to be priced out of the formal labor market.
In terms of the World Bank’s twin goals of eliminating extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity, the Middle East and North Africa Region was making steady progress. The percentage of people living on less than $1.25 a day was 2.4% and declining. And the incomes of the bottom 40% have been growing at higher rates than average incomes in almost all MENA countries for which we have information.
Yet, there were revolutions in several countries and widespread discontent. Why?
Governments (and donors alike) don’t like dealing with informality. It’s messy, dirty, essentially unmeasurable, and its character varies dramatically. From one industry to the next. From one city to the next. It’s also beset with fiendishly difficult problems – informal firms are often household enterprises (employing mainly family labour, and not hired labour). Thus, they have to make impossible trade-offs between production and consumption.
And yet – the size and the importance of the informal sector in most countries shows no signs of abating. On average the informal share of employment ranges from 24 per cent in transition economies, to 50 per cent in Latin America and over 70 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa. In India, employment within the informal sector is growing, while that in the formal sector remains stagnant. Yet - very little is known about the relationship, whether symbiotic or competitive, between the two sectors.
In a new paper, I notice that in India formal firms tend to cluster with informal firms – especially in industries like apparel, furniture and meal-making. The firms coagglomerate not only so that they can buy from and sell to one another – but importantly, also because formal firms tend to share equipment with and transfer technical knowledge to their informal counterparts. Such technical and production spillovers are found in clusters of domestic-foreign, exporter-non-exporter and high-tech-low-tech firms. It is no surprise then that formal and informal activity could be complementary. Informal can also be an outlet for entrepreneurial activity, especially in places with high levels of corruption, or where formal firms are often mired in complex regulations.
In a previous blog we discussed the factors that have pushed issues of corruption to the centre of policy debates about sound economic management. A related question deals with the sources of corruption: where does it come from, what are the factors that have nourished it and turned it into such a powerful impediment to sustainable economic development? Economists seem to agree that an important source of corruption stems from the distributional attributes of the state. For better or for worse, the role of the state in the economy has expanded in a major way over the past century. In 1913 the 13 largest economies in the world, accounting for the bulk of global economic output, had an average expenditure ratio in relation to GDP of around 12%. This ratio had risen to 43% by 1990, with many countries’ ratios well in excess of 50%. This rise was associated with the proliferation of benefits under state control and also in the various ways in which the state imposes costs on society. While a larger state need not necessarily be associated with higher levels of corruption—the Nordic countries illustrate this—it is the case that the larger the number of interactions between officials and private citizens, the larger the number of opportunities in which the latter may wish to illegally pay for benefits to which they are not entitled, or avoid responsibilities or costs for which they bear an obligation.
Trade and growth go hand-in-hand. When the 2008 global financial crisis hit, both collapsed.
Since then both have steadied somewhat. But recovery has been jobless in many countries. The biggest challenge that developing countries will face: sustaining economic growth, while maintaining their focus on reducing poverty and inequality. Trade can be an important weapon in the policy-maker’s arsenal to help tackle these dual objectives.
Broadly, economists agree that declining levels of poverty have been accompanied by sustained periods of rapid growth and openness in all countries. In India, there has been a wealth of econometric work that demonstrates the links through which openness to trade has contributed directly to poverty alleviation – via growth and employment. More recently, Arvind Panagariya and I measured the impact of trade on poverty across different social groups – castes and religions – in India. We found that trade openness lifts all boats, for schedules castes and tribes, and for marginalized communities. Interestingly, the impact was especially strong in urban regions. Other research finds that states whose workers are on average more exposed to foreign competition tend to have lower rural, urban and overall poverty rates.
As many across the world entered the New Year in a celebratory mood, others are still struggling to recover from the effect of the recent economic downturn. Five years ago began the worst economic recession the world has experienced in generations. With life support by Governments and Central Banks, the global economy seems to have stabilized, but the ‘patient’ is still weak. In 2013, the global economy is estimated to have expanded at a modest 2.2 percent rate (despite a contraction in the Euro zone) and for 2014 the World Bank and IMF project a slight uptick to 3.0 percent.
But what do these numbers actually tell us about the well-being of people? Does economic growth capture what really makes a difference in peoples’ lives?
Economist and Nobel Prize laureate James M. Buchanan remarked to the Wall Street Journal in 1996 that "Just as no physicist would claim that "water runs uphill”, no self-respecting economist would claim that increases in the minimum wage increase employment." Of course this statement remains broadly true today, but the advent of better data, improved statistal techniques and the proliferation of country studies – have made economists far more careful about pre-judging the impact of minimum wages on employment and wages. Indeed, in a now famous study of fast food restaurants in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, David Card and Alan Krueger showed how the imposition of a minimum wage had no significant disemployment effects, and in some cases increased employment, arising out of a large enough increase in demand for the firms’ products.
The evidence for South Africa, some twenty years after the demise of apartheid, is equally compelling. In a two-part study, my co-authors and I find an intriguing set of contrasting economic outcomes, from the imposition of a series of sectoral minimum wage laws. In South Africa, the minimum wage setting body, known as the Employment Conditions Commission (ECC), advises the Minister of Labour on appropriate and feasible minimum wages for different sectors or sub-sectors in the economy. Currently, the economy has in place 11 such sectoral minimum wage laws in sectors ranging from Agriculture and Domestic Work, to Retail and Private Security.