The cool thing about working in infrastructure is everyone knows your business.
We’ve all paid bills, lost power during storms, and worried about the quality of the water we’re about to drink. We’ve all been on a dead phone line sputtering, “Hello? Hello?” having just confessed, “I love you,” to a disconnected piece of plastic.
And if we in the professional world care about these basic services that are so fundamental to our lives, we know their reliable and affordable delivery is even more crucial for the poor. When a long wait for a new phone connection means no link to the outside world, no power means no study, and tainted water means sick children, then utility services are the difference between stagnation and growth, poverty and opportunity.
Everyone knows when services work and when they don’t. But infrastructure economists have long struggled to understand why some utilities work well and others don’t. Is there a package of reforms that will get us more connections, higher levels of efficiency, better quality service and cheaper rates?
Public Sector and Governance
The cool thing about working in infrastructure is everyone knows your business.
I landed in Chisinau on a short flight from Frankfurt a mere two years ago. I immediately liked this vibrant and cosmopolitan city built with white limestone and awash with greenery, and remember thinking that it has the potential to attract scores of tourists. But tickets to fly into Chisinau were expensive in 2011.
I also recall so vividly my first trip through the Moldovan countryside shortly after. An amalgam of bright green leaves on walnut trees contrasted the yellow of the sunflowers that grow in fields with some of the most fertile soil in the world. I was immediately struck by the immense potential that Moldova holds in agriculture.
Good things have happened since then.
Sovereign difficulties have divided financial markets in the Euro area, thereby increasing differences in bank lending rates across countries. Policy makers in both Brussels and Frankfurt are concerned about an uneven transmission of policy interest rate cuts by the European Central Bank (ECB) to bank lending rates across the region.
Based on this situation, a key question stands out: is the link between official, market, and retail interest rates broken?
When markets are functioning properly, interest rates on loans follow the policy rate in a uniform way across countries (granted with some lag). But, in the context of the ongoing crisis, markets became somewhat irresponsive – resulting in ECB rate cuts being unevenly passed on to borrowers across Euro-area countries. This uneven distribution has meant that those countries facing greater financial difficulties had to endure tougher financing conditions than those facing fewer difficulties – as exemplified when comparing Spanish and Italian retail rates to the much-lower French and German ones.
So far, the economic literature has been relatively robust in arguing that government bond yields or credit default swaps (CDSs), given their stability, do not exert much influence on the way banks set their interest rates for their clients. However, the crisis has shown that because of the interconnectedness of central bank and sovereign balance sheets, developments in sovereign markets affect retail interest rates.
How has this played out in the EU11 countries? Have retail interest rate decreased in those countries where central banks reduced their policy rates? Or, was this a reaction on downward movement of CDSs?
Figure 1. Interest rates on new lending to enterprises (in Percent) and CDS spreads (in basis points) in selected EU11 countries
The problem with the World Bank’s 20th anniversary in Kyrgyzstan last November was that everybody else’s party had happened already.
There has been a blur of speeches, gala concerts, jazz bands, canapés, toasts and traditional performances as one embassy after another feted twenty years of partnership with the Kyrgyz Republic. The same guests, speeches, and – truth be told - probably the same canapés.
We had to do something different. So, as we celebrated the last 20 years of our work in Kyrgyzstan (which have been quite good), we toasted the next 20 years as well.
Just six months ago, in the previous South East Europe Regular Economic Report (SEE RER) covering the six Western Balkan countries of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, FYR Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia (SEE6), we looked at the double-dip recession in this region, and structural policies needed for recovery.
Now, we are happy to report that recovery is, indeed, under way in each of these countries. In 2013, the SEE6 region is projected to grow 1.7 percent, thus ending the double-dip recession of 2012. Electricity, agriculture, and even some exports are helping with this rebound of output. Kosovo is leading the pack with a growth rate of 3.1 percent, with Serbia (which accounts for nearly half of the region’s GDP) expected to grow by 2 percent on the heels of increased FDI, exports, and a return to normal agricultural crops. (In 2012, by contrast, agricultural output in Serbia dropped 20 percent on account of a severe drought). Albania, FYR Macedonia, and Montenegro are all expected to grow by between 1.2-1.6 percent. Rounding out this group is Bosnia and Herzegovina – with expected growth of 0.5 percent.
So, are things finally looking up in the Balkans? Not exactly.
Figure 1: SEE6 Unemployment Rates, 2012
Source: LFS data and ILO. Kosovo’s tentative data suggest unemployment as high as 35 percent.
Over the last decade Montenegro has trebled its gross national income (from $2,400 in 2003 to $7,160 in 2012), has reduced its national poverty headcount from 11.3 percent in 2005 to 6.6 percent in 2010, and enjoys the highest per capita income among the six South East European countries.
Despite this considerable progress, however, Montenegro remains a country in need of a new economic direction. The global financial crisis has exposed Montenegro’s economic vulnerabilities and has called into question the country’s overall growth pattern. The period between 2006 and 2008 was characterized by unsustainably large inflows of foreign direct investments (FDI) and inexpensive capital, which fueled a domestic credit consumption boom and a real estate bubble. When the bubble burst in late 2008 and in 2009 real GDP shrank by almost 6 percent, triggering a painful deleveraging and a difficult recovery that is not yet complete. With the base for Montenegro’s growth narrowing and the country’s continued reliance on factor accumulation rather than productivity, it has become clear that this old pattern cannot deliver the growth performance seen just a few years ago.
So, what kind of growth model can drive Montenegro’s next stage of development in the increasingly competitive environment of today’s global economy?
As spelled out in the recent report “Montenegro – Preparing for Prosperity” this country can go a long way toward returning to the impressive economic gains it was making just a few years ago by emphasizing three critical areas of development: sustainability, connectivity, and flexibility.
A significant share of the population in the Kyrgyz Republic – 37 percent – lived below the poverty line in 2011, according to the latest available data. And despite a relatively modest population of about 5.5 million, poverty rates across oblasts (provinces) span a striking range -- from 18 percent to 50 percent.
Why? Well, that is a surprisingly difficult question to answer.
"No single national score can accurately reflect contrasts in the types of corruption found in a country." Michael Johnston, 2001
Corruption comes in various forms - administrative corruption being one example, state capture (a.k.a. “grand corruption”) being another. Although administrative corruption is not necessarily the most damaging form for economic growth and private sector development in Russia, and while its occurrence appears to be declining in Russia, perceptions of “state capture” are worsening.
That was the first question up for debate at the Citizen Voices Conference on March 18. And the communal answer was a clear and resounding "yes."
The next question up posed more of a challenge – How do we build our public and private institutions so citizens can access information and influence decisions impacting their own lives? The answer to this was pulled apart for eight hours by technology innovators, development specialists, government officials, academics, civil society representatives, and members of the private sector at this interactive and multilingual conference.
Remember the old saying "the customer is always right"? The motto used by a number of prominent retailers (like Marshall Field) was all about placing value on customer satisfaction. In essence it was about listening to the customer – the final point person at the end of the retail line.
Today we are seeing business build far more sophisticated means of using modern technology to get feedback from their customers. It begs the question – if business can do that, why can't we try and do the same in the business of development - with the benefit of modern technology?
I've seen the evidence that we can do it. Last October at the World Bank, we applauded the work of teams in Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia and India, who've been using the mix of modern technology and development to boost results.