It’s time to move beyond a debt moratorium and finance productive capacities in least developed countries

By Paul Akiwumi, Director, Division for Africa, LDCs and Special Programmes, UNCTAD

According to recent UNCTAD analysis, most LDCs will likely take several years to recover the level of GDP per capita they had in 2019, and compared to developed countries, which may experience a short V-shaped recovery, the median LDC would take roughly three years to climb back to pre-COVID-19 levels of output per capita. Moreover, extreme poverty in LDCs is projected to rise to 35%, equivalent to 32 million people, due to the pandemic.

Confronted with looming fiscal distress, LDCs will need further long-term support to recover and address the structural economic challenges they face. Beyond the recovery, for LDCs to achieve inclusive development, global action should be geared towards supporting LDCs build their underdeveloped production systems.

Looming fiscal distress

For many LDCs, COVID-19 has precipitated a fiscal crisis. Rising health-care expenditures, slowing trade and support programmes to smooth consumption have increased already high debt levels in these countries.

Before the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, five LDCs were already in debt distress and 13 more were at high risk of debt distress.  Most of these LDCs had received debt relief only 10 to 15 years earlier, under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative or the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative.

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Least Developed Countries have 13 years to meet global trade rules, but still lack critical flexibility at the WTO

By Rachel Thrasher, Researcher, Boston University Global Development Policy Centre

By only granting a 13-year extension in a critical time for economic recovery from COVID-19, Members of the World Trade Organization may be creating more severe challenges for Least Developed Countries and the global economy down the road.

Without much fanfare, on June 29, 2021, the member countries of the World Trade Organization (WTO) quietly agreed to extend the transition period for least-developed countries (LDCs) to implement the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement) for another 13 years.

The recently granted extension falls substantially short of what was requested, though it is slightly longer than the previous two nine-year extensions. The news has received relatively little attention in the midst of negotiations for vaccine access and pandemic fears about new vaccine-resistant variants, but to be sure, the failure to acknowledge the need for a longer-term transition period has substantial impacts for LDCs’ development trajectories.

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Why local? Why now? Strengthening intermediary cities to achieve the SDGs

By Shipra Narang Suri, Ph.D. Chief, Urban Practices Branch, Global Solutions Division, UN-Habitat and Federico Bonaglia, Deputy Director, OECD Development Centre

Cities and local authorities around the world have played a key role in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, applying prevention and containment measures, providing swift humanitarian response, as well as taking the first steps towards post-pandemic recovery. They implemented nation-wide measures, but also experimented with bottom-up recovery strategies. Local authorities are an indispensable “ring” in the governance chain necessary to prevent and respond to pandemics and advance a One Health Approach.

At the same time, COVID-19 has spotlighted, amplified and exacerbated underlying structural inequities across cities, and the capacity and financing gaps facing local governments, especially in developing countries. The pandemic may have initiated or accelerated a shift towards a new urban paradigm of “inclusive, green and smart cities” but it is still too early to say whether cities in developing countries will be able to embark on this transformation. Confronted with massive increases in poverty and vulnerability, those objectives might look like less relevant, distant or even unattainable goals. Estimates from the World Bank and UN entities suggest that local governments may on average lose 15 to 25 percent in revenues in 2021. First-hand accounts from African mayors confirm they face phenomenal trade-offs and have to repurpose their scarce resources to advance a green transition to tackle the consequences of the pandemic.

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COVID-19 pandemic: threats to SMEs in poorest nations require swift policy action

By Frank Hartwich and Jenny Larsen, United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)

Factories around the world roared into action again in the second half of 2020, following the COVID-19-related slump that brought large parts of industrial production to a standstill in early 2020. The bounce back, led by Europe, China and other parts of Asia, has been faster than expected, with most of the losses felt in the first half of 2020 recovered by early 2021, although there are big differences between regions and sectors.

Using the limited data available, it appears that manufacturing in selected LDCs has also staged a recovery. UNIDO’s Index of Industrial Production (IIP) – only available for four of the 46 LDCs – showed a dramatic drop in the early part of 2020, followed by a sharp rise in early 2021, although a closer look at the data reveals a nuanced picture. Mozambique and Senegal saw little impact from the pandemic whereas in Bangladesh and Rwanda the effects were much stronger. In general, within low-tech industries which predominate in LDCs, the food industry benefitted from the pandemic while other sectors such as textiles, clothing and leather were hit particularly hard.

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Enjeux et défis du financement du développement dans la zone de l’Union économique et monétaire ouest-africaine post-COVID-19

Par Alain Tchibozo, Chef Economiste, Banque Ouest Africaine de Développement – BOAD

Endettement accru par les dépenses liées à la Covid-19

Le recours à l’endettement pour financer les plans de riposte et de relance économique explique principalement le fait que le déficit budgétaire des pays de l’Union Économique et Monétaire Ouest Africaine (UEMOA) se soit accru. Au plan des finances publiques, même en tenant compte d’un redémarrage de l’activité autour de 5.5% cette année (contre 1,5% en 2020), le déficit budgétaire global représenterait en 2021 près de 5,0% du PIB, après 5,4% en 2020. L’accumulation de déficits publics liés au financement de dépenses de fonctionnement des États apparaît de fait comme le principal facteur d’endettement public. Or la détérioration des finances publiques restreint l’accès futur des États à de nouveaux financements. En 2021, le service de la dette intérieure (paiement des intérêts et amortissement du principal) représentera plus de 50% du service total de la dette dans sept des huit États membres de l’UEMOA. En outre, la part des recettes publiques consacrée au service de la dette représente depuis 2020 plus d’1/3 des recettes totales dans sept États. Aussi, la question de la soutenabilité de la dette sera un enjeu crucial pour les États de la zone ces prochaines années.

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COVID-19 is a developing country pandemic

By Indermit Gill, Nonresident Senior Fellow at Brookings and Philip Schellekens, Senior Economic Advisor at International Finance Corporation (World Bank Group)

“Has global health been subverted?” This question was asked exactly a year ago in The Lancet. At the time, the pandemic had already spread across the globe, but mortality remained concentrated in richer economies. Richard Cash and Vikram Patel declared that “for the first time in the post-war history of epidemics, there is a reversal of which countries are most heavily affected by a disease pandemic.”

What a difference a year makes. We know now that this is actually a developing-country pandemic—and has been that for a long time. In this blog, we review the officially published data and contrast them with brand new estimates on excess mortality (kindly provided by the folks at the Economist). We will argue that global health has not been subverted. In fact, compared to rich countries, the developing world appears to be facing very similar—if not higher—mortality rates. Its demographic advantage of a younger population may have been entirely offset by higher infection prevalence and age-specific infection fatality.

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Divergent recoveries from COVID-19 in Africa require intentional action

By Anzetse Were, Senior Economist FSD Kenya

Accra, Ghana, during regional lockdown, March 2020. Photo: Shutterstock

The COVID-19 pandemic has had divergent impacts within and between economies. 2021 is already being defined by multispeed and divergent recoveries. Rich economies with USA in the lead, and China, are set for a strong recovery, mainly linked to their willingness to support incomes and deploy unprecedented fiscal and monetary support and quick COVID-19 vaccine rollouts. Low-income countries however face grimmer economic prospects due to limited access to COVID-19 vaccines and weak public finances; they will suffer more significant medium-term losses, especially affecting countries that rely on tourism and commodity exports, and those with limited policy space to respond.

In Africa, the AfDB estimates that real GDP contracted by 2.1% in 2020 with projected growth at 3.4% in 2021. Although all African economies have been affected by the pandemic, tourism-dependent economies, oil-exporting economies and other-resource intensive economies have been hit especially hard. Within countries, the sectoral impacts of COVID-19 have been varied, and women continue to be disproportionately affected by the socio-economic effects of the pandemic. This has led to divergent impacts at sector, firm and household levels. Many African households have had to resort to coping mechanisms such as reducing food consumption, dipping into savings, selling assets, looking for new forms of work, and accruing debt, with millions falling into poverty.

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COVID-19 impact on higher education in Africa

By Peter Koninckx, Strategic and Commercial Advisor, Cunégonde Fatondji, Analyst Intern, and Joel Burgos, Senior Project Manager, ShARE

Beyond the death toll and illness of millions of people due to COVID-19, businesses, healthcare, culture and education have had to cope with severe disturbances. But in our opinion, one could argue that higher-education students are amongst the most affected populations, particularly those in Africa. Although Africa is the continent with the least reported cases, the closure of higher education institutions was more widespread, and mitigation measures less effective than in other regions, according to a survey we conducted with more than 165 students across 21 African countries. No quick-fix solution exists, but the current crisis has highlighted the weaknesses in higher education in Africa, indicating where governments, international institutions, NGOs, and the private sector should focus their efforts.

Strong initial reaction to the COVID-19 crisis…

According to the Association of African Universities (IAU) Global Impact Survey on COVID-19, university closures in Africa in response to the pandemic were very effective: 77% of African universities compared to around 55% in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. However, while the percentage of higher education institutions where teaching was entirely cancelled remains low in all other regions (~3%), in Africa it is currently reported to be at 24%. Furthermore, over 40% of institutions in Africa were still developing alternative solutions at the time of the study, while other regions had already implemented them. Based on our own study, 88% of the surveyed students said that their school had discontinued in-person classes because of COVID-19.

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“Ambidexterous” development: changing the paradigm

By Nuno Gil, Professor of New Infrastructure Development, Alliance Manchester Business School, The University of Manchester

After many decades of development assistance, we are still failing the poor. We have reached a broad consensus that promoting economic growth and welfare requires a two-pronged approach: building institutions matters, but building infrastructure matters too. Hence, focusing development assistance on one goal at the expense of the other will not work. Yet, frustratingly, development assistance is only now starting to look for ways to become truly ambidextrous.  

If we go back to the first decades of development assistance, the prevailing approach was to emphasise stand-alone infrastructure projects. At the time, traditional donors used limited conditionality and the deals were not transparent. But by the mid-1980s, the donor community realised that this choice was leading to disappointing results in terms of poverty alleviation and economic growth. By focusing on quick infrastructure building at the expense of institutional reforms and local capability building, the ruling elites could exploit weak institutions, turning the new infrastructure projects into instruments to enrich themselves and capture more rents.

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Amid cyclones and COVID-19, Vanuatu makes bold decision to graduate from ‘least developed country’ category

By Violeta Gonzalez Behar, Head of Partnerships, Outreach and Resource Mobilisation, Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF), World Trade Organization & Michelle Kovacevic, Communications Specialist and Consultant for EIF

Fresh fruit and vegetable market in Port Vila, Vanuatu. Photo: Shutterstock

On 4 December 2020, Vanuatu shed its official classification as one of the world’s least developed countries (LDC). This significant milestone – called ‘graduation’ – is something that only five other countries have managed to achieve in the last 40 years. And Vanuatu’s graduation achievement may be the most impressive of all given that, over the past few years, not only has it has weathered significant economic and social fallout from repeated natural disasters, but also a major drop in tourism revenue due to border closures during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

At this time of exacerbated economic vulnerabilities, some have questioned whether this is the right time for Vanuatu to leave its LDC status behind. Indeed it is a courageous choice – on the surface it may seem that there is more to lose than gain from graduation. Graduating countries usually surrender international support measures earmarked for LDCs such as preferential market access, targeted multilateral aid funding, free legal advice and technical assistance from some United Nations agencies, as well as travel support to attend international UN meetings.

While the impact of losing international support measures will depend on what goods a country exports, the trade agreements it is part of, and other factors, the UN’s Committee for Development Policy’s (CDP) LDC graduation impact assessments have shown that the loss of these measures doesn’t actually make much of a practical difference.

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