Excessive informal sector: a drag on productivity

By Aleksander Surdej, Poland’s Ambassador to the OECD

Photos by Victor Jiang / Shutterstock

The informal economy remains a problem when we discuss the prospects of economic development. It is perceived as a hindrance to economic progress because the informal sector does not pay taxes, does not include its employees in social insurance schemes and does little to offer labour law protections. Increasingly, various researchers (La Porta1, Shleifer2, 2014) and international organisations, like the OECD, converge in seeing the informal economy as an obstacle to economic development due to its imminent low productivity. Indeed, informal businesses are concentrated in low productivity sectors. They are, on average, smaller and hence less productive. They generate lower value added. They pay lower wages to their employees and do not train them. And the owners of informal businesses manage their firms less efficiently than their better educated formal sector counterparts.

The informal sector is hence both a symptom of economic backwardness and a drag on economic development. But, can this apparent vicious circle be broken, or is it an economic policy donquichottean task?

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How to continue the shifting wealth momentum

By Carl Dahlman, Head of the Thematic Division and Head of Global Development Research at the OECD Development Centre and Martin Wermelinger, Economist at the OECD Development Centre

Strong growth over much of the past decade has substantially boosted developing countries’ share of the global economy and accelerated per capita income convergence with richer countries. We call this process “shifting wealth.” However, productivity is still lagging and growth is too low to allow continued convergence. Low productivity also challenges more inclusive and sustainable development. This blog argues that developing countries have many opportunities to boost productivity.

Non-OECD countries’ weight in the global economy is today above that of OECD countries in terms of purchasing power parity, a measure of what money will buy in different countries. This is remarkable especially since their share stood at around 40% just 15 years ago. This change in relative economic size of developing versus developed countries is being led by the BRIICS, particularly China and India. Together, these two countries account for almost one quarter of global GDP.

Non-OECD countries already surpass OECD countries in share of global GDP


Despite the momentum towards convergence, several lower middle-income countries, such as India, Indonesia and Vietnam, and countries in the upper middle-income bracket, such as Brazil, Colombia, Hungary, Mexico and South Africa, would fail to converge with the average OECD income level by 2050, given their average growth rates since 2010. In fact, the growth differential between OECD and non-OECD countries has narrowed dramatically relative to the pre-2008/09 crisis period. Their challenge is deepened by the recent slowdown in China, where rapid growth has up to now benefited its neighbours and suppliers, in particular natural-resource exporters.

Growth slowdowns can be associated with significant slowdowns in productivity growth. Over the past decade, productivity growth made only a marginal contribution to economic growth in many middle-income countries. It was also insufficient to significantly reduce the very large gap in productivity with advanced countries. In Brazil, Mexico and Turkey, the gap even widened. In contrast, China recorded impressive growth in productivity: around 10% annually in labour productivity in manufacturing and services.

“So, how can countries boost productivity?”

Factors associated with moving up the value chain, expanding inclusive and environmentally sustainable development and promoting effective governance are all part of the strategic mix to drive structural reforms and boost productivity. This mix includes:

Diversifying continuously into higher value-added market segments in agriculture, industry and services:Diversification is particularly important in middle-income countries that are seeing rising wages as well as those rich in natural resources.

Innovating by using global knowledge and developing domestic capabilities: Middle-income countries have significant room for technological catch-up. Besides better integrating in the global trading system and tapping foreign knowledge through trade and foreign direct investment, countries also need to develop capabilities to innovate new products and processes to better suit their own needs. This can be done by licencing technology; obtaining technology, designs, production and management assistance from foreign buyers, consulting firms and technical experts; learning from foreign education and training; copying and reverse engineering products and services; and undertaking domestic R&D.

Developing skills: In many middle-income countries, improvements in educational attainment and deeper integration into value chains have often been insufficient to ensure the competitiveness of the labour force. This suggests that education policies need continuously to adapt the supply of skills to the economy’s changing needs.

Reforming product and financial markets: In many middle-income countries, the development of competitive, innovative businesses is often constrained by an inadequate regulatory environment.

Fostering competitive service sectors: The domestic service sector can grow to meet the demand of the growing “middle classes.” Increased use of services, like engineering, R&D or marketing services, also improves the competitiveness of manufacturing. Moreover, some knowledge- and information-intensive services, such as ICT, and business services can help to improve the efficiency of the economy and can be themselves a source of export earnings. Emerging digital services such as big data analytics and the Internet of things are likely to have game-changing impact on inclusive and sustainable growth.

Growing inclusively: Development challenges are about much more than just economic growth. Many emerging and developing economies have been capable of reducing poverty over the last two decades. At the same time, however, income inequality is increasing in many of these economies. Moreover, the Arab Spring and rising social tensions in other developing economies make clear that social cohesion and equality of opportunity to more broadly share the benefits of economic opportunity deserve greater attention. This also requires identifying regional competitive edges and increasingly tailoring public services to local needs. For example, productive employment and firms can emerge in any region provided they nurture environments conducive to entrepreneurship.

Investing in “greener” growth: The problems of environmental damage caused by growth also raise issues of environmental sustainability. Diversifying into less energy-intensive sectors and adopting energy-efficient technologies would reduce vulnerability to fluctuations in energy prices and changes in regulations and preferences.

Developing capable and effective governments: Better training of government officials and improved coordination across government ministries are essential to ensure effective planning and implementation. Bold changes in strategies may be politically difficult and costly, though less so than no change. Effective communication strategies and the right timing and sequencing are critical to obtain support by multiple stakeholders to implement reforms. China’s rapid rise had been in large part due to its determined, target-oriented government with a vision to address changing economic challenges. It made bold reforms that were possible through effective organisations and procedures to implement the necessary steps. Other countries with more democratically-organised governments need to engage in effective consultations with key stakeholders to build support for necessary reforms and to develop capabilities to implement those reforms.

“Though “shifting wealth” has become more complicated, it can continue.”

A current period of low commodity prices, a slowdown in China as the global growth engine and political turbulences in larger emerging economies mean that other developing countries can today less easily free-ride on the bandwagon to global convergence. Yet, developing countries have a number of practical opportunities to tap their own strengths to advance structural reforms and boost productivity and inclusive, sustainable development.

Getting ready for the next wave: Towards a more dynamic and inclusive Latin America

By Mario Pezzini, Director of the OECD Development Centre, and Angel Melguizo, Head of the Latin America and Caribbean Unit at the OECD Development Centre.

Latin America and the Caribbean enjoyed a decade of strong growth between 2004 and 2013. Growth averaged 3.8% and in some years over 5%. They were helped along by growth in China and other emerging economies that raised demand and prices for exported commodities such as food, metals and fuels.

This led to an extraordinary easing of financial conditions, especially after the global financial crisis. Latin America was riding good times. However, the extraordinary external conditions blurred the true state of the region’s domestic supply and demand situation. Now the good times are over – at least for a while – and it is easier to check out the true shape of the regional economy. Continue reading