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Digital Solutions for Small Businesses in the Middle East and North Africa

2020-09-22T13:45:41-04:00September 22, 2020|

By Inutu Lukonga

عربي, Français

Small and medium-sized enterprises dominate the business landscape in the Middle East and North Africa region. These enterprises account for more than 90 percent of the region’s businesses and, in some countries, contribute as much as 50 percent of employment and 70 percent of GDP.

Yet they face impediments to growth, and their contribution to employment is below potential. In much of the region, small and medium-sized enterprises are handicapped by limited access to credit, unfavorable business environments, and talent gaps.

Digital technologies present new opportunities for these businesses to achieve faster growth. Emerging technologies and broadband internet can facilitate operational efficiencies, innovation, access to markets and finance, and can enable firms to operate remotely during lockdowns. The flexibility of remote working can help integrate women and youth in the labor market.

But so far, small and medium-sized enterprises in the region have been slow to embrace digital technologies and e-commerce, and businesses trail governments and consumers in internet usage.

As consumers rapidly shift to online shopping and increasingly prefer rapid and convenient services, smaller businesses will need to adopt digital solutions to remain competitive and survive.

Because small and medium-sized enterprises hold the key to employment generation, governments can help expedite their digital transformation by developing and implementing national strategies that address both supply and demand constraints standing in the way of digitalization.

On the supply side, priority should be given to removing barriers to competition and increasing investment in information and communications technology to ensure universal access to affordable high-speed internet. Currently, while all countries have easy access to international fiber optic networks, many maintain barriers to entry such as government monopolies or restrictions on foreign participation and network peering. These, coupled with high capital investment requirements, have slowed deployment of advanced network technologies and internet exchange points. Apart from the Gulf Cooperation Council states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (GCC), many countries have limited access to high speed broadband internet, and internet services are often slow, unreliable, and unaffordable, constraining use of the internet for business creation.

Educational and labor market reforms are needed to reduce the digital skill gaps. Digital skills are in short supply across the Middle East and North Africa region and some countries with high levels of digital expertise, such as Lebanon and Egypt, sometimes suffer brain drain to higher income countries, including the GCC. Mandating science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects and providing technical and vocational education and training through public-private partnerships can increase supply of tech skills in the medium term. At the same time, easing labor restrictions to facilitate expatriates in highly technical areas can reduce the skill gaps in the near term.

Reforms are also needed to improve E-commerce logistics and reliability of electricity, without which the Internet cannot function. Deficiencies in E-commerce logistics—unified address systems, area codes, postal service, land and customs clearance—currently delay delivery and increase costs for online trading.

Regulatory and other reforms are also essential to facilitate development of digital financial infrastructures. Digital financial services currently do not provide a strong foundation for digital transformation as the infrastructure and instruments for accepting electronic payments—such as point-of-sale terminals, credit and debit cards—have limited penetration, and payment systems are mostly not interoperable.

Digitalization of government services and procurement can incentivize small and medium-sized enterprises to follow suit given the significant size of the public sector in most countries and the pervasiveness of making payments to, or receiving payments from, governments.

On the demand side, the digital usage gap—the disparity between people who live in areas covered by broadband but who are not using internet—is several times the coverage gap. This suggests that demand is being constrained for reasons other than the non-availability of internet access.

To increase demand for digital services, governments should develop digital literacy and awareness programs as well as foster consumer trust by strengthening frameworks for cybersecurity, digital identification, data privacy, and consumer protection. Across the region, consumers reportedly do not trust websites to handle their information and are unaware of their consumer rights. In some countries, consumers are not well equipped to adopt digital solutions as large segments of the populations are not connected to the internet and are unbanked. In parts of the region, including North Africa and Iran, ownership of smartphones and other internet-enabled devices is below the global average.

Finally, for digital benefits to materialize, the digital strategy must be underpinned by financial sector and business environment reforms, particularly strengthening financial infrastructures—credit registries and bureaus, modernized bankruptcy laws, collateral registries—and business support, all of which will help SMEs access credit.

Economic Growth and Fairness in the Middle East and North Africa

2019-03-15T12:06:16-04:00January 18, 2018|

By Jihad Azour

January 18, 2018

Versions in  عربي (Arabic),  中文 (Chinese), Español (Spanish),  Français (French),  Deutsche (German), 日本語 (Japanese)

The people of the region are rightly demanding economic growth and fairness.  The IMF aims to help them in this effort (photo: Tunis, Tunisia, ZOUBEIR SOUISSI/REUTERS/Newscom).

Rising social tensions and protests in several countries across the Middle East and North Africa are a clear indication that the aspirations of the people of the region—for opportunity, prosperity and equity—remain unfulfilled. Their frustration is understandable, and precisely because of that, it would be a mistake if the economic reform process currently underway were to be thrown into reverse. (more…)

Seeking Fairness in the Middle East and North Africa: How Taxation Can Help

2019-03-27T15:16:43-04:00September 8, 2015|

Pritha MitraBy Pritha Mitra

(Versions in Français and عربي)

Aspirations for greater fairness were at the core of the protests that triggered the Arab Spring almost five years ago—and remain largely unfulfilled today. In our new paper, we show that tax reform can go a long way towards meeting those aspirations.

Taxation is a critical interface between the state and citizens. How much revenue is raised, how the tax burden is distributed, and how taxation is implemented can all powerfully affect both the reality and the perception of economic opportunities—and the degree of trust in government.

(more…)

Support the People, Not Energy in the Middle East and North Africa

2017-04-15T13:56:14-04:00March 27, 2013|

Masood AhmedBy Masood Ahmed

(Versions in عربي, 中文, Français, 日本語Русский, and Español)

Of all the regions in the world, the Middle East and North Africa region stands out as the one that relies the most on generalized energy subsidies. In energy-rich countries, governments provide subsidies to their populations as a way of sharing the natural resource wealth. In the region’s energy-importing countries, governments use subsidies to offer people some relief from high commodity prices, especially since social safety nets are often weak.

The question is: does this well-intended social protection policy represent the most efficient way to channel aid to the most vulnerable? The answer is no!

(more…)

Middle East and North Africa Face Historic Crossroads

2017-04-15T14:00:40-04:00November 27, 2012|

By David Lipton

(Version in عربي)

Almost two years since the Arab Awakening started, the future of the Middle East and North Africa is in a flux, with fledgling democracies struggling to find their way and renewed outbreaks of violence adding to the challenges the region is facing. Some are starting to worry aloud that the revolutionary path may hit a dead end.

To me, a useful way to think about the present situation is that the region could end up taking any one of three alternative paths, as far as its economic future is concerned. We could witness either:

  • Economic deterioration, if squabbling over political power prevents stabilization, let alone reform;
  • Stabilization through a reassertion of vested business interests that would offer a respite from eroding economic conditions, but condemn the region to a return to economic stagnation or at best tepid growth;
  • Or we could see a new economy emerge, as newly elected governments gradually find a way to end economic disruptions and undertake reforms that open the way to greater economic opportunity for their people.

While the first two paths would be undesirable, they could come to pass. Needless to say, the third path of transformation would be best.

No doubt the Arab countries in transition will chart their own paths. But I strongly believe that the international community also has a role in helping them avoid the unfavorable outcomes. Let me share some thoughts on how we can provide support.

(more…)

Luca Bandiera

2020-02-28T14:46:04-05:00February 28, 2020|

Luca Bandiera is a Sr. Economist in the Macroeconomics, Trade & Investment Global Practice of the World Bank, where he works on fiscal sustainability and fiscal risks. Since joining the World Bank he has worked on low- and middle-income countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa as technical expert and country economist.

Ensuring the Benefits of Capital Flows in the Middle East

2020-01-15T15:04:34-05:00January 15, 2020|

By Jihad Azour and Ling Zhu

عربي, Français

Since the global financial crisis of 2008, emerging market economies have experienced a surge in capital flows in response to significant monetary easing by major central banks. Gross capital inflows to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have remained high compared to other emerging markets, but their composition has changed significantly, with a surge in portfolio flows (equity and bond instruments) and a decline in foreign direct investment. (more…)

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