As the world economy continues to struggle, people are taking to the streets by the thousands to protest painful cuts in public spending designed to reduce government debt and deficits. This fiscal fury is understandable. People want to regain the confidence they once had about the future when the economy was booming and more of us had jobs. But after a protracted economic crisis, this will take planning, fair burden-sharing, and time itself.
It wasn’t all that long ago when virtually all of sub-Saharan Africa’s exports were destined for Europe and North America. But the winds of Africa’s trade have shifted over the past decade. There has been a massive reorientation towards other developing countries, in particular China and India. Like Janus, the Roman god, Africa’s trade is now, as it were, facing both east and west. Our latest Regional Economic Outlook for sub-Saharan Africa looks closely at these developments and its policy implications. In addition to the well-known gains from international trade, Africa’s trade reorientation is also beneficial because it has broadened the region’s export base and linked Africa more strongly to rapidly growing parts of the global economy. These changes will help reduce the volatility of exports and improve prospects for robust economic growth in Africa.
Suddenly it's the thing everyone is talking about. Income inequality. In North Africa and the Middle East, jobless youth sparked the Arab Spring. In the United States, the growing gap between rich and poor is the “meta concern” of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Worldwide, frustrations appear to be on the rise. And, in sub-Saharan Africa, sustained economic growth may have produced tremendous advances, but a large proportion of the population is still living in poverty. Here, the underlying situation is a little more complex. In July, I wrote about the importance of inclusive growth and whether economic growth was a necessary or a sufficient condition for poverty reduction. Our latest Regional Economic Outlook for Sub-Saharan Africa takes that thinking a step further, with new analysis that looks at how living standards for the poorest households have actually been changing in some countries in the region.
For the past two or three decades, rising inequality—inequality of incomes, of economic outcomes and of economic opportunities—has taken a back seat to the goal of boosting overall growth. But growing discontent with the fallout of the global financial crisis has put inequality back on top of the policy agenda. While the symptoms may be different, tackling inequality is no less an issue in Asia. Indeed, research shows that inequality can be counterproductive to sustaining longer-term growth. So, in increasingly turbulent global economic times, this gives added importance to promoting shared—or inclusive—growth in Asia that is more likely to be sustained. This has been a major focus our latest Regional Economic Outlook, which we presented in Manila today. A great challenge for the government here, and for other countries across the region, is to raise living standards for a wide section of their populations.
Economists care about growth. Governments care about what it can achieve: more jobs and more income for more people. An increasing number of African countries have been growing robustly for more than a decade. But while growth is a necessary condition for poverty reduction and employment creation, is it also sufficient?
For decades, countries in the Middle East and North Africa have relied heavily on food and fuel price subsidies as a form of social protection. And, understandably, governments have recently raised subsidies in response to hikes in global commodity prices and regional political developments. Like many things, there may be a time and a place for using subsidies. But, they need to be better targeted. And, often, there will be better alternatives. Alternatives that do a better job of protecting the poor. Subsidies enjoyed by all are typically poorly targeted, so they are not the most cost-effective way to provide social protection. They really should be regarded as stop-gap measures. But, better targeting subsidies or replacing them with more effective social safety nets is a complex process, so buy-in from the public is crucial to success.
Like many economists, I tend to fear the worst. I have witnessed phenomenal changes for the better in sub-Saharan Africa over the past 20 odd years. Part of me still worries that this trajectory will not endure. But, the more I see of the region’s economic performance and outlook, the more I’m changing my tune. Good macroeconomic policies in many more countries the years before the crisis put them in good stead to weather the crisis relatively well. As we report in our latest Regional Economic Outlook, output in sub-Saharan Africa looks set to expand by around 5½ this year and 6 percent in 2012. My latest worry is the recent sharp increase in food and fuel prices on world markets. To help minimize the dislocation that this shock may entail, countries should consider a two-pronged policy response.
The center of global economic growth is moving from the West to Asia. Over the last 30 years, the Asian economy has grown by over 7 percent each year, doubling in size every decade. This success has been based in large part on outward-oriented growth strategies. But, there is growing awareness that Asia’s export-led growth needs to be balanced by a second engine of growth. How to achieve this rebalancing is a key theme of a new book from the IMF, launched in Hong Kong, on Rebalancing Growth in Asia—Economic Dimensions for China.
Recent popular protests in the Middle East and North Africa, although likely to have a negative economic impact in the short run, might actually help to unleash the countries’ long-term growth potential. By providing the impetus for reforms, these events may encourage better governance, greater transparency, and more competition—in other words, tackling many of the constraints that have held back progress in these societies. In a recent (video) interview, I talk more about events in the region, the policy challenges, and what actions might help these countries achieve higher standards of living and employment for all sections of society.
Health care reform is tricky. On the one hand, providing access to affordable health care is of paramount importance. But spending on health care is putting enormous pressure on public purses all over the world, and it’s only getting worse. How can we fix this? How can governments keep their health care promises to citizens without busting the budget? Despite the obvious differences, advanced and emerging markets share something very basic in common—they all need to get “more bang for their buck” when it comes to public health care spending.