Middle East and North Africa Looks to Inclusive Future Growth
Washington, May 24, 2011 – There are historic opportunities for greater openness and citizen participation in economies across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) that, if strongly managed over the transitions ahead, could see a significant boost to economic growth and living standards in the medium term.
This is the analysis presented today in the World Bank’s Regional Economic Outlook: MENA Facing Challenges and Opportunities. The report notes that current economic disruption in many MENA countries is translating into lower growth in the short term (now forecast at 3.6 percent for 2011 down from 5 percent) but that opportunities in the medium term offer new hope for an inclusive and sustainable development that has not before been seen in the region.
"The rich experience from countries that have undergone political changes suggest that short-term disruptions to economic growth and social tensions are inevitable,” said Shamshad Akhtar, World Bank Vice President for the MENA region. “However, transition offers an opportunity for countries to break with the past and set course in a newer direction. A first order of priority is to offer the right signals to restore public and private investor confidence which, in MENA, calls for ensuring respect and citizen dignity through inclusive social policies, a fundamental change in governance frameworks and swiftly restoring macroeconomic stability."
The report finds that by the end of 2010, MENA countries had largely recovered from the global financial crisis, and growth rates had been expected to reach pre-crisis levels in 2011. Events in early 2011 which led to swift regime change in Tunisia and Egypt, and ongoing challenges in Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen, have affected the short-term macroeconomic outlook and the status and speed of economic reforms in the region.
“The effects of reform tend to follow a J-curve, where things get worse before they get better. Experience from other countries which have made successful transitions has shown an initial decline of 3 to 4 percent in the first year but quickly recovering,” said Caroline Freund, Chief Economist for the MENA region.
“Also encouraging is that successful countries saw significant and fast improvements in voice and accountability, some of the very things that underpin the MENA uprisings. We need to learn from history’s successful transitions and carefully manage the short-term downturn which is where we are focusing our best efforts now. While the challenges are many, the opportunities are more."
Freund said better rule of law will promote competition and political stability will attract investment, facilitating more rapid growth in a sustainable way. By the same token, more voice for civil society will prevent the unequal application of regulations, and can lead to more inclusive growth.
Examples of transitions to democracy in other parts of the world confirm that economic gains can be sizable. Typically, successful transitions are associated with higher levels of income growth in the decade after change than in the prior one. But, the short-run is challenging; investors typically wait for uncertainty to be resolved and it is inevitable that investment will be delayed. Signs of stability and reform are quick to be rewarded though and evidence from other countries shows that this dip in economic activity typically lasts a year, with growth quickly gaining momentum if the transition is strongly managed.
The report’s regional forecast of 3.6 percent growth for 2011, down from 5 percent expected a few months ago, is largely due to the sharp drop in Egypt’s and Tunisia’s economic activity, but also because of weaker growth in developing oil exporters in MNA. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries will maintain strong growth rates, expected to exceed 5 percent. Growth effects are sharply differentiated by country in MENA, depending largely on whether the country is an oil exporter or an oil importer and the degree to which unrest and political change has disrupted economic activity.
The report also notes that government spending is expected to rise in 2011 as governments move to expanding supportive policy measures and social transfers to reduce the burden of unemployment and counter high commodity prices. Partly because of these actions, but also because of rising fuel and food prices, inflation rates are expected to increase in many MENA countries in 2011.
“Expanding social measures during an uncertain period is understandable to protect the most vulnerable and to help maintain support for reform,” said Elena Ianchovichina, World Bank Lead Economist and author of the report. “But it is important that these measures be used to complement needed reforms and be targeted efficiently to the poorest and the most needy.”
The report considers prolonged instability resulting from unmet political and social aspirations and lack of clarity about political transitions to be the most serious risk to short-term economic growth in MENA.
The report also investigates the effect of high commodity prices on MENA countries. Impacts are country-specific and determined by dependence on food and oil imports, and the extent of the pass-through from international to domestic prices. While MENA includes some major oil exporters that are benefiting from oil price increases, it is also home to a number of countries that rely on imported oil. Importantly, because most MENA countries are highly dependent on imported food, particularly cereals, oils, and sugar, in the event of further food price increases, they face the risk of more malnutrition, increased import bills, higher domestic inflation, and worsened fiscal balances in cases when governments subsidize food. And new estimates of pass through from international food prices to domestic prices are presented for MENA countries.
“Food security is and will continue to be an important issue for Arab countries,” said Julian Lampietti, Lead Food Security Expert for MENA region at the World Bank. “Now is not the time to be complacent in addressing this with global wheat stocks low and with the Arab world importing one third of the world’s traded wheat.” There is considerable scope for reducing food price volatility in the MENA region through investments in infrastructure and logistics, he said, pointing to examples in the region where ongoing analysis is showing that there are ways to manage exposure to food price spikes and ensure a timely supply of dietary essentials.