BROOKINGS’ FUTURE DEVELOPMENT published ‘The brave new world of 2021’ per Homi Kharas reproduced here for reasons of trying and spread as wide as practicable these wise words. These, by the way, might as well apply to the MENA region. In any case here is:
Editor’s Note: To kick off the Future Development blog in 2021, we present the second piece in a four-part series on how 2021 will be different from 2020. See the first installment.
In the novel “Brave New World,” Aldous Huxley writes: “Their world didn’t allow them … to be sane, virtuous, happy. … They were not conditioned to obey … what with all the diseases … uncertainties and poverty … they were forced to feel strongly … [so] how could they be stable?” He goes on to describe a world where peace and stability are achieved only through building a system in which human beings all behave the same, organized by an all-powerful nanny state.
Enter 2021. We will have our fill of diseases, uncertainties, and poverty in every country. We almost certainly need collaborative action to avoid traps on the path to sustainable development, but thankfully, we do not have to make all humans behave in the same way to achieve them.
Emerging market and developing economies (EMDEs) are entering 2021 with a high level and steep rise in new COVID-19 cases per week. In summer 2020, EMDEs had appeared to reach a plateau of around 200,000 new cases per week, a level that was stable for about 4 months until November. Since then, the number of new cases per week has started to accelerate, has already roughly doubled, and shows no signs of stabilizing at a new plateau yet. COVAX, the international consortium making donor-funded vaccines available to developing countries, hopes to start its first shipments in the first quarter of 2021, and has set itself a target of delivering 2 billion doses during 2021, but it is still far short of being financially and technically able to meet this goal. On the disease front, 2021 may be more hopeful for many people in EMDEs who can start to see the endgame but will almost certainly be far worse in terms of outcomes—deaths, hospitalizations, and number of total cases—compared to 2020.
Looking into the future is particularly difficult for 2021. For EMDEs, there is a range of commodity price uncertainties that are of first-order import for some countries and regions. The slowest rebounds in economic growth in 2021 are projected right now to be in commodity-exporting regions like Latin America, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa, but these countries could surprise if commodity prices were to strengthen.
A second major uncertainty is over debt and flows of capital. The worst fears of widespread debt defaults in 2020 did not come to pass. A combination of a moratorium for some countries, a drawdown of reserves for others, and the ability of still others to access capital markets, albeit paying higher risk premia, helped stave off the worst effects. But matters could deteriorate in 2021. There is over $100 billion in external debt service due from 61 countries who are likely to face serious financing difficulties. As we have shown in an earlier paper, at least half of this is owed by countries that need significant debt relief. Yet despite the lessons of history (negotiate haircuts, act with speed, treat all creditors fairly), there is nothing on the table to implement serious programs. Everyone seems to be against the current process of waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop, and then entering into protracted negotiations on a case-by-case basis where power and connections dictate what each creditor can extract. But bad as it is, this outcome seems preferable to the idea of a collective international effort to minimize the development damage.
Global poverty numbers have become a headline, rather than a driver of change. The extraordinary turnaround from a world that was seeing annual reductions in poverty of 100 million people per year in 2013 to an increase in poverty of 100 million in 2020 has been almost totally disregarded. No new global programs have been put on the table, aid is at best holding steady, and conflict, climate change, political repression, and economic depressions are taking their toll.
Entering 2021, more autocratic states in East Asia are doing far better in protecting economic livelihoods than more individualistic and democratic states elsewhere. The shadow of 1984 is long.
Yet there are grounds for optimism.
The first is that agreement on the correct way forward has never been stronger. Deniers of the merits of sustainable development—in its full meaning of economic, social, and governance sustainability—are in retreat. Everyone, from governments at G-20, IMF, and U.N. meetings, to corporations at the World Economic Forum summit, to civil society advocates, agrees that sustainable development is the only path. It’s no coincidence that the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020 was awarded to the World Food Program, and that the Nobel Prize for economics went to Robert Wilson and Paul Milgrom for their work on auction theory that is the bedrock for the design of programs to allocate rights to emit greenhouse gases.
2021 could well go down as the year when the business community finally commits to sustainable development.
A second reason for optimism is technology. Bringing a vaccine to the market in under a year was an extraordinary feat only made possible by advances in science, artificial intelligence, and digitization. Government social assistance programs in response to COVID-19 may have benefited 1.8 billion people in 2020, with 1.1 billion new recipients being registered. Along with colleagues at Brookings and the Japan International Cooperation Agency Ogata Research Institute, I am co-editing a collection of wonderful expert contributions on new breakthroughs to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, a topic which has gone from anecdotal to extensive in just a few years. The range and ambition of these breakthroughs, the science as well as the applications, is immense.
2021 could be the year when we see major technological breakthroughs either happening or likely to happen in the not-too-far-distant future.
My friend Paul O’Brien has a new book in which he quotes Thomas Friedman as saying “pessimists are usually right and optimists are usually wrong, but all the great changes have been accomplished by optimists.” Let’s all be optimists in 2021.
Gulf blockade: Qatar hugs and makes up with its warring neighbours – but will it last? wonders Mustafa Menshawy, Lancaster University, elaborating on a situation at one end of the MENA that lasted hardly more than three years, whereas the similar one at the other end of the region continues unabated for the last forty years. It is that of the ongoing North African situation, but that is another story. In the meantime, let us read Mustafa’s.
Shortly after four Arab countries – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt – imposed an embargo on Qatar in 2017, I flew into the country’s capital Doha. Hamad airport – usually buzzing with visitors from the Gulf countries (one of every four visitors to Qatar in 2015 came from Saudi Arabia) – was eerily quiet.
The four countries severed ties with Qatar in June 2017 after they accused Doha of supporting terrorism. They demanded the shutdown of Qatari news network Al Jazeera as well as calling on the country to downgrade its relations with Iran. Doha defiantly rejected the accusations and agreed to mediation from Kuwait and the US to end the standoff.
Qatar has estimated its losses from the blockade in the billions of dollars – citing factors such as “industrial-scale theft of content from its sports broadcaster BeIN by rival Saudi network BeoutQ and the manipulation of its currency by the four countries. So, when they agreed on January 5 to lift the embargo and restore diplomatic relations with Qatar, all sides were keenly anticipating any economic benefits the restored detente might bring.
Qatar may be the smallest of the Gulf states – but it’s the richest. So when, hours after the agreement, foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani talked about the possibility of the country’s sovereign wealth fund investing in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, his hint would have been well received in Riyadh.
Dangling the carrot of investment is a good way of appeasing Saudi Arabia, which is keen to attract foreign investment to back Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s grandiose modernisation projects as well as respond to the country’s long-term need to secure new export markets and diversify its oil-dependent economy.
But the biggest sign of the new detente has so far been in the tone of Qatar’s news media. Top of the list of the 13 demands placed on Qatar by the four countries was shutting down Al Jazeera.
Qatar didn’t shut the network down – but watching the network in the days after the blockade ended, one could feel the difference. Bulletins no longer include regular news on “violations” by the Saudi regime. The channel even rebranded the Saudi Crown Prince, who it had vociferously attacked just a few weeks ago for “tarnishing the image of the Saudi state”. Now Bin Salman is represented as a rising peacemaker engaged in relations of “fraternity”. This was symbolically reflected in the way he hugged Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani when the Qatari emir arrived in Riyadh for their meeting on the sidelines of the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Saudi Arabia on January 5.
Coverage of Qatar by Saudi network Al Arabiya has also softened considerably, something picked up on by the BBC, which even hosted analysts to comment of the repeatedly screened scene of the hugging between the two leaders. “It was a hot hugging”, commented one analyst, of the enthusiastic way the two leaders embraced when meeting at the airport in Riyadh.
The reconciliation has brought a sense of relief in all four countries. Ordinary people paid a deep humanitarian price – many are linked by close tribal ties and there are thousands of cases of cross-border intermarriage (to give you an idea of how close the Saudi Arabia and Qatar are, consider that it takes just an hour to drive from Doha to Saudi territory).
In Qatar, I heard many stories of families split apart when Qatari nationals were ordered to leave their three Gulf neighbours within 14 days. More than 12,000 residents in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE were also ordered to leave Qatar. Social media is now full of videos of families jubilantly crossing “Abu Samra”, the land border between Saudi Arabia and Qatar within hours of the agreement.
This may all sound like a return to normality, but sceptics pointed to the fact that, while the two feuding leaders talked of “brotherly unity” and desires for “Gulf unity”, neither mentioned an agreement on any of the issues that caused the crisis. On the one hand, everyone’s a winner – but, on the other, we don’t know how or why. The situation has been described as a “detente borne more of exhaustion than compromise”.
The 13 demands made by the other Gulf states of Qatar remain unmet. For example, the Qatari foreign minister has already scotched a demand for Qatar to reduce its ties with Iran by shutting down diplomatic posts in Iran or expelling members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard, saying a couple of days after the agreement that his country would not alter relations with Tehran.
So this dispute is far from ended and there is a lot of tension brewing under the surface. Saudi Arabia, for its part, sees Iran as an “existential threat” and is unlikely to take no change as a negative answer.
Others believe that for Bin Salman, temporarily easing the tension with Qatar is “low-hanging fruit” – something achieved with relative ease ahead of the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th US president. Biden is known for his critical attitude towards Riyadh’s approach to human rights.
There is no sign that Qatar is also heeding the other demands, including closing Turkey’s military base outside Doha. Turkey is popular among Qataris. You’ll see cars with number plate stickers featuring the Turkish flag – or even with the image of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
With so few issues apparently actually resolved, it’s little wonder that it took just days for new signs of tension to reappear after the agreement. The UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said following the GCC summit that Doha still has questions to answer, including: “How is Qatar going to deal vis-à-vis interfering in our affairs through support of political Islam? Is Turkey’s presence in the Gulf going to be permanent?”
These are the same questions asked of Qatar long before the four countries issued their ultimatum in 2017. It’s tension that is likely to outlive the warmth engendered by those televised hugs.
A report commissioned by international union coalition Industrial examines the geopolitics of fossil fuel producing countries (mainly, the United States, China, Europe and Russia) and the investments and performance of the Oil Majors (Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Total, as well as nationally-owned PetroChina, Gazprom and Equinor). Energy transition, national strategies, and oil companies: what are the impacts for workers? was published in November 2020, with the research updated to reflect the impacts of Covid-19.
In addition to a thorough examination of state and corporate actions, the report asked union representatives from four oil companies about how workers understand the energy transformation and its impact on their own jobs, and whether the concept of Just Transition has become part of their union’s agenda.
Some highlights of the responses:
“the union members interviewed showed little knowledge about either the risks that the current transition process can generate for the industrial employee, or about the union discussion that seeks to equate the concern with the decarbonisation of the economy with the notions of equity and social justice. In some cases, even the term “Just Transition” was not known to respondents.”
Their lack of knowledge regarding the Just Transition can be justified by the fact that they do not believe that there will be any significant change in the energy mix of these companies.
Regarding information about energy transitions within the companies, “Managers are included, but the bottom of the work chain is not”
Lacking corporate policies or support, some employees feel compelled to take responsibility for their own re-training
The researchers conclude that: “Far from being just a statement of how disconnected workers are from environmental issues, these researches reveal a window of opportunity for union movements to act in a better communication strategy with their union members, drawing their attention to the climate issue and transforming their hopes for job stability and better working conditions into an ecologically sustainable political agenda.”
The report was commissioned by Industrial and conducted by the Institute of Strategic Studies of Petroleum, Natural Gas and Biofuels (Ineep), a research organization created by Brazil’s United Federation of Oil and Gas Workers (FUP).
An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) article advises the world about Protecting migrant workers in the Gulf: don’t build back better over a poor foundation
By Vani Saraswathi, Editor-at-Large and Director of Projects, Migrant-Rights.Org
The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states need to completely revamp past policies, and not merely attempt to bridge gaps or provide a salve to deep wounds.
As of February 2020, millions of migrants –– primarily from South and Southeast Asia and increasingly from East African countries –– were holding up Gulf economies, working in sectors and for wages unappealing to the more affluent citizens. In countries with per capita GDP of US$62,000 or more, minimum wages ranged as low as US$200 per month.
Men were packed into portacabins and decrepit buildings, six to a room if lucky, hidden behind screens of dust and grime, away from the smart buildings they built and shiny glasses they cleaned. The women were trapped 24/7 in homes that are their workplaces, every movement monitored. It is accepted and normalised without question that these men and women will leave behind their families in the hopes of building a better future for themselves. That they may live all their productive life in a strange country, excluded from social security benefits and denied all rights of belonging, is seen as a small price to pay for the supposed fiscal benefits. The fact that the price is too steep is rarely discussed.
“Why did able-bodied, productive individuals struggle for food and shelter in some of the richest countries in the world?” #DevMattersTweet
Then came March, and a worldwide upheaval as the COVID-19 pandemic struck nations indiscriminately. The official response across the board ranged from well-meaning but knee-jerk, to discriminatory and short-sighted. Some of the strictest lockdowns were implemented in the most congested areas of Gulf cities, where migrants live. However, their labour was considered essential, as the process of nation-building could not be paused. Attempts to decongest were hopeful at best, but the majority continued to live in cramped quarters, were bussed into construction sites, and remained vulnerable to this new infection, as they had been to other infections and health perils.
The women, hundreds of thousands employed as domestic workers, have been invisible at the best of times because their ability to leave home and enjoy an off day or free time has always been at the discretion of their employers. The pandemic guidelines prevented even this thin leeway, with some countries explicitly prohibiting domestic workers from socialising, even when their employers were allowed to. Domestic workers, like a lot of other poorly-paid and badly-treated workers, were considered essential workers. With entire families working and studying from home, their workload increased exponentially. They were also exposed to strong chemical cleaning agents without proper protective gear. While their services were essential, even critical, the individual was considered dispensable and replaceable.
Force majeure rules allowed companies to reduce pay, terminate workers, or put them on leave without pay. Measures were introduced to ensure business continuity even if these measures infringed on workers’ rights. The lack of civil society and trade unions and inability to negotiate collectively –– all disempowering conditions that preceded the pandemic –– meant workers’ voices and representation were limited and muted. No mechanisms were established to challenge the unfair implementation of the measures. Access to justice was riddled with even more problems than before, as wage theft and other labour abuses from the pre-COVID era were yet to be resolved. This post is not even attempting to explore the vulnerabilities and exclusion of undocumented workers –– many of whom are forced into irregularity by the sponsorship or Kafala system.
“When a population has been dehumanised and othered for so long –– as being temporary, their labour merely transactional –– a pandemic will not magically correct decades of poor policies.” #DevMattersTweet
In the plethora of webinars that consumed the early months of the pandemic, human rights advocates and activists repeatedly spoke of the lessons being learnt, the new normal that awaited us at the end of the dark tunnel, with ‘building back better’ punctuating every discourse. What they failed to recognise is that when a population has been dehumanised and othered for so long –– as being temporary, their labour merely transactional –– a pandemic will not magically correct decades of poor policies.
In fact, we saw the opposite, with migrant workers being blamed for spreading infections, because of their living conditions over which they had no control over. Ten months into the pandemic, it is almost back to business as usual, with malls, offices, schools and even tourism, opening up in stages. Vaccination drives have begun, with a promise to include migrants in all of the Gulf Co-operation Council countries. But the most marginalised are still housed in deplorable conditions, their temporariness being reinforced. And the first sector that re-opened for recruitment was domestic work bringing in more women from impoverished countries reeling from the impact of the pandemic.
If there is one takeaway for human rights advocates it is that a socio-economic environment devastated by the pandemic is not fertile ground for righteous policies. If anything, origin and destination countries may go lax on due diligence over corporations in the name of business continuity and impose tighter controls over migrants under the pretext of protection.
“The last year has seen an increase in wage theft, and there is an urgent need for transnational mechanisms to deal with this.”#DevMattersTweet
There are key questions we need to ask ourselves and the governments:
Why did able-bodied, productive individuals struggle for food and shelter in some of the richest countries in the world? What combination of policies and prejudices leads to this situation?
With so little public investment made in social welfare, the dependence on live-in domestic workers is only likely to increase. How do we ensure recognition of domestic work as work, and domestic workers as workers, formalising their status in the labour market?
How do we then break the monopoly of live-in domestic work that is inherently exploitative?
The ghettoisation of migrant labour is both the root cause and the result of discrimination. In many Gulf Co-operation Council states, migrants constitute the majority of the population and their needs are deliberately neglected in urban planning.
In the coming years, climate change, population imbalances and economic distress will increase migrants’ vulnerabilities, and solutions cannot be rooted in the current environment of inequity and discrimination.
China Daily Global in an article titled ‘If data are new gold, governance can safeguard society’, perhaps domestically, but says it all about what to expect in the future relationship of China with say countries of the MENA region.
If data are new gold, governance can safeguard society
By Liu Xiaochun | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-01-18
It was clearly pointed out in the meeting statement that the collection, usage and management of data shall be improved.
With robust growth of the “new infrastructure” sector, particularly the application of 5G and the internet of things, digital technology will find applications in all walks of society and will bring significant change to people’s way of living.
While appreciating the positive effect that digital society may bring, it is important to fully acknowledge and evaluate the risks that interconnectivity of data may bring and pay attention to data governance.
As digital technology is highly penetrative and spreads widely, the risk of digital technology can be widely disruptive and can go beyond personal privacy. It thus requires precautionary regulatory measures to manage or pre-empt such risks.
There are key issues and risks in data connectivity, and it is important to strike a proper balance between breaking the information silo and data security.
On the one hand, it is important to clarify which part of the society will guide the connectivity of data, be it the government, technology firms or other institutions. For example, the building of smart cities will require data collection from a great number of sectors and departments. It is crucial to make clear who will be responsible for collecting and managing them.
On the other hand, how data can be categorized and managed is another emerging issue. In governing smart cities, new data of all kinds emerge every second. The idea of smart city construction, building industrial internet and digital China cannot be realized without data from all departments and organizations going online.
Yet, with all these key data openly accessible online, inadequate or improper management of these data may pose a possible threat to public security, the police, or even to social and national security.
Both governance and the internet of things across all industries should take the management of public data into account. At the same time, the arithmetic model, a key technology in artificial intelligence, may amplify potential risks in information spreading with no targeted audiences.
There is also the risk of giant internet and technology companies adopting a winner-takes-all approach in data collection. Conventional monopoly usually means taking monopoly of one particular type of products or at most, a certain industry. The new winner-takes-all approach would mean exclusive owning of all data on one particular platform by a certain enterprise.
Online platforms in fields such as e-commerce, digital payments, and delivery services may even gain access to huge amount of social data in the name of innovation or breaking up information silo. Such data may be related to personal, business or even government information.
Should such platforms or online behemoths land in major trouble, or face some unforeseen risks, massive systemic disruptions could unsettle or destabilize society. And with the growth of 5G, the number of such businesses is expected to grow.
A number of steps will likely be taken to strengthen data governance. Control of data risks should be raised as part of State governance efforts. Any arbitrary collection of personal information and data should be prohibited.
The issue of data categorization needs to be resolved through legislative efforts in this field. A number of suggestions have been made in legislation regarding personal information protection, which is very necessary.
Categorization should be made for data under digital economy.
First, special attention should be given to managing data regarding public security, finance and people’s livelihood, and how they can be made accessible on internet platforms and how such data can be used.
Second, the responsibility of data management should be specified, and ownership and usage rights to data clarified.
Third, legal liability in data use and transaction must be made clear.
Fourth, as data management is a new and emerging sector yet closely related to national security, social stability and a steady running of economic activities, a special regulatory department or mechanism should be set up with powers of oversight.
At the same time, a category-specific, more proper oversight on artificial intelligence is also needed, particularly a more targeted regulatory model for algorithms developed by various businesses.
An overhaul of personal data already collected once all the aforementioned systems are in place would be in order.
Mechanism for the oversight and management of super-giant data platforms should be set up. On the one hand, objective views are needed about the monopolies taken by super-giant digital platforms.
These platforms also bear public service functions, differentiating them from industrial or commercial monopolies. Concentration of platforms may also help add on commercial competitiveness and social efficiency.
Take third-party payments as an example. To ensure unimpeded payments, various market participants tend to gather on one payment platform. If communications across different telecom companies cannot be realized, only one telecom platform will eventually survive.
Such logic also applies to third-party transactions, which explains why even though the regulators concerned issued a number of licenses, only a few survived. And there are reasons behind why only those few did manage to survive.
First, the survivors are those that are supported by the banks’ unified payment services. Second, the companies specialized in integrated payment services has become a solution for third-party payment platforms banning one another.
Super-giant platforms will likely continue to increase as digital society grows. Concentration of multiple services in a single platform may make business sense for market share-minded companies. But it is debatable if this is the right path to digital transformation of society.
So, proper regulatory measures and oversights are needed in helping such platforms to grow with society in a responsible manner. This is why, oversight mechanisms are needed, as platform enterprises can’t achieve this on their own through self-regulation.
Meanwhile, all data collected by platform businesses are related to society’s various publics and therefore should not be treated as commercial assets.
The article is a translation of a comment from the Bund Summit by Liu Xiaochun, the deputy dean of the Shanghai Finance Institute.
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