World Bank speaks out on pandemic, national debt

Tuesday November 23 2021
World bank

‘The Citizen’ managing editor, Mr Mpoki Thomson, held an exclusive interview with the World Bank managing director of Development Policy and Partnerships Ms Mari Pangestu.In their deliberations, which were compiled by Josephine Christopher, Ms Pangestu shared some insights on the institution’s role and its support to Tanzania and an overview of the development progress that the country has made so far in the Covid-19 pandemic situation. Extracts...  As the world continues to grapple with the adverse impact of Covid-19, what has been the biggest lesson to the World Bank in dealing with the virus - and, how has the pandemic shaped your relief efforts approach?What we are seeing is that the world’s economic recovery is very uneven and the unevenness is related to whether you can have the vaccine rollout in your country. However, we cannot solve the economic issues without addressing the health issues.First lesson we can learn about economic recovery during this pandemic is that we need to have vaccine rollout. Apart from vaccines we also need to continue maintaining house protocols because we don’t know if there is going to be another wave or not.Second is to have effective social safety systems, because whenever you have a lockdown people cannot work – especially in developing countries, because they live day to day; they work today so they can eat today, so how do you give them social assistance, cash transfers? We need to save lives at the same time save livelihoods by giving income support to people who really need it. Is trade and transport an area that might require special focus to boost development growth during the pandemic?Of course; one recent analysis has shown that actually, the cost of trade is much higher in developing countries than it is in developed countries and there are too many underlying factors.The costs at the borders, customs, complex procedure and the other side of it is the inefficient infrastructures, logistics and ports.So, what we need to do in the short term is to address the streamlining of bureaucratic procedures at the border because that doesn’t require building infrastructure. It requires you to better manage the process of clearing goods and that is where digital technology can help.Medium-term requires improvement of ports, logistics and transportation especially in Africa where a lot of it is land transportation. What do you think it will take for the tourism sector to recover globally, given the important role it plays in incomes and livelihoods for developing countries?Tourism is one difficult sector that would take some time to recover, but what can be done first is to have safe travel protocols. So I think what the World Health Organisation (WHO) is proposing is that we have a standard Covid-19 vaccine card or QR code that can work in any country. Right now different countries have their own ways of checking the Covid vaccines, so having a uniform standard of safe travel is important.We can then start opening what we call safe corridors, so if you fulfill the fact that you are fully vaccinated you can travel to certain areas, because they are also fully vaccinated. You have tourism areas where the workers or the population in that area are fully vaccinated so the traveller as well as people who are there feel safe. In Asia, this is beginning to happen, and some places like Tanzania could do the same.  As one of Africa’s biggest financiers - with total net commitments of $4.8 billion in Tanzania - do you have any concerns about the national debt sustainability, especially given the new pandemic-related demands?In general, we worry about the debt overhang issue. However, the IMF and World Bank have proposed a debt servicing suspension initiative. But at the end of the day, the common framework is to reduce the actual debt.There are some countries that are in that situation, but Tanzania isn’t one of them.What Tanzania needs to do is just be careful about increasing borrowing and more importantly how they use the funds from borrowing as well as their fiscal funds.How you spend the money and how you can make sure that you are effectively spending the money to raise domestic revenue, is really what should be the big medium-term response on the macro side for a country like Tanzania. In 2020, at the food security roundtable, you addressed the importance of global food security, exacerbated by Covid-19 and also climate change. What’s your take on Africa and also the world trying to ensure that we don’t reach a stage of food shortage? If you compare to the situation in 2008 when we actually had a shortage of food, today’s situation is more about price. Prices have increased by about 30 percent and this was not brought by shortage of supply but rather the disruption on supply chain – shipping and containers which have been disrupted because of Covid-19 and so the number one issue is to address these constraints on getting the goods out and in time.We need to also look at avoiding trade restrictions that also lead to food price increase, we need to increase agriculture productivity and address how it has been affected by climate change. What is your impression after meeting Tanzania’s first female President - and what did the two of you discuss?Very positive; very impressed and I think she has a clear idea about the development priorities in Tanzania; starting with human capital, education and health – issues we talked about.We also talked about the digital economy, the importance of getting digital education and making sure that we can utilise and give better jobs to the young people of Tanzania.We talked about climate change, and development and of course the requests by the developing countries at COP26 in needing more resources to address climate change.The other issue we talked about is energy access: hydropower, solar, and natural gas and what support we can offer in these endeavours.Finally, we talked about regional economic integration, as Dar port is the natural gateway to Tanzania’s landlocked neighbours and how the physical infrastructure – the railway mainly can connect with countries like Rwanda, Burundi, and DRC. But it’s not about the physical infrastructure only, but trade facilitation as well. So I think we need to address both and she was in general agreement with that. As Africa is playing catch-up to the rest of the world in digital technology: what do you think are the main areas of digital development that the continent should focus on for sustainable and inclusive growth?Digital technology can have a huge impact on development in many respects, once you have the right level of connectivity – we call it a digital dividend. Connectivity is important because if you don’t have connectivity then the development dividend doesn’t get delivered because it’s only confined to those who are connected.What you need is inclusive connectivity where it goes to as many people as possible. You can use digital connectivity to access government services, social assistance as well as other forms of assistance such as education, training. Technology makes things more efficient, transparent and more effective. The digital space also provides job opportunities for young people.Given that Africa has a very large number of young people, I really think this is a big opportunity. With Connectivity, the right level of skills and digital literacy you can unleash a lot of benefits. As the World Bank, what would you advise the government on digital policies?Not to over-regulate, that would be my first response in a sense that if you see how these businesses have managed to grow not just in the US but other developed countries, they are actually being left alone and allowed to grow as long as they are not doing any illegal activities.Tanzania has a promising digital domestic market and that always helps to scale up once you can figure out there is a problem to be solved.What I think the government needs to do, is to provide the right kind of regulations – whether it is consumer protection, but not over control the business when it starts to grow.