28Nov2022

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Tag: COVID-19 Pandemic

OP-EDs and Columns

Regulating Online Businesses

ANKUR Shrestha

The opinion piece originally appeared in the 2022 September Issue of New Business Age Magazine. Please read the original article here.

The shift towards online businesses has not been new in Nepal. The COVID-19 pandemic especially helped increase this movement while social media marketing had already been a common thing even before the pandemic. The pandemic has forced even traditional businesses to go online as they searched for new ways to reach consumers. Moreover, online businesses can be set up at a relatively low or no cost, and it is easier to market using social media. Therefore, online businesses became attractive to new entrepreneurs using social media to sell retail goods or services. Most of these new businesses, however, were not registered.

The problems in business registration are, however, not new. According to the latest available National Economic Census 2018, almost half the business establishments are unregistered. Two out of three businesses operated by a single person are not registered.

Then why are we seeing a large number of unregulated establishments, especially small-scale ones? There are various reasons. First, it is a strenuous task to register a business in Nepal. The World Bank ranks Nepal at 94th overall in its Doing Business Rankings in 2020, but 135th in starting a business and 151st in enforcing contracts. These are critical for small businesses.

Secondly, the government has not been able to offer substantial benefits (or impose costs) to warrant registering a business. Regular processes that need to be easy and fast, such as registering a business and paying taxes, come with cumbersome bureaucratic hassles without offering any particular benefits. Additionally, the government’s ability to impose contracts in case of any issues between contracting parties is slow. The people then see no reason to seek help from the government. On the flip side, most unregistered businesses do not face any consequences for not registering.

The third reason is that government regulation is slow to catch up, especially for online businesses. For example, when ride-sharing services like Tootle and Pathao started their services in Nepal, they had no exact regulations to operate under. Riders were arrested by the police as existing laws did not allow private vehicles to provide ride services. But, protests from consumers as well as service providers have forced the government to allow ride-sharing even in the absence of legal provision even though it has been more than five years since these services came into operation.

Even registered small businesses have been known to avoid paying taxes by showing a negative balance sheet. Customers have also contributed to the informal economy by not necessarily demanding VAT or PAN bills from the businesses. This has encouraged newly formed online businesses to operate without staying registered.

A glimpse of a genuinely free market economy in the country can, however, be seen. Albeit informal, the online market has been known to be relatively easier to purchase from, allowing consumers to compare prices across different sellers and choose one that suits them while paying relatively lower costs, all from the comfort of their homes. Sellers are compelled to sell better goods as setting up shops becomes easier through online mediums, and comments and ratings (reviews) in online mediums are viewed by a large number of potential future consumers. These act as incentives for sellers to improve customer service, sell better goods, try and create their niche, and perform better overall.

The government has remained a mute spectator, allowing sellers to provide goods cheaper to consumers while maximising profits. This type of informal arrangement is not covered by the government protection mechanisms for consumer safety. Of late, however, the government has tried to rectify this and drafted an E-commerce Bill intending to create, regulate, and facilitate online trade in Nepal. The first of its kind bill dedicated to e-commerce focuses on consumer protection. The question of allowing a truly free market without government intervention remains. The government needs to do more for both online businesses and consumers to remove the hassles in business registrations and taxes. While the E-commerce Bill is a step in the right direction, it has still not gone through the parliament.

The government’s slow and unresponsive nature, procedural challenges to reduce steps in business registration, and the high tax slabs will always hinder businesses from entering the formal fold of the economy. Questions of the role of government in only acting as an insurer of contracts rather than directly intervening in the market will also remain. Regardless of the arguments, the registration of businesses (online or otherwise) will help the government plan better and invest in easier access to resources for both sellers and consumers. 

OP-EDs and Columns

Trapped in migration and remittance

NISCHAL Dhungel, Non-Resident Fellow

The opinion piece originally appeared in The Kathmandu Post on 4 September 2022. Please read the original article here.

Nepal has faced tremendous hitches in the path of economic development. Keeping natural barriers (landlocked externally and challenging topography internally) aside, the nation has been undergoing a protracted era of political change over the past two decades, graduating from a monarchy to multiparty democracy, marred by armed war, ethnic unrest and frequent changes in power. Frequent changes in government, irrespective of a unitary or federal form of government, has directly hampered Nepal’s development path, compounded by poor policy decisions. Poor policy decisions have led to weak performance of the primary agricultural and industrial sectors, low public investment and capital accumulation, and low productivity growth.

Given this context, it is not surprising that foreign employment has become more pervasive, particularly in the years following Maoist conflict. The Department of Foreign Employment started issuing labour permits in the late 1990s. The number of labour permits issued peaked in 2013-14 at a high of 519,638. In 2020-21, the number of labour permits issued plunged to a 16-year low of 72,081 due to the Covid-19 outbreak and the ensuing restrictions on people’s freedom of movement. At present, formal overseas employment procedures have become cumbersome due to the bureaucracy that requires foreign employment agencies to produce authentic labour demand letters, get the demands attested from the Nepali embassies in target countries, and provide several other documents. Despite the cumbersome out-migration procedures, foreign employment has become a lucrative area to escape Nepal’s job market.

Remittance trap

Remittances in Nepal have surged at an unprecedented pace. Personal remittances received were less than 1 percent of GDP up until the late 1990s, lower than Bangladesh and India. This share dramatically increased during the first half of the 2000s, rising from 2 percent in 2000 to 22 percent in 2010 and 30 percent in 2015. Following the pandemic, it was anticipated that Nepal would experience a sharp fall in remittance inflows, impacting imports, the balance of payments, foreign exchange reserves, consumption, savings, loans and interest rates. However, according to the data released for fiscal 2020-21, Nepal performed better in remittance inflows.

Given the extraordinary increase in remittances, they are probably the main driver of the improvement in living standards seen in Nepal, directly (households receiving remittances) and indirectly (increased labour income of those that remained). Research published by Nepal Rastra Bank showed that compared to households that do not get remittances, households that receive remittances have a 2.3 percent lower chance of falling into poverty. With every 10 percent increase in remittance inflows to households, the likelihood of those households falling into poverty lowers by approximately 1.1 percent.

Large-scale migration is a symptom of underlying, long-standing issues rather than a sign of strength. One of the world’s most extensive and dense anti-poverty initiatives is likely to be found in Nepal. Unfortunately, more resources go into the process of delivering benefits to “the poor” rather than achieving impact (making “the poor” rich). Economists Yurendra Basnett, Chandan Sapkota and Sameer Khatiwada have rightly pointed out that much effort is also put into process innovation and complexity (how to get the goodies to “the poor”) while neglecting the apparent reality that a great job with a high salary would go a long way in reducing poverty in one of the chapters of the book entitled Politics of Change.

Large-scale migration and the resulting remittances have facilitated the expansion of low-productivity services. Still, they have also contributed to the low competitiveness (via appreciation of the real exchange rate). As a result, this cycle intensifies already-existing problems that Nepal has faced for a while, further impeding its competitiveness and limiting its economic potential. Because of all these factors, Nepal, home to some of the most hardworking and adventurous people in the world, may remain in a high migration and remittance trap for years to come.

Domestic employment

The pandemic provided the government with a fantastic opportunity to learn a lesson from the existing policy gap to keep the people who had returned to help with the need for the nation’s development. It is a monumental task to switch from foreign employment to domestic employment. Approximately 500,000 young people enter the workforce each year, and 80 percent of them manage to find work abroad. Due to a lack of investment that may have helped produce output, Nepal is now entirely dependent on imports. Ironically, Nepal imports even agricultural items, even though 66 percent of the country’s population is employed in agriculture. Agriculture, which accounts for two-thirds of the workforce and one-third of GDP, has to undergo reforms to increase productivity, reduce poverty and free up labour for new sources of economic growth.

For Nepal, unleashing massive hydropower investments would be a game changer. It would not only result in considerable increases in productivity and new investments, but it also has the potential to raise wages dramatically, reverse migration and boost competition in downstream industries. According to the National Planning Commission and UNICEF report Demographic Changes of Nepal: Trends and Policy Implications, Nepal will have an ageing population by 2028 and an elderly population by 2054. Therefore, Nepal has a very limited window of opportunity to capitalise on the demographic window. It is necessary to invest in the skills of Nepali youth to fully realise the demographic dividend. For Nepal to continue on a more robust and sustainable growth path, more human capital must be put to productive use.

History also shows us that Nepal has implemented significant reforms in the past and is capable of doing so again. The broad-based reforms that Nepal implemented between 1986 and 1996 positively impacted the economy. The share of commerce in GDP and exports, as well as the share of manufacturing, virtually doubled, increasing the economy’s openness and diversification. The political shift to democratically elected administrations, which also gave the populace a new purpose, served as the foundation for these reforms. Today, they serve as a sobering reminder that Nepal can undergo significant and complex reforms. To escape the out-migration and remittance trap, a clear set of plans and policies to increase domestic employment should be the top priority of the federal, provincial and local governments. Without rethinking our development model, the country cannot prosper or graduate to a middle-income country.

Research Commentaries

US interest rate hikes trample on developing countries

– NISCHAL Dhungel, Non-Resident Fellow

The commentary originally appeared on the East Asia Forum, a forum based at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, on 18 August 2022. Read the original article here.

The International Monetary Fund’s recent World Economic Outlook report paints a bleak economic future. It has downgraded global growth predictions from 6.1 per cent in 2021 to 3.2 per cent in 2022. While the global economy is still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, central banks in advanced economies are hiking interest rates — a policy change that will have a significant global impact.

The depressing growth predictions are a consequence of tighter monetary policy and the increasing threat of social and economic risks, particularly for emerging and developing nations. Food and fuel prices have skyrocketed due to the Russia–Ukraine war and supply chain bottlenecks. The Russia–Ukraine conflict has made it challenging to balance fighting inflation, supporting the global economic recovery, helping the vulnerable and restoring fiscal buffers.

The US Federal Reserve (Fed) stepped up its fight against inflation after consumer prices increased 8.6 per cent in the United States. On 15 June 2022, the Fed voted to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 0.75–1 per cent. It plans to implement additional hikes for the rest of 2022. But efforts to reduce inflation by increasing interest rates in the United States could harm the rest of the world.

As interest rates rise in the United States, those who invest in emerging markets to receive higher rates of return may invest in the more appealing US market. This will result in massive capital inflows to the United States and increased outflows from the developing world. Without proportionally tighter domestic monetary policies, the ensuing rise in borrowing costs will deplete foreign reserves, appreciate the US dollar and result in balance sheet losses for nations with US dollar-denominated net obligations.

Rising US interest rates have the greatest impact on economies with higher macroeconomic vulnerabilities. Between 2019 and 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a sharp rise in public debt in developing economies — on average increasing from 54 per cent to 65 per cent of GDP.

Thirty-eight emerging economies are now in danger of a debt crisis or are currently experiencing one. At least 25 developing economies spend over 20 per cent of government income on servicing foreign public debt. This is why interest rate hikes in advanced economies could tighten external financial conditions for emerging markets and developing countries.

There is a worrying comparability between today’s economy and the economy of the 1970s and early 1980s which was rife with high inflation, slow growth and rising borrowing costs. In the 1970s, oil exporters benefitting from increasing energy prices used their surpluses to increase funding for debt markets in emerging market economies. Fed rate hikes in the early 1980s reduced inflation in the United States but drove up global interest rates, causing many emerging economies to default on their debts.

The debt crisis that followed the Volcker shock was distressing for developing nations. The Fed interest rate hike had a devastating effect on Latin America. The region experienced plummeting GDP and ballooning unemployment and poverty. The subsequent decade was lost to gradual and uneven economic recovery. The consequences of the Latin American debt crisis were similarly experienced in Africa’s heavily indebted nations. The Fed did not pay enough attention to how its choices would affect the rest of the world.

Though today’s economic situation has similar origins to that of the 1970s and 1980s, there are some significant distinctions. Today, oil producers acutely feel the world’s reducing dependence on oil. Real oil price increases are smaller than they have been historically. Policy tightening in response to the economic downturn has also begun sooner than it did in the 1970s and 1980s, especially in certain emerging markets and developing nations. Unlike the 1970s and the 1980s, there has not been as much time for recycled petrodollars to fuel imbalances in developing and emerging market economies.

Despite these encouraging developments, new risks have emerged. Due to increased exposure to sizeable bilateral creditors and the recent COVID-19 pandemic, public debt has risen and stunted the growth potential of many countries.

While international financial institutions are doing their part to provide debt relief and stop punitive measures like surcharges — additional fees imposed on countries that fail to make debt repayments —  there needs to be swift and systematic action on debt resolution. This must involve collaboration with private creditors and large state creditors like China. Major food and fuel businesses must be prevented from profiteering and speculating.

Special drawing rights (SDRs) — a foreign reserve asset issued by the IMF that can be used for foreign exchange stability in addition to gold or US dollars — must be redistributed to those countries that urgently require them. A new release of special drawing rights with an equivalent value of US$650 billion is necessary for immediate relief. The UN Conference on Trade and Development has advocated an alternative way to facilitate fair and orderly debt crisis resolutions. It would involve a multilateral legal framework for restructuring sovereign debt using both public and private creditors.

Interest rate increases in advanced countries will always impact low-income countries. But that does not negate the need to pursue structural reform in low-income countries. Structural reform is the only way to find short and long-term solutions to debt management.

OP-EDs and Columns

Will Reform of Nepal’s Civil Aviation Authority Ever Take Off?

SANTOSH SHARMA Poudel

The column originally appeared in The Diplomat on 9 August 2022. Please read the original article here.

On August 3, the U.N. aviation watchdog, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), formally asked the Nepali government to split the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) into two separate entities — a service provider and a regulator. Nepal needed the restructuring to ensure a “clear separation of authority between service providers, operators and the regulatory authority” in order to improve air safety, ICAO said.

Back in 2009, during a safety audit by ICAO, Nepal had committed to work on legislation to split CAAN. However, 13 years later the proposed legislation remains in limbo.

Nepal has a poor aviation safety record. According to the Aviation Safety database, there have been 27 plane crashes in Nepal over the past three decades, 20 of them over the last 10 years. In May 2022, a Tara Air plane crashed in the mountainous Mustang district of Nepal, killing all 22 passengers and crew members, including six foreigners.

The European Commission (EC) imposed a blanket ban on Nepali airlines entering European airspace in 2013 after eight British nationals were killed in a Sita Air plane crash in 2012.

The rugged mountain terrain, a lack of investment in new planes, and poor infrastructure have contributed to dangerous air travel in Nepal. However, Nepal’s aviation governing structure shares some blame too.

CAAN is both the service provider and regulator in Nepal. That has engendered a conflict of interest, especially when it comes to safety regulations.

This prompted the EC to insist on CAAN splitting into two separate bodies before it considers lifting the ban on Nepali airlines. EU Ambassador Nona Deprez unequivocally stated that passing the bills to split CAAN is a “prerequisite” for Nepali airlines to be removed from the “air safety list.”

Nepali policymakers recognize the need to split CAAN. Since 2007, successive governments have put forward plans to end the dual functioning of the aviation regulator. Each government has expressed a commitment in bilateral (with the EU) and multilateral forums to split CAAN and urged the EC to revoke the ban. A subcommittee of the parliamentary International Relations Committee led by former Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal even directed the government to split CAAN, saying it was mandatory.

Besides improving safety, restructuring CAAN has other tangible benefits for Nepal and Nepali aviation.

First, it will likely lead to the EC removing Nepal from its “air safety list,” opening European skies to Nepali airlines. It would boost revenue for Nepal’s struggling national carrier, Nepal Airlines. Nepal Airlines could not carry out chartered flights to the EU during COVID-19 rescue missions. As a result, the airline lost a big chunk of potential revenue, besides affecting the government’s ability to rescue Nepalis stranded in European countries during the pandemic.

Second, a restructuring would provide a shot in the arm to Nepal’s tourism industry. Around 15-20 percent of tourist arrivals to Nepal are from EU member countries. In 2019, almost a quarter of a million tourists from the EU visited Nepal. Nepal has announced a “Visit Nepal decade, 2023-2033” to revive the tourism sector. Without safe air services, the primary mode of transport for inbound tourists, the tourism decade cannot be successful. Nepal’s poor air safety record and the EU’s ban dissuaded many potential tourists from visiting Nepal. That would change if Nepal sets in motion the necessary changes to make flights safe.

Finally, the issue provides a litmus test of Nepali leaders’ commitment and delivery. Every government since 2007 has committed to and “prioritized” CAAN’s restructuring, but none have delivered.

On March 1 this year, the parliament secretariat included two aviation bills, the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal Bill and the Air Service Authority of Nepal Bill, on the agenda for the meeting of the House of Representatives scheduled for the following day. However, then-Minister for Civil Aviation Prem Bahadur Ale did a volte-face and requested the parliament secretariat to hold back the bills. Some employees of the aviation regulator were opposed to the planned restructuring, he claimed.

The bills have not made any headway in the House of Representatives since, although the National Assembly, Nepal’s upper house, passed the bills unanimously.

On July 31, Jeevan Ram Shrestha, who succeeded Ale as aviation minister, said that Nepal would not immediately accept the EC’s condition and that CAAN would be restructured “according to need and at the appropriate time.”

Analysts attribute the lack of progress in passing the bills to the vested interest of some office holders and foreign airline operators. The existing system allows CAAN’s director-general to issue tenders and oversee compliance while issuing regulations governing the issues of licenses to airlines and crews. These officials would not want to give up this power.

Meanwhile, other international airlines have gained market share and revenue at the expense of Nepali airlines. Ale and Shrestha’s dilly-dallying shows the deep reach of such vested interests.

Going forward, the path for the government could not have been more straightforward. Yet vested interests have reigned over the common sense measure for 15 years. Shrestha’s statement provides little hope of a change to the status quo.

SAB Blog

SAB Blog – The Maldives

Domestic Updates

The Maldives is at a high risk of dollar reserve depletion by 2023. The primary causes are Covid-19’s impact on the tourism industry, soaring global fuel prices, and rising borrowing costs. Maldives has USD 829 million in reserve. However, the national debt, at USD 5.9 billion in 2021, has ballooned to USD 6.4 billion in the first quarter of 2022.

Minister of Finance, Ibrahim Ameer, assured that the Maldivian finance is in better shape now than in the last three years. The economy is growing with the arrival of tourists. The Maldives is expected to grow at 13-18 percent in 2022.

Regional Engagement

Maldives and India conducted the second joint hydrographic survey of Maldives, covering 6500 nautical miles. The survey is critical for the Maldives to update the Navigational Charts/Electronic Navigational Charts for ship safety in several areas of Maldives and enhance Blue Economy. The first phase of the survey started in 2021. Some of those areas were not surveyed since 1853.

The joint survey resulted from India’s policy of supporting the Maldives to set up Hydrographic facilities. India provided the Maldives with hydrographic survey equipment in 2021 and 2022. The joint survey will enable economic development, defence, security, coastal zone management, environmental protection, and scientific research.

Global Engagement

President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih sought approval from the parliament to join the International Islamic Trade Finance Corporation (ITFC). Maldives is not a member of ITFC. Yet, ITFC has provided financial assistance to the Maldives since 2005. ITFC aims to advance trade among members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The Russian invasion of Ukraine has adversely impacted Maldivian tourism. The two countries jointly accounted for 14 percent of tourist arrivals between January to March of the current year. Despite this, Maldives condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) vote. Furthermore, the Maldives has reiterated its firm belief in principles of respect for sovereign states and sovereign equality. Yet, Maldives has taken a cautious approach to enforcing the sanctions imposed by the West in the aftermath of Russian aggression in Ukraine.

SAB Blog

SAB Blog – India

Domestic Updates

In late May, India announced a ban on wheat exports. New Delhi intended to secure the supplies for the nation amidst rampant inflation and a disrupted global supply chain caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. India accounts for just one percent of global exports and thus has only a regional impact. India banned the exports of sugar earlier. It has not yet banned rice exports and is considering exporting wheat to select regional nations.

India continues to face a slow but steady ‘fourth wave’ of the novel Coronavirus pandemic, with new cases climbing fast. The country counted over 4,000 new cases for the first time in the last three months. Amid the domestic crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, India has earmarked USD 26 billion to curb rising prices and record inflation.

Regional Engagement

India has extended financial aid assistance to economically-decrepit Sri Lanka by deferring loans worth USD 1 billion. In addition, India sent energy supplies (diesel) to Sri Lanka. The economic downturn of the latter has led to political and social crises. As a result, Colombo lacked essentials such as food, fuel, and medicines in May.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautam Buddha in Nepal. Modi offered prayers at the sacred Maya Devi temple on the occasion of Buddha Purnima. India views Nepal from the prism of being within its geostrategic ambit and desires to reduce Chinese influence in Kathmandu.

India appointed ambassadors to Nepal and Bhutan in May. Following PM Modi’s visit to Nepal, the Ministry of External Affairs announced the appointment of Naveen Srivastava. He is known as a strong China hand and handled the East Asian Desk before being appointed Nepal ambassador. Ambassador to Bhutan appointee Sudhakar Dalela is also an old China hand. The appointments reflect New Delhi’s efforts indicate that China views its neighborhood from a security perspective and intends to counter Chinese influence in the region.

Global Engagement

Modi embarked upon a trip to Japan to attend the Quad Leaders’ Summit on 23 May. Modi spoke of India’s role in the maritime domain as the Quad made progress on maritime domain awareness (MDA). He described Quad as a ‘force for good’.

However, the Quad continues to remain divided on Russia. India is reluctant to criticize Russia, India’s time-tested strategic partner. Amid the ongoing conflict, India-Russia bilateral trade has witnessed an exponential rise. India is not just purchasing cheap oil from Russia but is also procuring other commodities such as fertilizers. Moscow is now the fourth-highest supplier of crude oil to New Delhi. As two major powers, India and Russia are consolidating their traditional partnership through an enhanced trade relationship that is only bound to grow. India also continues to have a different position in Moscow than the European Union. India’s Minister of External Affairs, S. Jaishankar, was quite critical of European hypocrisy over procuring oil from Russia to meet India’s needs. He said that Europe’s purchases of oil from Russia far outweigh India’s. However, the Quad is firmly united in its view of the global threat posed by rising Chinese influence.