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The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated long-standing development challenges in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, contributing to a rise in poverty, a deterioration of public finances, an increase in debt vulnerabilities, and a further erosion of trust in government. The substantial borrowing that MENA governments incurred to finance health and social

protection measures increased government debt. Countries must continue spending on health and income transfers, which will add to already high debt burdens and lead to complicated policy decisions after the pandemic recedes.

The World Bank’s latest regional economic update report, entitled Living with Debt: How Institutions Can Chart a Path to Recovery in the Middle East and North Africa, details the economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic to date, the long-term ramifications of the resulting explosion in public debt, and the difficult choices governments will face, even as the public health crisis abates.

As an example, the report shows that the region’s economies are estimated to have contracted by 3.8% in 2020, which is 1.3 percentage points above the World Bank forecasts in October 2020; however, the regional growth estimate is 6.4 percentage points lower than the pre-pandemic growth forecast published in October 2019. The estimated accumulated cost of the pandemic, in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) losses by the end of 2021, will amount to $227 billion. The region is expected to recover only partially in 2021, but that recovery is, in part, dependent on an equitable rollout of vaccines.

According to the report, the substantial borrowing that MENA governments had to incur to finance essential health and social protection measures increased government debt dramatically: the average public debt in MENA countries is expected to rise 8 percentage points, from about 46% of GDP in 2019 to 54% in 2021. Notably, debt among MENA oil importers is expected to average about 93% of GDP in 2021.

The need to keep spending — and keep borrowing — will remain strong for the immediate future. MENA countries will have no choice but to continue spending on healthcare and social protection as long as the pandemic continues. Consequently, in a post-pandemic world, most MENA countries may find themselves stuck with debt service bills requiring resources that otherwise could be used for economic development.

Addressing what MENA countries can do to resolve the tensions between short-term objectives and the long-term risks of rising public debt, the report discusses policy options during three distinct phases of economic recovery: Expenditure priorities during the pandemic; Fiscal stimulus as the pandemic subsides; Mitigating the potential costs of debt overhang in the medium term.

Governance and transparency issues emerge as central protagonists across all three phases.