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A remittances crisis facing South Asia

  • The loss of income due to covid threatens to send remittances down to their worst level ever. This could seriously harm the families of workers, particularly in South Asia, who rely on these economic lifelines, as also their economies. Here are four measures to prevent this.

Remittances serve as lifelines between migrant workers and their families back home, especially during a crisis. These money transfers provide efficient and effective safety nets to people living in the margins of economies. Unfortunately, as a result of disruptions caused by covid-19, the World Bank predicts that remittance flows will face their sharpest decline in history, falling by an expected 20% in 2020 to $445 billion.

Remittances are a key mechanism for boosting consumption in a migrant worker’s home country. In 66 countries, remittances account for more than 5% of GDP. In South Asian economies, however, remittances play an even more important role in their development roadmaps. India, for example, is the single largest remittance recipient country in the world, receiving more than $80 billion in remittances in 2019. Across these South Asian economies, remittances comprise large shares of their gross domestic product (GDP). For example, remittances account for nearly 28% of Nepal’s GDP and 8% of Pakistan’s.

While remittances can shape a country’s trajectory, they are highly dependent on three critical factors: economic opportunities in home countries; the international migration system; and the international financial system. The coronavirus pandemic has affected each of these factors, which has resulted in reduced income and job security for the 272 million international migrants. This has reduced remittance flows. In South Asia, it is projected that remittances will fall by more than 22% in 2020 (marginally above the global trend the World Bank has predicted) before recovering in 2021.

Prolonged economic recession will force the return of a significant number of migrants to their countries of origin, aggravating the economic downturn and social disruption. The effect of the projected sharp decrease of remittances on households in South Asia can potentially push back decades of progress made by the region on poverty reduction, income inequality, nutrition, health and education.

As with other sectors, public-private cooperation will remain key in mitigating the impact of covid-19 on the remittances industry. Considering its importance in the region and within the framework of the Regional Action Group for South Asia of the World Economic Forum, a policy note was developed to support both the public and private sector to address this critical development challenge. It highlighted four immediate steps that stakeholders in South Asia need to take. These complement the call to action which has been initiated by the governments of Switzerland and the United Kingdom with support from multilateral institutions, such as the World Bank and United Nations Capital Development Fund.

Declare the provision of remittance services as an essential service: While banks and other financial services have remained open, there is a need to ensure that non-financial institutions that are also part of the ecosystem remain open—such as mobile operators, money transfer companies and post offices in both host and home countries. This will only be possible if countries declare remittances to be an essential service.

Provide fiscal and monetary incentives: Governments in the region are actively rolling out economic stimulus measures to cushion their economies from the impact of covid-19. They may consider providing 3%-5% cashback on certain corridors (e.g. high-volume corridors such as Middle East to South Asia) to waive transaction costs. For example, for every $200 sent through a banking channel, $6-10 can be reimbursed in the bank account of the migrant/diaspora family member. Bangladesh, with its 2% cashback, is a recent example. This will ensure that remittances flow through the formal banking channel, leading to higher volumes for the operators and help to increase the foreign exchange reserve for countries. It also allows for the banking channels to be utilized for cross-selling opportunities.

Include remittances in the broader migration debate: Countries in South Asia, through their diplomatic footprint, are working closely with host governments to address migration issues. However, policymakers need to take this one step further by also engaging in dialogue with multiple stakeholders in host countries, which includes not just the government, but also the remittance service providers in the broader ecosystem. This may help to facilitate remittances through formal channels for South Asian expatriates with limited documentation, especially for low-value transactions. This could be done on humanitarian grounds and as a pilot for a period of six months at the least.

Reduce the average cost to achieve the United National Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target: While the SDG target is stated for 2030, the pandemic offers the opportunity for South Asian countries to work with service providers as well as the host governments to achieve this target in the short term. This would require a fast adoption of technology products in both the host and home countries. Central banks in home countries should also look to ease know-your-customer and regulatory requirements for both traditional service providers as well as fintech companies to help reduce the average cost.

The power of remittances lies in how they are invested by the families of migrant workers, helping them build up economic and social assets across generations. In South Asia, where social safety nets are weak or absent, remittances often form the bedrock of a family’s financial security, on which generational resilience to economic shocks is built. Blindsided by covid-19, many families have already consumed their private safety net of saved up remittances and now risk falling back into poverty. It’s time for both the public and private sectors to throw them a lifeline.

The authors are, respectively, senior fellow, North South University and former foreign secretary of Bangladesh, and community lead, Asia Pacific, World Economic Forum

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