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Developing Nations Struggle to Return Employment to Pre-Pandemic Levels

FILE - Factory workers march to demand salary increases in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, May 9, 2023.
FILE - Factory workers march to demand salary increases in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, May 9, 2023.

A combination of crises, including high indebtedness, global inflation, the war in Ukraine, and a slow recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic has left many countries in the developing world without sufficient employment opportunities to support their populations, according to a report from the International Labor Organization.

The ILO’s annual Monitor on the World of Work finds that in much of the developing world, employment rates have still not returned to pre-pandemic levels, even as developed countries like the U.S. face labor shortages and wage inflation.

“The findings of this report are a stark reminder of growing global inequalities,” ILO Director-General Gilbert F. Houngbo said in a statement.

Houngbo called for concerted international investment in job creation in developing nations through an effort the ILO has called the Global Coalition for Social Justice.

“Investing in people through jobs and social protection will help narrow the gap between rich and poor nations and people,” he said. “The coalition will bring together a wide range of multilateral bodies and stakeholders. It will help to position social justice as the keystone of a global recovery, and make it a priority for national, regional, and global policies and actions.”

Regional differences

According to ILO data, unemployment is particularly acute in Africa and many Arab countries that, according to the agency’s projections, will remain below pre-pandemic levels of employment at least through the end of 2023.

In North Africa, for example, the unemployment rate is projected to be 11.2% in 2023, still above the 10.9% measured in 2019.

Other regions around the globe have enjoyed a more robust recovery. Unemployment is forecast to be 6.7% in Latin America and the Caribbean for the year, compared to 8% in 2019. In the region the ILO classifies as Northern, Southern, and Western Europe, unemployment will be 6.3% this year, compared to 7% in 2019. In Central and Western Asia, the rate will be 7.8% this year, compared to 9.2% prior to the pandemic.

‘Jobs gap’ revealed

Most assessments of global labor force participation rely on official unemployment reports, which often undercount the number of people who would work if they had the opportunity. To address the undercount, the ILO has developed a metric it refers to as the “jobs gap,” which supplements the official reports with information from labor force surveys to paint a fuller picture of individual countries’ job markets.

The global unemployment rate, according to ILO data, is 5.3% in 2023, lower than the pre-pandemic rate of 5.5% measured in 2019. However, the ILO argues that the jobs gap data shows a real unemployment rate of 11.7% globally, a little more than double the official rate.

The size of the jobs gap varies greatly across countries. On average, low-income countries face a jobs gap of 21.5%, the agency finds. That compares with just 11% in middle-income countries and 8.2% in high-income countries.

The disparity also varies by gender, with women experiencing a 14.5% gap worldwide compared to a 9% gap for men.

Heavily indebted countries

A lack of jobs is particularly acute in countries that are already experiencing high levels of indebtedness. Global increases in interest rates have made it significantly more expensive for many developing countries to service their debt, leaving less money for domestic investment.

The International Monetary Fund considers countries to be in “debt distress” when default or debt restructuring is either ongoing or imminent. According to ILO data, the jobs gap in debt-distressed countries is 25.7% on average, compared to just 11% in developing countries the IMF views as being at low risk of distress. Again, the gap for women in debt-distressed countries is especially high, at 31%.

“The correlation between debt distress and the jobs gap rate points to the critical importance of international financial support for debt-distressed countries in promoting both an economic and a job recovery,” the report finds.

Investment pays dividends

The report makes the case that social protection regimes that provide income support to the vulnerable — particularly old-age pension programs — can be a powerful job-creating force.

The report notes that there is a high correlation between countries that do not provide old-age pensions or other financial support to the elderly and significant jobs gaps. It estimates that the introduction of universal old-age pensions in developing countries where they do not currently exist would increase GDP by 14.8% over 10 years.

Old-age pensions, the report finds, are “a potentially extraordinary policy lever for sustainable development and social justice, and furthermore one that is backed by the strong international consensus on social protection floors.”

‘A particular crisis’

Cynthia M. Hewitt, director of the International Comparative Labor Studies Program at Morehouse College, told VOA that the ILO findings square with what she has observed in her work, which focuses primarily on Africa.

“Unemployment is a particular crisis, because a lot of small businesses went out of business during the pandemic,” she said. “Little restaurants, small hotels, they just simply went out of business.”

Hewitt said the ILO’s partial prescription for the problem — stronger social support programs — is necessary but difficult to achieve.

“There should be a floor of social support for people,” she said. “However, it's not a zero-sum game. It requires the political will to shift the use of funds, and that's what's usually not available.”

Hewitt was also cautious about the call for wealthy countries to invest in job creation in the developing world, pointing out that in Africa especially, there is a long history of powerful foreign interests exerting outsized control over domestic economies.

She said it is important to maintain local control and endorsed a policy put forward by Patrice Lumumba, the former prime minister of the Republic of the Congo in 1960, who advocated a 49% limit on the foreign ownership share of any company in the country.