An abrupt decline in economic activities and pressure on the Palestinian Authority (PA)’s finances have placed Palestinian livelihoods at high risks, as the impact of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to hit the economy hard. After growth of a mere 1% in 2019, the economy is projected to contract by at least 7.6% in 2020. Beyond the immediate crisis, lifting restrictions on the development of digital infrastructure and fostering better regulations could play an important role in stimulating an already faltering economy.
“With the COVID-19 pandemic in its third month, the crisis is affecting Palestinian lives and livelihoods. The Palestinian Authority has acted early and decisively to save lives. However, several years of declining donor support and the limited economic instruments available have turned the ability of the government to protect livelihoods into a monumental task. Hence, external support will be critical to help grow the economy during this unprecedented period,” said Kanthan Shankar, World Bank Country Director for West Bank and Gaza.
The new World Bank economic monitoring report* highlights critical challenges facing the Palestinian economy. The economy may shrink by at least 7.6%, based on a gradual return to normality from the containment, and by up to 11% in the case of a slower recovery or further restrictions. The PA’s fiscal situation is expected to become increasingly difficult, due to a decline in revenues and substantial increase in public spending on people’s medical, social, and economic needs. Even with reallocations of some expenditures, the financing gap could increase alarmingly, from an already high $800 million in 2019 to over $1.5 billion in 2020 to adequately address these needs.
Even prior to the Coronavirus pandemic, more than a quarter of Palestinians lived below the poverty line. The share of poor households is now expected to increase to 30% in the West Bank and to 64% in Gaza. Even more striking is the youth unemployment rate of 38%, well beyond the Middle East & North Africa’s regional average. The economy’s potential remains confined by restrictions on the movement of people and goods. The report makes a case for developing a digital economy to help bridge this divide and create high-end jobs.
“The digital economy can overcome geographic obstacles, foster economic growth and create better job opportunities for Palestinians. With its tech-savvy young population, the potential is huge. However, Palestinians should be able to access resources similar to those of their neighbors’, and they should be able to rapidly develop their digital infrastructure as well,” added Kanthan Shankar.
The report emphasizes that digital infrastructure is foundational to the development of a digital economy. At a time when other countries are contemplating the use of 5G, the Palestinian territories are among the last places in the Middle East to launch 3G in the West Bank and 2G in Gaza. The operators are at a competitive disadvantage, facing restrictions on access to spectrum, sites for network coverage and import of certain telecom equipment. They compete against operators, who can offer unlicensed 4G/LTE services in the West Bank and 3G in Gaza for those in proximity to Israeli networks (through pre-paid SIM cards).
The World Bank report recommends specific reforms to be made in collaboration with Israel, including the revival of the Joint Telecommunications Committee to resolve bilateral issues; agreeing on a timeframe for the allocation of 4G spectrum and ultimately 5G; lifting restrictions on equipment needed to introduce new technologies; and mitigating the effect of unauthorized telecom activity in the Palestinian territories.
It also calls on the PA to act on developing a comprehensive strategy for the sector, establish an independent regulator and prioritize the passing of a new telecommunications law in line with international best practice.
The role of the donors is vital to provide support for the institutional development needed in the telecom sector, help with innovative financing schemes to mitigate the political risks and increase private sector investment.