Economies around the world—small, large, developing, developed, emerging—all sizes and types—are now at some point in the post-COVID-19 economic recovery phase. Among these, the case of the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) is not only particularly intriguing but also of immense concern to Australia for reasons of regional security and international obligations. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s message to the to the G20 Virtual March 2020 Meeting was:
“There has never been a more important time for Australia’s Pacific Step-up as we all face these massive challenges”.
For the PICs, the mix is as follows: on one hand, the challenges, frequently colossal, are technology (rapidly evolving), 2007 Global Financial Crisis (lingering after-effects), climate change (fast looming) and now, above and beyond all—COVID-19. On the other hand, PICs are small, vulnerable, tourism, trade and aid-dependent, open economies with limited resources and budgets. Nevertheless, PICs too will need to rebuild their economies.
The question is what and how? Thin capacity in the public sector, limited financial resources, high cost of production and service delivery, and scarce political capital require careful thinking, meticulous planning and practical and sustainable, yet speedy solutions. A promising solution appears to be the SME (includes micro enterprises) sector.
In its initial response to COVID-19, the World Bank in signalling measures to “bolster economic recovery” in developing economies, noted that “the broader economic program will aim to shorten the time to recovery, create conditions for growth, support small and medium enterprises, and help protect the poor and vulnerable.” Similarly, ADB’s initial response has been focused on “micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises, domestic and regional trade, and firms directly impacted”.
The G20 Extraordinary Virtual Leaders’ Summit on COVID-19 held on 26 March 2020 identified several areas of focus, including “safeguarding the global economy”. In doing so, the G20 is committed to “undertaking immediate and vigorous measures to support our economies; protect workers, businesses—especially micro, small and medium-sized enterprises—and the sectors most affected; and shield the vulnerable through adequate social protection”. In supporting the G20 undertaking, the OECD stresses that:
“The scope and urgency of the situation calls for decisive and collective action in five fronts”, including businesses, particularly SMEs”.
SMEs do contribute substantially to a country’s employment and economic growth. In the OECD area, for instance, SMEs account for up to 99 per cent of all firms, 70 per cent of jobs, and 60 per cent of value added on average. SMEs are also considered crucial for accomplishing UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In September 2015, the General Assembly adopted a 2030 Agenda that includes 17 SDGs with 169 targets. An ITC analysis shows that investments in SMEs could contribute to more than 100 of the 169 SDG targets.
So, the SME opportunity does sound promising for the PICs. But there are important questions to debate and deliberate on before taking a position, formulating policies or even pouring money. For instance, how much do the PICs already know about their SME sectors? What has worked and what has not worked well in the past? What needs to be done for more effective and sustainable growth and development of the sector? Policymakers do tend to adopt and implement policies and strategies to drive and promote entrepreneurship without an adequate understanding of the intricacies and inter-connectedness of the concept.
So, for the PICs, a road out of COVID-19 might be SMEs but not without an adequate understanding of the sector.
Dr Parmendra Sharma, Department of Accounting, Finance and Economics and member of the Griffith Asia Institute.