Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Asif Islam


Asif Islam
Senior Economist, the Middle East and North Africa Region, World Bank Group

Asif Islam is a senior economist for the Middle East and North Africa Region of the World Bank Group. He has written on a wide range of issues related to economic development with a focus on the private sector. He has published in peer-reviewed journals on several dimensions of the private sector including entrepreneurship, technology, crime, informality, and gender. He has also published on a wide range of topics including fiscal policy, environment, and agriculture. He co-authored several reports including the World Development Report (2019) – The Changing Nature of Work, What's Holding Back the Private Sector in MENA? Lessons from the Enterprise Survey, and Uncharted Waters: The New Economics of Water Scarcity and Variability. He holds a PhD in Applied Economics from the University of Maryland-College Park, and a bachelor’s degree in Economics and Computer Science from Macalester College.

Content by this Author

Altered destinies: the long-term effects of food insecurity in the MENA region

Rising food prices are making it difficult for families to put meals on the table. Inflation, especially when it stems from food prices, hits the poorest groups hardest. Across the MENA region, food insecurity has been rising over recent decades. As well as having dire immediate consequences, even temporary increases in food prices can cause long-term irreversible damages, especially to children. This column argues that the rise in food prices due to the war in Ukraine may have altered the destinies of thousands of children in the MENA region, setting them on paths to limited prosperity.

Reality check: forecasting MENA growth in times of uncertainty

Over the past decade, growth forecasts for the countries of the Middle East and North Africa have often been overly optimistic. As this summary of the World Bank’s latest Economic Update for the region shows, greater availability and accessibility of timely and high-quality information can improve their accuracy. Better forecasts are particularly important in these times of uncertainty, as policy-makers seek a path to economic recovery from the pandemic and its aftermath.

Unlocking sustainable private sector growth in MENA

Economic growth in the Middle East and North Africa has been weak since the global financial crisis of 2007-09 and the Arab Spring of the early 2010s – in large part due to a stagnant private sector. This column summarises the main findings of a joint report by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the European Investment Bank and the World Bank that draws on data from Enterprise Surveys of over 5,800 private firms in six MENA countries to explore what can be done to support sustainable growth in the private sector.

Living with debt: how institutions can chart a path to recovery in MENA

Public debt has been a critical tool for governments dealing with Covid-19, but it is a double-edged sword: as the pandemic subsides, tensions will inevitably arise between potential short-run gains and long-run costs. As the World Bank report summarised in this column concludes, institutional reforms to improve governance and transparency can address the trade-off. Such measures can be implemented with limited fiscal costs – and they hold the promise of boosting long-run growth.

Data capacity and transparency in MENA: why they might matter for growth

The Middle East and North Africa region has been facing chronic low growth for decades. It is also the only part of the world where statistical capacity and data transparency have fallen since 2005: it now ranks the lowest. This column investigates the potential impact on economic growth – and the particular need for transparency during crises such as the current pandemic.

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Labour market effects of robots: evidence from Turkey

Evidence from developed countries on the impact of automation on labour markets suggests that there can be negative effects on manufacturing jobs, but also mechanisms for workers to move into the services sector. But this narrative may not apply in developing economies. This column reports new evidence from Turkey on the effects of robots on labour displacement and job reallocation.

Global value chains and domestic innovation: evidence from MENA firms

Global interlinkages play a significant role in enhancing innovation by firms in developing countries. In particular, as this column explains, participation in global value chains fosters a variety of innovation activities. Since some countries in the Middle East and North Africa display a downward trend on measures of global innovation, facilitating the GVC participation of firms in the region is a prospective channel for stimulating underperforming innovation.

Food insecurity in Tunisia during and after the Covid-19 pandemic

Labour market instability, rising unemployment rates and soaring food prices due to Covid-19 are among the reasons for severe food insecurity across the world. This grim picture is evident in Tunisia, where the government continues to provide financial and food aid to vulnerable households after the pandemic. But as this column explains, the inadequacy of some public policies is another important factors causing food insecurity.

Sustaining entrepreneurship: lessons from Iran

Does entrepreneurial activity naturally return to long-term average levels after big economic disturbances? This column presents new evidence from Iran on trends in entrepreneurship among various categories of firm size, sector and location – and suggests policies that could be effective in promoting entrepreneurial activities.

Intimate partner violence: the impact on women’s empowerment in Egypt

Although intimate partner violence is a well-documented and widely recognised problem, empirical research on its prevalence and impact is scarce in developing countries, including those in the Middle East and North Africa. This column reports evidence from a study of intra-household disparities in Egypt, taking account of attitudes toward gender roles, women’s ownership of assets, and the domestic violence that wives may experience from their husbands.

Manufacturing firms in Egypt: trade participation and outcomes for workers

International trade can play a large and positive role in boosting economic growth, reducing poverty and making progress towards gender equality. These effects result in part from the extent to which trade is associated with favourable labour market outcomes. This column presents evidence of the effects of Egyptian manufacturing firms’ participation in exporting and importing on their workers’ productivity and average wages, and on women’s employment share.

Do capital inflows cause industrialisation or de-industrialisation?

There is a clear appeal for emerging and developing economies, including those in MENA, to finance investment in manufacturing industry at home with capital inflows from overseas. But as the evidence reported in this column indicates, this is a potentially risky strategy: rather than promoting industrialisation, capital flows can actually lead to lower manufacturing value added and/or a reallocation of resources towards industries with lower technology intensity.

Financial constraints on small firms’ growth: pandemic lessons from Iran

How does access to finance affect the growth of small businesses? This column presents new evidence from Iran before and during the Covid-19 pandemic – and lessons learned by micro, small and medium-sized enterprises.

The economics of Israeli war aims and strategies

Israel’s response to last October’s Hamas attack has led to widespread death and destruction. This column outlines the impact thus far, including the effects on food scarcity, migration and the Palestinian economy in both Gaza and the West Bank.

Happiness in the Arab world: should we be concerned?

Several Arab countries have low rankings in the latest comparative assessment of average happiness across the world. But as this column explains, the average is not a reliable summary statistic when applied to ordinal data. The evidence from more robust analysis of socio-economic inequality in happiness suggests that policy-makers should be less concerned about happiness indicators than the core development objective of more equitable social conditions for citizens.