Each January, the World Economic Forum gathers global leaders to discuss hopes and concerns for the year ahead. Here are a few topics I’d like to see on the global agenda in 2015.
Changing patterns of mobility
More than 232 million people live outside their countries of birth, enough to form the world’s fifth largest country. There are benefits to this trend. Migrants often find opportunity, destination countries receive a needed infusion of workers, and home countries benefit from the $542 billion of remittances sent in 2013. At Western Union (WU), we handled 29 transactions per second in 2013, so every day we see the positive impact of this massive flow of funds. A recent study by the University of Colorado found that each WU agent-location in a “receiver” market like the Philippines handles transactions that infuse enough funds into the local economy to create 85 new non-WU jobs. That’s 722,500 jobs nationwide.
Yet the popular narrative about migration hasn’t kept up with the new global context. Across the 16,000 corridors we serve, the mobile workforce increasingly comes from middle-income countries and engages in either south-south migration or reverse migration.
Brazil is one example. As Brazil engaged in major infrastructure projects, preparing for the World Cup and the Olympics, Portugal’s economy slowed. We have seen Portuguese migration to Brazil, alongside a rise in south-south migration. Haitian migration to Brazil has been strong enough that Haiti has moved up to our top three receiver markets out of Brazil. We now offer materials in Haitian Creole to better serve our customers there. Overall, the flow of cross-border money transfers out of versus into Brazil shifted from roughly 10% in 2002 to about 30% in 2012.
These are indicators of a truly globalized economy, and we need policies that work in this context. For example, in Africa it’s often easier to employ a skilled non-African than a skilled African expatriate. Barriers to African talent mobility are a drag on the continent’s growth and may contribute to the number of skilled Africans who leave their own continent.
As the world adjusts to changing needs and trends, there can be tensions between the goals of governments managing migration, employers striving to access talented workers, and communities welcoming newer neighbours. We need flexible immigration policies to facilitate the movement of workers where they are needed, and more effective immigrant integration programmes to fully capitalize on human potential.
The World Bank recently cut its global growth outlook, saying many large economies are less dynamic than in the past. While this “new normal” has clear implications for everything from interest rates to social services planning, I’d particularly urge us to find ways to minimize the impact on small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
Globally, SMEs account for 90% of businesses and more than 50% of employment, according to the IFC. As the World Bank warns of a “sputtering” Eurozone, it’s worth remembering that in Europe, SMEs make up 99% of all business and provide two-thirds of private sector jobs. They not only punch above their weight in contributing to the economy, they improve employment prospects among comparatively disadvantaged groups – notably women, migrants and youth.
This dynamic part of our economy can fuel growth, and reignite cross-border trade. By 2016, more than 50% of SMEs are expected to generate more than 20% of their revenues from overseas. And a report from the European Commission found that those who trade internationally outperform their domestic-only counterparts.
In 2013, we handled 430 million business transactions, and our 100,000 clients tell us that working across borders brings challenges and opportunities. They look to us for cross-border payment, immediate credit and foreign exchange hedging services that span 135 currencies. But that’s just a start.
Entrepreneurs continue to face overwhelming barriers to entry. Existing SMEs report difficulties accessing finance, managing regulatory burdens and developing human capital. At the Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2014, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang spoke of opportunities to simplify business registration, streamline administration and increase capital availability to spur SME success. Our clients tell us these priorities are relevant worldwide. As a global community, we should prioritize initiatives that help SMEs grow.
(In)equality of income and opportunity
Whether global growth is fast or slow, it should be more inclusive. We have made important progress on the Millennium Development Goals – the UN reports extreme poverty has been cut in half – but major challenges remain. As of 2010, nearly two-thirds of the extreme poor lived in five countries. In developing regions, 56% of all employment is considered “vulnerable”, an uncertainty that disproportionately impacts women.
Yet, inequality is a global problem. Leaders ranging from the Pope to President Obama have called income inequality the defining challenge of our time. It’s not just a question of income, but of opportunity, access to financial and other services and social mobility. This should continue to be a central focus for us all.
Innovation and education
These questions are urgent, since we need the full diversity of human talent to address issues ranging from Ebola to the environment. WU operates in 200 countries and territories, connecting our high-tech currency trading desks in London to remote storefronts at the end of the world’s dirt roads. In all of those places, we see the difference education makes.
Even one extra year of schooling increases an individual’s earnings by up to 10%, yet education receives only 2% of humanitarian aid, according to the Global Business Coalition for Education. Business has a role to play. At WU, we moved more than $2.5 billion for schools and universities from the launch of our Education for Better programme in September 2012 through early 2014, and 30% of WU senders have transferred funds for education. We became founding members of the Global Business Coalition for Education, and encourage others to join us in this cause.
Research shows that education is a sustainable answer to global challenges. It’s a key to greater equality and innovation. As a business leader, I focus on recruiting talented people and building a high-performing culture. Our employees need to understand how to link vibrant cash-based economies with forward-looking digital and account-based payments. We live in a hybrid economy where consumers expect to transact however they choose. As WU builds the next generation of our mobile app, uses data to enhance our compliance efforts, expands with ApplePay or account-based money transfer, we need people with the technical and soft skills to deliver.
Mobility, growth, opportunity, education – these are interrelated questions that demand answers. Those answers can start at forums like here in Davos, which is well-positioned at the crossroads of our hyperconnected world.
Author: Hikmet Ersek is Chief Executive Officer of Western Union.
Image: Young men talk on the top of a hill overlooking Cairo during sunset, November 25, 2008. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih.