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2. MENAP Oil Importers: Winds of Change

International Monetary Fund. Middle East and Central Asia Dept.
Published Date:
April 2011
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Social unrest and change are sweeping through many countries in the region. While economic spillovers to other MENAP oil importers from the unrest that began in Egypt and Tunisia have so far been limited, popular protests across the region point to a need for more inclusive growth and broader ownership of the reform agenda. Unrest has clouded the near-term outlook and added to the urgency of addressing high unemployment and improving social safety nets. Over time, a more open business environment that leverages the region’s young and dynamic population would unleash faster and more sustainable improvements in living standards.

Before the Protests

During 2009 and 2010, the region’s economies were generally growing at a moderate but steady pace. Limited exposure to international capital markets insulated these countries from much of the impact of the global financial crisis, and ongoing reforms to liberalize economic activity helped uphold growth. In Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia—the four MENAP oil importers with quarterly national accounts—combined 2010 third-quarter output was 4.7 percent higher than a year earlier, with Egypt taking the lead at close to 5½ percent. Altogether, MENAP oil importers’ economies are estimated to have grown by that same 4.7 percent in both 2009 and 2010, close to the average over the previous decade (Figure 2.1).

Figure 2.1Real GDP Growth Largely Flat in 2010

(Annual percentage change)

Sources: National authorities; and IMF staff calculations.

Steady recent economic expansion notwithstanding, the social unrest highlights the need for higher and more inclusive growth. Although economic activity had picked up compared to the 1990s, MENAP oil importers’ growth during the 2000s was lower on a per capita basis than that of most other regions (Figure 2.2). Over the past decade, their real GDP per capita growth averaged about 3 percent a year compared to almost 5 percent for emerging and developing economies overall. Moreover, there was an increasing sense that the region’s business environments were suffering from unfair competition, with systems rigged to benefit a privileged few and gains from higher growth being captured by a small segment of the population.

Figure 2.2Income Growth Lagging Other Emerging Markets

(Annual average percentage change in real GDP per capita)

Sources: National authorities; and IMF staff calculations.

High unemployment has remained a major challenge. The increase in growth during the past decade was not sufficient to reduce unemployment, averaging about 12 percent in a labor force that has grown more rapidly than in all other regions save sub-Saharan Africa. Unemployment is especially high among the young—with youth unemployment at 25–30 percent in Egypt and Tunisia—leaving many feeling excluded from economic progress.

The popular uprisings, the subsequent downfall of governments in Tunisia and Egypt, and violent protests in a number of other MENAP oil importers have shaken the existing order across the region. With this change comes the challenge of putting economies back on track, but also the opportunity to turn to a path of more inclusive growth.

Temporary Toll on Region’s Economies

In Tunisia and Egypt, unrest will have a substantial economic cost. Aside from domestic disturbances, these countries are also suffering more than the other oil importers from strife in neighboring Libya and the resultant return of more than 100,000 migrant workers. In Egypt and Tunisia, output growth is projected to slow by 2–4 percentage points in 2011, due to the temporary disruptions to economic activity as well as a virtual standstill in tourism and foreign direct investment (FDI) (Box 2.1). Both countries have also seen their fiscal deficits widen (in 2011 to a projected 9.7 percent of GDP in Egypt and 4.3 percent of GDP in Tunisia), as expenditures have increased in response to growing needs and higher borrowing costs, while revenues have suffered from lower economic growth and lower collection rates.

Disruption to economic activity in other MENAP oil importers has so far been more limited. Interruptions to gas deliveries from Egypt created some hardship in Lebanon and Jordan, but supplies have been restored. More generally, limited economic ties among oil importers imply relatively little direct transmission of reduced economic activity. It is striking that within the group, Jordan and Syria are the two largest exporters of goods to Egypt and Tunisia, but these exports represent only about 0.5 percent of their GDP. Moreover, aside from Egypt and Tunisia, oil importers’ links to Libya are minimal. For most oil importers, the main cost from instability in the region has been an increase in global oil prices and setbacks to tourism and capital flows, which, in a few cases, have led to a loss of official reserves. Increased political tension in the region will reduce the number of visitors, even to countries that have largely avoided unrest (Box 2.2). Foreign direct investment is likely to see similar effects, as investors reassess risks.

Box 2.1Political Unrest Shakes Egyptian and Tunisian Economies

The civil unrest and subsequent political changes in Egypt and Tunisia will temporarily slow growth in 2011. The slowdown reflects disruptions to activity during the protests in January–February, uncertainty about future governments and their economic policy course, the impact of the conflict in Libya, and setbacks in tourism and FDI. In Egypt, real GDP growth is projected to slow to 1 percent in 2011 from 5.1 percent in 2010, and in Tunisia, growth is likely to fall to 1.3 percent in 2011 from 3.7 percent in 2010.1

During the weeks of demonstrations, economic activity was sharply reduced.

  • In Egypt, tourism collapsed, and investor and consumer confidence was shaken. Banks and the stock exchange closed. As the demonstrations wound down, a series of labor strikes for higher wages began, mainly affecting the public sector. Personal security deteriorated as the police force largely disappeared.
  • In Tunisia industrial production declined by 13 percent in January, and tourism by 40 percent in January–February. On the whole, disruptions to economic activity have been milder and more short-lived than in Egypt.

In both countries, the security situation—although improved since early 2011—remains fragile, and uncertainty continues to weigh on the outlook. In Egypt, parliamentary and presidential elections are planned for September and November, respectively, and in Tunisia a provisional government currently holds power until elections at end-July. Still, political tensions remain high and the armed conflict in neighboring Libya has added to the risks surrounding the region.

Elevated insecurity in the region will continue to affect tourism and domestic and foreign direct investment in the months to come. For 2011 as a whole, receipts from tourism are projected to decline in both countries by up to 1 percent of GDP, and FDI by between 1 and 2 percent of GDP.

1In Egypt, the fiscal year runs July–June. 2011 refers to July 2010–June 2011.

Box 2.2Tourism Takes a Break

Spillovers from the unrest in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia to tourism in other oil importers could be substantial, but are likely to vary along geographic lines (Figure 1). Other North African countries have traditionally catered to the same predominantly European market as have Egypt and Tunisia and may therefore see a similar, although much more muted, decline in tourist activity. Morocco’s tourism revenues continued to grow in February–March, but early indicators suggest a possible reversal. Closer to the Arabian Gulf, Jordan and Lebanon are the region’s two most tourism-dependent economies. But their visitors, who are primarily from other Arab countries, have exhibited resilience to turbulence in the past; arrivals in Lebanon continued unabated during the May 2008 turmoil (Figure 2).

Figure 1Tourism Receipts and Employment, 2010

Sources: IMF, World Economic Outlook; and World Travel and Tourism Council.

Figure 2Tourism by Source

(Latest available year)

Sources: Central Bank of Egypt; Haver Analytics; Morocco Planning Commission; Syria Ministry of Tourism; and IMF staff estimates.

Notes: For Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia: shares of tourist nights spent. For Lebanon and Syria: share of tourist arrivals. For Jordan: share of non-Jordanian arrivals, with Europe including only Britain and Germany.

Past experience suggests that the region’s tourism industry could recover quickly. Following the November 1997 terrorist attacks in Luxor, tourist arrivals in Egypt fell by about half, but fully recovered after about one year. More generally, analysis of how tourism has responded to outbreaks of violence indicates that the effect is transitory, with a recovery time ranging between 2–3 months and 18–21 months.1 A key question, particularly for Tunisia (where the third quarter, on average, has accounted for almost 40 percent of total annual arrivals compared to 30 percent in Egypt), is whether visitors will return in time for the peak summer season.

1See e.g., B. S. Frey, S. Luechinger, and A. Stutzer, 2007, “Calculating Tragedy: Assessing the Costs of Terrorism,” Journal of Economic Surveys 21:1-24; and E. Neumayer, 2004, “The Impact of Political Violence on Tourism: Dynamic Cross-National Estimation,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 48: 259–281.

The added uncertainty resulting from the unrest has led lenders to reprice sovereign and corporate risk across the region, raising borrowing costs and affecting economic growth and fiscal positions in the future. Between January 10–around the time mass protests began in Tunisia–and mid-March, government bond spreads widened by 30-50 basis points in Lebanon and Morocco, and by over 100 basis points in Egypt and Tunisia. Credit default swap spreads have seen similar movements, and equity markets have fallen between about 5 percent in Lebanon and Pakistan and 25 percent in Egypt (Figure 2.3). While interest rate spreads narrowed somewhat in late March and mostly remain well below levels recorded at the height of the global financial crisis in late 2008 (Figure 2.4), these market movements imply tighter financing conditions and a weaker recovery in credit extension and investment.

Figure 2.3Stock Market Indices Lower

(Percent changes from Jan 10 to Apr 14, 2011)

Source: Bloomberg.

Figure 2.4Sovereign Bond Spreads Higher

(Basis points)

Sources: Bloomberg; and Markit.

Higher Commodity Prices Add to Challenges

In addition to challenges stemming from unrest, the sharp increase in international fuel and food prices since late 2010 has led to substantial additional costs across the region. This is especially the case in countries such as Djibouti, Jordan, and Lebanon that are highly dependent on imports for their energy and foodstuff needs. Holding policies and quantities constant, higher fuel and food prices will increase MENAP oil importers’ import bill by, on average, almost 3 percent of GDP (Table 2.1), of which roughly two-thirds is on account of higher fuel prices. This increase in the import bill translates into either higher consumer prices or a worsened fiscal balance, depending on the extent of subsidies and price controls.

Table 2.1Impact of Higher Fuel and Food Prices
Estimated Implied Increase in
Import Bill (Percent of GDP)Consumer Prices (Percent)Fiscal Deficit (Percent of GDP)
Jordan4.17 to 80.8 to 1.2
Lebanon4.46 to 71.1 to 1.3
Syria1.91.5 to 2.51.0
Sources: National authorities; and IMF staff estimates.Note: Direct impact with policies as of end-2010 of price increases of 32 percent for fuel and 24 percent for food, as implied by current World Economic Outlook projections for 2011 compared to 2010.
Sources: National authorities; and IMF staff estimates.Note: Direct impact with policies as of end-2010 of price increases of 32 percent for fuel and 24 percent for food, as implied by current World Economic Outlook projections for 2011 compared to 2010.

However, higher commodity prices are not all bad for MENAP oil importers. Export receipts from iron ore in Mauritania and phosphate rock in Morocco and Jordan have benefited from price increases of about 80 percent since end-2009. Moreover, greater trade and remittance receipts from oil exporters within the region—who are benefiting from higher oil prices—are likely to offset some of the negative impact of rising commodity prices (Box 2.3). This offset will be more pronounced for Mashreq countries, whose links to the fast-growing oil exporters in the Gulf are stronger than are those of Maghreb countries (Figure 2.5). In Tunisia and Morocco 70–80 percent of exports are directed to the European Union, whereas the majority of Jordan and Syria’s external receipts are from regional oil exporters.

Figure 2.5Real GDP Growth of Trading Partners Differs

(Weighted by goods exports shares; percent, 2011)

Source: IMF, World Economic Outlook.

Policy Responses Come at a Fiscal Cost…

Governments throughout the region have introduced a range of measures in response to higher fuel and food prices and to social demands (Table 2.2).

Table 2.2Fiscal Policy Measures Announced Since Late 2010
SubsidiesSocial Welfare and/or Cash TransfersGovernment Salary/Benefit IncreasesTax Breaks or OtherAnnual Cost (Percent of GDP)
Egypt0.7 to 0.9
Jordan2.0 to 2.2
Mauritania1.5 to 2.2
Sources: National authorities; and IMF staff estimates.Notes: Annual cost does not include higher costs of preexisting subsidies owing to higher commodity prices. Cost estimate for Syria does not include the additional measures announced since late March.
Sources: National authorities; and IMF staff estimates.Notes: Annual cost does not include higher costs of preexisting subsidies owing to higher commodity prices. Cost estimate for Syria does not include the additional measures announced since late March.
  • In Egypt, measures include advancing a 15 percent increase in government wages and pensions, the creation of a fund for reconstructing small enterprises, and a higher budgetary allocation for wheat imports.
  • Jordan has raised allocations for social protection and announced cuts to taxes on fuel and foodstuffs, additional subsidies, and increased civil service salaries and pensions.
  • In Lebanon, the excise tax on gasoline was reduced by about 55 percent in February.
  • In Pakistan, regular monthly adjustments of petroleum product prices were suspended between November 2010 and March 2011.
  • Syria has increased allowances for public sector employees, upped cash transfers to poor households, and reduced taxes on some food products. Since late March 2011, the government has announced additional measures, including a reduction in income tax rates, an increase in the minimum wage, and the extension of full health coverage to civil service pensioners.
  • In Tunisia, the interim government has increased transfers to the unemployed and the poorest segments of the population, suspended adjustments in regulated prices, extended subsidies, and scaled up public investment.

These new measures are in addition to the higher cost of maintaining existing subsidy systems, which, with an average cost of about 3 percent of GDP in 2010, are large by international standards. Morocco, for example, is facing an increase in the cost of existing subsidies of about 2 percent of GDP to be financed within the 2011 budget. Although most other countries will also at least partly offset greater spending on social protection with cuts elsewhere, the net effect is a widening of MENAP oil importers’ combined overall fiscal deficit to a projected 6.8 percent of GDP in 2011 (Figure 2.6).

Figure 2.6New Fiscal Costs

(Percent of GDP)

Sources: National authorities; and IMF staff calculations.

…But Higher Spending Will Support Near-Term Growth

With fiscal stimulus helping offset more adverse economic conditions—outside of Egypt and Tunisia—output growth in 2011 in most of the rest of the region is still, for the most part, projected to be on par with or higher than in 2010.

Box 2.3Oil Prices and Intraregional Linkages

Oil price changes have a large impact on MENAP oil importers’ economies. On average, oil imports cost them almost 6 percent of GDP in 2010, about twice the world average (Figure 1). Consequently, if volumes remain unchanged, a 35 percent increase in the price of oil imports—roughly equal to the increase from the 2010 average price of crude to the projected price for 2011 of about US$107 per barrel—would cause their import bill to increase by 2.1 percent of GDP. Not all countries are equally oil dependent, however. Owing to its growing production of natural gas, Egypt’s oil imports, at 2½ percent of GDP in 2010, have dropped below the world average. Syria is also partially self-sufficient in hydrocarbons, although not to the extent it was in the 1990s. Jordan and Lebanon, in contrast, depend on foreign supplies for almost all their energy needs, and their oil imports are much higher, at over 10 percent of GDP.

Figure 1Value of Oil Imports, 2010

(Percent of GDP)

Source: IMF, World Economic Outlook.

Despite large import needs, history shows that higher oil prices are not all bad news for MENAP oil importers. During 12 oil price shocks since 1970, even as they paid more for oil imports, MENAP oil importers’ exports—and to a lesser extent FDI and remittances inflows—also increased, offsetting much of the higher import bill (Figure 2). For commodity exporters—Mauritania and to a lesser extent Jordan and Morocco—the increase in exports partly reflects a positive correlation between the price of oil and prices of other commodities. At the same time, the additional inflows also partly reflect linkages to regional oil exporters that gain when oil prices increase. It is notable that the two MENAP oil importers with the largest ratio of oil imports to GDP—Jordan and Lebanon—are also the economies most connected to the region’s oil exporters, and where past episodes of oil price shocks have been associated with some of the largest increases in external receipts.

Figure 2Balance of Payment Changes During Oil Price Shocks Since 1970

(Median change in ratio to GDP from year earlier; percentage points)

Sources: IMF, World Economic Outlook; and IMF staff estimates. Note: Oil price shocks identified as years when the nominal US dollar price of crude oil deflated by US CPI reaches a 3-year high. There have been 12 such years since 1970: 1973, 74, 79, 80, 90, 96, 2000, 04, 05, 06, 07, 08, during which real oil prices increased by an average of 46 percent. Other ermerging markets are 53 IMF member countries not classified as low-income, advanced, or oil-exporting economies.

Prepared by Tobias Rasmussen and Agustín Roitman.
  • In Afghanistan, output is projected to increase by a still strong 8 percent in 2011, driven by high levels of external assistance.
  • In Djibouti, real GDP growth is projected to increase to 4.8 percent in 2011 from 4.5 percent in 2010 due to continued strong private demand and activity at the port.
  • Jordan’s recovery remains on track, with slowly rising domestic activity, a pickup in credit, and output growth projected to reach 3.3 percent in 2011.
  • In Mauritania, the only MENAP oil importer to see negative growth in 2009, 2011 growth is projected to reach 5.2 percent, with iron ore exports leading the recovery.
  • In Morocco, a strong recovery in agriculture as well as subsidies and other policies to buttress domestic demand have supported an increase in overall output, with growth projected to reach 3.9 percent in 2011.
  • In Syria, the ongoing economic expansion in neighboring oil exporters and a recovery in the agricultural sector are helping hold up growth at a projected 3 percent in 2011, despite some disruption from recent protests.

In contrast, Lebanon and Pakistan are projected to record markedly lower growth in 2011 than in 2010, but primarily for reasons unrelated to regional unrest.

  • Lebanon’s economy, which continued to expand strongly through the global crisis in 2008–09, is projected to see growth fall to 2.5 percent in 2011, mainly as a result of political uncertainty, which predates and is unrelated to the events in Egypt and Tunisia.
  • In Pakistan, real GDP growth is projected to fall to 2.8 percent in FY2010/11, largely as a consequence of last year’s devastating floods, but also on account of high fiscal deficits that are crowding out private-sector credit and investment.

Economic Policy Space Is Tight

While several oil importers have some room to relax fiscal policy in the near term, financing in some countries may require external assistance. Higher interest rates and diminished prospects for new external bond issuance have made funding more costly and more difficult. Moreover, MENAP oil importers’ public debt levels—although in all cases lower than a decade ago—mostly remain well above the 35 percent of GDP average for emerging markets, limiting the scope for additional borrowing. For countries with large budget deficits and which have been hard hit by unrest, external assistance may be needed to help bridge immediate financing gaps.

To bolster market confidence and prevent further escalation of the cost of funding, all countries would benefit from formulating plans for a return to fiscal consolidation over the medium term. The recent fiscal policy measures also highlight the need to develop better-targeted social protection mechanisms (Chapter 3.3). In the short term, increasing subsidies or raising government wages may be the only feasible mechanisms for providing quick relief to the population. However, such measures are not well targeted to the neediest, can be difficult to reverse, and may crowd out growth-enhancing public investment. Replacing them over time with a more cost-effective system of social protection, focused on assisting low-income households, will lead to a more efficient allocation of resources and will work toward the overriding goals of raising and sustaining living standards and generating lasting employment.

For monetary policy, room to maneuver is similarly limited. With interest rates going up globally and the recent increase in their own risk premiums, MENAP oil importers may need to raise policy rates. Moreover, while only Egypt and Pakistan—and, more recently, Afghanistan—are registering annual headline inflation above 10 percent, commodity price increases are adding to price pressures in all countries and already appear to be feeding into higher core inflation (Figure 2.7 and Box 2.4). Pakistan, where monetization of the fiscal deficit is an added concern, is the only country in the group to have raised policy rates in the past year, but others may soon need to follow suit.

Figure 2.7Inflationary Pressures

(Consumer prices1; period average, annual percent change)

Sources: Haver Analytics; and national authorities.

1Excludes Djibouti and Mauritania as data were unavailable.

On the positive side, nominal exchange rate depreciation in almost all MENAP oil importers is helping offset lingering competitiveness problems (Figure 2.8). In countries with fixed exchange rates, currency movements have been driven by the weakening of the U.S. dollar against other major currencies since mid-2010. Egypt and Mauritania have taken a welcome step toward greater exchange rate flexibility. These depreciations have helped offset the previous appreciation of most oil importers’ real effective exchange rates, which—particularly in Egypt—had become a concern.

Figure 2.8Nominal Exchange Rates Have Depreciated

(Percent changes since June 2010; increase represents appreciation)

Source: IMF, World Economic Outlook.

Box 2.4Monetary Policy Response to MENAP Food Inflation

Food inflation in MENAP countries is higher, more volatile, and more persistent than nonfood inflation, and the weight of food in national consumption baskets is typically very large. Moreover, there are substantial second-round effects whereby food inflation propagates rapidly into nonfood inflation. Accordingly, monetary policy needs to focus on keeping headline inflation well anchored.

Inflation developments in many emerging and developing countries (including MENAP) can be characterized by three key stylized facts. First, the weight of food in the consumer price index is large (averaging about 36 percent in MENAP; see Figure). Second, food inflation is higher, more volatile, and more persistent than nonfood inflation (see Table). Third, so-called second-round effects, where food inflation propagates into nonfood inflation, appear to be strong. For MENAP countries, about half of a given shock to food inflation in the current quarter is transmitted to nonfood inflation in the following quarter.

Weight of Food in the Consumer Price Index, 2010


Sources: Eurostat; national authorities; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; and IMF staff calculations.

Average Annualized Inflation for MENAP Countries(Percent, 19942011)
Sources: National authorities; and IMF staff calculations.Note: Volatility is measured using the standard deviation; persistence is measured by the first-order autoregressive coefficient.
Sources: National authorities; and IMF staff calculations.Note: Volatility is measured using the standard deviation; persistence is measured by the first-order autoregressive coefficient.

Monetary policymakers and central banks often focus on a narrow measure of inflation—for example, nonfood inflation—constructed by the exclusion or down-weighting of volatile components (such as food prices). In principle, such a focus reduces transitory noise, and prevents central banks from erroneously changing monetary policy in response to temporary inflation shocks. However, in the context of the large share of food in most MENAP consumption baskets, focusing primarily on movements in nonfood inflation can provide a distorted picture of overall inflation in an economy, underestimate inflationary pressures, delay needed monetary policy responses, and may increase inflation expectations. Accordingly, when setting the stance of monetary policy, regional central banks should look not only at nonfood inflation, but should also pay greater attention to headline inflation.

Prepared by Paul Cashin and Agustín Roitman.

The Road Ahead

With the region undergoing unprecedented change, the outlook for MENAP oil importers is unusually uncertain. For the near term, risks are mainly on the downside, including the possibility of spreading unrest, sharply higher oil prices, and rising fiscal deficits. Moreover, further deterioration of investor confidence and associated capital outflows could leave governments short of needed financing. While banking systems—aside from Afghanistan’s—have so far been resilient, the prospect of more nonperforming loans arising from the turbulence is also a potential vulnerability.

Over time, however, the changes taking place in the region could provide a boost for its economies. A more inclusive reform agenda that meets the population’s demands by providing greater access to opportunity and more competition would make the economies more dynamic and leverage the region’s inherent strengths: a young labor force and a privileged geographic position at the crossroads between major markets in Europe and fast-growing emerging and developing economies in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

The key to sustained progress will be to set out on the right track. Overcoming high unemployment will require a substantial increase in the pace of economic growth. Continued care to maintain macroeconomic stability, coupled with reforms to remove deep-seated obstacles that are holding back the region’s economies, could soon produce tangible results and build economic momentum over time. The needs are clear (see October 2010 Regional Economic Outlook and Chapter 3): upgrading education systems, improving business environments and allowing more open competition, raising intraregional trade and reorienting exports toward other fast-growing emerging markets, and developing financial systems with a wider reach. With all the changes currently sweeping through the region, the time is right for fundamental reforms.

Selected Economic Indicators: MENAP Oil Importers
Real GDP Growth4.
(Annual change; percent)
Afghanistan, Rep. of5.613.73.620.98.28.0
Syrian Arab Republic3.
Consumer Price Inflation3.
(Year average; percent)
Afghanistan, Rep. of7.28.630.5-8.30.914.2
Syrian Arab Republic2.710.44.715.
General Government Fiscal Balance-5.3-4.7-4.8-5.4-5.2-6.0-6.8
(Percent of GDP)
Afghanistan, Rep. of-3.1-2.1-4.3-1.4-0.1-0.6
Syrian Arab Republic-2.1-1.1-4.0-2.9-2.9-4.8-6.8
Current Account Balance-0.4-1.6-2.5-4.6-4.6-3.3-4.1
(Percent of GDP)
Afghanistan, Rep. of-5.70.9-1.6-2.62.0-0.7
Syrian Arab Republic-1.3-2.3-3.6-2.8-5.7-4.4-4.6
Sources: National authorities; and IMF staff estimates and projections.

Central government.

Includes oil revenue transferred to the oil fund.

Sources: National authorities; and IMF staff estimates and projections.

Central government.

Includes oil revenue transferred to the oil fund.

Prepared by Tobias Rasmussen with input from country teams.

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