Official international assistance: Stagnation despite pledges and new development challenges

SDG indicators

SDG target 2.a: Increase investment, including through enhanced international cooperation, in rural infrastructure, agricultural research and extension services, technology development and plant and livestock gene banks in order to enhance agricultural productive capacity in developing countries, in particular least developed countries
SDG indicator 2.a.2: Total official flows (official development assistance plus other official flows) to the agriculture sector (Tier I)


SDG target 9.a: Facilitate sustainable and resilient infrastructure development in developing countries through enhanced financial, technological and technical support to African countries, least developed countries, landlocked developing countries and small island developing states
SDG indicator 9.a.1: Total official international support (official development assistance plus other official flows) to infrastructure (Tier I)


SDG target 17.2: Developed countries to implement fully their official development assistance commitments, including the commitment by many developed countries to achieve the target of 0.7 per cent of gross national income for official development assistance (ODA/GNI) to developing countries and 0.15 to 0.20 per cent of ODA/GNI to least developed countries; ODA providers are encouraged to consider setting a target to provide at least 0.20 per cent of ODA/GNI to least developed countries
SDG indicator 17.2.1: Net official development assistance, total and to LDCs, as a proportion of the OECD DAC donors’ GNI

The Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development -—
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clearly identifies ODA and OOFs as a relevant element in the financing of sustainable development programmes. As shown in Robust and predictable financing sources, these flows are relatively small when compared to domestic public resources or private flows. However, they still play an essential role since they frequently function as “seed funds” or catalysers of additional resource mobilization in sectors or projects where other funding options are limited, or where investors are reluctant to participate. Furthermore, for some countries in vulnerable situations, official funds are frequently the only source of financing available.

For this reason, the importance of official flows is often highlighted in the 2030 Agenda. In fact, they are referred to in 11 targets, including sector-specific official support to agriculture1, health2, water and sanitation3, clean energy4, biodiversity5 and others.

No progress on Target 17.2 despite a record high in ODA disbursements due to vaccine donations

In 2021, total ODA reached a record high of US$178.9 billion, amounting to an annual increase of 4.4 per cent in real terms -—
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. This rise emanated almost exclusively from donations of excess or specifically purchased vaccines for COVID-19. ODA only increased by 0.6 per cent, excluding vaccine donations. Developing countries’ access to vaccines was key to saving lives and coping with the acute phases of the pandemic. Yet, given the continuous emergence of new variants, vaccination could not completely avoid lockdowns and other preventive measures with high economic and social tolls. The 2021 increase in ODA fell short of global expectations as well as pleas made in 2020 -—
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6. It remained insufficient to support recipient countries in their efforts to not only recover at the same pace as advanced economies, but also to face new long-term challenges planted by the pandemic and looming over their journey to the SDGs.

Figure 1 confirms that the persistence of the pandemic in 2021 did not spur a substantial shift in ODA flows: the share of ODA in GNI stagnated at 0.33 per cent, identical to 2020. Since 2005, this indicator has hovered around 0.30 per cent, far below developed economies’ pledge to dedicate 0.70 per cent of their GNI to ODA for developing countries. Flows to LDCs have likewise remained unchanged. In 2020, developed economies only devoted 0.06 per cent of their GNI to ODA to LDCs, a steady yet too little share in view of their commitment to allocate 0.15 to 0.20 per cent exclusively to LDCs.

Figure 1. Net ODA to developing countries and LDCs (SDG 17.2.1)
(Percentage of GNI, commitments and actual disbursements)

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Notes: Under SDG target 17.2, developed economies commit to dedicating 0.7 per cent of their GNI for ODA to developing countries, including a range between 0.15 to 0.20 per cent specifically to LDCs. 2021 is not shown in the LDCs graph as ODA data by detailed recipient is not yet available for that year.

The distribution of donors by ODA as share of GNI reveals three main groups of countries (see Figure 2). The first one refers to these countries which meet or exceed the 0.70 per cent target and is comprised of Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden, Germany and Denmark. The second group includes six countries (Netherlands, France, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Finland and Belgium) whose ODA to GNI ratio stands at around 0.50 per cent, hence significantly above the donor average. All other ODA providers (18 countries in total) lie between 0.12 to 0.34 per cent.

Figure 2. Net ODA by donors vis-a-vis SDGs commitments, 2021
(Percentage of GNI)

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In 2020, debt relief reported in ODA was multiplied by five, which is equivalent to a rise by 0.7 point as a share of total ODA (see Figure 3). This means that part of the debt relief programs implemented by advanced economies to support developing countries facing liquidity constraints and high debt distress were deducted from ODA receipts. The share of debt relief in ODA additionally ramped up considerably in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, reaching 6.2 per cent in 2011. This rise persisted until 2013, representing a significant shortfall in ODA to foster sustainable development.

The war in Ukraine is likely to increase the share of in-donor country refugee costs in 2022 which could be at the expense of other financial flows for development, along the same mechanisms as those in play during the Syrian refugee crisis. As of May 2022, several development agencies have put forward proposals and decisions to redirect ODA into servicing the impacts of the war in Ukraine on refugees -—
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. The UN Secretary-General has urged “all countries to reconsider making cuts that will affect the world’s most vulnerable”.

Over the last years, many donor countries rechannelled their ODA domestically to care for refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria. In-donor refugee costs peaked at 14.1 per cent of total ODA in 2016 (see Figure 3). At that time, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that “reducing development assistance to finance the cost of refugee flows was counter-productive” and that “helping people in need should not be a zero-sum game” -—
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Figure 3. In-donor refugee costs and debt relief as a share of total ODA, 2009-2020
(Percentage)

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In March 2022, the UN Statistical Commission adopted the new SDG indicator 17.3.1 under Target 17.3, "Mobilize additional financial resources for developing countries from multiple sources", aiming to improve and refine the measurement of development support in line with the 2030 Agenda. UNCTAD and OECD were designated as co-custodians of this new indicator, which embraces a cascading approach with detailed items on concessional finance for development. Flows are included only if they directly support either (i) at least one of the SDG targets or (ii) an objective in the recipient country’s development plan as long as this is directed towards supporting or achieving sustainable development. A notable innovation of this indicator is that it covers for the first time South-South cooperation under the umbrella of a new UN statistical framework, being pilot tested, presented with greater detail in Financing Development.

SDRs: an alternative official source of financing for development

In August 2021, the IMF injected a historic and unprecedented allocation of SDRs into the global economy, equivalent to US$650 billion -—
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. The objective was twofold: first, in the short-term, to release sufficient liquidity for countries to cope with the economic and social fallout of COVID-19 and avert looming debt crises, and second, in the longer-term, to provide countries with new resources which they could mobilise to meet their financing needs, including those relating to the achievement of the SDGs. SDRs have several advantages over other official credit facilities: they do not generate debt, do not carry conditionalities, have a very low cost of use, and may reduce the risk premium for highly indebted countries. UNCTAD has long called for such a recourse to SDRs to address macroeconomic global imbalances, finance development and, more recently, support climate adaptation and mitigation in the context of the “Global Green New Deal” -—
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Figure 4 shows that such an SDR expansion was indeed much needed: in less than a year, about one third of MICs and LICs have already tapped into this new SDR allocation significantly. IMF data does not allow the tracking of how countries spend their SDRs with precision, but in developing countries, especially MICS and LICS, a decline in SDRs holdings essentially reflects either a debt pay-off in SDRs or an exchange for hard currencies with another member country or prescribed holder of SDRs7.

Figure 4. Percentage of countries showing significant decreases in SDRs holdings between the 2021 SDR allocation (August) and March 2022
(Percentage)

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Figure 4 reveals that MICs spend higher amounts of SDRs once they decide to use them: 24 per cent of them show an SDR decrease exceeding 50 per cent between August 2021 and April 2022. MICs are overrepresented in the top of the distribution: among the 16 developing countries that have used more than 90 per cent of the SDRs holdings, nine are MICs (Cabo Verde, Iraq, Jordan, Tunisia, Republic of Congo, Sao Tome and Principe, Mauritania, Egypt and Djibouti), four are HICs (Lebanon, Guyana, Ecuador and Maldives)8 and three are LICs (Ethiopia, Tanzania and Malawi). MICs are often excluded from access to concessional finance as they exceed GDP per capita requirements, hence they are probably incited to use SDRs more largely. From a geographical perspective, it is in the African continent that SDR holdings have been spent the most since the allocation of August 2021, in terms of not only number of countries but also withdrawn amounts. The number of SIDS using SDRs is relatively high as well.

As Figure 4 shows, developed countries have not relied as much as developing countries on the new SDRs allocation, as they generally have more fiscal space. In fact, only some former transition economies and Greece have used them. Yet, developed countries have received two third of the new SDR allocation, in conformity with IMF quotas. The United Nations has invited countries which do not use their SDRs to reallocate those, either bilaterally or through existing mechanisms, such as the PRGT, which target LICs. The organization has also called for the establishment of a new IMF trust fund to support MICs and SIDS in particular.

Official flows remain supportive of infrastructure projects

Investment in modern and efficient economic infrastructure (transport, information and communication technologies, water supply, electrical power) is essential to achieving sustainable development objectives. Long-term strategies for economic growth, poverty reduction and environmental sustainability all have infrastructure development as a common element. A 2015 report -—
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estimates that the global economy needs to invest between US$5 and 6 trillion (in constant 2010 prices) in economic infrastructure every year over the period from 2015 to 2030. Additional funds equivalent to US$600 to 800 billion per year will be necessary to make this investment sustainable. Developing countries will account for about two thirds of the investments required to accommodate higher growth and structural change. These figures do not take into account soft infrastructure, which also plays an important role in economic development, including, for example, national data infrastructure -—
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estimate the sectoral breakdown of global infrastructure needs with a 2030 horizon as 38 per cent for transport, 30 per cent for power, 17 per cent for telecommunications, and 15 per cent for water. Given these needs and the current and expected investment trends, the largest infrastructure investment gaps will be concentrated in the generation and distribution of electricity, followed by transport infrastructure.9 In addition, significant additional resources are needed across all sectors for climate change mitigation and adaptation -—
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Even if most of the funds for infrastructure investment will come from the public sector and private actors, including through public-private partnerships and other forms of blended finance, ODA will also play a significant role, particularly for LDCs and countries in vulnerable situations. For this reason, SDG indicator 9.a.1 monitors “total official international support (official development assistance plus other official flows) to infrastructure”.10

Figure 5 shows the evolution of total official flows and those directed to economic infrastructure. While the global financial crisis of 2007/2008 had a profound impact on overall concessional financing flows, those targeting infrastructure projects were sustained. This has led to an increase in the average annual share of infrastructure in total flows, from 14 per cent before the crisis (2002-2008) to 23 per cent after (2009-2020). From 2016, after a marked increase in 2015, official support flows increased only modestly each year. ODA and OOFs in support of infrastructure reached US$63 billion in 2020, lower than their record high in 2019, accounting for 20 per cent of total flows. Flows targeting infrastructure retracted in 2020 even as flows to other sectors grew.

Figure 5. Official International support, total and to infrastructure (SDG 9.a.1)
(Billions of constant 2018 US$)

Source: UNCTAD calculations based on -—
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Note: Official international support to infrastructure includes sector codes in the 200 series of the DAC classification.10

Of the amount that was spent in 2020, the majority was assigned to banking and financial services, and transportation projects (see Figure 6). Communications received a relatively low share, but this can be attributed to the large participation of the private sector as a source of financing in this area.

Figure 6. Distribution of official international support to infrastructure, 2020

Source: UNCTAD calculations based on -—
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Notes: Official international support to infrastructure includes sector codes in the 200 series of the DAC classification (see note 10).

An important source of funding for infrastructure in LDCs, LLDCs and SIDS

In 2020, just 13 countries received half of all official international support to infrastructure. The largest recipients were India (11.0 per cent of the total), Bangladesh (5.0 per cent), Egypt (4.7 per cent), Turkey (3.5 per cent) and Brazil (3.5 per cent). However, these are also among the largest developing economies and official support represents only a small share of their total sources of domestic and external financing.

For other countries, official international support has a higher weight relative to the size of their economies. In some cases, because of special needs in terms of economic infrastructure or lack of access to other sources of development financing, official support is fundamental. Figure 7 shows the international support to infrastructure relative to GDP by groups of economies.

LDCs, LLDCs and SIDS receive a higher share of funds from ODA compared to other developing economies. Furthermore, these groups of economies all suffered disproportionately in 2020 when compared with other developing economies. Official support to infrastructure in terms of GDP fell, year over year, by 13 per cent, 10 per cent, and 13 per cent for LDCs, LLDCs, and SIDS, respectively. This compares with a year over year decline of 2 per cent for other developing economies.

Figure 7. International official support to infrastructure by group of economies
(Percentage of GDP)

Source: UNCTAD calculations based on -—
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and UNCTADstat -—
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Notes: Official international support to infrastructure includes sector codes in the 200 series of the DAC classification (see note 10).

The need for infrastructure development, particularly transport, is of central importance for economic development in LLDCs due to their isolation from international markets. However, there is an important investment gap in this area -—
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. This points to the importance of all sources of funding for infrastructure projects. LLDCs were recipients of US$7.3 billion of development assistance to economic infrastructure in 2020, equivalent to 0.9 per cent of GDP, down from one per cent in 2019. This reverses an increasing trend in terms of volumes and share of GDP since 2015, dropping the figure to levels not seen since 2016.

Due to their structural characteristics, such as small population size, geographic remoteness, economic reliance on trade and tourism, as well as high vulnerability to natural disasters and climate change, SIDS have significant infrastructure requirements, both in terms of building new facilities and maintaining and adapting existing ones -—
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. As seen in Figure 7, the importance of official international support to economic infrastructure in these economies has grown in recent years, increasing from about 0.2 per cent of GDP in 2006 to 0.8 per cent in 2020, though this figure was still off the high of 0.9 per cent achieved in 2019.

Despite the growing infrastructure challenges, long-term investment in infrastructure for sustainable development in developing countries remains insufficient. Stronger consideration should be given to the positive impact of infrastructure, as developing countries will require large-scale investment to build high quality, resilient and inclusive infrastructure -—
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. Official international support with long time horizons will be essential in developing infrastructure while keeping debt at sustainable levels -—
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Agriculture no longer a priority for ODA, even when challenges keep mounting

The agricultural sector employs a considerable share of the labour force in developing economies and plays an essential role for food security and rural development. Agricultural products are traded internationally and constitute an important source of revenue for many countries. However, even if agriculture remains a crucial economic sector in many developing economies, agricultural productivity remained stagnant during the 1960s to 1980s and has only increased gradually since then. This could be attributed to several factors, including unsupportive policies and insufficient resources to develop this sector -—
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In addition to the urgent need for increases in productivity, agriculture must also embrace sustainable practices and adapt to climate change. On one hand, the sector contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, natural habitat loss and unsustainable use of water resources, among others (see Make or Break for Green Economy), and reducing its environmental impact would require important investments. On the other hand, agriculture is strongly affected by climate change and extreme climatological or meteorological events. Significant resources are needed for adaptation and mitigation. In many countries, official flows in the form of ODA and OOFs play a key role in financing agricultural development. In this sense, SDG indicator 2.a.2 measures “total official flows (official development assistance plus other official flows) to the agriculture sector”.11

During the 1970s and 1980s, agriculture was a major recipient of international assistance, accounting for 15 to 20 per cent of total ODA -—
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. However, the relative importance of agriculture as a beneficiary of ODA has declined since then. Several factors are behind this shift, including changing donor priorities, pressure from environmental groups and insufficient evidence of its contribution to increasing productivity -—
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As shown in Figure 8, while ODA to agriculture increased in absolute terms almost every year between 2012 and 2020, its share of total concessional resources has remained stable, at a low level. Indeed, since 2004, the four-per-cent mark has not been exceeded.

Figure 8. Total official international support to agriculture (SDG 2.a.2)

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Notes: Official international support to infrastructure includes sector codes in the 311 series of the DAC classification (see note 11).

Even if ODA to agriculture has remained stagnant relative to other sectors, it still represents an important source of funding for many developing economies. Map 1 shows the weight of these flows relative to the value added of the primary sector.13 It can be seen that several economies in Central and West Africa, Central Asia and the Caucasus still rely on ODA as a significant source of financing for the development of their agricultural sector.

The agricultural sector is facing mounting environmental challenges, including changing climatological patterns, water shortages, treatment-resistant plagues and increased incidence of natural disasters. These factors, combined with an increasing food demand caused by population growth and changing consumption preferences, could translate into important threats for food security in many parts of the world. The COVID-19 pandemic may have exacerbated these risks by restricting the mobility of people and products and disrupting trade and global value chains. This could lead to lower yields, scarcity of specific food commodities and food price increases -—
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. Global food supplies were dealt yet another blow following the war in Ukraine, which is a significant exporter of wheat, sunflower oil, and other food products. These twin crises illustrate the importance of food sovereignty and agricultural investment, where ODA can play an important role.

Map 1. Official international support to agriculture as a percentage of primary sector GDP, 2020

Source: UNCTAD calculations based on -—
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Notes: Official international support to infrastructure includes sector codes in the 311 series of the DAC classification (see note 11). Countries in gray: developed economies or countries not included in the CRS database.

Notes

  1. SDG indicator 2.a.2: Total official flows (official development assistance plus other official flows) to the agriculture sector.
  2. SDG indicator 3.b.2: Total net official development assistance to medical research and basic health sectors.
  3. SDG indicator 6.a.1: Amount of water- and sanitation-related official development assistance that is part of a government-coordinated spending plan.
  4. SDG indicator 7.a.1: International financial flows to developing countries in support of clean energy research and development and renewable energy production, including in hybrid systems.
  5. SDG indicator 15.a.1: Official development assistance and public expenditure on conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystems.
  6. The OECD Secretary General, Angel Gurria, pointed out that “total ODA in 2020 equated to around a mere one per cent of the total amount countries have mobilised in economic stimulus measures to respond to the Covid-19 crisis”. He added that going forward “greater efforts are needed to help developing countries with vaccine distribution, with hospital services and to support the world’s most vulnerable peoples’ incomes and livelihoods” -—
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  7. In developed economies and to some extent HICs, a decline in SDRs can also refer to lending SDRs to the PRGT.
  8. Argentina was included in this list until March 2022, when it received a new SDR allocation -—
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  9. For more information on investment needs specific to transport infrastructure, see chapter Mitigating risks to build transport infrastructure.
  10. Note that the definition of infrastructure for the purpose of this indicator could vary from other classifications. According to the DAC classification, official flows to infrastructure can be divided into social and economic sectors. The former includes education, health, population policies, water supply and sanitation, and government and civil society; the latter comprises transportation and storage, communications, energy, banking and financial services, and business services -—
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    . As specified in its official metadata, funding from all official international donors directed to infrastructure in economic sectors in developing countries is considered for SDG indicator 9.a.1 -—
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  11. According to the official metadata, this indicator measures funding from all official international donors to the agricultural sector in developing countries -—
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    . This corresponds to sector code 311 of the DAC classification, including sub-sectors such as agricultural development, agricultural policy, agricultural water and land resources, food crop production, livestock, industrial/exports crops, rural co-operatives, agricultural inputs, and agrarian reforms, among others -—
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  12. In order to reflect current practices in terms of ODA to the primary sector, a broader definition could also include other relevant sectors, such as rural livelihoods, rural development and food security, and take into account multi-sector ODA-financed projects -—
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    . However, even with this definition, ODA directed to agricultural projects still shows a decline in relative terms, although at a slower rate.
  13. The primary sector is broader than agriculture (it also includes hunting, forestry and fishing). It is used in map 1 as a denominator since data on value added for agriculture is not available for all countries.

References

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    Donec tincidunt vel mauris a dignissim. Curabitur sodales nunc id vestibulum tempor. Nunc tortor orci, sodales nec eros eget.
    Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.
    Donec tincidunt vel mauris a dignissim. Curabitur sodales nunc id vestibulum tempor. Nunc tortor orci, sodales nec eros eget.
    Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.
    Donec tincidunt vel mauris a dignissim. Curabitur sodales nunc id vestibulum tempor. Nunc tortor orci, sodales nec eros eget.
    Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.
    Donec tincidunt vel mauris a dignissim. Curabitur sodales nunc id vestibulum tempor. Nunc tortor orci, sodales nec eros eget.
    Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.
    Donec tincidunt vel mauris a dignissim. Curabitur sodales nunc id vestibulum tempor. Nunc tortor orci, sodales nec eros eget.

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