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Face to face with William Maloney, Chief Economist, Equitable Finance and Institutions

Nandita Roy's picture

Returns on technological adoption are thought to be extremely high, yet developing countries appear to invest little, implying that this critical channel of productivity growth is underexploited. A recent World Bank study – The Innovation Paradox: Developing-Country Capabilities and the Unrealized Promise of Technological Catch-Up – sheds light on how to address this paradox. In this interview, William Maloney Chief Economist, Equitable Finance and Institutions Practice Group, World Bank Group, calls upon developing country public and private-sector leaders to pursue a more focused approach to innovation policy.

What is the new study Innovation Paradox all about?

The potential gains from bringing existing technologies to developing countries are vast, much higher for poor countries than for rich countries. Yet developing-country firms and governments invest relatively little to realize this potential. That’s the origin of what we are calling ‘The Innovation Paradox’.


Why do firms in developing countries lag behind when it comes to innovation?

The Innovation Paradox, argues that developing country firms choose not to invest heavily in adopting technology, even if they are keen to do so, because they face a range of constraints that prevent them from benefitting from the transfer.

Developing country firms are often constrained by low managerial capability, find it difficult to import the necessary technology, to contract or hire trained workers and engineers, or draw on the new organizational techniques needed to maximize the potential of innovation. Moreover, they are often inhibited by a weak business climate. For example, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are constantly in a situation where they are putting out fires, they don’t have a five-year plan, they don’t have somebody keeping track of what new technology has come out of some place that they could bring to the firm.


How can developing economies catch up with the developed world on innovation?

The rates of return to investments and innovation of various kinds appear to be extremely high, yet we see a much smaller effort in these areas.  In the developing countries, we need to think not only about barriers to accumulating knowledge capital, we have to think about all the barriers to accumulating all of the complementary factors—the physical capital. So, if I have a lousy education system, it doesn’t matter if I get a high-tech firm because there won’t be any workers to staff it.

Innovation requires competitive and undistorted economies, adequate levels of human capital, functioning capital markets, a dynamic and capable business sector, reliable regulation and property rights. Richer countries tend to have more of these conditions. This is at the root of Paradox. Even though follower countries have much to gain from adopting existing technologies from the advanced countries, in practice, missing and distorted markets, weak management capabilities and human capital prevent them from taking advantage of these opportunities.


ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ ආනයන සහ අපනයන යෙදෙන්නන්ගේ තොරතුරු දැනගැනීමේ අයිතිය තහවුරු කිරීම

Dinesha Nilakshi Samaranayake's picture

පසුගිය සැප්තැම්බර් මස 28 වෙනිදා ජාත්‍යන්තර තොරතුරු දැනගැනීමේ දිනය වශයෙන් රජය විසින් ප්‍රකාශයට පත් කරනු ලැබුවා. විශ්වයේම තොරතුරු ඇසුරු සැණකින් අතේ තිබෙන ජංගම දුරකථනය හරහා ලබාගත හැකි යුගයක තොරතුරු දැනගැනීමේ අයිතිය තහවුරු කරන්න වෙනම දිනයක් අවශ්‍ය දැයි ඔබට සිතෙන්නටත් පුළුවන්. නමුත් දිනපතා සිය භාණ්ඩ රේගුවෙන් නිදහස් කරගැනීමට පොර බදන කුඩා හෝ මධ්‍ය පරිමාණ වෙළඳ  මහතකුගෙන් මේ ගැන විමසුවොත්, සමහර විට ඔබේ එම අදහස වෙනස් වේවි .

කොළඹ, ගාලු පාරේ, සිය කාර්යාලයේ සිට ආනයන-අපනයන වෙළඳාම පවත්වාගෙන යන චමිල් පෙරේරාට තමන්ගේ ආනයන භාණ්ඩ රේගුවෙන් නිදහස් කරගැනීමේ ක්‍රියාවලිය ප්‍ර‍තිවාදියෙකු සමඟ පොර බැදීමකට දෙවැනි නැහැ. චමිල් වගේ බොහෝ පිරිස් තමන්ගේ වෙළඳාම් කටයුතු හරහා රටට ආදායමක් උපදවා දෙන අතරම නව රැකියා අවස්ථා උත්පාදනයටත් දායකත්වය ලබා දෙනවා. නමුත් ඉහත කී ක්‍රියාවලියේ දී රේගු කටයුතු ගැන හරි තොරතුරු ලබා ගැනීමට තිබෙන නොහැකියාව වගේම ක්‍රියාවලියේ ඇති සංකීර්ණ බව නිසා විශාල ලෙස කාලය හා මුදල් නාස්ති වීමකට ඔවුන් මුහුණ දෙනවා.

Trade facilitation reform in Sri Lanka can drive a change in culture

Marcus Bartley Johns's picture

Two years ago, we started counting how many Sri Lankan agencies were involved in trade facilitation processes such as issuing permits and managing the movement of goods in and out of the country.  We counted at least 22 agencies in this assessment, and today, the Department of Commerce estimates that number at least 34 agencies are involved in issuing permits or publishing regulations that affect trade.
We know trade is critical to Sri Lanka’s future and that there are strong links between trade, economic growth and poverty reduction.

However, the trading community reports a lack of transparency, confusion around rules and regulations, poor coordination between various ministries and a dearth of critical infrastructure—you can see why trade has suffered in Sri Lanka.


When the World Bank evaluates a country’s performance in critical rankings like Doing Business, the ease of trading across borders is one of the benchmarks we consider. In this, and in other lists like the Logistics Performance Index, Sri Lanka is underperforming compared with its potential. Here, the average trade transaction involves over 30 different parties with different objectives, incentives, competence and constituencies they answer to, and up to 200 data elements, many of which are repeated multiple times. This environment constrains the growth of Sri Lanka’s private sector, especially SMEs.  
But now for the good news. By ratifying the World Trade Organisation Trade Facilitation Agreement, Sri Lanka has signalled its determination to intensify reform efforts.

The perils of competition

Zahid Hussain's picture

Promoting competition is considered the best available option for increasing economic well-being. The recent global financial crisis prompted policymakers to reconsider basic assumptions, but the virtues of competition were not among them. However, gone are the days when practitioners slept sound thinking the economy, if left alone, is self-correcting.

The limitations of competition as a force for universal good are well-known. Consumers can be inadequately informed, making it possible for firms to take advantage of them. The intrinsic difficulty of matching skills to positions and the costs associated with moving jobs may make workers stay with abusive employers. More basically, in a world where people have imperfect information and workers can’t always leave their employer, firms may be able to respond by cutting corners and abusing consumers and workers.

Is the problem with competition itself or the legal and informal institutions that yield this type of competition? The answer depends in part on one’s ideological lens—namely the belief of competition existing outside a regulatory framework, necessitating governmental intervention in the marketplace versus the belief that regulatory forces help create, define, and nurture competition in the market, necessitating improvements to the legal framework if competition is failing.

Some policies that supposedly restrict competition are justified for promoting competition. Intellectual property rights, for example, can restrict competition along lets say the use of a trade name. But the argument is that intellectual property and antitrust policies complement, rather than conflict, one another in promoting innovation and competition.

Life will surely be more stressful if we needed to compete for everything. Cooperation is often more relaxing. Society and competitors at times benefit when rivals cooperate in joint ventures to address collective needs. Competition can make people less cooperative, promote free-riding, and reduce contributions to public goods, thus leaving society worse off.

The point is not all forms of competition are beneficial. Just as athletic contests distinguish between fair and foul play, the law distinguishes between fair and unfair methods of competition. Bangladesh’s garment industry is a contemporary case in point.  The collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh brought to the fore the pathetic state of working conditions in many factories serving the global supply chains. The structure of the supply chain itself—the relationship among regulators, buyers, suppliers, and workers—is fundamentally related to these problems. 
The practice of subcontracting is routine in Bangladesh’s garment industry. The prevalence of competitive indirect sourcing strategies has resulted in a supply chain driven by the pursuit of nominal cost minimization. It has increased risks for business and workers by undermining prices, wages, working conditions, and investment in productivity and quality. The apparel units engaged in sub-contracting are mostly non-compliant particularly in paying wages and maintaining safety standards.

Question is why do compliant factory owners take recourse to such sub-contractors? Major global buyers see Bangladesh as a market where they can obtain the most competitive prices for a high volume of lower end products. Consequently, they set low price targets. The manufacturers compete for large orders by undercutting each other, further driving down the prices. They make delivery commitments far in excess of their capacity to produce without breaching compliance. When prices are dramatically driven down, the natural tendency of a garment manufacturer is to manage their unit at a least cost with regard to overheads and wages. The pressure to drive these down arise inevitably.

Let Good Sense Prevail in Bangladesh’s Garment Industry

Zahid Hussain's picture

The garment industry in Bangladesh has been subject to several tests of resilience in recent years—global recession, energy shortage, input price increases, and labor unrest. Of late, the labor unrest has escalated apparently triggered by disagreement over re-fixation of minimum wage. The workers, for quite some time now, have been pressing for adjustment in minimum wage that was last increased in 2006, after 12 years, from Tk. 930* (about $60 in PPP) per month to Tk. 1,662 (about $108 in PPP) per month. The government in April 2010 committed that a new pay-scale for the RMG workers will be announced before Ramadan, and formed a Wage Board for making the wage recommendations. For reasons not yet fully understood, the labor unrest was reignited recently without waiting to hear what the Wage Board’s recommendations are. However, it is abundantly clear that dissatisfaction with the nominal level of the minimum wage is at the center of the discord between garment owners and workers.