The conference panel of leading scholars and practitioners on microcredit: From left to right: Esther Duflo, Kate McKee, Lindsay Wallace, Carol Caruso, and Peer Stein.
Photo credit: Michael Rizzo.
On Friday, February 27, researchers, policymakers, investors and practitioners joined forces to move forward in the dialogue around microcredit’s impact on the lives of the poor. Many themes emerged from the day, but perhaps the most salient came from Dean Karlan, who summed things up in 2 words: “Understand clients.”
The conference began with six presentations from researchers Orazio Attanasio, Abhijit Banerjee, Jaikishan Desai, Esther Duflo, Dean Karlan and Costas Meghir, who completed randomized control trials (RCTs) in six countries examining the impact of microcredit. Lindsay Wallace, of the MasterCard Foundation, noted, “These studies may not be new, but they are incredibly important.” While specific findings varied from country to country, the studies confirmed with evidence what many in the field already assumed: that, while microcredit can be good for some, it is no magic bullet for tackling poverty.
The spectacular recovery of a long-missing painting by Pablo Picasso – a canvas that had been stolen more than a decade ago, in a daring museum theft in Paris – offers a vivid reminder of the illicit worldwide trade in stolen assets, artworks and archeological artifacts. Preventing the cross-border smuggling of stolen money, art and natural treasures poses a stern challenge to law-enforcement authorities. Yet the vigilance of the international network of corruption-hunters and asset-trackers can often result in a triumph, as illustrated by the case of the now-recovered Picasso.
The art world hailed last week’s revelation that “La Coiffeuse,” painted by Picasso in 1911, had been intercepted in December by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials. The painting was identified during its shipment to a climate-controlled warehouse in Long Island City, New York, and it was then seized while it was in transit at Port Newark, New Jersey. The work – unseen since its 2001 theft from the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris – had been shipped on December 17 from Belgium to the United States in an innocent-looking FedEx container, adorned with a holiday-season tag marked, “Joyeux Noel.” Its shipping registration papers falsely described it as an “art craft/toy” valued at $37. The legal process that began last week in New York should soon have the canvas on its way back to France, where it is owned by the nation.
The Picasso had been assigned an estimated value of about 2 million euros at the time of its theft in 2001 – suggesting how lucrative the underground market for stolen art may be. Despite any such theoretical valuation, however, such cultural riches are truly beyond price: They belong to humanity’s shared patrimony, and thus their theft is an immeasurable crime against history.
"La Coiffeuse" by Pablo Picasso. Photograph via the U.S. Department of Justice.
The sudden recovery of the Picasso has reminded art-watchers – and law-enforcement officials – that the 25th anniversary of a still-baffling crime is fast approaching: the March 18, 1990 theft of $500 million in artworks from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. That theft deprived the world of, among other masterpieces, Rembrandt’s “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” painted in 1633. Despite occasional rumors that some of the stolen works might be available somewhere on the global black market, that crime remains unsolved – and the criminals, part of the vast international network of art thieves and smugglers, remain at large.
Police agencies and global asset-trackers certainly face a herculean task. International plunder takes many forms – from the “grand-scale corruption” that infects fraudulent banking transactions to the looting of countries’ wealth by dictators and kleptocrats. Cracking down on the illicit flows of funds worldwide – which are sometimes abetted by corruptible accountants and pliant lawyers, who help steer loot to safe havens and stash money in offshore tax-dodging accounts – requires persistent detective work and meticulous forensic accounting. In the case of stolen art treasures, the art world must appeal to the conscience of connoisseurs and dealers – and must rely on the integrity of curators at museums large and small, who surely know better than to traffic in property whose provenance might be even slightly suspicious.
Units like the Stolen Assets Recovery (StAR) Initiative – a joint effort by the World Bank and the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime – patiently promote cooperation among transnational, national and local law-enforcement bodies. That task requires a commitment for the long haul, as they steadily pursue capacity-building among governments and private-sector watchdog agencies that are determined to build their anticorruption capabilities. Closer legal, technical and financial coordination sans frontières is an indispensable tool in hunting down and repatriating looted lucre.
As in the case of the now-recovered Picasso, the effort to protect priceless artworks sometimes ends in a law-enforcement success. In a just-opened art exhibition in Washington, art-watchers can now get an up-close look at an inspiring example of how a strong national commitment to fighting crime – backed by methodical investigative work and tenacious legal processes – can achieve enduring results.
The Embassy of Italy last week opened an exhibition of irreplaceable artworks that might have forever vanished onto the international black market, had it not been for the work of one of the country's specialized military units: the Guardia di Finanza, which since 1916 has protected Italy from smuggling, drug trafficking and financial crimes. Its specialized art-investigations team, the Gruppo Tutela Patrimonio Archeologico, has successfully prevented the theft of many works of art, some of which can now be seen (by appointment) at the Embassy on Whitehaven Street. Treasures such as these are integral to Italy’s culture and the West's heritage.
In opening the exhibition, Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero noted that “the trafficking of archaeological works is a growing phenomenon that in recent years has spiraled upwards at an alarming rate” – with Italy ranking “first among the countries [that are] victims of this crime. . . . These treasures belong to Italy. But they also belong to European identity and, by extension, to all mankind.”
With the Picasso canvas soon headed back to Paris, and with the recovered art and archaeological treasures now being celebrated at the Embassy, arts-watchers can breathe easier, knowing that these masterworks are secure. But protecting the global patrimony requires the constant vigilance of corruption-hunters and asset-trackers – like the Guardia di Finanza, the StAR unit and their law-enforcement allies worldwide – who stand guard against the plunder of the vulnerable yet invaluable assets that comprise the common heritage of humanity.
On Friday, February 27, CGAP, IPA, JPAL and the World Bank will host a full-day event to share the latest evidence from six randomized controlled trials across six countries. The event will feature the results presented by the researchers themselves, followed by a discussion on what this evidence means for policy and practice.
The impact of microcredit has been widely debated for the past decade, and has been both vilified and celebrated as a development tool. This new set of RCTs goes a long way toward confirming what many have suspected, but argued without much evidence, in recent years: that while microcredit can benefit some, the effects on poverty are modest, not transformational. Microcredit is but one tool in a multi-dimensional approach to addressing the multi-dimensional nature of poverty.
After the drama, the dénouement. Crisis-watchers who were riveted to last week’s continuous flow of breaking-news bulletins from Brussels – as the European Union and Greece furiously negotiated (often through diplomatic feints and calculated disclosures to the press) a fragile accord on the latest stages of Greece’s debt crisis – are now awaiting the next high-intensity, high-anxiety step in the prolonged process: the scrutiny of the list of proposed reforms that Greece has agreed to submit to still-wary EU officials by Monday.
Whether this week’s list of proposed reforms, being drawn up by Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, proves to be enough to satisfy the skeptics in the Eurogroup is the next question for Eurozone-focused analysts. Continued haggling over the details seems likely over the next week – and, ominously, the remainder of calendar for 2015 looks unforgiving. Even if an accord can be solidified this week, many observers dread that anxieties will be inflamed again within four months, when the EU’s brief extension of its financial rescue package for Greece will have run its course – just at the moment when Greece will be facing a midsummer deadline for paying large installements of its vast international debts. Another bout of brinkmanship this summer may revive fears of a possible disorderly exit from the Eurozone. With the fragile Greek banking system vulnerable to potential runs by depositors, the situation will surely command the attention of financial-sector crisis managers for months to come.
Throughout the white-knuckle phase of this Greek tragedy, the Bretton Woods institutions have had a constructive role to play in trying to resolve various aspects of the crisis. The International Monetary Fund has been a central pillar of the rescue operation, joining the European Central Bank and the European Union as part of the so-called “troika” (or, as it is now phrased more mildly in EU parlance, “the institutions”) serving as the rescue overseers. The World Bank Group has been involved in the situation, as well – although in a less-visible role that involves Greece’s long-term recovery rather than its short-term rescue. By providing, not financing, but technical expertise to Greece, the Bank Group has been helping strengthen the country’s investment climate – an area where, according to recent editions of the “Doing Business” report, Greece has made some notable progress in recent years.
As the Eurogroup and Greece this week consider Varoufakis' list of proposed policy reforms, one important concern is certain to be on everyone’s agenda: enforcing stronger steps to fight corruption and ensure good governance. In an anticorruption cri de coeur last week, an Op-Ed commentary in the New York Times by Gregory A. Maniatis explained, and deplored, how that beleaguered country’s chronic “corruption by elites siphoned off countless billions” that should instead have been used for pro-growth investment.
“Practically every time Greece made a purchase — be it of medicines, highways or guns — a substantial cut went into the wrong hands,” wrote Maniatis, who is a senior fellow at the Open Society Foundation and the Migration Policy Institute and an adviser to the United Nations. “As a result, monopolies and oligopolies led by politically connected families choked competition and controlled much of the country’s banking, media, energy, construction and other industries.”
An estimated 20 billion euros (about $22.8 billion) are lost every year due to pervasive corruption in the Greek economy, he wrote – and such a coddled “kleptocracy set a tone of impunity that enabled lower-level graft” in a “cycle [that] became self-perpetuating, as oligarchs tightened their stranglehold over the political system.”
Noting that Transparency International ranked Greece “at the bottom among European Union members” in its Corruption Perceptions Index – “tied for last with Bulgaria, Italy and Romania” – Maniatis questioned why “graft prosecutions are rare” in Greece. Every act of corruption, after all, requires two-way complicity: “In order for someone to receive a bribe, someone else has to pay it,” he noted. Perhaps legal watchdogs, in both Athens and Brussels, have not been diligent in monitoring the behavior of major European companies that might be engaging in bribery.
Maniatis’ suspicion suggests that the troika's crisis-management program may have overlooked a corrosive threat to Eurozone stability: “Why wasn’t Brussels focused at least as much on corruption as it was on debt? If the European Union’s absence on this front was lamentable before the crisis, it was inexcusable afterward. Officials from the so-called troika essentially took up residence at the Greek Finance Ministry in 2010, but rarely visited the Ministry of Justice.”
Warning of the threat that corruption poses to sound development and shared prosperity in every economy, Maniatis’ essay brought to mind the recent World Bank Group-hosted forum by the International Corruption Hunters Alliance, with the theme of “Ending Impunity: Global Knowledge: Local Impact.” As many speakers at the ICHA forum in December 2014 pointed out – and as many countries that are struggling with eradicating corruption continue to find – a profound mindset-shift is needed to change an economy that tolerates a culture of corruption into an economy that demands a culture of compliance. By insisting on good governance standards, private-sector firms, no less than public-sector agencies, have the duty to enforce a “zero tolerance” policy for graft in every country where they conduct business.
Eradicating pervasive corruption from a long-graft-ridden economy may be a years-long challenge – if it can be achieved at all. So, while strict anticorruption measures are almost certain to appear on Varoufakis’ list of proposed policy reforms for Greece, enacting and enforcing them – and promoting a culture that recognizes corruption as Public Enemy Number One for development – seems likely to require near-permanent vigilance.
Those who wish Greece well in its long struggle to renew its economy – along with those who wish the European Union success in its half-century-long trajectory toward integration and stability – will surely applaud their forthcoming steps
toward promoting good governance and adopting stronger anticorruption safeguards. Along with all nations that seek to eradicate corruption, Greece and the EU can draw on the substantial body of knowledge developed by the International Corruption Hunters Alliance – an indispensable resource in the global quest for good governance that helps promote shared prosperity.
- Finance and Financial Sector Development
- global economy
- Law and Regulation
- Private Sector Development
- Public Sector and Governance
- Anti-Corruption Day
- Anti-Corruption Initiatives
- Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative
- Stolen Assets Recovery
- Stolen Assets
- open data
- open contracting data standard
- open contractring
- inclusive development
- collaborative governance
- Open Government
This article was originally published in SXSWorld Magazine
Hardly a day goes by without an African tech startup being featured in the mainstream media. CNN regularly updates its special report on the topic; The Guardian covers local debates surrounding emerging ecosystems; The Financial Times tracks Africa’s mobile revolution; Forbes has extended its “Top 10” series to include African female tech founders; Vanity Fair pins its hopes of “continental lift” on entrepreneurs. Blogs, opinion pieces and social media cover the sector in even more granular detail. Judging by VC4Africa’s 2015 report on venture finance, perspectives on African incubation and funding models, and the entrepreneurship program announced by Nigeria’s investor and philanthropist Toni Elumelu, it would seem that the African tech sector is among today's most dynamic industries.
Amid the buzz, many investors are asking: “Is the hype warranted?”
According to VC4Africa, matchmaker of very-early-stage startups and investors, investments through the platform more than doubled in 2014, rising from $12 million to $26.9 million, while the average investment grew from $130,000 to more than $200,000. Their research shows that 49 percent of ventures start generating revenue in their first year and that 44 percent are successful in securing external investment. More than 75 percent of these are in the technology sector, with agriculture, health, finance and energy startups also represented.
Further along the growth path, a smaller number of startups have recently netted over $300 million from a very diverse set of investors, according to CBInsights.
Recent Investments in African Tech Startups
Adapted from: https://www.cbinsights.com/blog/african-tech-startups
At least eight companies have acquired growth capital in Kenya in 2014, along others in Nigeria, Egypt, Ghana, Tanzania and South Africa and elsewhere.
New early-stage funds and angel networks in or focused on Africa are also on the rise. Among others, three models stand out: London-based NewGenAngels a collaboration between African and European networks (GAIN, EBAN and AAN); Kenya’s Savannah Fund, a partnership between Erik Hersman (iHub, Ushahidi and BRCK founder), i/o Ventures, 500startups and Draper Associates L.P.; and RENEW, linking American and African investors and startups.
Many early stage investors are still learning from their own experiences and adjusting their strategies accordingly. For instance, while most are bullish on Kenya’s tech scene, 88mph, an African seed fund has put further investments in Kenya on hold, while pursuing opportunities in Nigeria’s booming tech sector.
African entrepreneurship ecosystems have also benefited from a large number of technology incubators, accelerators and coworking spaces, connected through networks such as AfriLabs and backed by private sources, such as MEST in Ghana, and public-interest projects, such as infoDev’s mLabs and mHubs.
According to VC4Africa, the increase of capital is driven by three key trends: growing interest in startups from the African diaspora, the rise of local angel investors, and an increase in cross-border investments.
All of these instigate a positive change beyond investment returns; they set in motion a chain of opportunities in emerging and frontier economies. As Stella Kariuki, founder of Zege Technologies, once told me: “I want to be the change I want to see. [. . .] We build solutions that could be global but also solve African challenges practically.” Many of the startups serve consumers at the Base of the Pyramid -- the three billion people globally who live on less than US$2.50 per day, a market that is still largely underserved when it comes to basic services such as energy, education, health and banking.
It seems clear that investors and startups in Africa are getting to know each other better and are making more and better matches possible. This is an important step in reducing "the missing middle”: the absence of financing beyond the earliest stages of a company’s growth. As enterprises enter national or regional markets, their capital requirements increase exponentially. Without private and public sources of investment, these requirements stifle all but the independently wealthy entrepreneurs and those with established business networks. A diverse resource base for early-stage firms democratizes the opportunity for growth-oriented entrepreneurs and increases the overall potential of the local creative class.
So is now a good time to invest in African technology startups? The answer is yes, as long as investment decisions are made with care, patience, and in partnership with local investment communities.
Maja Andjelkovic co-leads the Digital Entrepreneurship Program at infoDev, a global program in the World Bank Group that supports growth-oriented entrepreneurship in emerging and frontier markets in the tech, climate and agribusiness sectors. Maja is interested in the potential of entrepreneurship to contribute to economic, environmental and social development. She has spent over 13 years connecting these fields, including as product manager in a web startup. She is a PhD student at The University of Oxford’s Internet Institute.
infoDev / the World Bank Group is organizing two sessions at Startup Village at SXSW Interactive 2015; one on the dilemmas and questions surrounding investing in tech startups in emerging markets, and the other on scaling up and accelerating technology innovation in Africa.
Angel investors interested in forming or growing their own local networks can benefit from practical advice and templates in a guide for angel investor groups published by the World Bank’s infoDev program and the Kauffman Foundation.
Sean Ding, Angela Bekkers and Jeremy Bauman contributed to the article.
Drug smuggling and human trafficking, money laundering, the illegal exploitation of natural resources and wildlife, the sale of fraudulent medicines or counterfeit goods: They're all criminal activities – and they're all highly lucrative.
As documented by the World Development Report 2011, these threats impede economic development, and Fragile and Conflict-Affected States (FCS) are especially vulnerable. In FCS situations – where countries have been devastated by war, are suffering from weak state security, or are enduring severe economic hardship – criminal networks operate with ease, using corruption and intimidation to undermine the integrity of public officials, institutions and the rule of law. Illegal activity often ends up undermining the state’s capacity to deliver even basic services. The far-reaching impact of such lawbreaking was recently explored at a panel – “Exploring the Link Between Fragility and Criminal Activity” – that was part of the World Bank’s “Fragility, Conflict and Violence Forum 2015.”
The diversion of assets toward illegal activities drains away resources and tax revenues that are needed for urgent human needs and vital civic priorities. Such a siphoning-off of scarce funds undermines governments' integrity and infects countries' investment climate – factors that are indispensable to creating jobs, boosting growth and building shared prosperity. This is an even greater danger in FCS countries, where trust in institutions is already impaired, and where lawbreaking can intensify popular grievances and provoke further violence.
A wide range of tools are available to practitioners seeking to address the scourge of criminal activity, helping them stem the illicit financial flows related to crime. On the prevention side, one example is the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative in Nigeria, which shows how increased contract transparency in the extractives sector has worked as a remedy. On the enforcement side, there are also criminal-justice mechanisms, like “follow the money” tools that can help trace and recover the proceeds of crime. Improved domestic and international cooperation can also help to combat criminal activities and their furtive flows of funds.
The need to fight illicit financial flows has become a worldwide policy priority, with leaders of the G20 and G8 nations now fully engaged in the crackdown on crime. The World Bank Group, for our part, has focused several of our Global Practices and specialized units – our practice groups on Governance, Finance and Markets, Trade and Competitiveness, and Energy and Extractive Industries, along with our Stolen Asset Recovery (StAR) Initiative – on promoting coordinated action to fight criminal activities and illicit flows of funds.
Efforts to ensure honesty, transparency, accountability and the rule of law help strengthen all aspects of the development process, and they are particularly important in FCS conditions. Understanding criminal activities in FCS situations, and asserting potential remedies, helps promote a clearer vision of the steps that can be taken to reduce transnational crime and to focus the full measure of the world's resources on achieving development impact.
Jump-starting job growth is difficult enough when a country’s investment climate is supportive, when its government has clear goals and competent capabilities, and when its business leaders can make far-sighted plans. When an economy is riven by the chaos of war, or when it is newly emerging from a severe social trauma, channeling capital toward private-sector job creation is even harder.
Amid this year’s FCV Forum at the World Bank Group – focusing on economies gripped by fragility, conflict and violence (FCV) – a seminar combining Financial Sector and Private Sector priorities heard a sobering picture from expert practitioners who have been on the front lines of promoting job growth in economies that are in turmoil. Moderated by John Speakman, the Lead PSD Specialist in the Bank Group’s practice on Trade and Competitiveness – who is the author of a new book on small-scale entrepreneurs in FCV situations – a panel explored the daunting challenges of promoting private-sector growth when countries are in turmoil.
Would-be job creators confront an enormously complex task in FCV situations. Yet the panelists agreed that there is reason for hope – even in the most tumultuous FCV conditions – if financing can be targeted toward promising startup companies, and especially toward potential “gazelle” firms that can energize new sectors of the economy.
“Ultimately, it’s all about money: Poor people are poor because they don’t have money,” said Hugh Scott of KPMG, whothe Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund (AECF). “It’s the delivery channel – the financing mechanism – that’s making the difference” in the 23 African countries where the ACF has offered grants and interest-free loans to about 800 private-sector firms, producing a net development impact of about $66 billion.
The difficult business environment and increased risk profile in FCV countries means that traditional lenders (primarily banks) are all the more hesitant to lend, said Scott – making such vehicles as “challenge funds,” which focus on promising small and startup firms, even more important. As co-founder of invest2innovate (and current World Bank Group consultant) Sadaf Lakhani noted, the “ecosystem problem” for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) and startups is all the more complex when countries face “a political economy of war.” As she had observed during her work with invest2innovate -- a nonprofit angel investing and accelerator organization -- such frequent FCV afflictions as corruption, patronage, fragmented markets and capital flight make it even more difficult for managers and lenders to identify, evaluate and accelerate startups.
Bank financing, in fact, is not always a ready source of funds for startup ventures, as noted by Simon Bell, the Global Lead on SME Finance at the Bank Group. Banks weigh the historical profit-and-loss performance of would-be borrowers – yet the entrepreneurs who are behind the “small sub-set of firms,” like the so-called “gazelles,” that are destined to create jobs quickly have little or no financial track record. Startups are thus often viewed warily by risk-averse bankers. Drawing on his long experience in the MENA region, Bell underscored that a priority in FCV states is ensuring that there is “a continuum of financial institutions and services” – like early-stage financing, private equity, venture capital and angel financing – that can provide critically important financing at various stages of a dynamic company’s growth.
To help give a boost to startups and young firms, the International Finance Corporation has created several financing mechanisms that are having a positive impact on job growth. The SME Ventures Program, created in 2008 with a $100 million allocation from IFC, has aimed to reach businesses in the poorest of the poor countries, often in FCV situations, said its Program Manager, Tracy Washington. Having financed about 60 SMEs, and having already supported the creation of about 1,000 direct jobs and many more indirect jobs, the SME Ventures Program has had a positive “demonstration effect,” inspiring new entrants to serve the marketplace once they have witnessed IFC’s strong performance. In addition, IFC's Global SME Finance Facility, described by Senior Investment Officer Florence Boupda, has provided investment capital and advisory services to 27 financial institutions in 18 countries since 2007 – including 17 projects in seven FCV countries.
The challenge for the future, agreed Boupda and Washington, will be to find additional ways to combine Bank Group interventions in ways that continue to choose companies with the greatest potential and that maximize the impact of Bank Group support. Their insights were underscored by Bell, who emphasized that “globally, employment is our issue” – and who asserted that “there are points of light all around” in this “very exciting” area, as various arms of the Bank Group focus on “the employment imperative.”
Finding ways “to apply the most innovative solutions to the most challenging situations,” especially in FCV and other traumatized countries, remains the grand challenge for international financial institutions, concluded Michael Botzung, IFC’s manager for fragile and conflict-affected countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Yet the determination of the energetic practitioners on the SME financing panel reminded the FCV Forum audience why there is cause for hope – and why, in Speakman’s words, the intensive WBG-wide efforts to promote job creation in the toughest FCV situations is “one of the things that makes us proud to be with the World Bank Group.”
Do you know of innovative Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) in emerging markets that are delivering better services for people? We’re trying to find out about more of these examples through a Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) Short Stories Competition.
Experience shows that well-designed PPPs can be an important development tool, and can enhance delivery of basic infrastructure services to those who need it most. By allocating risks between public and private parties, introducing new technology and improving operational efficiencies, PPPs can help governments maximize the effectiveness of scarce public funding.
We also know that some PPPs haven’t met expectations. And we know that PPPs are not a panacea for solving all gaps in services. They need to be used selectively. So we’re trying to identify and share lessons from successful PPPs around the world, so that governments, civil society, consumers, investors and the environment can all benefit.
We’re sure that there are many good stories out there that not enough people know about. We’re hoping to hear from students, practitioners, policymakers and anyone interested in PPPs. From these submissions, we hope to identify practical solutions that can be applied by governments.
Here’s the competition website to submit your case studies, essays, and video submissions on innovative solutions for PPPs. Please forward this to your networks. We welcome submissions in English, French and Spanish. Submissions will be judged by an independent panel using several criteria, including the identification of actionable ideas, replication potential, and relevance to the World Bank Group’s twin goals: ending extreme poverty by 2030 and boosting shared prosperity (measured as the income of the bottom 40 percent in any given country).
The winner(s) will be invited to offer a presentation at a major PPP event in London in mid-June, and there is a cash prize as well.
The deadline for submissions is March 31, 2015. I invite you to follow us on twitter @WBG_PPP to keep up with our work and PPP-relevant news.
The competition is sponsored by the Public Private Infrastructure Advisory Facility (PPIAF).
Metaphor of the month, via a deft dispatch from Davos: Thomas “Piketty was not in attendance this year – which was like putting on ‘Hamlet’ without the Prince” of Denmark, quipped Larry Elliott, the economics editor of The Guardian, as he needled ostentatious Davos-goers for only half-heartedly living up to the Davos dictum of being “ ‘committed to improving the state of the world,’ provided nothing much changes.”
Let’s shift the Shakespearean citation slightly, from “Hamlet” to “Macbeth”: Like Banquo’s ghost, the specter of Piketty’s analysis of inequality and injustice seemed to haunt many private-sector leaders at Davos this year – and thus the scholar from the Paris School of Economics didn’t need to be present in order to have a powerful impact at this year’s World Economic Forum.
Amid last week's self-exculpatory denialism from the unrepentant-oligarch wing of the Davos Man culture, one could almost hear the apologists for plutocracy and the free-market fatalists joining the conscience-stricken Macbeth in shrieking to Banquo's implacable apparition: “Thou canst not say I did it! Never shake thy gory locks at me!”
The Davos 2015 parade of plutocrats may have been worth all the time and trouble, after all – despite its customary spectacles of self-indulgence – if the pageantry helped pique the conscience of some of the One Percenters and their courtiers, at least momentarily. “Most of the conversations between chief executives here are about Piketty-type issues. They talk about things [at Davos that] they wouldn’t be talking about back in the boardroom,” one eminent corporate leader told Elliott of The Guardian. Piketty-inspired concerns about inequality – along with fears of chronic economic stagnation and an irretrievably despoiled planet – seem likely to inform this year’s top-level global policy forums, from Addis Ababa in July to the United Nations in September to Paris in December.
Signaling that many private-sector leaders have been awoken by, and are responding to, Piketty's landmark analysis of the intensifying concentration of capital in ever-fewer hands – which is provoking a more rigid stratification of society along hardening lines of social class – the World Economic Forum itself set the stage for Davos 2015 by publishing a 14-point agenda for promoting more inclusive growth. That analysis, searching for constructive solutions, is certainly a welcome contribution to the debate. Yet Piketty’s analysis of the widening gaps between the ultra-wealthy and everyone else – with Davos as perhaps an inadvertent self-parody of the cocooned Uber One Percent – suggests that there’s scant hope for mending a torn society unless policymakers enact policy changes on a vast scale: by (among other priorities) adopting greater progressivity in tax rates and enforcing a crackdown on cross-border tax evasion.
(An aside, regarding those who quibble with a point of Piketty-era terminology – and those who have attempted, and have conspicuously failed, to refute Piketty’s logic. Using a chicken-and-egg argument, some theorists lament the Piketty-inspired focus on the term “inequality,” insisting that inequality may be the outgrowth of, rather than the cause of, economic stagnation and social stratification. Fair enough. Yet such casuistry dwells on a distinction without a practical difference. Enacting pro-growth programs to avoid “secular stagnation” would surely be wise policymaking. Yet no serious plan would envision going back to a pre-2008-style “GDP growth at any cost” approach. The global financial crisis of 2008 revealed the recklessness of simplistic gun-the-engine, GDP-uber-alles policies that produce merely unsustainable, low-quality growth. Today’s pragmatists, instead, champion a more inclusive economy that eases social divisions and sustains broader opportunity – promoting what the World Bank Group calls “shared prosperity.”)
Judging by Piketty’s esteem among Davos 2015 participants, most leaders of the private sector – all but a recalcitrant few, some of whom dwell on the free-market fundamentalist fringe – have evidently gotten the message (at last): Chronic inequality and stifled social mobility have reached a socially intolerable and perhaps politically destabilizing intensity. Yet if all but an eccentric remnant in the private sector “get it,” do public-sector policymakers – many of whom seem ever-eager to do the bidding of the most self-aggrandizing monied interests? The Davos-style ideal of “capitalism for the long term” is motivated by “enlightened self-interest,” yet many boardrooms – and those politicians who are forever at their beck and call – apparently need still more enlightenment and less self-interest.
Charting the next steps beyond Piketty's “Capital in the Twenty-First Century" – advancing from academic analysis to social action – will be the next order of business in 2015, a year with parliamentary elections in several pivotal countries. Just in time for the post-Davos and pre-election season, a newly published book seems poised to pick up where Piketty left off: emphasizing that society needs a healthier balance between private-sector dynamism and public-sector activism, undergirded by a humane sense that an economy with truly shared prosperity should prioritize social fairness.
With their appetites whetted by early excerpts published this week in The Observer, many admirers of Piketty will be eager to read “How Good We Can Be: Ending the Mercenary Society and Building a Great Country” by Will Hutton, the principal of Hertford College, Oxford. Hutton – for all his gloom about the injustices inflicted on his native United Kingdom over the past 35 years – advances an optimistic agenda that might show the way toward correcting decades’ worth of policy errors.
“Inequality has become a challenge to us as moral beings,” declares Hutton, reinforcing Piketty’s view of a society starkly stratified by social class. A callousness toward social divisions has spilled over from the economic realm into political decision-making, resulting in an “amoral deficit of integrity” – and Hutton is not shy about pointing to a specific turning point, or about naming a specific name.
“Ever since [Margaret] Thatcher’s election in 1979, Britain’s elites have relegated concerns about inequality below the existential question of how to restore our capitalist economy to economic health, a matter deemed to transcend all other considerations,” writes Hutton. “The language of the socioeconomic landscape has been commanded by words like efficiency, productivity, wealth generation, aspiration, entrepreneur, pro-business and incentives. To the extent they are significant at all, preoccupations with inequality have been seen as of second-order importance.”
The “raw trends” of the weakened power of wage-earners and the strengthened dominance of capital-owners – the outgrowth of Piketty’s iconic formula, r>g – “are then exacerbated by the reduction of taxation on capital, companies and higher earners in the name of promoting incentives and 'wealth generation.' " No wonder, Hutton asserts, that the United Kingdom has suffered “a stunning increase in inequality, the fastest in the OECD.”
Readers who were drawn to Piketty’s logic – yet who were left by "Capital" with a despairing feeling of “where do we go from here?” – are likely to warm to Hutton’s work, which extends the logic of his influential 1995 analysis, “The State We’re In.”
“Indifference to the growing gap between rich and poor, in all its multiple dimensions, is the first-order-category mistake of our times," warns Hutton. "No lasting solution to the socioeconomic crisis through which we are living is possible without addressing it.”
Recalling his years of energetic columns in The Guardian and The Observer, Hutton’s activist economic prescription in “How Good We Can Be” seems likely to include a better-focused approach to industrial policy; targeted investment in innovation capacity; pro-entrepreneurship mechanisms to sharpen competitiveness; and pro-active tax policies that ease rather than intensify the wealth divide.
Many of those who missed this year’s Davos triumph of Piketty-style reasoning are now awaiting the arrival of Hutton’s new book on this side of the Atlantic. Piketty scored the scholarly sensation of 2014 with the publication of “Capital.” My early hunch is that Hutton, with “How Good We Can Be,” just might achieve a similar agenda-setting success in 2015.
The Investment Policy team of the World Bank Group’s Trade & Competitiveness (T&C) Global Practice has learned that China is about to adopt a new foreign investment law that would bring about several potentially significant improvements to the current investment regime. Although we have not yet seen an English-language version of the proposed law, and therefore have to rely for the moment on accounts by international law firms and chambers of commerce that have seen (and sometimes commented on) the draft law, I wanted to share the news with the Private Sector Development community because of the new law’s potential impact – not just in China but across East Asia.
China has very significant political and economic clout in the region and across the developing world. Its reforms are closely watched, and they could inspire many other developing and emerging economies to follow suit.
After soliciting comments on the three existing laws, China’s Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) issued a draft of the Foreign Investment Law on January 19, also soliciting public comment – a process that, incidentally, should also inspire many countries.
If passed, the new law would abrogate and ‘unify’ the three current laws that regulate foreign investment: namely, the Sino-Foreign Equity Joint Venture Law, the Wholly Foreign-Owned Enterprise Law and the Sino-Foreign Contractual Joint Venture Law. Although going from three laws to one can in itself be a positive thing – simplifying the regulatory environment usually is a good idea – what really matters to the investor community is the substantive or procedural changes that the new law would introduce.
A first change is that the new law would adopt a “negative list” approach, modeled on the system in place in the Shanghai Pilot Free Trade Zone (FTZ). As a reminder: Under a negative-list approach, certain sectors where foreign investment is restricted, capped or prohibited are specifically enumerated on a negative list. And foreign investment in restricted sectors can only proceed through some sort of ex ante screening and approval mechanism by a governmental authority or agency. On the other hand, under such a system, investments in sectors that are not on the negative list can usually proceed without any prior screening and approval, using, for example, the normal company registration process.
The negative-list approach is one that T&C’s Investment Policy Team often recommends to our client countries, because it fosters transparency and predictability and because it reduces government discretion over the admission of investors. Obviously, in this case, we would need to see the actual negative list before we can offer a more definitive assessment. But assuming that the number of sectors on the negative list is not excessive or, better, that sectors previously closed or restricted are now open to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), the impact of this single change could be very significant.