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, who leads the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund (ACF). “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 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 earlier work with a nonprofit financial intermediary, 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 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.”