Foreign direct investment (FDI) is often considered by economists and policymakers as integral to economic growth – a cornerstone of modernization, income growth and employment.
Yet for many countries, FDI can be elusive, and chasing it can lead policymakers to frustration.
Even economies built by FDI – for example, Singapore – are on this continuous chase, aware that attracting and retaining FDI is not an easy task. They also know that the benefits of FDI do not accrue automatically and evenly across all countries, sectors and local communities.
But first, there must be a realization of the importance of FDI. Singapore – a country once called a “political, economic and geographic absurdity” by its first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew – never doubted the centrality of FDI, promoting it from the outset of its independence. Singapore saw in FDI an opportunity to develop a substantial industrial base, to create new jobs for its then-poor and low-skilled workforce, and to generate crucial tax revenues for its nascent government to spend on education and infrastructure.
Two decades after that initial strategic acceptance of FDI, Singapore emerged as a newly industrialized economy.
It is little surprise, then, that Singapore’s experience was highlighted at a recent World Bank Group peer-to-peer learning event here in the city-state. Responding to strong demand from client countries, two teams from the Trade & Competitiveness Global Practice – the Investment Policy and Promotion (IPP) team and the Singapore Hub team – co-hosted the learning forum entitled "Promoting Investment Policy and Promotion Reform in Times of Uncertainty."
Supported by SPIRA – the Support Program on Investment Policy and Related Areas – the forum enabled some 80 government officials from East Asia, South Asia and Africa to share their experiences in economic and export diversification; to discuss the role of international trade and investment agreements as leverage toward domestic reforms; and to discuss how to translate investment policy and promotion strategies into measurable results. SPIRA, implemented by the IPP team, supports client countries across all regions in attracting, facilitating and retaining different types of FDI.
In Mozambique in 2003, it took an entrepreneur 168 days to start a business. Today, it takes only 19 days. That kind of transformation has major implications for ambitious men and women who are seeking to make a mark in business, or, as is often the case in Africa, seeking to move beyond a life in agriculture. In economies with sensible, streamlined regulations, all it takes is a good idea, and a couple of weeks, and an entrepreneur is in business.
This week, the World Bank Group launched its annual Doing Business 2016 report, which benchmarks countries based on their progress undertaking business reforms that make it easier for local businesses to start up and operate.
For the second straight year, Singapore topped the list, with New Zealand, Denmark, the Republic of Korea, and Hong Kong SAR, China, coming in closely behind.
In the developing world, standouts included Kenya and Costa Rica, both of which rose 21 positions; Mauritius, Sub-Saharan Africa’s top-ranked economy; Kazakhstan, which moved up 12 places to rank 41st among all countries; and Bhutan, which topped South Asia’s list of reformers. In the Middle East and North Africa, 11 of the region’s 20 economies achieved 21 reforms despite the challenges caused by a number of civil and interstate conflicts.
The reforms tracked by Doing Business are implemented by governments, but the results show up most in the private sector, which is critical to driving a country’s competitiveness and to creating jobs. Ensuring an enabling environment in which the private sector can operate effectively is an important marker of how well an economy is positioned to compete globally.
For those of us working with governments to help improve their investment climates – and to create a policy environment in which business regulatory costs are reasonable, access to finance is open, technology is shared, and trade flows within and across borders – the real work begins long before the Doing Business rankings are published.
In the World Bank Group’s Trade and Competitiveness Global Practice (T&C), our mandate is to work with developing countries to unleash the power of their private sector for growth. Much of this work involves reforms in the very areas measured in the Doing Business report: starting a business, dealing with construction formalities, or trading across borders, among other factors.
Our experience working with clients confirms one of this year’s key findings: Regulatory efficiency and quality go hand-in-hand. A good investment climate requires well-designed regulations that protect property rights and facilitate business operations while safeguarding other people’s rights as well as their health, their safety and the environment.
Sri Lanka conjures up different images in the minds of different people: lush green tropical canopies, steaming cups of aromatic tea, and hardworking fishermen in their dinghy boats.
For me, the country also packs enormous promise for growth and development. There is not the slightest doubt that Sri Lanka will have to come clean and deal with the aftermath of its prolonged civil war. However, at a fundamental level, there is a sense of hunger in its people to rebuild their lives and their country. The new-found peace that engulfs the population is cherished by most, and is part of dinner conversations especially with foreigners like me.
Sri Lanka already holds a strong position in certain agricultural and industrial exports, like tea or uncut diamonds. Combine this with its strategic location – situated at the crossroads of major shipping routes connecting South Asia, East Asia and the Middle East – and you have a potent combination, a promise waiting to be fulfilled.
I recently spoke at an event organized by the country’s top business newspaper, the Daily Financial Times, in partnership with the well-regarded Colombo University MBA Alumni Association. The focus of the forum was the country’s emerging six-hub strategy – Maritime, Commercial, Knowledge, Aviation, Energy and Tourism: the cornerstone of its further economic development.
The euphoria leading up to the event was palpable. The ceremonial drums and lighting of the auspicious lamp to evoke good omen created the perfect ambience. I was nervous, not because of stage fright, but because I was about to present a contrarian viewpoint to private-sector and public-sector experts, while sharing the stage with the Minister of Economic Development and the Governor of the Sri Lanka’s Central Bank. Even though my arguments were well-thought-through and fact-based, it was going to be a delicate dance, as I was about to communicate some tough arguments against the implementation of the full-blown six-hub strategy.
A daunting development challenge will confront us for the next decade: More than 1 million jobs per month – every month, for a decade or more – will need to be created to raise the living standards of the 2.6 billion who live on less than $2 per day, and the billions who will soon try to enter the paid workforce amid one of the greatest demographic surges in human history. Job creation in the public sector is expected to be flat, at best, so most of the needed jobs will have to be created by the private sector. But how?
Focusing on the macroeconomic agenda is necessary but insufficient. Most countries have rolled out macro-level reforms, but policymakers increasingly argue that the macro policy agenda must be complemented by targeted growth programs focusing on specific industries and value chains. Policymakers urgently seek practical solutions to meet the job-creation challenge.
I pay through the nose for health insurance for my family, and I’m not happy about it. As a U.S. citizen, I don’t have the luxury of government-backed healthcare. Since I’m technically self-employed, I have to pay the full premium myself. Want some figures? It costs me $830 a month for a family of four, with a high deductible. Besides being expensive, it takes a huge effort to deal with insurance issues, and I find that my provider is expert at finding reasons not to reimburse me for medical expenses. This is chewing a gaping hole in my budget. The only way I’ll ever get value for my money is if I’m hit by a bus.