Judith Tyson (Research Fellow, ODI)
13 October 2017
In 2017, the UK government put economic growth at the core of its development policy by publishing its first ever economic development strategy. Concurrently, there was greater focus on the post-Brexit agenda of international opportunities for UK trade and investment.
A key part of this agenda is increasing UK trade and investment in low-income countries (LICs) with the dual goal of creating positive development impact and greater opportunities for UK companies.
To be able to achieve this dual goal, which represents an opportunity for both the UK and LICs, recent ODI work on private finance suggests there are three key areas of focus in the short term.
1. Infrastructure as the top priority
Poor infrastructure is a critical constraint to investment in many LICs. This can include expensive and under-supplied electricity and underdeveloped transport, with a lack of paved roads and poor-quality sea and air ports.
Investors often see poor infrastructure as the major issue that undermines their investment appetite. While some can overcome infrastructure constraints through special economic zones, many investors simply must have basic infrastructure in place before they will invest. Working with governments and other donors to establish basic infrastructure must thus be a key priority.
In the UK, CDC Group, the country’s development finance institution, already has a dedicated infrastructure team and, with a new injection of £3.5 billion of capital from the development budget over the coming years, it has the scale to make the required investments.
There is also an opportunity for UK financial firms to participate in infrastructure investment, thus increasing its potential scale. In particular, UK insurers and pension funds could be key investors, given their demand for the asset class (especially in combination with risk mitigation from donors), and the UK’s financial sector can provide the financial services to intermediate investment in the sector.
2. DFID support to a broader range of UK businesses
The UK Department for International Development (DFID) has, to date, focused on locally-owned, small- and medium-sized firms. While this approach can deliver useful development impacts, it is less likely to enable UK firms to participate in developing economies or to establish the larger-scale firms needed for LICs to enhance productivity—a key aspect of economic transformation.
Working more closely with UK firms to invest in LICs has the potential to increase development outcomes—such as employment creation and economic deepening and diversification—and provide opportunities for UK firms.
There are two specific aspects of engagement with firms that could be refocused on.
First, large UK companies have established businesses in LICs, most commonly in extractives, agricultural processing, financing and consumer products. Such companies are often among the largest in LICs and provide significant formal employment, tax revenues and benefits to employees (such as housing, healthcare and education).
In some LICs, these businesses also overcome infrastructure and other constraints by building dedicated power and transport infrastructure, and through close relationships with governments. Such strategies have facilitated the development of large-scale businesses in difficult environments for private sector development.
Greater coordination between such firms, DFID and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) could help both maximise the development impact of existing sites and enable the establishment of new ‘greenfield’ sites in LICs where such firms do not currently invest.
Second, LICs need ‘green’ technology transfer to support economic development. For example, there is a need for green power and transport networks.
UK firms are world leaders in such technologies, including in solar- and wind-power generation and battery technologies. However, many such high-tech firms are also medium-sized and lack the finance and capacity to expand their businesses into LICs.
Currently, the Department for International Trade (DIT) offers support for export growth for UK companies. However, for LICs, this support is restricted. For example, the maximum financing available is often small and is subject to restrictive criteria, such as irrevocable letters of credit.
A partnership between DFID and DIT to loosen these criteria and expand the maximum financing for developmentally-important investments by UK companies in LICs is needed. This could include using official development assistance (ODA) to subsidise DIT export finance and insurance, as long as it is not tied aid, and that it is aimed at promoting development.
It could also include DFID using its expertise to advise and partner with UK firms to invest in the difficult business environments in evidence in LICs in ways that also maximise their development impact. The recently announced Invest Africa initiative might offer scope for this.
3. New forums for intra-government coordination are needed
There are many opportunities for ‘win-win’ outcomes for UK firms and LICs. There have already been some excellent UK initiatives to support these; for example, DIT have enhanced investment insurance and increased export finance for South Africa. Such support should be extended to LICs.
In addition, because of the difficult investment environments in LICs, there is also a need for greater alignment and closer coordination between UK government departments (including DFID, FCO and DIT). This should include both high-level coordination on strategy and lower-level processes to drive the ‘nitty-gritty’ required for matchmaking, execution of individual projects and in-country support, as well as ODA-based support to enhance the development impact of UK firms.
Such closer alignment across departments promises to deliver results that are greater than the sum of their parts, for both the UK and for LICs.
Photo credit: Arne Hoel / World Bank. License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.