Promoting private sector development in poor countries and engaging with firms for achieving development ends is very much in fashion. In development circles, round tables and events discussing public-private partnerships are springing up more and more. Recently, a participant at one of these asked, “How much of this is actually new?” But further, what would have to happen to make any new engagement with the private sector more widely acceptable and effective?
The private sector has always had a key role in development through providing jobs and incomes. It has also “engaged” with governments through public procurement –as whenever a government builds a road or a school, or when medicines or supplies are purchased, the private sector has a role. This role can even be very large in small economies where government expenditure is disproportionately large compared to the rest of the economy. Development finance institutions, such as the European Investment Bank and the International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank Group, have also been around, providing finance to the private sector in development for a long time, so indeed, what is new?
Well, the increasing rhetoric of bilateral donors and the European Commission about engaging with the private sector is relatively new. For their cooperation with the private sector to bring about positive results then raises the need to understand better what types of engagement have already taken place among donors and the private sector, to what effect, and why. There is a range of tools that has been and might be used by different donors, all with potentially different implications for the donor, the private sector and the ultimate beneficiary. The relatively long USAID experience of working with and for the private sector using a range of tools was particularly brought out in a recent meeting entitled “Reassessing Development Aid: The Future of Public-Private Partnerships”. But perhaps the key underlying message from their experience was that the position that “if its good for development, then its good for us”.
This positive view of private sector engagement stands in contrast to a more hesitant approach from the NGO network Eurodad. The day after the USAID event, they launched a report entitled “Private Profit for Public Good? Can Investing in Private Companies Deliver for the Poor?“. This asks some important questions regarding the provision of loans by development finance institutions to promote the domestic private sector in developing countries, and particularly about the degree to which public money channeled through these finance institutions genuinely contributes to promoting development, particularly given the need to make a profit, and therefore target higher-yielding ventures. Eurodad’s findings suggest that while there is a will, current approaches do not effectively balance the profit motive with developmental outcomes, again highlighting the need to learn from experience.
Eurodad also emphasized the importance of financial sector development in partner countries. Much of development finance institutions’ funding for Small and Medium Entreprises (SMEs) is channeled through financial intermediaries such as commercial banks or other financial institutions. This means that, as well as profit margins for each intermediary in the chain, intermediaries must pass on the loans to the credit constrained and SMEs. As this is something that European governments have struggled to get banks in their own countries to do in recent times, it is understandably also an issue for finance institutions operating in developing countries. Commercial banks seeking high returns are often much happier investing in safe government bonds than in risky SME ventures. As such, even with the best intentions it may be very hard for development finance institutions to reach SMEs in developing countries where the financial sector is weak.
But even when a firm is found to be “bankable”, and can access the desired credit, this is not necessarily the end of the story. I am reminded of a Mozambican printing company that managed to cut the time it would take for a large printing job from 3 days to 3 hours with international investment assistance, only to be faced with a lack of demand for such printing capacity given the scarcity of firms requiring such large printed volumes. So, while provision of credit or public-private partnerships may work in some cases, it clearly is not the final word.
It is good that the private sector is increasingly in the limelight. But beyond the rhetoric, stories as that of the Mozambican printing company call for broader learning. Evidence from specific cases helps to better understand when public-private partnerships work and why. There may indeed be lessons for Europeans to learn from USAID experience in this regard, starting from an acceptance that not only can private sector contribute to development by aligning with donor programmes, but donors may also be able to learn from private sector approaches to particular problems.
This blog post features the author’s personal views and does not represent the view of ECDPM.
Many thanks for your comment and views David. Indeed one of the areas of work we are now developing at ECDPM aims to address these issues to try and systematise some of the lessons from donor experiences with engaging the private and public sectors. We will have a Discussion Paper soon that reviews some of the issues more broadly, but indeed there appears to be an absence of independent analysis of what tools have worked and why and this will hopefully be an area we move into quite soon.
It’s true we can hardly escape hearing today’s halleluiahs about Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs). But as Bruce Byiers rightly implies we can at least listen with a critical ear. Byiers’s remarks about learning from specific experiences are timely. They echo what we heard last week when a Dutch Senate Commission began public hearings on the impact of privatization in the Netherlands. Major figures such as Alexander Rinnooy Kan Chairman of the Social and Economic Council and Saskia Stuiveling, President of the Netherlands Court of Audit, were asked for their views about policies to privatize and otherwise push for private sector involvement in public goods provision. According to them –- and for many years they have been in excellent positions to know -- these public policies have been driven not by sober and pragmatic assessments of costs, benefits and risks, but by ideology. In the Netherlands and elsewhere, true Believers in the magic of the Markets have led this movement, dragging along the rest of us pell-mell with scarcely a by-your-leave. I think the same can be said of the push for business involvement in development cooperation. Rigorous assessments of PPP’s aren’t exactly abundant –- a situation of ignorance not unlike that surrounding Corporate Social Responsibility, where corporate and government interest in its actual impact has been virtually nil. I’m hardly expert in this field, but independent studies of PPPs that I’m aware of are hardly in harmony with the Halleluiah Chorus. Bruce Byiers is surely right to stress the need for evidence; perhaps he could review studies he has found valid and useful and draw some further conclusions for his readers.