Monday, 30 November 2009

The Commonwealth at 60 and the Commonwealth Factor

The role and significance of the Commonwealth is a perennial topic alongside every Heads’ meeting. As CEO of the Commonwealth’s business association, which links hundreds of vibrant companies across the 53 countries I find that the Commonwealth is often both undervalued and underappreciated. My concern is not that the association will wither into obscurity, but we need to always need to keep the association relevant for today. What is its greatest strength?

The Commonwealth’s unique selling point or usp is not in its institutions but in its networks, values and the more elusive, but potent, ‘Commonwealth Factor’. This derives from of a common historical experience reflected in the similar administrative, legal, financial and business practices that members share, as well as the use of the English language. The Commonwealth Factor when leveraged, as CBC does to promote trade and investment, with Commonwealth values of multi party democracy, human rights, the rule of law, good governance, free press, and socially responsible market orientated policies, is when real results are seen.

The Commonwealth Secretariat, the inter-governmental organisation of the Commonwealth, can’t be a leading development organisation, its budget is too small, a fraction of the larger NGOs. However, in my 25 years of experience with the Commonwealth it has been through more assessments than the UN and many other international organisations, all of which are very many times larger than the Secretariat. Unfortunately the Secretariat is undervalued, underfunded and over-assessed, and nothing much will be achieved by yet another assessment exercise.

Nurturing, leveraging and promoting the ideals and the values at the core of the Commonwealth, is the key to CBC’s success and has lead to greater investment opportunities in Commonwealth countries. Commonwealth member states are increasingly being seen as ideal locations for doing business, thanks in a large part to this ‘Commonwealth factor’. Intra-Commonwealth trade has increased from $2 trillion to $3 Trillion over the last 10 years, Investment flows have reached over US$180 billion and Commonwealth trade and investment accounts for over 20 per cent of the world total. The Commonwealth Factor, we believe, can decrease the cost of doing business by anything up to 15%. The Commonwealth is the home to some of the most dynamic and successful new global companies in fields critical to development – ICT, technology and energy, finance, and agriculture. Increasingly the modern Commonwealth is defined by the emerging economies – for example India, Nigeria, South Africa, Malaysia, Trinidad and Tobago – these are new economic centres of excellence growing in importance alongside the UK, Australia and Canada. The association is certainly not lacking in innovation and success.

Another aspect of the Commonwealth Association which is valued greatly across by member countries is skills development and education. I am disappointed by the NGO’s who are ‘so called’ advocates of the Commonwealth but dwell on the association’s past and are not looking to its future. The Commonwealth could obviously use greater resources, but of even greater import is sustained commitment to and recognition of the Commonwealth factor and networks, that can be leveraged to enhance the lives of so many across the association.

The future of the Commonwealth must focus on enhancing the characteristics I have mentioned, its values and networks so that more and more of Commonwealth Citizens can take advantage of their shared heritage.

Friday, 13 November 2009

India, Prudence and FDI

The Indian Prime Minister’s, Manmohan Singh, recent announcements about new economic reforms, particularly the 10% divestment of public sector companies, is movement in the right direction.

India is satisfied that it has avoided the worst of the global financial crisis, its conservative banking system and high capital ratio have protected it from the worst of the global turmoil. However, this conservatism works both ways, yes it reduces risk, but it also limits access. In India, this means millions of potential entrepreneurs are excluded from the financial systems that they can use to prosper. Prudence is good, but too great a level can limit growth and exclude too many members of society. To accelerate the rate of growth India should, perhaps, be a little less prudent.

Relatively low levels of FDI in India, only $121 billion over the last 8 years, are a mystery to me. India represents a fantastic investment opportunity and the levels should be higher. Recent Figures have shown a 9.1% increase in industrial production from last year, and the Government’s commitment to $500 Billion in infrastructure investment, a figure that will be far higher when including the Private Sector contribution. The IFC, the World Bank’s private sector arm, decision to increase India’s exposure from the $3.4 Billion or 10% of its portfolio last year, are all signs of confidence in India’s policy and growth. As one of the few countries where economic activity is near levels hit before the economic crisis, India will prove to be one of the most attractive investment destinations over the coming years.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Indian Infrastructure

I had the pleasure of attending an event with President Patil of India last week. The President was in the UK to promote UK India relations and strengthen business ties between the 2 countries. Last week was very much an ‘India week’ in London, demonstrating the importance of the relationship to the 2 countries the President’s trip coincided with the return of the Lord Mayor of London from India where he was leading a business delegation from the City.

I feel, that while there have been successful experiences for UK Infrastructure companies in India, CBC members Arup and Mott MacDonald to name a couple, the experience has not always been as rewarding. Due in part to the Strength of the Home Grown construction sector that is better connected than International companies can hope to be. The lesson for UK construction companies in India is to find the right local partner, one who shares the same business goals and has the capacity to deliver. While there are challenges to finding the right partner in India the arguments in favour of entering the market allied with an Indian company are overwhelming.