FDI, globalization, UNCTAD and human development
If UNCTAD is to advance the cause of sustainable human development, then it should, among other things, reconsider its work in relation to foreign direct investment. The UN agency needs to distance itself from an advocacy role for FDI and transnationals as well as redress the not inconsiderable conceptual flaws in its annual World Investment Reports, argues Yash Tandon.
HARARE: The human being, surprisingly, is once again becoming an interesting subject for those involved in such mundane and uninteresting matters as trade and investment. Even in the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), which has "development" as part of its name (and agenda), the adjective "human" before development is a new addition. There are those who assume that economic growth automatically encompasses "human" development. But empirical data from those who know better, including the UN Development Programme's (UNDP) annual Human Development Reports, have shown beyond doubt that there is no necessary, or automatic, link between economic growth and human welfare. Growth is a necessary ingredient, but not sufficient.
But this qualification is still resisted by many neoclassical economists. There are still hard-core believers in the market as the final arbiter of everything, including human welfare. Increasingly, however, and maybe perhaps grudgingly, a part of the economic fraternity is beginning to acknowledge that the human being is more important than the market, that the market is no guarantor of human welfare, that action needs to be taken that goes beyond the market to ensure sustainable human development. But the debate goes back and forth between those who argue that the market can handle even issues related to human welfare (through proper pricing and incentive policies) and those who argue that "market failures", by definition, are beyond the ambit of the market and therefore it is the function of the state to address them.
Hitherto it was assumed that social policy is the preserve of governments answerable to the people, that matters such as health, education, social infrastructure and the protection of the vulnerable and the marginalized are areas that require state intervention. To the state its own, to the market its own. That was the rough and ready division of labour between the state and the corporate world. But states in much of the Third World are getting a bad name. They are perceived as corrupt, undemocratic, self-serving and generally insensitive to the plight of the poor. And when they are not corrupt or any of those negative things, they do not have the power to deliver, since globalization has eroded much of their power. Hence it is to corporate capital that development theory is increasingly turning to see if capital can be made more accountable to concerns of human welfare.
Attempts such as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's proposed "global compact" with transnational corporations (TNCs) are new initiatives that have switched responsibility for social welfare back from the state to the corporate world. It is now the state to its little corner, and the market holding the rest of the terrain.
The question is whether corporate capital - whose raison d'etre is to deliver profits to its owners, the shareholders - can also deliver human welfare. Can capital be made accountable to sustainable human development? Does capital have a soul?
Although not posed in this romantic fashion, this was one of the issues discussed in a workshop on Globalization and Human Development organized by UNCTAD and the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD), a Geneva-based NGO group.
The workshop, in Namibia, 10-11 May, was held in the framework of UNCTAD's (new) project of encouraging dialogue to strengthen "policy coherence" between goals of sustainable human development (SHD) and economic integration in the globalization process and trade liberalization. The broad agenda of the dialogue was to shed new light on linkages between economic integration, international trade and SHD. More specifically, the Namibia seminar sought to address issues such as:
* assessing, from an SHD perspective, the African region's trade and investment integration policies;
* opportunities and risk management measures for African countries with regard to globalization and further trade and investment liberalization; and
* the development of policy recommendations for promoting developing-country interests, including SHD objectives, in the multilateral system and other international governance frameworks.
Is UNCTAD equal to the new challenge?
Sustainable human development is a relatively new dimension in UNCTAD's knowledge repertoire. UNCTAD is staffed mostly by economists, political scientists or those with legal qualifications, and their knowledge base is predominantly economistic with a strong bias towards the neoclassical paradigm. Few really know how to integrate the concept of SHD within their conceptual toolbag, let alone how to operationalize it within their work programme. It is therefore commendable that UNCTAD has taken the initiative to work with NGOs (like ICTSD) to plough this new-found furrow. About 20 participants from Africa - from government, the academia and civil society - met in the Namibian capital of Windhoek under the joint sponsorship of UNCTAD and ICTSD. How UNCTAD seeks to reconcile the demands of SHD with those of foreign direct investments (FDIs) was one of several issues addressed by the seminar.
Within the UN system, UNCTAD is mandated to monitor the movement of global capital and the activities of TNCs. Since the subject was transferred to UNCTAD from its previous home (the UN Centre on Transnational Corporations, UNCTC), there has been a subtle, but significant, transformation in the manner in which the matter is handled. As well as providing raw data on the flow of capital and on TNCs, UNCTAD's annual World Investment Reports (WIRs) also set out to advocate the liberalization of markets for a freer flow of capital. In relation to countries of the Third World, UNCTAD has taken a pro-activist advocacy role to induce them to create better conditions to attract TNCs and FDI. And often the policies advocated in the WIRs, and at country- or sub-regional level meetings with governments, seem to run counter to UNCTAD's own policy analysis and recommendations in, for example, its Trade and Development Reports.
In a paper presented at the Windhoek seminar, the author argued that UNCTAD's advocacy role compromises its role as an agency to gather information on FDIs and TNCs and transmit it to its constituencies in an unbiased manner. In other words, by championing the cause of FDI as the central element in the development strategy of Third World countries, UNCTAD has gratuitously taken upon itself the weight of a theory that is hard to sustain either in logic or in history. There is really no evidence to show that FDI brings development; indeed there may well be a stronger case to argue that FDI brings about underdevelopment.
An uncritical advocacy of FDI and the TNCs by UNCTAD has rendered its annual WIRs seriously flawed on both statistical and conceptual grounds. The most egregious faults are conceptual. Statistics, in the best of times, are a servant of theory and guided by theory. Also, when you collect data on the movement of investment capital at a global level covering more than 150 countries, and on the activities of a hundred and more TNCs, you are bound to make mistakes. Or, failing to get reliable data, you may have to resort to making "estimates" or even blind guesses. This is nothing novel in the economics profession, whose "scientific" pretensions often hide conceptual or ideological underpinnings and flawed statistics.
In the case of the WIRs, it is their conceptual laxity and indulgence that render their statistics incredulous. First, then, to the conceptual shortcomings of the WIRs.
The most serious of these are, among others, their concept of "development", the way they define the "nationality" of enterprises, and their definitions of what constitute "inflows" and "outflows" of FDI.
Take the UNCTAD/WIR determination of the nationality of enterprises. On what basis does it confer nationality on these enterprises? It is a hazardous exercise to try to determine the nationality of "transnational" corporations, especially those that are registered in the developing countries or in tax havens. Or, from formal nationality identification to try to draw conclusions about ownership and control.
One would probably get away with describing Microsoft as "American" or Toyota as "Japanese" but is one justified in describing Anglo-American as "South African" just because it is registered there and its major owners have South African nationality? The US administration can haul Microsoft before its domestic courts for a ruling on the basis of US anti-trust legislation, and the court may even decide that Microsoft be split in two. In the case of Anglo-American, if the South African government were to contemplate similar action in relation to it, there would be an immediate outcry from those in the capital centres of New York and London (and other centres) who really own Anglo-American. It is not South Africans who own Anglo-American in any real sense.
TNCs as a genre may have similar "structural" features, but each one has a history of its own, and one needs to go deep into the subterranean levels with respect to many of them to know who really owns or controls them. In the case of the so-called TNCs "belonging" to the Third World, one has to be extra careful for many of them were colonial creations and remain steadfastly colonial both in their ownership and control and in the kinds of investment decisions they make. In one case, it was discovered that whilst a "Malaysian" enterprise secured a tender for the supply of power equipment to Zimbabwe, behind the enterprise were German capital and German equipment; the Malaysians were acting mainly as middlemen.
So what is one to make of such repeated statements in the WIRs that "Third World TNCs" are increasingly investing in each other's countries? The Third World, in reality, do not have much of "TNCs" to brag about.
Or, what is one to make of the following data in a study undertaken by UNCTAD on Uganda?
Country of Origin of FDI in Uganda:
South Africa 8
(of which from African countries 165)
[Source: UNCTAD, Investment Policy Review, Uganda, Geneva, 2000, Table 3, page 5]
Apart from the curious phenomenon that Kenya, supposedly in dire need of FDI, is itself exporting it (the extra it has) to Uganda, there is also the problem of the nationality of the enterprises that are deemed to have originated from Kenya. Are they really Kenyan? Might they not be Ugandans living in Kenya bringing some of their capital back home? Might they not be, indeed, British or German firms masquerading as Kenyan?
The point of this discussion is that generalizations made in the WIRs about the source and quantities of FDI flows into African countries are based on the most spurious data based on the most indulgent definition of terms. Neither the data nor the generalizations should be given the kind of authoritative credence that UNCTAD seeks to secure for them simply because they appear to be "concrete" figures.
Perhaps the most bizarre, and in its implications the most obscurantist and therefore the most dangerous, definition within the WIR repertoire is that of "outflows". For the WIR, an "outflow" of capital is when a national company of a country exports capital outside the country. If a Kenyan company brings capital into Uganda, it is an "outflow" from Kenya and is defined as "FDI".
But then how would one describe it when a foreign enterprise exports capital outside the country? What happens when a British company based in Kenya takes capital out of the country? Well, that, according to UNCTAD, is only remittance of profits or dividends or under whatever other label such capital is exported. Such outflows are not really "outflows" in the WIR dictionary.
So what is so obscurantist or dangerous about this?
For any analysis of the pluses and minuses of FDI, and the policy conclusions to be drawn, the data needs to be disaggregated to distinguish among the various types of outflows.
The following types of outflows of capital from Africa and other developing countries need to be identified and disaggregated data thereon collected and collated:
1. Dividends/profits remitted by foreign enterprises
2. Debt payments
3. Increased payments on account of rise of interest rates in industrialized countries
4. Increased cost of capital on account of risk premiums
5. Loss of capital (and jobs) on account of Structural Adjustment Programmes
6. Loss of capital through privatization of public assets of developing countries
7. Patent and copyright fees on technology agreements
8. Management and consultancy fees
9. Intra-enterprise transactions, more commonly known as transfer pricing
10. Outflows on account of deteriorating terms of trade
11. Loss of export revenue on account of protectionism in industrialized countries
12. Loss of revenue on account of blockage on the free movement of people
13. Loss of capital through biopiracy
The question of whether these payments are legitimate or not is not the issue at this point. For example, it could be argued that payments in the form of profits or dividends are legitimate, but that outflows of capital resulting from intra-TNC transfer pricing are not. At this point the argument is that, legitimate or not, all these forms constitute effective "outflows" of capital, not in the limited meaning of UNCTAD's WIRs but in real, tangible terms. They are, simply stated, amounts of capital leaving the country irrespective of who takes them out and for what reason, or loss of capital earnings for one reason or another.
The following figures are given as mainly illustrative, with the implied recommendation that UNCTAD should incorporate the above categories in its definition of "outflow" of capital, and provide a methodological guidance on how reliable data might be collected on these.
1. Outflows in the form of profits and dividends: Probably in the billions of dollars from the South to the North by Northern corporations and banks operating in the South. These are figures that are possible to collect, at least indicative figures.
2. Debt payment on loans: According to UNDP sources, the debt of developing countries has increased from $567 billion in 1980 to $1,419 billion in 1992, to $1,940 billion (or $1.9 trillion) in 1995. Between 1980 and 1992 interest payments totalled $771.3 billion, plus $890.9 billion in repayment of principal. So in 12 years (1980-1992), developing countries paid out $1.7 trillion in debt repayments, i.e., they paid three times more than their 1980 debt, only to find themselves three times more in debt by 1995. If this is not "outflow", what is?
3. Increased payments on account of rise of interest rates in industrialized countries: During the 1980s, while interest rates were 4% in the industrialized countries, the effective interest rate paid by developing countries was 17 percent. On total debt worth more than $1,000 billion, this meant a special interest premium of $120 billion annually. This merely aggravated a situation in which net transfers to pay totalled $50 billion in 1989.
4. Increased cost of capital on account of "risk premiums": For example, the 1997-98 East Asian crisis provoked a sharp increase in risk premiums. In June 1997 Thailand was paying 7% to its lenders; by December 1997, 11 percent. By late 1997, Brazil and Russia had to double the yield on their debt issue in order to remain attractive to foreign investors.
5. Loss of capital (and jobs) on account of Structural Adjustment Programmes: In 1995, for example, the World Bank wanted Mozambique to lower tariffs on processed cashew nuts to 14 percent. Mozambique said it needed 20% to survive, so it refused. In 1996, the World Bank imposed its will on Mozambique as part of the HIPC (Heavily Indebted Poor Countries) debt relief initiative, and forced tariff reduction. Local factories had to face competition from Indian companies, factories closed down, and 10,000 people lost their jobs. The loss of income and local savings has yet to be calculated.
6. Loss of capital through privatization of public assets of developing countries: In the aftermath of the 1982 Mexican crisis, the then US Secretary to the Treasury, Nicholas Brady, authored a plan (the Brady Plan) to improve the "creditworthiness" of the debtor countries. While he was still at the Treasury, his associate, Hollis Mcloughling, created a private company, Darby Overseas, in the tax haven of the Cayman Islands to avoid paying taxes to the US Treasury. On retirement, Brady formed his own company, International Financial Holding (IFH), which, soon after its creation, purchased (for a song) the fourth largest Peruvian bank, Interbank, which was privatized under (you guessed it) the Brady Plan. This was no conspiracy; it is simply "smart business". This is only one example. It is multiplied a hundred times for practically each of the countries, especially in Africa, where "forced" privatizations have taken place. The Zambian government, for instance, now claims that it has incurred grievous capital losses in its privatization programme.
7. Patent and copyright fees on technology agreements: These are often arbitrarily determined in terms of intra-enterprise agreements between affiliates of TNCs operating in developing countries. Some of these (especially copyrights) do not transfer any technology whatsoever. Loss to the developing countries can be calculated or estimated, and could run into billions of dollars.
8. Management and consultancy fees: Much of the value of official "aid" to developing countries is vitiated on account of enormous fees that are paid out to management and technical consultants from the "donor" countries. This is a figure that UNCTAD could collect through monitoring the terms and disbursement of "aid" from the North to the South.
9. Intra-enterprise transactions, more commonly known as transfer pricing: This is a widely practised, and silently condoned, method by which foreign enterprises take capital out of the country through over-pricing their imports (thus exporting more capital than required) and under-pricing their exports (thus robbing the country of export revenue). The global accounting companies (now reduced, by mergers and acquisitions, to the "big six") have professionally trained staff whose task is to help their global clients in the techniques of transfer pricing as well as of avoiding taxes. Africa could be losing billions of dollars each year through this route. UNCTAD could work out a method of measuring this kind of outflow from the Third World. According to Augustin Papic, the pharmaceutical TNCs make internal sales to their Latin American subsidiaries at prices between 33% and 314% above world market levels. Other examples are: rubber industry, 40%; chemicals, 26%; electronics, 1,100%.
10. Outflows on account of deteriorating terms of trade: In 1992, a basket of goods from the South could buy 52% less than it could in 1980, i.e., they had to export twice as much to obtain the same goods. Between 1986 and 1989 (4 years), sub-Saharan Africa lost $55.9 billion in earnings through falling terms of trade. Ninety percent of the exports of the region are raw materials. According to Augustin Papic, the invisible transfer of wealth from South to North due to deterioration in the terms of trade could total some $200 billion a year, that is more than paid out annually in debt-service payments.
11. Loss of export revenue on account of protectionism in industrialized countries: According to the UNDP, the developing countries have lost $35 billion annually, accounted for as follows:
$24 billion due to the Multifibre Agreement
$ 5 billion due to primary goods
$ 6 billion due to other goods
12. Loss of revenue on account of blockage on the free movement of people: According to UNDP figures, the cumulative loss of hard currency remittances for countries in the South in the 1980s was in the range of $250 billion.
13. Loss of capital through biopiracy: American and European companies have harnessed developing countries' biological diversity to make millions of dollars in profit without returning a single cent to the original owners of the seeds. According to Vandana Shiva, wild seed varieties have contributed some $66 billion annually to the US economy.
Thus, UNCTAD (and its investment division) needs to seriously revise its definition of "outflows" and suggest methodologies for computing the net outflow of capital that must surely be from the South to the North, or losses of capital revenues by the South for one reason or another. UNCTAD's current definition is invalid and hides the reality of capital movements.
It may be argued that it is difficult to compute these figures, for example, those of transfer pricing. That may be so in the case of some of the above categories. But even so, it is important, and necessary, for UNCTAD to make the effort to secure at least indicative figures. A second answer to this objection is that the present figures of capital flows as computed by UNCTAD/WIR experts are, by their own admission, no better than "estimates".
Flaws in the statistical baggage of WIRs
It was pointed out in the Windhoek seminar that not only is the manner in which UNCTAD collects its data on FDI flows conceptually flawed (as shown above) but they are also based on extremely questionable data and methods of collection.
According to Annex B (Statistical Annex) of the WIRs where the method of collecting data is explained, "The most reliable and comprehensive data on FDI flows that are readily available from international sources ... are reported by the IMF ... obtained directly from the IMF's computer tapes containing balance-of-payments statistics and international financial statistics." Other sources mentioned are: "UNCTAD, FDI/TNC database, which contains published or unpublished national official FDI data obtained from central banks, statistical offices, or national authorities."
There are several conceptual problems here. First, there is no definition of FDI provided. It appears to be a hybrid category that combines "genuine" FDIs (or "greenfield" investments) and portfolio and even speculative capital movements. In fact, despite claims by even distinguished Harvard-trained economists, the distinction between "greenfield" and speculative investment is extremely difficult to make, especially if capital passes through the intermediation of banks.
Notes and sources:
For example, short-term and speculative capital went to Thailand during the 1990s through the banking system, with some virtually as "call money" or as weekly or monthly turnovers. The banks on-lent these for investment to local enterprises based, as it turned out, on weak (property or land) collaterals. When the financial crisis was forced on the country by foreign exchange speculators, foreign short-term bank capital left the country in a hurry. Thus, for this kind of capital it is impossible to say ex ante whether it is for investment or for speculation only; the matter becomes clear only ex post. And the truth of the matter is that the bulk of capital movement these days (and this means as much as 90% or 95%) is of speculative character.
Hence, the importance that UNCTAD gives to FDIs, through its WIRs, is wildly exaggerated. By not clarifying how much of the "FDI" figures are "genuine" FDI, yet another obscurity is created. For, despite the eclectic nature of its presentation (where it sometimes criticizes speculative capital), UNCTAD/WIRs leave the overall impression that all the figures that it provides for FDI are indeed "genuine" FDI which plays a "significant" role in the development of Third World countries. This is, to say the least, highly misleading and improper.
Secondly, UNCTAD has no source of FDI data on its own. It depends mainly on the IMF figures, supplemented by national figures and the TNC database. This raises several problems.
On the data provided by the IMF, it is necessary to ask if from the current account figures that the IMF provides it is possible to derive capital account numbers. How do UNCTAD's experts manage to do this? There is no explanation of this in Annex B of the WIR. On the TNC database, it is necessary to ask whether the definition of capital flows that the TNCs use is compatible with a more objective analysis of capital flows from the receiving country's point of view. Indeed, as it turns out, the WIRs seem to have accepted the TNC definition of FDI. The WIR puts FDI into three categories - equity investment, reinvested earnings and intra-company loans. These are legitimate TNC-oriented categories, useful to them for their own purposes. But are they also legitimate from the "recipient" country's point of view? Should not "reinvested earnings" be considered as "domestic savings" rather than as fresh FDI? Also, how does one describe "intra-company" loans as FDI when these are transactions from within the company? Do we not need a new definition of capital flows?
The figures the WIRs put out (with all their conceptual shortcomings) are, even statistically speaking, neither reliable nor, possibly, calculable. The WIRs regularly give a long list of countries for which at least one component of FDI inflows is not available. Thus, the 1999 WIR, in Table 1 (p.353), gives a number of countries for which one, two or even all three categories of "FDI" - equity investment, reinvested earnings and intra-company loans - were not available. How, then, do the UNCTAD experts compute these figures? Presumably using "national" statistics. But as for these, consider Table A (see previous page) on FDIs that an UNCTAD study on Zimbabwe (Globalization and Zimbabwe, 2000) secured from various sources.
The question is, if UNCTAD, in its WIRs, attempts to "supplement" IMF- or TNC-derived data on FDI flows with "national" figures, which of the above six very different figures would it want to use? To make matters worse, the WIRs admit that: "For those countries for which FDI data were not available throughout the period (up to 1997), data have been ESTIMATED BY UNCTAD." (emphasis added)
When at the Windhoek seminar it was suggested that UNCTAD's figures on FDIs were conceptually flawed and statistically unreliable, and that they may indeed be figures from a "black box", the UNCTAD official (from the division that puts out the WIRs) who was co-host of the seminar admitted that these observations were valid, and that the figures were indeed estimates.
There are references in the WIRs here and there over their 10 years of reporting that FDI and TNCs are not unproblematic. In other words, the authors of these reports can show passages where they have put to question the unqualified view of FDIs as agents of development. However, this is done in an eclectic, incidental manner. But the overall thrust of UNCTAD's argument is that both FDIs and TNCs are good for development and that the developing countries should be creating the necessary environment to attract these.
Even if this were the case, it is questionable if it is UNCTAD's role to act as advocates for TNCs. The fact is that it is far from settled that TNCs and FDI are positive factors for development. It is still an open-ended question, for the verdict of history of the last 50 years could go either way.
In this situation of uncertainty about the positive or negative role of FDI/TNCs, it would have been prudent for UNCTAD not to have taken such a definitive position as it does in its WIRs. It should have provided a balanced assessment of the situation, sticking strictly to facts, and leave the conclusion to the readers of its reports, indicating the weaknesses of its statistics and other quantitative data. By sticking its neck out in favour of FDI/TNCs, not only has UNCTAD become an advocate for TNCs but, if history's verdict goes against TNCs, UNCTAD would also retrospectively be held responsible for having advocated not the development of the developing countries (its essential mandate) but their underdevelopment or impoverishment. This would for UNCTAD be a shocking indictment, for it would contradict its very raison d'etre.
It is important that UNCTAD distances itself from an advocacy role for FDI/TNCs. Furthermore, it needs to revisit the conceptual or knowledge base of its WIRs. And since UNCTAD prides itself as a "knowledge-based" institution, it is legitimate to ask where its knowledge comes from and for whose benefit. The first move in the direction of correcting the flawed conceptual basis of its WIRs would be to redefine "outflows" of capital to include at least the 13 categories of capital outflows mentioned earlier, which are in the main responsible for the continuing impoverishment of the bulk of humanity.
A third step that needs to be taken (besides distancing itself from an advocacy role for TNCs and changing the conceptual basis of the WIRs) is for UNCTAD to integrate considerations of "sustainable human development" in its work programme. This means many things. The first is to move away from its economistic moorings and recruit qualified people who understand the human being in its holistic concept and not purely as an economic or market category. Secondly, UNCTAD needs to follow the lead of UNDP in the latter's effort to include the human index in measuring "development", and try to go beyond UNDP on this route. Thirdly, since UNCTAD is also concerned about trade, it must build into its knowledge and analytical framework a methodology of how to measure trade from not simply a productive point of view but also from an equity point of view.
Here it must challenge UNDP's concept of equity as welfare, which is confined within the utilitarian philosophy and which still tolerates an asymmetrical world as long as the "welfare" of the poor is catered to. UNCTAD could go beyond this and consider alternative philosophical foundations to welfare and utilitarianism. The grassroots protestors against the WTO at Seattle and Washington had provided a clue on the direction that trade should take, namely, in the direction of "fair" not "free" trade. Justice as fairness is a sparsely explored concept and UNCTAD might want to develop its knowledge base towards bringing it closer to the people than existing power structures by looking at justice as fairness rather than in terms of justice as poverty eradication. (TWN/SEATINI/SUNS4678,4679)
Yash Tandon is director of the International South Group Network and of the Harare-based Southern and Eastern African Trade Information and Negotiations Initiative (SEATINI). The above article is based on a presentation by the author at a recent workshop in Windhoek, Namibia.
The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.
© 2000, SUNS - All rights reserved. May not be reproduced, reprinted or posted to any system or service without specific permission from SUNS. This limitation includes incorporation into a database, distribution via Usenet News, bulletin board systems, mailing lists, print media or broadcast. For information about reproduction or multi-user subscriptions please e-mail <email@example.com >