How to bring in more FDI
Foreign direct investment (FDI) has made enormous leaps since the 1990s in terms of its growth in the global economic landscape. Due to paucity of resources in developing and least developed countries, FDI has become an important component of their development strategies and in many cases it proved to be a win-win situation to both host and home countries. Host countries want to gain from FDI in multiple ways such as through having capital, technology and knowledge. Home countries also benefit through investing as they can penetrate into markets, gain access to raw materials and diversify business activities. They can also overcome trade barriers and reduce transport costs.
Bangladesh is considered to be one of the potential economies despite being besieged by multi-faceted adversities such as frequent natural disasters, high density of population, political turmoil and a low production capacity. The resilience and inherent strength of the economy, mainly due to its robust sectors such as agriculture, readymade garments and remittances, have been the basis of such optimism. However, in order to make its graduation to the next level of growth and fully exploit the growth potential, the country’s investment scenario has to be improved. The lack of adequate investment is one of the important reasons for the growth below the potential of the economy. The domestic investment rate has been stagnant at around 24 percent to 25 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) for the last ten years which is far below the level required for a country aiming to be become a middle-income country by 2021 with a growth rate of 10 percent. The sixth five-year plan (2011-15) of Bangladesh targets a GDP growth of 8 percent by the end of the plan period. This requires that the total investment has to grow by 8.1 percent per year and the share of investment in GDP has to be 32.5 percent by fiscal 2015. Low domestic investment has been a matter of concern as it holds back foreign investment as well.
Even though Bangladesh has been trying to bring in FDI since its independence and put in place FDI friendly policies in the early 1980s (Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Act 1980 was such an attempt) much before some of its neighbours, it has been unable to accelerate FDI at the expected level. In the 1990s, there was an attraction for the East Asian and European investors to invest in the readymade garments industry of Bangladesh, thanks to the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) and the availability of labour at a competitive price. Currently, the concentration of FDI is mainly on transport, storage and communication, manufacturing and power, gas and petroleum. Other sectors such as agriculture, trade and commerce and, services receive nominal FDI. In 2010, manufacturing sector was the highest recipient at 27.82 percent of total FDI, while the construction sector received the lowest with a share of 0.01 percent. The growth of FDI in Bangladesh has, however, been very inconsistent. A major inflow of FDI was observed in the mid 2000s and rose to $913.32 million in 2010.
While discussing the impediments to bringing FDI into the country, a host of issues have been raised ranging from infrastructural constraints to bureaucratic complexities to image building. However, the crux of the problem does, in fact, lie in three broad areas. First is the limited access to physical infrastructure, particularly supply of gas and electricity. This has emerged as a binding constraint on investment promotion in Bangladesh. For example, the supply of gas between December 2008 and December 2011 has increased only marginally from 1,606 million cubic feet to 1,960 million cubic feet, indicating an average growth of 7.4 percent. On the other hand, the demand for gas rose by 12.3 percent during this period, leading to a wide gap between demand and supply. At present, the demand for power in Bangladesh is around 6,500 megawatt, while the supply is 4,699 megawatt. In the recent times, the FDI rise has been observed mainly in the export processing zones (EPZ) as there is little or no gas and electricity supply constraint like the domestic tariff area. In order to overcome infrastructural bottlenecks, aid for productive capacity needs to be enhanced significantly. However, effective use of these funds has to be ensured. Public-private infrastructure development policy can also be a powerful tool to tackle the supply side constraints.
The second bottleneck is the culture of confrontational politics, which poses a serious threat for the safety of property and resources of prospective investors. Acrimony and bitterness among political parties often lead to destruction and affect lives and properties of people which in turn deter not only foreign investment but also local private investment. Many investors are even willing to spend on infrastructure to facilitate their investment in other sectors, only if there are political stability and predictability of return on their investment.
The third constraint is the lack of good governance and prevalence of corruption, which have put a scar on the reputation of the country at the global level. Because of advantages such as competitive prices for labour and other services, investors may find Bangladesh a lucrative investment destination. However, predicaments such as delay and a lack of transparency in decision making process, a dearth of effective implementation of regulations and policies, and discriminatory incentive packages act as stumbling blocks in bringing in FDI to the country.
FDI is not a panacea for slow growth, and it has several negative implications too. These include capital flight and repatriation of profit, dependency on technologies and limited transfer of technology and transfer pricing. With effective regulatory and oversight mechanism such issues can be addressed. FDI can supplement the local effort to produce goods and services and create jobs. If local businesses flourish, foreign investors will have confidence to bring their resources. Promotion of local businesses through access to adequate finance and creation of an enabling environment should also be a key target. Economic diplomacy is vital at this day and age to attract foreign resources. This has to be accompanied by good marketing skill which in other words is called ‘branding’. Such image building task has to be done primarily by the government but complemented by the private sector and all citizens of the country.
The writer is an economist and head of research at the Centre for Policy Dialogue.