Here are two different perceptions of the development aid business that is targeting developing countries. One is from Forbes.com; while the other is from Euro-correspondent.com. interestingly, both of these opposing understandings are admitting the controversy of excessive profits made by those rich funding agencies and their middlemen who are paid to invest on their governments' behalf.
Looking at these contrasting perceptions, they both confirm that it is totally unacceptable to create hundreds of billions of dollars for European agencies and European citizens in just few years out of the poverty of Africa, Asia and Latin America under the covers of development aid and business. Such practices shed lights on the undisclosed objectives of development aid and business.
Claiming that the fast huge wealth made by middlemen, such as Mo Ibrahim and Celtel, from the British aid agencies backing is justified because they made mobile phone revolution to few poor countries is false. Such development was inevitable and affordable without foul play by the British development aid agencies and businesses.
EuroCorrespondent.com posted on 01 November 2009:
The Development Business
Government-owned development finance institutions invest for development in poor countries – but they also earn surprisingly good returns, often for middlemen who are paid to invest on governments' behalf, writes Stephen Gardner.
Who benefits most from the activities of government-owned development finance institutions (DFIs), which use taxpayers' cash for investments in poor countries, with the aim of stimulating economic growth and relieving poverty?
The main beneficiaries should be the poor, especially those in the least-developed countries, which commercial banks often perceive as too risky, while offering insignificant returns. DFIs are meant to be less focused on the bottom line; in fact their governmental owners want them to fill the gaps left by private finance.
And the impact of DFIs should not be underestimated. European Development Finance Institutions (EDFI) is a Brussels-based representative organisation for the sector, counting 16 members. Jan Rixen, EDFI's general manager, says that new commitments by members in 2008 totalled €5.2 billion, spread across 941 projects in poor countries.
This money represents an additional ten percent on top of the official development assistance budgets of countries represented in EDFI. By the end of 2008, the total EDFI portfolio was worth €16.9 billion, covering more than 4,200 investments.
EDFI's oldest member, Britain's CDC Group plc (formerly the Commonwealth Development Corporation) also emphasises the positive development effects of its investments. In its mid-July Development Impact Report, CDC chief executive Richard Laing wrote that “we estimate that CDC's 681 portfolio companies are supporting well over three million people – a major contribution to development in the poorest countries of the world.”
The darker side
But there is another side to DFIs, which has been exposed in the last few months, in particular by Private Eye magazine. The revelations have suggested that the “major contribution” of DFIs has been to the enrichment of individuals such as Richard Laing.
In 2007, Laing's remuneration was almost £1 million. A House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report, published in April this year, called this “extraordinary… in a small publicly-owned organisation charged with fighting poverty.” CDC's latest annual report shows that, following the fuss, Laing did not take an annual bonus in 2008 – but he was still paid £647,066, including a payment under a CDC “long-term incentive plan.”
One reason this has happened is that DFIs have been immensely profitable in recent years. This is the difference between government-to-government development aid and DFI investments. The latter is designed to earn a return – but only on the basis that development benefits come first.
EDFI's Jan Rixen admits that some DFIs have inverted this principle. “Some [EDFI] members looked more at returns than development effects,” he says. He adds that a “standard” return on investment for a DFI might be between two and six percent. However, as CDC highlights prominently in its 2008 annual report, its 2004-2008 average annual return was 18 percent, leading to a cash mountain of £2.5 billion. Investment in poor countries can be surprisingly good business.
The big profits have also provoked criticism because DFIs make extensive use of tax havens. When the Public Accounts Committee asked CDC's Laing how many of its 72 subsidiaries were registered in offshore centres, he replied, “it will be a few; it will be 12 to 20.” In fact, CDC later clarified, the true figure is 40.
DFIs commonly channel their resources through tax haven-based equity funds, who do the daily work of selecting the right investments and overseeing the DFI stake. Jan Rixen admits that DFI use of tax havens is “very, very common,” but says this is “simply to avoid double taxation,” first on profits from investments in host countries, and second on the gains from those investments.
This is a moot point. Nicholas Bray of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development says there might be legitimate reasons for using tax havens but in general “they divert funds from governments that should be due to receive taxes.” But according to Rixen, without tax havens, many investors would pull out, and individual DFI-backed companies in poor countries in any case pay local taxes.
A Norwegian government report, published in June this year, considered these issues in depth. The report found that Norway's DFI, Norfund, was channelling directly or indirectly around 80 percent of its investments through tax havens.
The report notes that such places are highly secretive and encourage corruption in developing countries. It adds that whereas foreign investment plus development aid in developing nations totalled around $312 billion in 2006, in the same year there was “illegal capital flight” of at least $641 billion from developing countries, much of it processed through tax havens.
The tax haven identified by the Norwegian report as “the most popular location for funds in which Norfund participates,” is the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. This is also a favourite of CDC; of the 40 CDC subsidiaries based in tax havens, 18 are registered in Mauritius. CDC-backed investment funds located there include Africap, Aureos Capital, Avigo Capital, Business Partners, GroFin and I&P Capital.
Mauritius is a tiny dot on the map, with 1.3 million people. Nevertheless, because of its attractiveness to offshore financiers, it is officially the biggest foreign direct investor in India, responsible for a staggering 44 percent of the flows into that country. The United States, by comparison, is the source of a mere seven percent.
Follow the money
Companies registered in Mauritius are not required to produce annual reports, pay no capital gains tax, and pay minimal corporate tax only on profits earned in Mauritius. Antonio Tricarico of Counter Balance, an NGO network that in July published a report on European Investment Bank (EIB) lending to companies based in tax havens, says the use of locations such as Mauritius is part of the “financialisation” or “privatisation of development.”
Certainly the managers of the funds that invest cash on behalf of DFIs can benefit very handsomely. Shorecap, a Caymen Islands registered fund, which manages CDC money, boasted in its 2007 annual report of a 23 percent rate of return – a not uncommon level. Fund managers take a share of this, as well as earning fees of 1.5 to two percent on the money they invest.
According to Counter Balance, large international institutions such as the EIB actively aid and abet such practices, despite recent pronouncements from political leaders about cracking down on tax havens. The EIB lends to a number of the same investment funds as CDC and Norfund. EIB officials even sit on the boards of some equity firms, so the bank can hardly claim ignorance of their tax haven status.
Rainer Schlitt of the EIB says that the bank's policy on tax havens is presently under review, in particular because the issue has become a focus for the Group of 20 (G-20) nations, which met in London in April. He adds that the EIB will not disclose information on the interest rates charged to tax haven-based funds investing in development projects, but says that “due to our AAA rating we are able to refinance ourselves at excellent conditions on the markets and to pass that advantage on to our clients.”
EDFI's Jan Rixen also says that the outcome of future G-20 meetings is crucial for future DFI strategy. Tax issues are “very high on the agenda,” he says, and DFIs are waiting “to see what is coming.”
Wind of change
DFI profit seeking has led organisations such as CDC to move out of traditional but low yield sectors such as agriculture, and into sectors such as pharmaceuticals and telecommunications, with investment often directed to fast-growing emerging economies such as China and India, rather than to the poorest countries.
CDC's 2008 annual report notes that while agriculture now makes up only five percent of its portfolio, consumer-facing businesses make up 17 percent and financial services 19 percent. The report highlights investments in a shopping mall in Accra, Ghana, and an Indian drug manufacturer that supplies global multinationals such as Pfizer.
There is nothing wrong with these investments per se, but is it necessary for DFIs to back them, when they are profitable and could attract finance from commercial banks?
Jan Rixen says EDFI members are becoming more circumspect. The pursuit of profits “was at a certain time,” he says. Now there is “increasing focus on additionality,” meaning that projects should be supported only if they cannot attract commercial finance. “We need profits but we need to look very much at development effects,” he says.
The British government has certainly ordered a change of direction for CDC. From the start of this year it must make 75 percent of new investments in countries with income per capita of $905 or less. Half of investments must be targeted to sub-Saharan Africa.
Meanwhile, the Norwegian government has told Norfund not to make new investments in tax havens. A wind of change is blowing, according to Jan Rixen, though this is also a result of the economic crisis, which has seen “international banks pull out of developing countries.”
Governments now want DFIs to focus strictly on development impacts and to work harder. “We have been told that our owners are willing to take lower returns,” Rixen says. “Governments are asking for more focus on agriculture, renewable energy and infrastructure in general.”
If this happens, it will be welcomed by development NGOs. Marta Ruiz of the European Network on Debt and Development says there is no “dogmatic position against private equity,” but the objective of generating 20-30 percent returns may contradict development aims. DFIs need to get back to their core focus, Ruiz says, which should be investments leading to “long-term, sustainable benefits for the societies where they are investing.”
[A version of this article was published in Ethical Corporation magazine.]