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Trade and FDI needs a one-stop-shop, not one more stop

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Apple CEO Tim Cook at Apple’s office in Ireland. Apple has publicly stated that it wants to significantly expand its operations in Ireland

Many foreign investors I engage with want Sri Lanka to emulate Ireland, or even Vietnam, because they tell me the attractiveness of a country to foreign investors and the feasibility of individual investment projects is not only linked to a country’s policy environment. According to them, the practical administrative implementation of these policies are far more important to attract investment. 

It is no secret that our administrative procedures pose serious obstructions even with our apparently quite liberal investment environment. Many investors openly complain about the difficulties even after the introduction of broad liberalisation measures with respect to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). 

What frequently happens is that broad policy reforms do not actually translate into improvements in the various bureaucratic processes investors have to go through. Therefore before the Government starts signing FTAs, it would be wise to seriously look at setting up a one-stop agency to support Sri Lanka’s trade and investments needs. 

Untitled-2The one-stop shop, which can be called Trade Invest Sri Lanka, must have the teeth to provide support to Sri Lankan and foreign businesses doing business as outlined in our policy framework. Trade Invest Sri Lanka must bring together all support programmes including incentives in order to build strong partnerships with business. 

We need to look at an approach of having trade which is driven by investment, not only relying on MOUs and FTAs. Like Ireland, we need to build on our investment capacity and promote trade through investment. We already have a number of MNC companies which are some of the largest investors in other parts of the world, and therefore we need to drive an investment-led trade initiative. 

Investor experience

Most investment promotion activities by themselves are not sufficient to attract investors to the country. In fact, such an approach can easily boomerang. 

A good marketing and public relations effort might well result in a strong response from abroad, with many interested investors visiting the country to explore it first hand as a potential investment location. But in situations where administrative structures pose a serious problem, potential investors are likely to find out fast and move to another country. 

Experiences with obtaining visas and entering a country might be taken as a first signal. Indications and opinions of existing investors who incurred unnecessary costs and losses due to delays resulting from actions – or a lack of action – by government agencies will leave lasting imprints. Should it turn out that administrative practices do pose a serious problem, potential investors are very likely to walk away, not to return as the country will be seen as not being investor-friendly.

It is not that investors just essentially dislike government rules and regulations any investor has to follow. In fact, they are used to dealing with government administration procedures in their home countries and other countries they have invested. They also do not expect that all these procedures will always be straightforward and work seamlessly. But they will be allergic to discretionary behaviour and unpredictability with respect to obtaining approvals. Especially when they recognise that the success of their venture will to a large degree depend on paying kickbacks or relying on personal relations with ministers and well-connected individuals, serious investors will think twice before committing their money. 

All this means is that the Government cannot simply rely on the policy environment to attract investments. The practical implications are far more important for investors. By advertising the country through road shows as an attractive investment location, the credibility rests with the satisfaction of their potential investors and existing investors. Should investors find that their expectations are not fulfilled, they will often feel betrayed and lose trust in the country. 

Recognising that existing administrative practices pose a threat to their policy reform efforts, the Government needs to find practical solutions to creating a more attractive business environment. The BOI, being the point of first contact and gate of entry for foreign investors, ideally would be the most appropriate agency to tackle these issues. 

During the mid-1980s, the concept of a ‘One-Stop Shop’ (OSS) came into fashion as a vehicle to deal with administrative barriers to provide a more streamlined and investor-friendly policy environment. However, the experience with the OSS concept for Sri Lanka is chequered and not particularly helpful in some instances. 

The One-Stop Shop (OSS)

When trying to establish an investment project and making it operational, investors tend to face a number of steps where they need to interact with various Government agencies to obtain all the necessary permits, licenses, approvals and clearances. In short, an investor coming into Sri Lanka has to be in contact with a number of different Government and local authorities to go through their administrative procedures before the operations can begin. Some have even struggled for over two years. A delay can only translate into additional costs and foregone revenue, and any permit, approval or clearance not forthcoming can jeopardise the entire project. 

Given the complexity of this process, the concept of an OSS seems still very attractive. The basic idea is that an investor would only have to be in contact with one single entity to obtain all the necessary paperwork in one rationalised and coordinated process, rather than having to go through a maze of different Government bodies. 

In practice, an OSS would effectively mean that one Government agency has all the power necessary to grant the various licenses, permits, approvals and clearances. Without such an all-embracing authority, the agency could in fact not wield much control over the process. It could therefore not actually provide all the necessary clearances at various stages of the administrative process, having to depend on other agencies instead. 

Politically feasible 

Today what is more relevant is whether a high-powered OSS is politically feasible. The other question is whether a single agency should actually have this much authority and power. 

It is important to recognise that most agencies and administrative processes were created in response to policy concerns of the Government. Be it concerns related to policy, immigration, environmental, tax incentives or health and safety problems, each agency tries to address a particular issue with specialised staff and processes. 

Any OSS that wants to give sanctions in any of these areas would in fact have to re-build these (or similar) structures in-house. Otherwise approvals such as tax incentives, environmental impact assessments, or health and safety certificates would most likely not meet the underlying policy objectives. 

But such a mirroring of administrative capabilities would quickly turn an OSS into a Governmental super-agency with massive staff and resource requirements. It is unlikely that any such agency would be capable of providing fast and client-oriented services to the private sector. Governments therefore typically shy away from establishing such an OSS in the narrow sense. Instead they tend to rely on some form of coordination mechanism where the various authorities maintain their existing mandates and responsibilities. 

The typical structure of such a coordinating mechanism consists of the delegation of staff from the various ministries and agencies to establish their offices in the same location, frequently a presidential/prime ministerial coordination committee will act as the apex body with the OSS reporting to that body with well-established scorecards and MIS. 

Way forward

Whatever the solution the Government has in mind, the existing One-Stop Shop we have according to most investors has now actually turned into a ‘one more stop,’ as investors are now forced to interact with one more entity in the process of implementing their projects. Certainly, it may not be a weakness of the people who the run OSS, it could be the lack of a particularly strong and all-embracing legal mandate. 

Well-known examples where such an OSS system works well are the Economic Development Board (EDB) of Singapore, the Malaysian Industrial Development Authority (MIDA) and the Industrial Development Authority (IDA) of Ireland. In all three agencies, investors can rely on the agency to provide practically all the approvals and clearances needed without much of a hassle. All these agencies however have strong support from the Prime Minister. 

In the final analysis, the starting point for any effort therefore would be to reform the current Economic Affairs Committee of the Government (a committee structure started during President Premadasa in the late ’80s) and make it more output-driven rather than policy- and approvals-driven and finally fix the structure and get the talent required to reflect the change that is taking place in the economy and in the UNP-SLFP led Government.

(The writer has held senior positions in both public and private sectors.)

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