In September the World Bank issued its annual report Doing BUSINESS IN 2005: REMOVING OBSTACLES TO GROWTH, co-sponsored by the International Finance Corporation, the private sector lending arm of the World Bank Group. The report examines investment climates around the world, based on the regulatory performance and reforms undertaken in 145 nations. Comparing data and showcasing examples of best practice, the report demonstrates how governments can create a better business environment, which benefits all firms, as well as society as a whole. EXECUTIVE met with Omar Razzaz, the World Bank’s country manager for Lebanon, to discuss how the country’s business environment fares by international standards, the challenges facing reformers and the advantages offered to investors.
The World Bank’s annual DOING BUSINESS IN 2005 report just came out, with more countries and benchmarks than ever before. Governments are coming forth and requesting to be a part of it – what is the value of this report?
This is a yearly report with very critical information, not just on laws and regulations, but on the actual experience of businesses. That’s why it is meaningful. Businesses are not just interested in the legal framework, but how things work on the ground. The report tries to address the type of indicators that really matter to a business: how easy it is to start, how easy it is to operate and how easy it is to close a business. The other side of this report is that it looks at these indicators on a yearly basis, so you can see change all the time. A country that ranks very low but has gone on a pro-active program by the government to improve its business environment will be registered by the report very quickly. That is why the DOING BUSINESS report is increasingly noticed by investors around the world. Where a country ranks is as interesting to them as the pace at which it moves.
How would you assess Lebanon’s business environment based on the findings of the report?
Lebanon has its strengths and weaknesses. Among the strengths, you have the relative ease with which one can get credit and close a business – by regional standards that is. Where Lebanon does not do well is in terms of starting a business: the procedures as of now take 46 days, and the cost of starting a business is 130% of income per capita. This is much higher than in other countries in the region, as well as elsewhere in the world: just look at Latvia, another small country, where the cost is 17%. It has to do with the number of procedures, the time it takes and the uncertainty that’s involved in the process. The solutions are there: if you reduce the steps, if you automate them, if you set up a one-stop shop where investors can come and you give them clear procedures, it would dramatically change the situation. And it can be done fairly quickly: Jordan managed to reduce the time required to set up a business by nine weeks. The one other aspect in which Lebanon doesn’t do very well is the enforcement of contracts. In this area, Lebanon really stands out. It takes 721 days on average to enforce a contract and it involves 39 procedures. This is two or three times longer than even in developing countries. It is very difficult for a business to operate in an environment where you have a contract that you can’t have enforced. And there really is no reason why this has to continue. Lebanon, in terms of its jurisprudence, in terms of its human capital, has some of the best legal institutions in the Arab world. To improve that situation is a matter of will, of putting in the systems, and of training.
Have there been any significant attempts at implementing the necessary reforms to improve the investment climate here?
There have been very important islands of reform in Lebanon. If you look at the area of property registration or the application of VAT on transactions – these are areas that can take a very long time and in Lebanon it has been streamlined. But in the last two years, there hasn’t been a concerted effort by the government to systematically upgrade laws and regulations and undertake reform. This is a major drawback, because with a debt to GDP of almost 180%, the fiscal and monetary policies can only take you so far. They can reduce debt perhaps, and bring it down to 150-160%, but that is still a high level. The only way to reduce the debt is to grow out of it and increase your GDP. So it’s critical for Lebanon to focus on the investment environment to find ways to increase that pace of growth.
But this year, Lebanon witnessed a positive turn in many of its economic indicators: there’s been a sharp increase in export, tourism, construction permits, and bank deposits for instance. The country has experienced its highest GDP growth since 1997. Is this just cyclical growth or will it have a long-term impact, notably on the level of investment?
Our assessment is that this is not short-term. Lebanon has definitely benefited from this situation – it has allowed growth to reach 5% for instance. But the DOING BUSINESS report suggests that if a country moves drastically on reforms, it could add up to 2% on its growth rate. So what the Lebanese economy has done this year is fantastic, but if the country had improved its regulatory procedures for business, it might have added 2% more, thereby growing at 7%. And for Lebanon to deal with its debt problem in a sustainable way, it needs to grow at around 6% to7% every year, and this is achievable. When you look at the composition of the investments and the growth, tourism is fantastic and does create jobs, buying real estate is great. But what you want to see is more Lebanese expatriates and Arabs starting businesses that will create value added, jobs, on a sustainable basis. And for that to happen, you really need to make operating a business a much more straight forward undertaking.
How does this country fare by regional standards? Does it have any comparative advantages to other Arab countries in the eyes of investors?
Lebanon has to think dynamically in terms of its comparative advantage. It shouldn’t necessarily try to reclaim what it had in the 1960s, but rather think in terms of today – an era of information technology, globalization – to figure out its strengths and weaknesses. The most important element that Lebanon has that foreign investors would want is an innate cultural talent for creativity and service. If you look at the industries that are blooming, they are service industries, industries that relate to creativity, advertising, marketing, TV production… I’ve heard that six out of ten commercials in the Arab world are produced in Lebanon. This says something about the human capital in this country. This a multilingual country that is very exposed to information, trends from the West, and its juxtaposition between the Arab world and the West gives it a tremendous advantage in picking up important trends that might be relevant to the area, and modifying them to local tastes. Studies now show that for countries to compete, for countries to succeed, it’s not a matter of capital or resources, it’s a matter of the know-how that exists in a country and the systems that the country has that allow it to utilize that knowledge. The Lebanese have the know-how that is very hard to acquire by formal training. What they lack are the systems. And it’s incredible, because for most countries, the systems are the easy part to acquire. This is something you can buy with money, and a little bit of decision-making and coordination. Yet you find the systems that allow investors to invest money, to register, to get information, to have day-to-day operating procedures that are clear without dealing with a huge amount of red tape, to be the missing part here.
Yet at the same time the World Bank is pushing for educational programs in Lebanon to provide better technical and vocational training?
Here we come to the issue of equal opportunities. Lebanon has a long way to go before it can be proud of offering its population equal opportunities. There is a tremendous human capital in Lebanon, but that doesn’t mean everybody has access to the same quality of education. Those who have access to quality education, to private schools, to private universities, have tremendous talent. But those who are left behind are relegated to competing with unskilled workers, which is a very difficult thing to do in Lebanon given the relatively open borders and the inflow of foreign workers and high standards of living. For the average Lebanese, this is one of the hardest places to live. You can neither do what pays, because you haven’t been equipped, nor can you compete in the unskilled or semi-skilled professions because the standards of living are too high. And that is why vocational training and education are critical.
Speaking of unequal opportunities, is the lack of progress in improving the business environment excluding marginalized groups from participating in the formal economy in Lebanon?
This is very important. The more you deregulate entry for start-up businesses, especially small and medium enterprises, which are the ones that are most employment generating here, the more you create opportunities for employment, formal employment, which gives more protection to workers and has a snowball effect. In contrast, if you have high minimal capital requirements, then many of the businesses will stay in the informal sector. They will not be able to borrow, to expand, to pay taxes, which gets you into a vicious circle of the economy not growing and public finances not improving.
Another problem which Lebanon faces is the fact that it ranks internationally among the top violators of intellectual property rights. To what extent does this act as a deterrent to investors?
To the extent that Lebanon wants to move into the information age and the high-value added economy. In India, about 5000 to 6000 workers in Bangalore are producing about a third of all of India’s foreign exchange earnings, just because of the tremendous growth of the IT industry. Lebanon is so well positioned to enter that area. If it updates and reforms intellectual property rights and puts in the IT infrastructure, it can benefit a lot from it. Many countries make money out of piracy, but that’s not what Lebanon is about. Given Lebanon’s human capital, it needs to make the leap into becoming one of the producers of intellectual property, not one of the countries that live off piracy.
Closely related to this issue is the prospective of Lebanon joining the World Trade Organization (WTO), which the government hopes will happen in 2005. Is the country ready for it?
Lebanese business are ready for it, in the sense that there is a business acumen, an entrepreneurship that allows Lebanese businesses to excel anywhere in the world. My concern is whether Lebanon can bring the cost structure of doing business down. As long as these procedures, which we have been talking about, are prohibitive, as long as the cost of power is the way it is, as long as telecom is so expensive, as long shipment and agro-processing is costly and delayed and inefficient, Lebanese businesses will be greatly disadvantaged. Again, it’s about putting in the systems that will allow businesses to compete. It’s not about the innate ability of Lebanese businesses to compete with European businesses. If anything, I think lowering the barriers will allow for greater innovation.
Lebanon of course, also suffers from its external environment – the instability of the region, which affects investments into MENA as a whole. What impact do you think recent regional developments, most notably the passing of UN Resolution 1559, will have on the country?
These recent events have thrust Lebanon onto the international scene, which means that what the country does or doesn’t do is much more noticed today than it was yesterday. This poses both a challenge and an opportunity for the country. If the next government is a decisive government that takes strong actions on consolidating the freedoms in the country, protecting them, enhancing the transparency and accountability of the government, improving the business environment, taking concrete steps on the macro-economic level to put the country on a more sustainable path towards growth and debt reduction, this is going to be noticed, and noticed very favorably. If it turns out to be a government that is unable to take any serious action towards fundamental social and economic problems, and if it is perceived as even moving back on Lebanon’s uniqueness, which is its freedom, that will be registered as well. We are hopeful and the World Bank will be very active in continuing its support and will work with any government that comes in, to assist it in enhancing Lebanon’s performance and thereby it’s image in the world.