Authors: Dr Neha Arora& Rishika Nayyar*
The COVID-19 crisis is a challenge never witnessed before and many economies are bound to shrink as a result of demand and supply shocks. It is expected that COVID-19 crisis could have a far more devastating impact on the world economy than the global financial crisis of 2008-09.Like any other crisis, the present one has exposed the vulnerabilities of existing structures and practices, forced the change in status-quo and, at the same time, opened new window of opportunities.
The Medium, Small and Micro Enterprises (MSME) sector is the most vibrant and crucial industrial sector for the Indian economy. The sector provides employment to over 130 million people and contributes to nearly 30% of GDP. The MSMEs contribute nearly 45% to manufacturing, forming the backbone of the Indian manufacturing economy. MSMEs have contributed significantly towards domestic employment generation, increased revenues and have boosted international trade. Over the years, MSMEs in India have transitioned from manufacturing low-tech labour-intensive goods to medium-tech capital-intensive products and have also entered the services sector in recent past.
The significant contribution of MSMEs to the Indian economy on one hand, and the hard blow that the sector has received from the present crisis on the other, have called for a renewed and carefully thought-out focus on the situation of MSME units. In this background, the present article highlights the pertinent role that a vibrant and dynamic MSME sector can play in helping India capitalize on the opportunities thrown open by the pandemic and aid the process of economic recovery. It also suggests a three-pointer action plan that focuses on technology adoption, rural cluster development programme and strategic partnership development programme to bolster the MSME sector.
Opportunities for India
Supply chain restructuring: An opportunity to be the next global production hub
The COVID-19 crisis has caused widespread and significant disruptions and exposed vulnerabilities in the global supply chain, especially for countries who were excessively dependent on China for sourcing of raw materials, intermediate and finished goods. Over the past two decades, China has played a dominant role as the ‘factory of the world’ for industries such as electronics, automotives, apparel and plastics. However, escalated trade tensions in 2019 between China and the US, in addition to rising labour cost and declining productivity, dimmed the country’s significance as a global production hub. While the relocation of production facilities was already setting in, the current pandemic fueled this fire. Many countries around the world, including the USA, UK, Japan and South Korea, have been incentivizing their companies to move production facilities out of China with a view to reconfigure their supply chains and reduce reliance on China. This initiative to reduce dependence on China has become a matter of national priority for some countries, like the UK.
The reconfiguration of global supply chains has opened up a window of opportunity for India to present itself as a business-friendly nation and an attractive, alternative investment destination for companies looking to relocate their production facilities. According to the Reshoring Index released by consulting firm Kearney, because of the COVID-19 crisis,“companies will be compelled to go much further in rethinking their sourcing strategies—indeed, their entire supply chain.” It is this compulsion and urgency that India needs to act upon. If exploited at the right time, this opportunity could provide the much needed boost to Indian Government’s flagship program -Make in India- which has now culminated into the aspiration of making in India for the world.
In a bid to attract foreign companies, the Indian government has rolled out various plans such as developing a land pool of 461,589 hectares (twice the size of Luxembourg) to supplement easier availability of land, improve hard infrastructure through huge investment in national infrastructure pipeline project, and soft infrastructure (i.e. institutions) through implementing business reforms. The Government has also handpicked ten sectors – electrical, pharmaceuticals, electronics, heavy engineering, solar equipment, food processing, chemicals and textiles – as spotlight areas for promoting manufacturing suggesting a much focused approach than earlier.
The MSME sector can be used as an catalyst to exploit the opportunity and realize the dream of making India a global production hub in three ways. First, MSMEs act as complimentary entities by providing intermediate goods to large businesses (both domestic and foreign) in India. They also help them achieve economies of scale by facilitating outsourcing of functions, specifically in labour-intensive activities. Second, they also play a pivotal role in promoting resilience to sector-specific shocks and fluctuations in international markets by diversifying the industrial sector. Lastly, MSMEs are the harbinger of entrepreneurship and innovation which are important pillars for lifting the nation’s capacity in shifting towards the manufacture and exports of sophisticated high tech products, and help move up the global value chains. Thus, to build and sustain competitive manufacturing enterprises, both large and small, and realize the vision of Make in India for the world, MSMEs need to be strengthened and supported.
Self Reliant India- A shift from excessive dependence to embracing self sufficiency
For the last three decades, Indian economy, like any other open economy, has embraced the benefits of globalisation. Forces of globalisation, including production and trade, based on national comparative advantages have given rise to geographically-spread value chains. In normal situations, the global value chains work as a well-oiled machinery leading manufacturers and nations to be oblivious to the extent of dependency on other nations. A recent article published in Harvard Business Review provides evidence that most of the companies are not as up to speed about the structure of their supply chain. Covid-19 has given a blow to these companies as they struggle to keep a track of which site, parts, products, and suppliers are located in affected areas, leading to a complete halt of production. Automobile industry is a perfect example of this blowout.
Another, and in fact, more appropriate account of globalisation-driven dependence can be seen in the case of India’s Pharmaceutical Industry. Third largest in the world (in terms of volume), Indian pharmaceutical industry imports 90 percent of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) or bulk drugs, with two-thirds of total coming from only one source- China. Despite being alarmed about the overdependence on China as a national security threat in 2014, only half-hearted measures were taken by the policymakers to make industry as self-reliant as it was in the 1990s when it actually exported APIs and was ahead of China. The stricter regulatory requirements on Indian firms manufacturing APIs, coupled with strong state support given by China’s government to their indigenous manufacturers, resulted in widening of the gap between the cost competitiveness of Indian and Chinese companies- a cause of increased dependence.
While several other examples of products other than APIs, such as computers, mobile phones, medical devices, toys can be given here, the one that boldly underlines India’s dependence in the manufacturing sector is the fact that it struggled to be self-sufficient in the production of something as simple as plastic dispensers for hand sanitizers. The current pandemic has given a wake-up call not only to corporations but also to governments across developed and developing economies.
From the agenda of reducing dependence on foreign imports, including those from China for APIs and other supplies, to the initial steps in ramping up the production of essential gear like personal protective equipment (PPE) kits, masks, testing kits, alcohol based sanitizers, dispensers, Indian Government’s vision of making India self reliant is echoed in the five pillars of its Aatma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan- Economy, Infrastructure, System, Demography and Demand. The initiatives (present and planned) under each of the five pillars are aimed at getting the economy back on its feet. Needless to mention, focus on strengthening the manufacturing sector is and has to be the centerpiece of any course of action directed to make India self-reliant.
In realizing the vision of self-reliant India, two things will play a determining role. First is the identification of sectors and/or areas, products, in which the Indian industry is capable of replacing foreign imports and can quickly scale up production, such as textile components and basic medical devices. One sector that is recently identified by the Government is the toy industry. A renewed focus on such sectors implies a renewed focus on MSME units that have the capability to scale up effectively and efficiently. The second and a related requirement is creating a supportive ecosystem, of which MSMEs are not only viewed as an important part (in the capacity of a partner to big businesses) but also, more importantly, as beneficiaries. So, for instance, while toy MSMEs are going to play a direct and quintessential role in reducing India’s unduly excessive reliance on imports as well as making her self reliant, it is unachievable without a supportive ecosystem that protects innovative and creative works, and streamlines the procedure of obtaining quality certification.
Reverse Migration- An opportunity to boost rural entrepreneurship
The covid-19 situation has worsened the situation of unemployment in India. The stalling of economic activity has forced businesses to lay off workers.. According to the Center of Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), the rate of unemployment in India has risen to over 23 percent as of April 2020 (25 percent in urban areas and 22 percent in rural) up from 7 percent (10 percent in urban areas and 6 percent in rural) in the beginning of the year (January 2020). Even as lockdown restrictions continue to ease, businesses in both formal and informal sectors, including construction, manufacturing, restaurants, travel and housekeeping are facing severe shortages of workforce due to reverse migration from urban to rural areas. According to an estimate by the Confederation of All India Traders traders’, the capital city has already witnessed an exodus of over 60 to 70 percent of its labor force. A similar situation has been reported from other major states for migrant workers such as Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. The extent of reverse migration is estimated to be at least 23 million migrants moving back to rural India. The consequences of such an extent of reverse migration are being clearly highlighted and voiced by businesses across urban areas as they grapple with shortages of workforce. However, more concerning aspects of this situation will be faced sooner than we realize as a significant proportion of migrants would be reluctant to return back to cities due to fear of the coronavirus, which is expected to haunt mankind for at least a year, uncertainties and related economic and emotional distress. As migrant workers seek safe haven back in their villages, the already widespread unemployment in rural areas is bound to skyrocket. While some of them would rely on agriculture as a means of livelihood, the sector is not without challenges – low productivity and small size of land holdings – to name a few. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is another alternative but the guaranteed days of work is restricted to just 100 in a financial year and the wages are meager. Perhaps, employment under MGNREGA is generally viewed as a work avenue in the off or lean agriculture season rather than a primary source of employment. Such a scenario, however, is an opportune moment to direct efforts towards rural industrialization through promotion of rural MSMEs. The process of rural industrialization through rural MSMEs will act as a catalyst to spur the generation of employment and income in the rural areas. A plethora of opportunities can be tapped by MSMEs not only in the agriculture and allied sector, but also in food processing, other traditional sectors such as khadi and village industries, handloom, handicraft and coir. In fact, the present crisis offers enormous potential for rural MSMEs to revive India’s artisan traditions and handicrafts which is in line with the Government’s latest “Vocal for Local” initiative. Setting up such units and making them operational might take some time and require coordinated support and policy initiatives by private enterprises as well as the Government at center and state level. However, promoting rural industrialization through MSMEs is the most viable option for sustained employment and income generation in rural areas that are home to 66 percent of India’s total population (as of 2018) to foster balanced regional growth, and keep a check on future migration to urban areas thereby decongesting and alleviating pressure on cities.
Three pillars of action to support, strengthen and scale MSMEs
It is unarguable that MSMEs are going to play an increasingly important role in enabling India to exploit the opportunities thrown open by the pandemic at both national and international level, and to put her on the path of economic recovery. However, it cannot also be refuted that MSMEs are the worst hit by the pandemic, with many of them struggling to survive, and would probably die down by the time things normalize – partly owing to the absence of any direct support for them in the Government’s 20 trillion stimulus package. For units that will survive the pandemic, a coordinated action plan consisting of support from Government (centre and state), industry associations, as well as strategic agility of units themselves, would be pertinent. Therefore, we suggest three action plans that could help reap the potential of MSMEs by making them more productive, efficient, and competitive.
- Technology Adoption
- Rural Cluster Development Programme
- Strategic Partnership Development Programme
As the world embraces the fourth industrial revolution, automation and digitization of business processes has become an absolute necessity for businesses’ survival and growth. According to a recent survey by SME body- India SME Forum -only 7% of MSMEs surveyed (1,29,537 MSME respondents) reported the adoption of technology beyond the use of digital tools to communicate with key stakeholders such as customers, employees, and suppliers. The adoption of technology could play a non-trivial role in overcoming numerous challenges and issues that plague the productivity, competitiveness and profitability of MSME units in India. The potential benefits from adoption are expected to be realized across the value chain and/or network – from procurement of resources, to automation and use of robotics in manufacturing processes, customer engagement, supply chain management, sales force management, integration of business processes etc.
An action plan to increase the rate of technology adoption amongst MSMEs must keep into consideration two important factors- perceived usefulness and perceived ease of use (Davis, 1989). The intention to use (adopt in this case) the new technology depends on the users’ attitude towards it which is influenced by, in addition to the external forces, the belief that the use of it would result in the improvement of performance and is free from effort. A Government initiative along with industry body CII, in the form of CII TechSaksham, is a step that underlines the belief about usefulness of technology in improving MSMEs performance (profitability and global competitiveness) and, in turn, their contribution to the Indian Economy. The three-year long comprehensive project is also aimed at addressing the issues revolving around the “perceived ease of use”. The “perceived ease of use” is reported to be a major blockade in MSMEs attempt at technology adoption.
A staggering 70 percent of MSMEs that were surveyed by India SME forum cited lack of knowledge, guidance, skilled manpower, and cost of investment, as impediments to technology adoption. While initiatives like CII TechSaksham can provide a platform to overcome the knowledge barriers, real beneficiaries would be those MSMEs that move swiftly in formulating an effective strategic plan for technology adoption that furthers three As necessary for promoting the “perceived ease of use”- awareness, agility, and adaptability. It is essential to give strategic priority to technology adoption and carry out the implementation in a phased manner. For units facing cost issues and manpower crunch, a viable and cost effective solution is to avail of technology as a service. These services provided by third parties include “Software as a Service (SaaS)”, “Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)” and “Platform as a Service”, and can go a long way in overcoming the challenges associated with technology adoption by MSMEs.
Rural Cluster Development Programme
India has a rich history of rural entrepreneurship and, to support the growth and build-capacity of Rural MSMEs, the Government should focus on developing industrial clusters specifically designed for MSMEs in and/or around rural areas. By virtue of its support to industrial activity in rural areas, rural industrial clusters can promote employment generation, which is the need of the hour now since the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in reverse migration of labourers (not just labourers, other blue collar workers as well). According to a recent report, livelihoods of a large percentage of around 40 million internal workers has been severely affected by Covid-19.
In order to combat the impact of Covid-19 pandemic on livelihoods of millions of migrant workers, a model similar to Special Economic Zones (SEZ) could be replicated in rural areas and districts to enhance the industrial capacity of MSMEs by providing them credit, technical know-how and market support. Additionally, following a cluster development approach towards industrialization efforts in rural areas can help tackle several challenges faced by MSMEs in terms of production, quality control, testing and marketing. For instance, in Indonesia, the government has adopted MSME clustering approach as an important aspect of Rural economy development as the success rate for development of manufacturing SMEs lies in strong inter-firms linkages in clusters and competent external networks and not direct government support. Thus, this could be an ideal time to give support and shape to these rural clusters and come with a workable action plan to encourage formation of clusters in villages.
Strategic Vendor Development Programme
The need for building strategic vendor development programmes stems from the complementarities that multinational corporations (MNCs) and MSMEs can derive from each other. MSMEs constitute an important part of the supply chain as providers of low value-added products, intermediates and components to be used in final production. It is in the interest of foreign MNCs to invest in the upgradation of the capabilities of their supply chain partners in order to ensure the quality of the final product. In order to facilitate that, MNCs often impart training on modern production techniques to the employees of MSMEs and engage in transfer of technological and managerial know-how.
Looking ahead, MSMEs must consolidate and extend relationships with MNCs to leverage their existing capabilities such as superior knowledge, technical know-how and established processes. One way to achieve such competencies is through formation of Vendor Development Programme wherein MNCs can provide training and guidance to MSMEs on how to meet quality standards, reduce costs, deliver on time and thus become reliable vendors for them. A successful example of such a vendor development programme is the Ethiopian flower cut industry. Strategic relationships between local vendors (flower growers) and Dutch foreign investors (Dutch Development cooperation) played an important role in the development and growth of the sector.
However, Indian MSMEs face challenges and obstacles in developing strategic tie-ups with large MNCs for at least two reasons. First, there are many Government-regulated performance parameters such as mandatory sharing of critical technologies and stringent rules for local content requirements that discourage foreign MNCs from entering into contractual relationships. Second, the absence of domestic intermediaries that could act as links between foreign MNCs and local MSMEs hinder the capabilities of the former to select the right vendor or partner and exploit the complementarities.
In order to overcome these constraints, there is a need to reduce regulatory bottlenecks and establish organizations that act as intermediaries (brokers) or connecting links between foreign MNCs and local MSMEs. The presence of such intermediaries will play a vital role in overcoming the information voids that characterize emerging markets like India, reduce the cost, effort and time involved in searching for the right vendor and/or partner (in the form of MSMEs) and facilitate the formation of mutually beneficial relationships. The formation of linkages or strategic tie-ups with multinationals from developed countries would go a long way in uplifting the competitiveness and capabilities of Indian MSMEs to serve both domestic and global markets.
To make the best of the opportunities arising from the biggest challenge of this century, Indian economy needs a thriving MSME sector. The substantial contribution that the sector has made to the economy has got it to be acknowledged as the “backbone”. It is also true that this backbone has been hit severely by the COVID19 pandemic and as the economy tries to stand up on its feet, strengthening of the backbone assumes an imperative task ahead for the Indian government.
The article has listed out the three essential pillars of an action plan that involves coordinated efforts from industry associations, policymakers and the MSME units themselves. While infusion of liquidity could help the distressed MSMEs recoup the losses in the short term, in order to really hit the ground running and help the economy realize its potential, strategies and policy actions with a long term vision in mind need to be enacted urgently. The focus has to be widened from the survival in the short-run to building up a productive and competent MSME sector for the future.
*Dr.Rishika Nayyar is an Assistant Professor (International Business) at FORE School of Management.
Covid-19 and food crisis
COVID-19 has hit at a time when food crisis and malnutrition are on the rise. According to the most recent UN projections, the pandemic-induced economic slump would cause as many as 132 million people to be hungry. This would be in addition to the 690 million people going hungry now. At the same time, 135 million people suffer from acute food insecurity and in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Although the pandemic’s transmission has slowed in certain countries and cases have decreased, COVID-19 has resurfaced or is spreading rapidly in others. This is still a global issue that needs a worldwide solution.
This epidemic threatens both lives and livelihoods. COVID-19 has had a wide-ranging and disruptive influence on the agriculture system. We fear a worldwide food crisis unless we act quickly, which may have long-term consequences for hundreds of millions of children and adults. This is mostly due to a lack of food availability — as wages decline, remittances decline, and in certain cases, food prices rise. Food insecurity is increasingly becoming a food production concern in nations that already have high levels of acute food insecurity.
Agriculture continues to serve a reliable and major part in world economy and stability, and it remains the primary source of food, income, and work for rural communities, even in the face of a pandemic. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the agricultural system and sector has been wide-ranging, causing unprecedented uncertainty in global food supply chains, including potential bottlenecks in labor markets, input industries, agriculture production, food processing, transportation and logistics, as well as shifts in demand for food and food services.
The COVID-19 epidemic not only created a new sort of agricultural catastrophe, but it also occurred at a difficult moment for farmers. In most years during the last few years, global commodity output has exceeded demand, resulting in lower prices. In 2013, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) predicted decreased global agricultural output growth due to limited agricultural land development, rising production costs, expanding resource restrictions, and increasing environmental concerns.
An expanding global population remains the main driver of demand growth, although the consumption patterns and projected trends vary across countries in line with their level of income and development. Average per capita food availability is projected to reach about 3,000 kcal and 85 g of protein per day by 2029. Due to the ongoing transition in global diets towards higher consumption of animal products, fats and other foods, the share of staples in the food basket is projected to decline by 2029 for all income groups. In particular, consumers in middle-income countries are expected to use their additional income to shift their diets away from staples towards higher value products. Meanwhile, environmental and health concerns in high-income countries are expected to support a transition from animal-based protein towards alternative sources of protein.
When people suffer from hunger or chronic undernourishment, it means that they are unable to meet their food requirements – consume enough calories to lead a normal, active life – over a prolonged period. This has long-term implications for their future, and continues to present a setback to global efforts to reach Zero Hunger. When people experience crisis-level, acute food insecurity, it means they have limited access to food in the short-term due to sporadic, sudden crises that may put their lives and livelihoods at risk.
However, if people facing crisis-level acute food insecurity get the assistance they need, they will not join the ranks of the hungry, and their situation will not become chronic
It is clear: although globally there is enough food for everyone, too many people are still suffering from hunger. Our food systems are failing, and the pandemic is making things worse.
How Bangladesh became Standout Star in South Asia Amidst Covid-19
Bangladesh, the shining model of development in South Asia, becomes everyone’s economic darling amidst Covid-19. The per capita income of Bangladesh in the fiscal year 2020-21 is higher than that of many neighbouring countries including India and Pakistan. Recently, Bangladesh has agreed to lend $200 million to debt-ridden Sri Lanka to bail out through currency swap. Bangladesh, once one of the most vulnerable economies, has now substantiated itself as the most successful economy of South Asia. How Bangladesh successfully managed Covid-19 and became top performing economy of South Asia?
In March 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared their independence from richer and more powerful Pakistan. The country was born through war and famine. Shortly after the independence of Bangladesh, Henry Kissinger, then the U.S. national security advisor, derisively referred to the country as a “Basket Case of Misery.” But after fifty years, recently, Bangladesh’s Cabinet Secretary reported that per capita income has risen to $2,227. Pakistan’s per capita income, meanwhile, is $1,543. In 1971, Pakistan was 70% richer than Bangladesh; today, Bangladesh is 45% richer than Pakistan. Pakistani economist Abid Hasan, former World Bank Adviser, stated that “If Pakistan continues its dismal performance, it is in the realm of possibility that we could be seeking aid from Bangladesh in 2030,”. On the other hand, India, the economic superpower of South Asia, is also lagging behind Bangladesh in terms of per capita income worth of $1,947. This also elucidates that the economic decisions of Bangladesh are better than that of any other South Asian countries.
Bangladesh’s economic growth leans-on three pillars: exports competitiveness, social progress and fiscal prudence. Between 2011 and 2019, Bangladesh’s exports grew at 8.6% every year, compared to the world average of 0.4%. This godsend is substantially due to the country’s hard-hearted focus on products, such as apparel, in which it possesses a comparative advantage.
The variegated investment plans pursued by the Bangladesh government contributes to the escalation of the country’s per capita income. The government has attracted investments in education, health, connectivity and infrastructure both from home and abroad. As a long-term implication, investing in these sectors helped Bangladesh to facilitate space for businesses and created skilled manpower to run them swiftly. Meanwhile, the share of Bangladeshi women in the labor force has consistently grown, unlike in India and Pakistan, where it has decreased. And Bangladesh has maintained a public debt-to-GDP ratio between 30% and 40%. India and Pakistan will both emerge from the pandemic with public debt close to 90% of GDP.
Bangladesh’s economy and industry management strategy during Covid-19 is also worth mentioning here since the country till now has successfully protected its economy from impact of pandemic. At the outset of pandemic, lockdowns and restrictions hampered the country’s overall productivity for a while. To tackle the pandemic effect, Bangladesh introduced improvised monetary policy and fiscal stimuli to bring them under the safety net which lifted the situation from worsening. Government introduced stimulus package which is equivalent to 4.3 percent of total GDP and covers all necessary sectors such as industry, SMEs and agriculture. These packages are not only a one-time deal, new packages are also being announced in course of time. For instance, in January 2021, government announced two new packages for small and medium entrepreneurs and grass roots populations. Apart from economic interventions, the government also chose the path of targeted interventions. The government, after first wave, abandoned widespread lockdown and adopted the policy of targeted intervention which is found to be effective as it allows socio-economic activities to carry on under certain protocols and helps the industries to fight back against the pandemic effect.
Another pivotal key to success was the management of migrant labor force and keeping the domestic production active amidst the pandemic. According to KNOMAD report, amidst the Covid-19, Bangladesh’s remittance grew by 18.4 percent crossing 21 billion per annum inflow where many remittance dependent countries experienced negative growth rate. Because of the massive inflow of remittance, the Forex reserve of Bangladesh reached at 45.1 billion US dollar.
Bangladesh’s success in managing COVID19 and its economy has been reflected in a recent report “Bangladesh Development Update- Moving Forward: Connectivity and Logistics to strengthen Competitiveness,” published by World Bank. Bangladesh’s economy is showing nascent signs of recovery backed by a rebound in exports, strong remittance inflows, and the ongoing vaccination program. Through financial assistance to Sri Lanka and Covid relief aid to India, Bangladesh is showcasing its rise as an emerging superpower in South Asia. That is why Mihir Sharma, Director of Centre for Economy and Growth Programme at the Observer Research Foundation, wrote in an article at Bloomberg that, “Today, the country’s 160 million-plus people, packed into a fertile delta that’s more densely populated than the Vatican City, seem destined to be South Asia’s standout success”. Back in 2017, PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) report also predicted the same that Bangladesh will become the largest economy by 2030 and an economic powerhouse in South Asia. And this is how Bangladesh, a development paragon, offers lessons for the other struggling countries of world after 50 years of its independence.
Build Back Better World: An Alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative?
The G7 Summit is all the hype on the global diplomatic canvas. While the Biden-Putin talk is another awaited juncture of the Summit, the announcement of an initiative has wowed just as many whilst irked a few. The Group of Seven (G7) partners: the US, France, the UK, Canada, Italy, Japan, and Germany, launched a global infrastructure initiative to meet the colossal infrastructural needs of the low and middle-income countries. The Project – Build Back Better World (B3W) – is aimed to be a partnership between the most developed economies, namely the G7 members, to help narrow the estimated $40 trillion worth of infrastructure needed in the developing world. However, the project seems to be directed as a rival to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Amidst sharp criticism posed against the People’s Republic during the Summit, the B3W initiative appears to be an alternative multi-lateral funding program to the BRI. Yet, the developing world is the least of the concerns for the optimistic model challenging the Asian giant.
While the B3W claims to be a highly cohesive initiative, the BRI has expanded beyond comprehension and would be extremely difficult to dethrone, even when some of the most lucrative economies of the world are joining heads to compete over the largely untapped potential of the region. Now let’s be fair and contest that neither the G7 nor China intends the welfare of the region over profiteering. However, China enjoys a headstart. The BRI was unveiled back in 2013 by president Xi Jinping. The initiative was projected as a transcontinental long-term policy and investment program aimed to consolidate infrastructural development and gear economic integration of the developing countries falling along the route of the historic Silk Road.
The highly sophisticated project is a long-envisioned dream of China’s Communist Party; operating on the premise of dominating the networks between the continents to establish unarguable sovereignty over the regional economic and policy decision-making. Referring to the official outline of the BRI issued by China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the BRI drives to: “Promote the connectivity of Asian, European, and African continents and their adjacent seas, establish and strengthen partnerships among the countries along the Belt and Road [Silk Road], set up all-dimensional, multi-tiered and composite connectivity networks and realize diversified, independent, balanced, and sustainable development in these countries”. The excerpt clearly amplifies the thought process and the main agenda of the BRI. On the other hand, the B3W simply stands as a superfluous rival to an already outgrowing program.
Initially known as One Belt One Road (OBOR), the BRI has since expanded in the infrastructural niche of the region, primarily including emerging markets like Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. The standout feature of the BRI has been the mutually inclusive nature of the projects, that is, the BRI has been commandeering projects in many of the rival countries in the region yet the initiative manages to keep the projects running in parallel without any interference or impediment. With a loose hold on the governance whilst giving a free hand to the political and social realities of each specific country, the BRI program presents a perfect opportunity to jump the bandwagon and obtain funding for development projects without undergoing scrutiny and complications. With such attractive nature of the BRI, the program has significantly grown over the past decade, now hosting 71 countries as partners in the initiative. The BRI currently represents a third of the world’s GDP and approximately two-thirds of the world’s entire population.
Similar to BRI, the B3W aims to congregate cross-national and regional cooperation between the countries involved whilst facilitating the implementation of large-scale projects in the developing world. However, unlike China, the G7 has an array of problems that seem to override the overly optimistic assumption of B3W being the alternate stream to the BRI.
One major contention in the B3W model is the facile assumption that all 7 democracies have an identical policy with respect to China and would therefore react similarly to China’s policies and actions. While the perspective matches the objective of BRI to promote intergovernmental cooperation, the G7 economies are much more polar than the democracies partnered with China. It is rather simplistic to assume that the US and Japan would have a similar stance towards China’s policies, especially when the US has been in a tense trade war with China recently while Japan enjoyed a healthy economic relation with Xi’s regime. It would be a bold statement to conclude that the US and the UK would be more cohesively adjoined towards the B3W relative to the China-Pakistan cooperation towards the BRI. Even when we disregard the years-long partnership between the Asian duo, the newfound initiative would demand more out of the US than the rest of the countries since each country is aware of the tense relations and the underlying desperation that resulted in the B3W program to shape its way in the Summit.
Moreover, the B3W is timed in an era when Europe has seen its history being botched over the past year. Post-Brexit, Europe is exactly the polar opposite of the unified policy-making glorified in the B3W initiate. The European Union (EU), despite US reservations, recently signed an investment deal with China. A symbolic gesture against the role played by former US President Donald J. Trump to bolster the UK’s exit from the Union. As London tumbles into peril, it would rather join hands with China as opposed to the democrat-regime of the US to prevent isolation in the region. Despite US opposition, Germany – Europe’s largest economy – continues to place China as a key market for its Automobile industry. Such a divided partnership holds no threat to the BRI, especially when the partners are highly dependent on China’s market and couldn’t afford an affront to China’s long envisaged initiative.
Even if we assume a unified plan of action shared between the G7 countries, the B3W would fall short in attracting the key developing countries of the region. The main targets of the initiative would naturally be the most promising economies of Asia, namely India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh. However, the BRI has already encapsulated these countries: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIMEC) being two of the core 6 developmental corridors of BRI.
While both the participatory as well as the targeted democracies would be highly cautious in supporting the B3W over BRI, the newfound initiate lacks the basic tenets of a lasting project let alone standing rival to the likes of BRI. The B3W is aimed to be domestically funded through USAID, EXIM, and other similar programs. However, a project of such complex nature involves investments from diverse funding channels. The BRI, for example, tallies a total volume of roughly USD 4 to 8 trillion. However, the BRI is state-funded and therefore enjoys a variety of funding routes including BRI bond flotation. The B3W, however, simply falls short as up until recently, the large domestic firms and banks in the US have been pushed against by the Biden regime. An accurate example is the recent adjustment of the global corporate tax rate to a minimum of 15% to undercut the power of giants like Google and Amazon. Such strategies would make it impossible for the United States and its G7 counterparts to gain multiple channels of funding compared to the highly leveraged state-backed companies in China.
Furthermore, the B3W’s competitiveness dampens when conditionalities are brought into the picture. On paper, the B3W presents humane conditions including Human Rights preservation, Climate Change, Rule of Law, and Corruption prevention. In reality, however, the targeted countries are riddled with problems in all 4 categories. A straightforward question would be that why would the developing countries, already hard-pressed on funds, invest to improve on the 4 conditions posed by the B3W when they could easily continue to seek benefits from a no-strings-attached funding through BRI?
The B3W, despite being a highly lucrative and prosperous model, is idealistic if presented as a competition to the BRI. Simply because the G7, majorly the United States, elides the ground realities and averts its gaze from the labyrinth of complex relations shared with China. The only good that could be achieved is if the B3W manages to find its own unique identity in the region, separate from BRI in nature and not rivaling the scale of operation. While Biden has remained vocal to assuage the concerns regarding the B3W’s aim to target the trajectory of the BRI, the leaders have remained silent over the detailed operations of the model in the near future. For now, the B3W would await bipartisan approval in the United States as the remaining partners would develop their plan of action. Safe to say, for now, that the B3W won’t hold a candle to the BRI in the long-run but could create problems for the G7 members if it manages to irk China in the Short-run.
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