“The little agency that could” – OPIC’s outsized role in foreign development

This often-overlooked agency leads U.S. development efforts overseas – while making a profit for taxpayers. Ben Leo of the Center for Global Development says Congress should let it do even more.

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In 2011, the Dominican Republic launched its first-ever wind farm, with the eventual capacity to offset more than 62,500 tons of carbon emissions a year.

In sub-Saharan Africa, “micro-irrigation” kits allow small farmers to grow onions, tomatoes and other cash crops throughout the dry season, boosting production and incomes.

And in rural India, 300,000 people a day have access to clean drinking water from 500 new water-treatment facilities built in villages throughout Punjab.

These initiatives are among the thousands of projects financed over the years by the federal Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). Though often overlooked, this agency has long been at the forefront of U.S. efforts to boost the economies and living standards of developing countries while also supporting U.S. foreign policy aims.

Instead of offering traditional, grant-based foreign aid, OPIC encourages private-sector investment in developing economies. It provides loans and loan guaranties when commercial loans are unavailable and offers “political risk insurance” to companies investing in war-torn or politically unstable areas. The projects it chooses to support must also adhere to agency standards on environment, labor and human rights.

At its launch in 1971, President Richard Nixon directed the agency to provide “businesslike management of investment incentives” to foster development. Its approach in fact pioneered the “public-private partnership” model now in vogue in a variety of sectors, both at home and abroad.

Today, the agency works in 150 countries and oversees a portfolio of $18 billion in investments. And it does so with a staff of about 230 – miniscule by federal standards.

“OPIC is a very efficient organization,” says Ben Leo, Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development. “It’s quite astonishing what it can do when it’s so lightly staffed.” Moreover, Leo says, it operates at zero cost to taxpayers, relying on fees from the services it provides. “It actually turns a modest profit that goes back to the U.S. Treasury,” says Leo, “And it has done this consecutively for almost 40 years.”

Despite this extreme efficiency, Leo also worries that OPIC is too small to meet growing global demand for development finance and to compete with its global counterparts.

For example, OPIC is among the lead U.S. agencies tasked with carrying out Power Africa, a major initiative launched by the Obama Administration in 2013 to help electrify sub-Saharan Africa. As many as 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa now lack access to electric power, which not only means less commerce, but no refrigeration for vital medicines, no lighting for schools and businesses, and over-reliance on carbon-intensive fuels like wood for cooking.

In 2014, OPIC approved financing for the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project, Power Africa’s first large-scale project and what will be the continent’s largest single wind power project. When finished, Kenya’s power generation capacity will grow by as much as 20 percent.

To support more projects like these that support the humanitarian, economic and foreign policy goals of the United States, Leo says OPIC demands dramatic expansion and modernization.

What do you think OPIC needs?

Leo: The challenge for OPIC is two-fold. First, it doesn’t have enough staff to do the transactions coming its way. The second is that its tools and instruments have not changed for the most part since it was established in 1971.

It doesn’t have the ability to provide equity investments, capacity assistance or advisory services. It doesn’t have the full spectrum of tools that U.S. investors want and need to enter into frontier and developing markets. When you couple outdated authorities with a highly constrained staffing situation, it means OPIC is not having the impacts that it can or should have going forward.

Why can’t we rely on the private sector to take up the slack? And what do you think about proposals, such as the one by the Heritage Foundation, to “privatize” OPIC?

Leo: First of all, can a private sector [entity] provide the same benefits that an organization like OPIC can? The answer is “no.”

The private sector can and should afford investments in development as much as possible, but there are a lot of things that the private sector is not willing to support, and that includes investing in a whole range of developing countries that matter to the U.S. government for national security, foreign policy or commercial policy reasons. A lot of people don’t know or appreciate that OPIC right now requires U.S. investors to attest to previous attempts to get private financing for a particular project. OPIC will only support transactions where there is a clear gap between what commercial banks are willing to support and what’s needed.

The solution to critiques like those from the Heritage Foundation is not to privatize OPIC but to implement a number of targeted reforms that will make it even more efficient and accountable and ensure that it doesn’t crowd out private capital.

“Don’t privatize it, improve it.” That’s a message that resonates with a lot of people on Capitol Hill, including Republicans who are more libertarian or conservative in their outlook.

You proposed creating a U.S. “Finance Development Corporation” that would both rebrand OPIC and dramatically expand and modernize its capacity. What are your priorities for this kind of reform?

Leo: The first is to make sure that OPIC or the proposed U.S. Development Finance Corporation has adequate human resources to meet its demands and to seize on the opportunities that are present. That means more staff. It doesn’t mean a bloated, expansive bureaucracy, but it does mean more people who can execute transactions and ensure they’re done in a financially viable and accountable way.

Second is to modernize the tools at its disposal. In many ways, that’s simply bringing [the agency] into the 21st century to make it look like its peer organizations in Europe or emerging Asia.

A concrete example would be a power developer that’s interested in a project in a country like Zambia. If that power developer needed support, it would have to go to one government agency for help on feasibility studies, then it would have to go to another agency to get advisory services in how to structure its operations. It would go to another agency to get commercial policy support when engaging with the Zambian government – either the Commerce Department or the State Department – and then it would go to OPIC for financial tools, whether it’s a loan, a guarantee or some kind of insurance product. As somebody who has spent time in the private sector trying to do these kinds of transactions in sub-Saharan Africa, it is a complete nightmare to try and navigate the government gauntlet of highly decentralized services that are now provided.

A modernized institution would bring all of that under one roof so that the power developer in this case could come in and have one conversation about what they want to do and what kind of tools they would need to execute on that vision.

The third is a reform agenda that focuses on results, transparency and accountability. Right now, there’s a lot of information that OPIC collects that is not publicly reported or even reported to Congress. For instance, before it supports any investment, OPIC collects information on the likely development impacts of any development project and gives it a development impact score. And then on an annual basis, OPIC staff collect information on how that project is performing – how many jobs it’s created, how much tax revenue is being generated, how much of a demonstration effect that project is having overall.

The reform agenda would entail much more extensive reporting so that kind of information is publicly available. Research institutions like mine would be able to take a deep dive into OPIC’s portfolio and figure out where they’re having the greatest impact, where they’re lagging behind and propose adjustments where appropriate to make the organization even more effective.

What would happen if we leave OPIC as is?

Leo: I think there are very significant implications for U.S. policy if we fail to act. And to be clear, we are already perilously behind the curve compared to what the Europeans and some of the Latin Americans are doing, as well as some of the emerging market actors such as China, India and Malaysia.

[If we fail to act,] the U.S. will be less relevant on the global stage because we’re not bringing the scale that’s required, and we’re not responding to what our partner governments and people in these developing countries want to see most. There’s a yawning gap between what developing countries want from America and what we’re actually bringing forward.

There’s a real need for urgent action, and I think the next two to three years, through the upcoming presidential campaign cycle, will be very telling about how serious the United States is in addressing these continued challenges.

Ben Leo is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Global Development.

Anne Kim is Editor and Co-founder of Republic 3.0.

 

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