Overpromise and Under-Deliver: Growth in Mexico

Over the past three decades, and despite great hopes to the contrary, Mexico’s economy has under-performed. In the early 1908s, Mexico introduced aggressive political and economic reforms in an attempt to gain footing among the world’s strongest economies. These reforms embraced global markets and decreased the state’s role in the economy. An independent central bank was introduced along with more developed financial markets, as the country faced a tough macroeconomic stabilization period. Additionally, the country liberalized foreign trade and investment by privatizing nearly 1,000 state-owned enterprises. By 1994, Mexico joined the OECD, a sign that the country was on the right track. Despite these efforts, Mexico has  seen capita income grow by an anemic 1.1%  per annum over the past 25 years. Compared to other countries with similar economies (see below), Mexico’s relative stagnation seems all the more acute..

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 In 2012, Enrique Peña Nieto took office as Mexico’s 57th President, eager to tackle the country’s growth challenge. So far, President Nieto seems to be heading in the right direction promoting an ambitious reform agenda that seeks to not spur economic growth, but also develop and enforce anti-monopoly regulation. The President’s agenda highlights two main reforms: energy and education. His education reforms target the quality of working educators by introducing a series of rigorous tests that may cost teachers their jobs if they fail. The energy reforms aim to reduce the market share of Pemex , which will go along way in strengthening the energy sector through increased competition.

President Peña Nieto intends to have all reforms approved by the end of 2014, but this is just half the battle. The most challenging part of these reforms will be enforcing all the regulations once implemented and winning over the general population.

Early last year, Elba Esther Gordillo, the powerful leader of Mexico’s teacher’s union, was arrested on massive charges of embezzlement of over 2 Billion Pesos (159 Million USD). The arrest came the day after President Nieto signed the education reforms into law. Shortly after, thousands of teachers stormed the streets to protest the education reform package. This forceful disapproval of the president’s reform agenda is a much-needed reminder that optimism for growth in Mexico is far from reality, and that Peña Nieto still has much to accomplish.

According to researchers at the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, the principal cause of Mexico’s stagnant growth is misguided education reform and dismal worker productivity. Worker productivity in Mexico has failed to increase over the past three decades despite the steady increase in school enrollment over the past five decades (see figure below). Educational facilities in Mexico focus on teaching cognitive skills rather than the technical skills that employers demand. The lack of technical skill-focused education in Mexico has lead to disappointing levels of worker productivity. This will continue unless the government seeks further reform focused on increasing the quality of educators and the type of education, not just the amount of people who receive an education.


In the past, the government’s answer to dismal growth has been disjointed. The Mexican Government has managed isolated efforts with no comprehensive strategy to patch up the economy. This erratic policymaking has led to many conflicting reforms, hindering growth in an economy that has been dreaming of development for decades. President Peña Nieto’s aggressive reform agenda brings newfound optimism for growth in Mexico. In his four remaining years in office, Peña Nieto is expected to accomplish what many have failed to do. Is it finally Mexico’s time to shine?





Democracy and Development in Pakistan: Where are we headed?

On June 11th, 2014 the Center for International Private Enterprises hosted a panel discussion entitled “Strengthening Democracy through Economic Reform In Pakistan: Challenges and Opportunities.” Last May, the Pakistani Peoples Party (PPP) became the first democratic government to serve out a full term in the country’s 66-year history of independence. This historic accomplishment created a great deal of optimism and speculation about democracy and development in Pakistan. In light of this accomplishment, it may be important to question how successful democracy has been effective in Pakistan and whether or not democracy has promoted development.

The recent terrorist attack at the Karachi Airport, the arrest of Pakistani political leader Altaf Hussain in the UK, and the Karachi Riots in 2010 only highlight a share of the complicated political, economic, and social issues shaking the country’s fragile security. According to the panelists, the outlook for Pakistan is very pessimistic, unless the government recognizes these issues and takes action as soon as possible. According to Dr. Ehtisham Ahmad of the London School of Economics, the Pakistani government must address two core issues: the financing of political parties, and the management of state finances. The PPP and PLMN have both neglected these major issues, hindering institutional and political development.

The lack of a formal mechanism for funding political parties has led to politicians looking for funding from wealthy groups and individuals. As a result, purchasing votes and favors has become a regular occurrence. These factors have created an inefficient and corrupt tax system that does not generate revenue or demographic information. In order for a democratic country to run properly, tax revenue and demographic information is heavily relied upon.  According to panelist Moin Fudda of CIPE Pakistan, the government missed its tax collection target by 77% last year, which indicates a need for major reform. The graph below displays tax revenue for Pakistan and similar countries in South Asia. The data shows the decline of tax revenue in Pakistan over the last sixteen years to one of the lowest tax revenue percentages in South Asia.

Tax Revenue Pakistan


The population living below the poverty line has been hit the hardest. The central government has given the provinces the responsibility of providing public services for its citizens, such as healthcare and education, but the inefficient tax system has left them without enough funding. The provinces have no way of providing viable public services unless they do not pay taxes, inevitably leading to a tax war within the government. This inability to provide basic services has also hindered development.

Dr. Ahmad stresses that these issues need to be tackled immediately, but Pakistan has quite shockingly done nothing to find a viable solution. If the Pakistani government won’t act, then what else can be done  to remedy the situation? Dr. Ahmad believes that foreign investors can press for a level playing field in order to incentivize reform. The Pakistani government needs to implement a strong corporate income tax and provide public services for the poor, especially education. Most importantly, these core issues must be taken seriously by the government, and the population must strongly push for reform and public services. Despite these issues, the economy has performed quite well and has seen solid growth in the past four years according to the data below.


GDP Growth Rate



Pakistan GNI


At a time when political and economic  unrest is very high, people are wondering whether this growth is due to the development of an informal economy that is quietly keeping the formal economy afloat . This question is of great relevance and will unfold in the near future as the political demographics of the country either stabilize or spin out of control.


FIFA World Cup: Brazil’s Development Hopes


Around the world, Brazil is known as the mecca of soccer. The country is loaded with magnificent soccer talent and has an electrifying atmosphere that makes soccer fanatics feel at home. Not to mention that Brazil has won the FIFA World Cup a record five times, and is the only country to have qualified for the World Cup every year since the tournament’s inception. One could not dream up a more soccer obsessed nation to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup that began this week. However, the current tension in the political, economic, and social atmosphere of Brazil has given the rest of the world an apprehensive feeling about this year’s tournament.

Political tension in Brazil has risen in recent years, as a majority of the county is unhappy with the government due to inflation, corruption, and the massive investment of public funds in World Cup preparations instead of Public Programs for the poor, who are in dire need. The estimated cost of the 2014 FIFA World Cup is currently at $11.5 billion. All this unrest comes at a time when Brazil has one of the most unequal wealth distributions in the world, currently entertaining a Gini Index of 54.7, along with a struggling economy. Some Brazilians hope that the World Cup will promote progress, while others worry that the event will push Brazil’s economy over the edge. It also gives rise to the question of whether the World Cup will only benefit the wealthy and further increase the gap between the rich and poor?

According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 61% of Brazilians believe that hosting the World Cup will be detrimental to the economy as it diverts public spending away from public services. 67% also believe that the economy is in bad shape, which increased from 41% last year. Milton Hatoum, a writer from Manaus, asked: “Why does a city like Manaus need an expensive and luxurious stadium when a few meters away there’s a neighborhood, Alvorada, without sidewalks and treated sewage?”

The long-term social and economic effects of a mega-event such as the World Cup should be analyzed. To predict the path that Brazil may follow, it is helpful to take a look at the economic performance of similar World Cup host countries after the tournament. Their political, social, and economic atmospheres may vary, but this is the most direct and simple way to present the possible future outcomes for Brazil. The figures below display indicator data from the World Bank, showing the economic growth of  Argentina, Mexico, France, and South Africa since they hosted the tournament:







It’s worth noting that Argentina, Mexico, and South Africa are more similar to Brazil’s economy and social structure compared to France. Argentina, Mexico, and South Africa all show a sudden rise in GDP Growth Rates, GDP, and GNI following their host year. In all four cases, the indicators suggest a short-term rise in GDP growth, followed by a decline. This gives rise to the heavily debated question of whether or not FIFA World Cup host countries see sustained long-term growth or temporary ripple effect growth following the event.

As we look ahead past this year’s FIFA World Cup, it will be interesting to see how Brazil’s economy fares. Our hope is that the result is a positive one, as the country’s economy is in need of repair. Hopefully the World Cup this summer gives the country’s economy a much-needed boost. At this point, the world will just have to wait and see.



India’s Corporate Social Responsibility Revolution

Last year, India passed the Companies Act, a revision of outdated business practices that resulted in a stronger commitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR). The Act mandates companies worth more than $92.5 million, or with yearly profits exceeding $78 million to:

The Companies Act strives to eliminate corruption and increase public trust in the business community
The Companies Act strives to eliminate corruption and increase public trust in the business community
  • Spend at least 2% of their profits on CSR
  • Establish a CSR committee overseen by a minimum of three directors
  • Noncompliance with the mandate can result in government sanctions and jail time

The government heralds the law as a huge step forward for the Indian business community, with Sachin Pilot, the Minister of State for Corporate Affairs, proudly describing India as the “first country to mandate corporate social responsibility through statutory provisions.”

Supporters of the law are encouraged by the potential for business development, claiming it creates an opening for smaller businesses to grow. The Companies Act discourages one-time monetary donations as a form of CSR and encourages the formation of long-term projects and relationships between large corporations and social sector businesses. The law has created a niche for CSR consulting firms to help corporations develop long-term CSR projects. Consulting firms can increase business while also advertising the projects of small social enterprises. This business development is especially critical in light of India’s recent stagnating financial growth.

Increased corporate social responsibility also has the potential to transform India’s philanthropic culture. According to the World Giving Index, India ranked 134 out of 153 nations based on monetary donations, volunteerism, and willingness to help strangers.

World Giving Index 2010
World Giving Index 2010

But the Center for Global Prosperity showed in the Index of Global Philanthropy and Remittances that 80 percent of Indian citizens donated money annually. India does not lack generosity. What is missing is a long-term commitment to philanthropy at the corporate level. The government hopes to improve corporate involvement in philanthropy through this law.

Some argue the Companies Act does not prioritize sustainable development
Some argue the Companies Act does not prioritize sustainable development

Yet, the Companies Act has been met with more resistance than anticipated. Much of the criticism originates from the government mandating businesses participate in CSR. Mark Hodge, from the Institute for Human Rights and Business, argues that government involvement only reduces government accountability for providing social services. He believes increased CSR is the improper approach to sustainable development because it not only reduces government accountability but also counteract harmful business practices. He instead believes the government should direct its attention towards reforming business practices in a way that encourages sustainable development. This connects to Michael Porter and Mark Kramer’s concept of shared value, where the economic development of a company is strongly tied to the social development of its surrounding community. By eliminating harmful business practices, Indian companies could increase their profits while also improving the community’s quality of life

Other detractors criticize the mandated aspect of the law. Do governments have a right to mandate social responsibility from corporations? Pilot describes the goal of the Companies Act as “encouraging firms to undertake social welfare voluntarily.” But is it really voluntary when the consequences for not complying include sanctions and incarceration? According to Arun Maira, a member of the planning commission, the voluntary nature of CSR has the ability to earn companies public trust and loyalty, which is especially important in the Indian culture where general distrust of businesses is still high. Mandating CSR, however, might discredit the altruistic nature of public service and might create even more distrust of large corporations.

It remains to be seen whether the increase in CSR will promote business development and corporate philanthropy in India or whether it will create distrust and outsource the government’s social service responsibilities. If successful, would India’s corporate philanthropy translate into increased international philanthropy? If unsuccessful, however, this could be a set back for India’s future philanthropic development and general trust in the business community.

AidData 3.0 Makes Development Data Easily Accessible

For those of us still enthralled by a very notoriously dysfunctional website, the recent release of AidData 3.0 should restore your faith in the power of the Internet and web developers. AidData is an online database that seeks to improve international development outcomes by making aid data accessible and actionable through crowdsourcing and an interactive user interface. The data portal allows any global development stakeholder to analyze over $40 trillion dollars in integrated remittances, FDI, foreign aid, private foundation grants, and domestic public expenditures across countries from 90+ donor agencies. AidData facilitates comparability between incoming financial flows and their subsequent real world outcomes and has the potential to be a valuable tool in the areas of development finance most readily amenable to policy changes.

A GIS map from AidData showing all the development projects in Malawi. (Source: AidData)

The remarkable thing about AidData is that you do not have to work at the World Bank or even the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Prosperity to effectively engage the interactive database. The portal provides enhanced visualization tools that make online data analysis easy and intuitive, even on a granular level. Users can run search queries for a specific project, donor, or country and generate state-of-the-art visual dashboards and geographic information system (GIS) maps instead of cumbersome data tables; all the food security projects in the northern Antsiranana region of Madagascar are just clicks away for a finance minister managing a large aid portfolio, an NGO volunteer working in a local field office, or a researcher conducting an in-depth study.

Civil societies are being increasingly seen as “arenas” of evolving mass participation and information exchanges with entering and exiting NGOs, social movements, and private investors that advance the common interest over pursuing private goals rather than as a static term with rigid contours.The spirit of AidData in rooted in the recognition that a nation with the most wealthiest of donors or a developing country with the most pressing of needs cannot successfully partner unless they both operate in vibrant civil societies and have adequate access to information.  The poor in any given country may think that a routinely absent teacher or doctor must be just an accepted feature of the poor and may not realize that this may be due to unaccountable and opaque political institutions. This is where not only AidData but mediums like radio broadcasts, mobile telecommunications,  and SMS messages can supply vital information, triggering a demand for accountability from institutions and even reciprocally nudge individual behavior. For example, a community-level information project in Uganda utilized community monitoring of health workers and service providers to dramatically improve health outcomes. Health facilities began to use suggestion boxes and numbered waiting cards and the reductions in wait time and absenteeism were dramatic. Similarly, when individuals in Peru, Bolivia, and the Philippines received monthly SMS message reminders to make a monthly deposit into their savings account, the gross amount saved by the reminded individuals increased by 6%.

Those on the opposite side of the equation that are administering aid and spearheading various development projects benefit from AidData to an even greater degree. Looking toward the future, natural disasters—which have doubled since 1980—will present a real danger to international peace and security and augment displacement, business shocks, and enormous material damage in the most vulnerable of communities as they. When a disaster strikes, first response usually comes from NGOs and their volunteers and then big governments and organizations follow, resulting in inefficient and uncoordinated relief responses; one community may receive triples rations of food but no water with another community not receiving any aid at all. The GIS maps of AidData can be a less costly tool to coordinate humanitarian and disaster relief projects as those working on the ground can see in real time which areas have yet to receive help.

An NGO worker assesses the impact of an agricultural project in Nepal (Source: Alena Stern)

Individuals have a right to be informed in order to hold governments accountable. Information is needed to actively participate in decision-making and is increasingly needed to access government services. Nevertheless, information is useless if individuals in civil society are not enabled to act on it. Appraisals of civil society should reflect this fluid component and open data portals like AidData should continue to seize opportunities to enhance transparency and improve efficiency by providing accessible and utile data to all development stakeholders.

It’s Time to Clear the Air on Chinese Smog Data

Should Beijing residents have to check the U.S. Embassy’s @BeijingAir Twitter feed in order to be properly informed of the smog that dirties their breathable air? The Chinese people are increasingly relying on official U.S. air quality reports on pollution levels and voicing their distrust of readings from the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP).

The U.S. Embassy Beijing Air Quality Monitor—first intended as a resource for the American community in the city—publishes hourly air quality index (AQI) values and advisories. The AQI value is generated from a measure of PM2.5, tiny particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in size. These particles can “penetrate deep into the lungs and the bloodstream and are considered the most accurate methodology in determining air quality,” according to the U.S. Embassy. Chinese officials had only tracked “more coarse particulates between 2.5 and 10 micrometers” before many Chinese internet users voiced their outrage and started to turn to the Embassy site for more utile data.

On the left is a view of downtown Beijing on a clear day. At right, is the same view the next morning.  (Bill Bishop/Washington Post)
On the left is a view of downtown Beijing on a clear day. At right is the same view the next morning. (Bill Bishop/Washington Post)

Urban Chinese microbloggers frequently express their suspicions of incomplete and untruthful data published by Chinese health officials. These suspicions are supported by discrepancies between measurements made public by the U.S. Embassy and by Chinese governmental officials. In the most egregious example, on January 12th, 2013, U.S. Embassy air quality reports were up to 200 micrograms per cubit meter higher than Chinese government reports, and indicated particle levels 40 times the concentration the World Health Organization (WHO) deems safe.

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Banking on Islamic Banks

Islamic finance is an ancient concept, but it has only recently developed into a modern day institution.  Adhering  to the Muslim religious law of Sharia, it has prohibitions against charging interest and investing in morally dubious industries, such as alcohol, gambling, and pornography; furthermore all lending is based on profit-sharing.

Under Shariah, hoarding is frowned upon, so savings earn no return unless put to productive use. Rasheed Mohammed al-Maraj, governor of the central bank in Bahrain explains that “money cannot generate money – money should be used for creating better value in the country or the economy.” For some Muslims, conventional mortgages are regarded as sinful; under Shariah both the lender and the borrower share the risk of the investment.  The Islamic home mortgage functions by adding what would have been the monthly interest into the purchase price of a home. Most commonly, the bank actually buys the house at a qualified customer’s direction, and then sells it to that customer through monthly installments modeled on the payments of a 30-year mortgage. If the borrower loses his job and defaults on the payments, under Sharia it is very difficult for the family to be thrown out of their home, as that would be seen as a creditor exploiting a debtor. For any transaction, borrowers must possess underlying assets, an idea primarily driven by the rationale in Islamic law that borrowers do not over-borrow.  Under Islamic finance, the lender is also an investor, so he remains an active participant through the life of the transaction and is in a position to rectify mistakes before any situation occurs. Continue reading