Sunday, 2 December 2012

Regulation, values and strategic competition

Public intellectuals should be making a stronger case that anti-corruption laws and other 'values-based' regulation are not disadvantages for Western firms in strategic competition for access to African natural resources.

This week I'm attending the 2nd 'Challenges of Government' conference at Oxford's Blavatnik School.

There Paul Collier will be moderating the session 'Managing Natural Resources for Growth' against the background that resources booms have often driven "inequality, conflict, and stunted political development".

This reminds me that earlier this month Collier wrote an op-ed in The Gaurdian arguing, among other things, that US, EU and other anti-corruption regulations give rival (he meant Chinese) firms competitive advantages in the race to secure mineral, energy and land resources -- but that these rules were a vital part in a strategic conflict of values, as follows:

"The west's economic battle with China will be lost: power will inevitably shift. The battle of values can be won, and if it is won the shift in economic power will be less consequential."

In my next (post-conference) post, I hope to revisit these issues in light of discussion at the Blavatnik event. For now, a few things -- because I think Collier's thought-provoking piece (albeit on a well-trodden 'contest of values' literature) missed an opportunity to be more persuasive. The piece does not make the case for how, in the long term, doing the right thing (in regulating offshore business behaviour) can also be the smart thing (provide long-term strategic advantages to Western firms). I intend to ask Collier whether it is not possible to make an argument addressing firms' strategic self-interest and not just our sense of right. That might help build corporate support for such practices, seen for example as part of longer-term protection of commercial interests from various risks.

The late Karen Ballentine led the best research on the malign problem structure of the lack of a 'level playing field' and collective action problems relating to regulating for more responsible business. Collier ought to have used his op-ed to explain why 'winning' the battle of values would be a significant economic victory, not just (an important) moral one. That is the case he needs to draw out to convince policymakers and regulatees of the strategic importance of such laws.

Moreover -- and a topic for another post -- Collier's argument does not factor in how Chinese firms involved in higher-profile African resources deals might over time face (and are already to some degree facing) a degree of greater regulatory attention from Beijing over their behaviour in Africa. Collier's argument is, in effect, that the West has a moral duty towards African countries to regulate for responsible business conduct. Yet perhaps Collier should write less on what the West can do to 'win' versus China in Africa, and more on what can be done by policymakers to help promote inclusive, transparent and socially-responsible management of African resources, whichever foreign nation seeks to exploit them.


A previous post reflected on the risk that regulation intended to improve listed companies' social performance might have undesirable consequences -- here.

Collier's piece is here.

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