Foreign private investment now rivals aid in low-income African countries Updated for 2021

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Updated: February 28, 2021

WASHINGTON – Foreign private investment now supplies about as much finance as foreign aid in many low-income countries, including in Africa, according to a new study published on Wednesday by the Center for Global Development.

The study examined foreign private capital flows—meaning foreign direct investment (FDI), portfolio equity and debt, and bank and other lending—to low-income countries, a group that includes 19 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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The African countries covered in the study are Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

The study found that for the median low-income country, the ratio of foreign private investment to GDP is about the same as the ratio of foreign aid to GDP.

“This was a surprise,” said Nancy Lee, a senior policy fellow at CGD, a former senior official at the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the lead author of the study. “We thought that foreign private capital flows would not contribute much to investment in low-income African countries, especially after the global financial crisis. Instead, we found that these private capital flows are a major source of finance—and they’ve mostly increased since the financial crisis. That’s in contrast to aid, which has declined sharply as a share of GDP.”

“Most of these inflows are in the form of FDI, which is a more stable, less volatile source of finance,” she continued. “That’s good news for these economies.”

Some of the study’s other findings include:

It’s not all about natural resources

These investments are not all captured by resource-rich countries. In 2017, more than half of capital inflows went to countries that are not rich in oil or other natural resources. “It’s increasingly clear that policies, not just resource endowments, shape FDI destinations for low-income countries,” Lee said.

China is a growing investor, not just a lender

Much of the new investment in Africa is coming from China. China more than doubled its total foreign direct investment in the continent between 2011 and 2016—and the amount is now closing in on that of the largest traditional western investors like the US, UK, and France, which have mostly stayed flat over that same time period.

“There’s been a lot of focus on China’s role as a lender to African countries, but China has also emerged as one of the most important investors in Africa,” Lee said. “It’s clearly making a long-term commitment to the region.”

But foreign and domestic investment don’t necessarily reinforce each other

Low-income countries with higher rates of private foreign investment don’t tend to have higher rates of private domestic investment. That raises concerns, said the authors of the study.

“We would expect foreign and domestic private investment to be complementary, as is the case in lower-middle-income countries,” Lee said. “But we’re not seeing that pattern in low-income countries. They need to think about how to spread the benefits of foreign investment more widely in the economy.”

Policies make a difference

Foreign investors care about the policy environment for investment. The study finds a significant positive relationship between foreign investment/GDP and the perceived quality of the regulatory environment in low-income countries without resource riches.

“Foreign aid is still important for poor countries, but private investment is already as big and growing. That’s especially true for FDI to non-resource-rich countries. These countries are showing that their resource endowments no longer determine their destiny. Their policy choices matter,” Lee said.

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