Last week's Spring Meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund came with the usual signs of big international gatherings: tight security, politicians, celebrities, uplifting declarations, and lots of television cameras. But as is often the case, the real action took place behind the scenes. This year, for example, the Spring Meetings in Washington D.C. provided the venue for a meeting of an independent panel charged with the task of reviewing Doing Business, one of the World Bank's most prominent publications. Businesses, development specialists, and policymakers rely heavily on Doing Business as a guide for understanding potential barriers and for proposing and implementing practical institutional reforms. Any recommendations made by the review panel would be closely watched for clues about the future course of the Bank. Some insiders say that there's talk of outsourcing the survey to some other organization — or perhaps even axing it altogether.
In publication since 2003, Doing Business was inspired by academic research into the importance of sound legal environments for economic growth. The survey currently synthesizes expert assessments by roughly 10 thousand contributors from 185 countries into a picture of the ease of doing business around the world. It serves as a guide to important requisites such as the costs of starting a business, obtaining permits, hiring and firing, and so on. The project thus brings together a large amount of data that either didn't really exist before or weren't comparable across different countries and presents them in a way that is easy to understand and use.
Of late, however, the Doing Business project has come in for a lot of flak. "It's not just that some reforms promoted by the Doing Business rankings might be irrelevant for the majority of businesses in developing countries," says Christina Chang, an economist at CAFOD, a large UK-based aid organization. But "in some instances they're actively harmful to poor men and women." It's a criticism shared by many in the realm of non-government aid organizations.
In the run-up to the tenth anniversary of Doing Business, the World Bank's recently appointed president, Jim Yong Kim, appointed a panel to conduct a thorough review of the project. Chaired by Trevor Manuel, a broadly pro-market former finance minister from South Africa, the panel includes several prominent scholars, including Timothy Besley of the London School of Economics. Rather oddly, though, the process has given a uniquely democratic platform to the survey's most vocal critics — above all humanitarian groups such as CAFOD, Oxfam, Christian Aid, Save the Children, and others.
A joint submission by these organizations to the review panel claims that the Doing Business assessments are "mostly irrelevant to the majority of businesses struggling to do well in developing country markets." The groups call for the World Bank and other donors to stop using Doing Business as a benchmark assessing the 185 countries covered in the study. The critics claim that the project s gives government incentives to skew policy away from the needs of the majority of the poor and towards thoughtless institutional fixes aimed at helping countries improve their Doing Business rankings, such as corporate tax cuts or deregulation.
This controversy comes at an odd time. Since 2000, many previously poor countries have made enormous economic progress — above all in Africa. Some of the new wealth was, admittedly, the result of a rise in commodity prices. According to a 2010 report by the consulting group McKinsey, however, "resources accounted for only about a third of the newfound growth. The rest resulted from internal structural changes that have spurred the broader domestic economy" — just the sorts of changes that Doing Business tends to highlight.
Many of those changes have their roots in sounder macroeconomic management. Compared to the 1990s, deficits and debt burdens went down in most of Sub-Saharan Africa. Policymakers across the continent succeeded in reducing inflation from an Africa-wide average of 22 percent in the 1990s to 8 percent in this century. More importantly, they also undertook institutional reforms of the kind recommended by the Doing Business project: corporate tax cuts, reduction of red tape, streamlining of licensing and issuance of permits, and the liberalization of labor markets.
Some African countries, including Mauritius and Rwanda, have used Doing Business as a focal point for their reform programs. Through a comprehensive set of reforms, Rwanda improved its position from 150 in the 2008 edition of the Doing Business report to 52 in 2012. On the same ranking, Mauritius comes in at 19th place. These aggressive reformers have not only seen significant economic growth, but have also witnessed dramatic improvements in governance and a fall in corruption. Mauritius now enjoys an average income per capita of $15,600 and ranks 43rd on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index (higher than Lithuania, Croatia, and Hungary).
It may be a coincidence that the review, which may prompt significant changes in the Doing Business project, comes after a change in the leadership of bank. But perhaps it's not. The new president of the Bank, Jim Yong Kim, has, in the past, sounded like a harsh critic of pro-market reform policies prescribed to developing countries by the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. " Even where neoliberal policy measures have succeeded in stimulating economic growth, growth's benefits have not gone to those living in ‘dire poverty,'" he wrote in the introduction to a 2000 volume he edited, entitled Dying for Growth: Global Inequality and the Health of the Poor. Among other things, the book sings praises of Cuban healthcare system, which, according to Kim, "prioritizes social equity."
Critics of the Doing Business project raise a variety of substantive objections. For example, the CAFOD submission claims that the project's measure of the ease of employing workers ("Employing Workers Indicator") encourages countries to reduce worker protection legislation, whereas there is "no proven" link between such reforms and "jobs, growth, or other economic outcomes."
That is a somewhat curious argument by CAFOD, as most economists would expect a strong relationship between the two. An influential 2004 paper (partially supported by the World Bank) by Botero, Djankov, La Porta, Lopez-de-Silanes, and Shleifer in the Quarterly Journal of Economics examines the experience of 85 countries and concludes that "heavier regulation of labor is associated with lower labor force participation and higher unemployment, especially of the young."
The critics also urge the World Bank not to represent business taxation as "an unnecessary burdensome cost to business that needs to be minimized." Because the "Paying Taxes Indicator" used by the Doing Business project measures, in part, the tax rate facing businesses, it is feared that the report "can incentivize states to progressively reduce tax rates that affect corporations to an arbitrarily low level."
Among many economists, however, denying the existence of costs of business taxation is akin to denying evolution. A huge body of evidence shows the debilitating effects of high income taxes on investment, growth and employment (see here, for example). Measuring business taxation is not a sneaky way of advocating zero tax rates on corporate income but simply a way of accounting for the real cost that taxes impose on entrepreneurs. Even if one believes that corporations in developing countries should be taxed at relatively high rates, they ought to understand the economic trade-offs that such policy entails.
The weakest element of the critique is the recommendation that Doing Business should not be used to rank countries, and that neither the Bank nor donors should use it as an assessment. Aldo Caliari, a director at the Center of Concern, one of the signatories of the joint submission to the review panel, called the information provided by Doing Business rankings "illusory" during a discussion at the World Bank's Spring Meeting.
But what is supposed to be the alternative to providing the public, policymakers, and donors with this metric however imperfect it may be? Unless we have a superior way of measuring the quality of business environment, ignoring the information contained in the Doing Business rankings hardly seems like sound advice.
And that seems to be the core of the problem with ongoing discussions about the Doing Business project. It is true that Doing Business is not an ideal metric of business environment: Nothing is. Yet over the past decade the survey has proven an extremely useful tool both for scholars and businesspeople who want to compare the ease of actually conducting business in different countries, and for policymakers trying to foster the development of the private sector. Unless someone comes up with a better alternative, discarding or watering down this metric is likely to lead to less well-informed choices about policy.
We may disagree about the relative importance of a good business environment for poor countries. Yet few would suggest that it should be simply ignored. It's difficult to avoid the impression that Doing Business is currently coming under attack by groups with ulterior motives, groups who are inimical to a pro-market and pro-growth policy agenda. Given the extraordinary economic and human progress achieved in the last few decades through deliberate improvements to business environment, one hopes that the Doing Business project remains central to the World Bank's portfolio of activities.