Partnering with business as a force for good in the world: A conversation with Elizabeth L. Littlefield
The year 2015 has been a banner year for OPIC with the Agency’s total portfolio reaching a record-high of almost $20 billion, new finance and insurance commitments totaling $4.4 billion and 43 percent of that total going to low-income countries. At the same time, OPIC has placed a strong focus on internal operations, taking steps to improve efficiency, expand staff and strengthen business development. Here, OPIC President and CEO Elizabeth L. Littlefield reflects on another record setting year.
OPIC achieved several milestones in 2015, including a large share of total commitments going toward low-income countries. Can you explain why development finance institutions like OPIC are so well positioned to achieve a positive impact in many of the world’s poorest places?
At long last the world is waking up to the fact that business can be a powerful force for good in poor countries. We are not going to solve the world’s challenges without harnessing private business’ vast resources and innovation and execution capabilities. And these investors cannot fully engage in these markets without the support of the public sector – enter OPIC.
Over the last several decades, critical services that used to be delivered only by governments in developing countries – things like the provision of power and education and healthcare – are increasingly being delivered more effectively by private businesses. This is very promising for many reasons, key of which is enabling governments to use scarce public resources for the work they are uniquely positioned to address. And it’s a wonderful opportunity for OPIC to help make that shift to private sector investment in critical services and infrastructure happen. We see this across our whole growing portfolio of high-impact projects in housing, education, water and power, among others.
You have a strong background in both development and finance, having previously worked as J.P. Morgan’s head of Emerging Markets in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, and as the CEO for the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP). How did you know this job leading OPIC was for you?
I was quite surprised to get a phone call from the White House while I was walking my dogs in October of 2009. The more I got to know OPIC and its extraordinary group of professionals, the more I knew what a wonderful opportunity it was for me to combine my passion for poverty alleviation and sustainability with my background in markets and finance.
You also spent a lot of time in Africa prior to joining OPIC. What is different about Africa when you visit today, and what aspects haven’t changed as much?
When I lived in The Gambia in 1989 and 1990 there was not one inch of paved road in the entire country. When I lived in Rwanda just before the genocide, there were no basic sanitation systems. In the past 20 years, some countries like Rwanda have roared ahead and transformed themselves, while others have faltered due to conflict, mismanagement or lack of investment. When I visited Liberia last year it felt like Africa in the late 1990s with a total lack of power or road infrastructure and village women still pounding grains with large wooden mallets. On the other hand, the optimism and the buzz about “Africa rising” is palpable across most of the continent. When I was with President Obama on his trip to Kenya for the Global Entrepreneurs Summit last summer, it was exciting for me to see all the young, dynamic and confident entrepreneurs who were being courted by eager investors, rather than the other way around.
I believe that much of the innovation and investment opportunity in the next 20 years will be in this young continent. But as someone who cares deeply about poverty and the environment, I worry about whether growth in Africa will help lift the poor population of the continent out of poverty and whether or not that growth will be inclusive.
This is why I am so proud that OPIC teams have pushed hard to develop projects in the lower income countries of the world. These are some of the places where we can add real value not only by supporting projects that build critical infrastructure like low income housing, but also through the high environmental, social and governance standards that come along with OPIC support. It has been very gratifying for me to hear many of our clients – like some of the funds that invest in agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa – pointing to how our environmental and social standards are both strong protections against risk and also are a significant boost to development impact.
Can you briefly describe a project or projects that are having a positive impact in one of these places?
At a time when instability in the Middle East is ricocheting across a far wider region, one of the projects I cite often is the Middle East Investment Initiative (MEII), a lending program to small and medium enterprises in the West Bank. In a region as fragile as the West Bank, it is truly extraordinary to have built a lending program through local banks that has made more than 800 loans with just over a two percent default rate. The program has led to the creation of an estimated 10,000 jobs. Imagine the power of creating that many jobs in a part of the world where the unemployment rate is 50 percent and young people have so much frustration. And those banks are now more comfortable with SMEs and ready to lend with less of an OPIC guarantee which shows OPIC’s catalytic power.
One of the highlights of OPIC’s results each year has been the money generated for deficit reduction (2015 was the 38th consecutive year that OPIC generated money for the U.S. taxpayer). How have you worked to make OPIC a more efficient agency?
We often talk about the work we support in distant emerging markets but much of my focus has been on OPIC’s institutional strengthening – improvements that are crucial to building a first class financial institution and a best-in-class development agency. The work we’ve done on improved risk management and improved management information systems have enabled us to see the road ahead more clearly with a clean windshield to prudently fly faster and higher. Streamlining and automating processes and liberalizing policies have enabled us to improve efficiencies and client experience. Depending on the metric, we are 20-50 percent more efficient and more effective in providing our services than seven years ago. This work protects the Agency and creates a firm and robust platform for the future.
What were some of your highlights of the past year?
This past year, every single department made major contributions to our development mission, our strong growth and our internal strengthening. We have firm foundations, growing international and domestic understanding and support for our Agency, and an ever more powerful impact in addressing the challenges of the planet, its resources and the people who depend on it.
Every year, the fabulous teams in this Agency outdo themselves and I am personally and deeply grateful for the privilege to serve alongside them.