An annual series of meetings with British ambassadors finds these key officials to be highly engaged in supporting UK export growth in their countries, writes Robin MacKenzie.
Last month, British Expertise International (BEI) hosted its annual Meet the British Ambassadors series. Over a two-week period, 12 regional sessions were held, with around 50 ambassadors, high commissioners and trade directors discussing the political and economic environment in their countries and the region, highlighting specific opportunity areas for UK businesses.
Our conclusions from the series fall into three areas – the outlook, the nature of the opportunities and the challenges that remain:
Outlook: The ambassadors were enthusiastic and highlighted the breadth and diversity of opportunity for UK businesses and are clearly working hard across all aspects of UK interests in a cohesive way with their colleagues in the Department for International Trade. In this regard, the outlook was broadly positive and UK expertise is clearly valued on a global scale. However, they were also very pragmatic around the challenges that need to be overcome, including general issues around ease of doing business, building effective relationships/partnerships, sourcing/securing finance and the ‘politics’ at play.
Opportunity areas: Whilst there were challenges in social infrastructure before the pandemic, these have been accelerated and amplified, and many countries are needing to recover lost learning and rebuild their concept of health provision. The theme ‘build back better’ seems to be very consistent across the world, with a significant focus on climate resilient infrastructure investment to meet demands of growing, and in some instances, wealthier populations.
Climate change is also a globally consistent theme – with all countries trying to move towards carbon net zero and adapt successfully to protect people from the existing impacts of climate change. In some regions, it was referred to as an ‘existential crisis’ – where the very survival of communities is already at stake.
Challenges: Clearly the pandemic has had the most pronounced effect upon the most marginalised in society; it is also often the case that these same communities are most at risk from the impact of climate change. However, many of the smaller economies we spoke to struggle to access the billions available globally to address these issues. They can also struggle to attract the support of the largest companies, as their scale is often not sufficient. In terms of infrastructure investment, there was also a tendency for ambitious projects to remain ambitions, as they were not able to be translated into ‘bankable’ projects with clear business cases and sources of funding.
From a UK perspective, it is clear that UK Export Finance (UKEF) is offering more support to UK businesses in a wider range of regions, but awareness and engagement is still relatively limited amongst UK businesses. Smaller businesses are finding it more challenging to navigate processes and procedures to access the finance support. This will demand continued promotion of the UKEF offering, enhanced accessibility by micro-SMEs and active translation into tangible case studies that showcase their work in practice
Finally, the ambassadors were all clearly highly engaged in supporting UK export growth in their countries. There appeared to be greater export-related cohesion amongst government departments covering foreign policy, aid and trade. When asked, however, they all welcomed the concept of having a clearer articulation of the British expertise that the UK can offer – across physical and social infrastructure, climate adaption and the shift towards carbon net zero and other key areas of competitive advantage.
At BEI, we will continue to provide events and engagements that follow up on these opportunity areas in specific geographies. Our events programme will also look to highlight and challenge some of the barriers to doing business head on, with a series of events focused on access to finance.
Finally, we will be looking to showcase our members expertise in a number of themed areas – including climate change, physical and social infrastructure, education and others. The first of these showcases focuses on education and our report, Recover Learning, Rebuild Education (https://view.publitas.com/si/british-expertise-international-report-reco...), highlights the global contribution UK-based businesses are already making in this critical area.
Robin MacKenzie is the group marketing director at Strategy International.