LEAST DEVELOPED COUNTRIES: FURIOUS NETWORKING BRINGS RESULTS(Guardian.co.uk) - By Charles Ebikeme
As politicians make worthy speeches about improving the lot of the poor, people from developing countries are busy making useful business connections
Gregor Avril, from Haiti, was dubious about attending the UN conference for least developed countries (LDCs) in Istanbul this week. The executive director of Haiti's association of industries had been invited by the UN Global Compact, the UN's voluntary corporate responsibility initiative that is reaching out to the private sector, to take part in the trade fair that forms the private sector track of the conference on LDCs. There are also civil society, government and parliamentary tracks.
Avril, with hundreds of other business representatives, has been networking furiously – mostly with Turkish businesses it has to be said – in the bowels of one of the conference buildings, while government officials make worthy speeches in the plenary sessions above.
Sitting at his booth at a small desk displaying coffee, pasta, snacks and – pride of place – bottles of Barbancourt rum, described as the "cognac of rums", Avril said the conference was much better than he had expected. He is a regular on the trade show circuit in the US, but he said he didn't know why he was invited to Istanbul.
"This was totally unknown to me. I didn't know the nature of the show and I was sceptical," said Avril, reaching into a cardboard box full of business cards. "But interest in Haiti has been much more intense than I had expected." He said several Turkish Cameroonian and Bangladeshi businesses have asked him for information about manufacturing companies in Haiti. "I have promised them information, trying to do some matchmaking and give people details about a particular sector they are interested in." The interest has come mainly from importers and exporters, with some companies interested in distributing Haitian rum. One was interested in extracting granite for processing outside of Haiti.
Bodo Wittmer, vice-president of the Antananarivo chamber of commerce and industry in Madagascar, said three companies had expressed serious interest in doing business in her country. "We've had three serious contacts, one for every day so far, that's not bad," she said at a stand with colourful shopping baskets made by rural women. "Of course, most Turkish business people want to sell to Madagascar, [products] like machinery, construction material. It's natural, but it's important to begin contacts and open up possibilities."
An official from Malawi, which the World Bank hails as a country that is successfully promoting its agricultural products, such as mangoes, also attested to the seriousness of interest his stand had attracted. Malawi sent half a dozen companies to Istanbul. "Our representatives talked to serious business people. They were not being patronised by students," he said. "They were interested in constructing shopping malls and hotels."
The enthusiasm shown at the trade fair lent weight to claims by the Turkish president, Abdullah Gül, about the importance of putting the private sector at the heart of development.
Be that as it may, developing countries – including the LDCs – can't make the most of their opportunities if they are not able to gain access to markets. As Stephen O'Brien, UK international development minister, said on Wednesday at the conference, without a fair chance to export their products, countries cannot meet their potential to grow and reduce poverty.
But while the policymakers of the big trading blocs ponder what concessions to make, Avril was enjoying his quiet moment of satisfaction. "It was good to tell lots of people that Haiti still has a thriving industry and is still standing up," he said.