In the race to attract foreign direct investment, countries are opening SEZs at a furious rate. Winnowing down the choices requires some serious due diligence.

Author: Valentina Pasquali

Despite the appeal of special economic zones (SEZs)—and corporate enthusiasm for them—it has actually taken a while for the concept to take root. The modern version was first established in the US in the 1930s. Other zones didn’t show up outside the US until three decades later, starting with the Shannon Free-Trade Zone in Ireland in 1959. The idea started to slowly gain traction in the mid-1990s.

It’s caught on now. Today, nearly 4,000 SEZs have been set up in more than 130 developed and developing countries. In the past seven years, the number of such zones has shot up by 33%. “I am continually surprised that every country I go to is either setting up or revamping their SEZ program,” says Thomas Farole, a lead economist at the World Bank.

They really should read through the fine print. Each regime has unique processes and legislations.

~ Harold Godsoe, Locus Economica

The proliferation is understandable. As the competition for capital ramps up, government officials often view special economic zones as an indispensable tool in attracting foreign direct investment to their countries. A zone can also serve as a laboratory to test whether business-friendly policies are worth rolling out on a larger scale. “I think SEZs have been useful because they’ve introduced reforms that would not have been possible at the national level,” says South Africa-based Markus Scheuermaier, senior operations officer in the Public-Private Partnership Advisory Services of the International Finance Corporation. “So you might as well start small and then, in an ideal world, hope that it will apply to the rest of the country in the long term.”

For their part, corporate executives see SEZs as a way to lower costs and get more direct access to overseas markets. But observers say establishing a special economic zone—or setting up operations in one—requires careful planning and a steady commitment. When SEZs are not done right, governments end up squandering their investment, while businesses reap benefits that are temporary at best.

Experts say corporate managers have a long list of items to review when scouting SEZ locations. Mistakes can lead to project delays and lost revenues. Finance executives or risk managers who fall down on their due diligence could find themselves in hot water. “They really should read through the fine print,” says Washington, DC-based Harold Godsoe of consulting firm Locus Economica, which advises governments and international institutions on SEZ best practices. “Each regime has unique processes and legislations.”


SCHEUERMAIER, International Finance Corporation: Companies must find the countries that best suit their needs.

That’s the hitch. Special economic zones typically share some common characteristics—favorable tax and tariff treatment and better-than-average infrastructure networks. “These come together in order to make it easier for companies to do business,” notes Jean-Paul Gauthier, the London-based managing director of Locus Economica. But SEZs encompass a number of arrangements. Those can run the gamut, from export processing centers to science and technology parks to urban enterprise zones.

Not all SEZs are created equal. Different countries present different opportunities—and challenges. “There is no known ‘model’ that can be more appealing than another,” says Connie Carter, a professor of business law at Royal Roads University in Canada and an expert on Asian SEZs. “Many advantages are country-specific and need to be carefully matched with a specific corporate strategy.”

Scheuermaier points out that, in certain African nations, a poor investment climate and lack of access to power can be the big obstacles to conducting business. SEZ authorities should therefore address those shortcomings. “In other places, however, these might not be problems,” Scheuermaier says. “There may be labor market frictions, and that’s what SEZs should tackle,” he says. “Elsewhere SEZs might not make sense at all.”

When assessing the suitability of an SEZ, experts say corporate executives should start at the top. Does the zone have the political support in the country’s capital? Is there a credible regulatory environment? Is the zone run at arm’s length from local authorities?

Likewise, executives should steer clear of places that have a tenuous rule of law. As Carter points out, a number of civil society advocacy groups and various nongovernmental organizations exist in Asia. “One of their purposes seems to be to name and shame foreign companies perceived of abusing human rights and the environment,” she says. “When made public, this presents a substantial risk to global brands and their reputation.”

Other more practical considerations abound, as well. Location near major ports of entry is a big plus. So, too, is a setup that makes it easy for a company to bring in foreign managers. Even more basic: The power needs to stay on. Brownouts are a disaster for just-in-time manufacturers.

The cost and quality of the local workforce is equally important. The World Bank’s Farole points out that South Africa is looking to grant a wage subsidy to all SEZ workers. If approved, the government kick-in would cut labor costs by 20% to 30%—a huge attraction in a country with easy access to African markets but also relatively high wages. Likewise, the Free Industrial Zones of Penang house a job training center. The center, Farole says, was set up by the Malaysian government in partnership with multinational corporations to train the workforce on the specific skills the employers require.

That sort of foresight is essential for companies to maximize gains from an SEZ. “It’s pretty good business,” says Gauthier, “provided you do your homework.”


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