Not everyone necessarily wants us to do things for them, despite belief to the contrary – they want us to enable them to do things for themselves
They say that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.
In my opinion, that’s just what UK companies should be focusing on when looking at opportunities in overseas markets that present specific risks. While the UK may no longer be a net exporter of goods and products, UK firms still remain widely recognised around the world for our expertise and knowledge. But not everyone necessarily wants us to do things for them, despite belief to the contrary – they want us to enable them to do things for themselves.
I believe this most certainly applies in a country such as Afghanistan, where McBains Cooper is working with the Kabul Municipal Development Programme as part of a consortium for international investment. There are particular risks in a country that is recovering from conflict, but managing risk is our business after all, and the potential rewards of getting involved at the front end are huge.
The Afghans don’t want us to deliver a new Kabul – they want us to show them how to do it
Kabul has experienced massive population growth since the late 1990s, and is now home to almost half of Afghanistan’s urban population, with around 70% of residents living in informal settlements without basic infrastructure. There’s obviously an urgent need to address these problems, but the Afghan authorities are determined not to rush into a short-term fix. They want to do it once, using sustainable urban design and planning principles, and they’ve turned to UK expertise to help them learn, and hence resolve their own issues. That’s exactly the sort of client we want to be working with.
The Afghans don’t want us to deliver a new Kabul – they want us to show them how to do it, give them the tools, and assist to keep them on track. I believe that this is potentially a much greater opportunity for UK firms, but it is a long-term game, one many are not willing to play. The point is to lay the foundations for growth and international investment, and you have to be prepared to pass on your knowledge to support that. Obviously we are being paid for that work – entering a new market through international investment vehicles is one way to manage project risk – but the real opportunities will come when the economy takes off and there isn’t sufficient expertise in the local market to physically do the work.
A lot of people take the view that international work is about going into a country to deliver a project, making some money and leaving without transferring their skills. But there’s no point going somewhere like Kabul if you’re not prepared to invest your time and effort to teach and assist rather than do it for them.
In circumstances such as this, it’s my view that teaching a man to fish can be a far more valuable role than simply feeding him for a short while – both for our clients and for ourselves.
Michael Thirkettle is chief executive of McBains Cooper