A private mission for America

DEVELOPMENT: A former lawyer is guiding US firms into fresh fields
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The Independent Online
When Boris Yeltsin, Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Yassir Arafat and other leaders of the world's emerging countries visit Washington there are two people they want to see: Bill Clinton and Ruth Harkin.

Mr Clinton provides the photo opportunities necessary for political consumption back home. Mrs Harkin supplies the beef.

Her main claim to fame used to be that she was the wife of Tom Harkin, the senator from Iowa who made an unsuccessful challenge for the last Democratic presidential nomination. Two years ago Mr Clinton, for whom she campaigned in 1992 after her husband dropped out of the election race, appointed her head of an obscure government agency called the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.

While the post has hardly made her a household name in America, she has become the darling of foreign governments seeking to elevate their economies from under-development to prosperity. Opic does business with 144 countries, all of them - to a greater or lesser degree - with track records of financial or political instability.

Guided by the Clinton administration's "trade not aid" policy, Mrs Harkin's job is to promote American investment in countries where American corporations would normally be reluctant to get involved. Drawing on the vast resources of the departments of Commerce and State, she identifies business opportunities abroad; seeks out American companies in the corresponding fields; helps them to find business partners in the countries involved; and, critically, uses Opic's financial reserves to provide American investors with start- up capital, loan guarantees and political risk insurance. What is more, Opic charges for its services and - amazingly for a government agency - makes a profit. Last year Opic, which employs a staff of 180, made $167m.

"How we make money is how any other financial institution makes money," said Mrs Harkin, a 50-year-old former corporate lawyer, in an interview at Opic's Washington headquarters. "We're like a bank and insurance company combined. The difference is that we're part of the US government and we go places where most other investors and insurers would not be going. I mean, when you find yourself brushing your teeth with Jack Daniels you know you're on the cutting edge."

A bubbly, blonde bundle of energy, Mrs Harkin, who is in London this week meeting Europe-based US corporate executives, comes across as the world's happiest civil servant, free of the senior bureaucrat's traditional budgetary laments.

"It's an enviable position to be in. So much of it has to do with the timing and the agency being ready to adjust to new circumstances. What has happened in the last couple of years has been just extraordinary. What you've seen with the end of the Cold War is all of these countries globally privatising - power stations, telecommunications, you name it. If you consider that just a very few years ago making money in a Communist country was illegal, well, it's just a totally different world!"

Opic, among its myriad global enterprises, is helping to bring Texan oil and gas companies to Russia, co-ordinating cellular phone deals with Western Siberia, helping to launch hotels in the new Palestinian territories, promoting dry-cleaning businesses in Soweto and financing power plants in Turkey and Morocco.

"Before the end of the Cold War what you engaged in was aggressive marketing. Now what you have is the other side saying 'Get over here, we need you'. It's the new global climate - the vast privatisation in Latin America and the Caribbean, the astounding things going on in South Africa and what that means for that whole southern region down there. From a US policy point of view we are starting to look at countries for the first time as something other than the recipients of our hand-outs. We're looking at some of these countries as potential trading partners, as an opportunity for American investment. We're not looking at them as places to throw some grant money at. Nor are they looking at themselves like that.

"Some of these countries are now coming to the US and other developed countries saying 'Tell us how to create jobs, how to make money for our people' as opposed to 'How about turning over another 10 million our way'?

"What they want is investment, not aid. I was at a dinner in New York last year with Mandela and it was extraordinary because that was exactly the message he had."

An added benefit of the organisation, free of charge to the American taxpayer, is that Opic encourages domestic investors to function as the instruments of US foreign policy. For example, Mrs Harkin seeks to point American companies towards disadvantaged communities in emerging democracies such as Haiti, whose stability is important to the welfare of the US.

"We promote the policy interests of the US, we assist in wealth-creation at home and we serve as catalysts to create jobs and opportunities in foreign countries. It's great. We're in a win-win situation."