As part of our Q&A series, Biz Latin Hub’s Chelsea Heywood reached out to Jeff Glekin, British Ambassador to Bolivia, to hear about his experience developing British relations with the Latin American country.
Jeff has an extensive background in diplomatic roles, previous serving as the Deputy Head of Mission in Bogotá, Colombia, Deputy Head of Commercial and Economic Diplomacy for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and Deputy Head of Mission in Mumbai, India.
In this discussion, Jeff shares insights on the work of the British Embassy to strengthen connections with Bolivian people, businesses and institutions.
Bolivia is an economy often overshadowed by its neighbours. What advantages does Bolivia offer British nationals and businesses that people may not necessarily know about?
Bolivia has been growing faster than most Latin American countries for the last 10 years with the poverty levels decreasing significantly during that period. Its biggest city and business hub, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, is one of the fastest growing urban conglomerates in the entire emerging world and has strong commercial linkages with Argentina and Brazil, two of the largest markets in the region.
In that sense, there are several business opportunities for British firms in Bolivia, both in terms of British exports to Bolivia or profitable investment in the country. Sectors that deserve particular attention are Mining (lithium, rare earths and other critical materials), Agri-tech, Renewable Energies (solar and wind) and Conventional and green/sustainable financial services and investment.
Additionally, Bolivia is home to impressive touristic attractions such as the Uyuni Salt Like (the world’s largest salt flat), the Madidi Park (amongst the most biodiverse of the world), and Tihuanacu (a significant archaeological site), which attract around 50 thousand British nationals per year.
How would you describe the nature of British relations with Bolivia, and what are the similarities these regions share with each other?
In terms of trade of goods, the relationship is not too significant, but it is certainly growing thanks to our efforts to connect more Bolivian and UK businesses. The UK exports to Bolivia an average of GBP 70 million per year, although it is quite likely this figure is effectively higher, as some exports are often registered stating Chile as the final destination, when in fact they will eventually arrive to Bolivia by land. Up-to-date statistics on trade of services are not available, but it is quite likely the UK enjoys a significant trade surplus with Bolivia in the form of specialised services (consultancies, studies, licences and franchises) provided to Bolivian nationals.
Finally, in terms of investment, historically the UK has been an important source of Foreign Direct Investment for Bolivia, mainly in the extractive sector (hydrocarbons and mining) but with significant presence in many other sectors. Over the last few years, these investment flows decreased as Bolivia opted to give priority to its own public investment as a driver for economic growth, thanks to record high fiscal revenues generated during the international commodity boom between 2006 and 2014. However as the politics changes in Bolivia, we understand it is ready to explore opportunities to open up its economy again to new foreign investment.
In light of the above, an interesting similarity between UK and Bolivia that I can highlight is that both historically share a clear long-term policy of openness to trade, inspired in the notion that trade can in fact contribute to economic growth and prosperity. Something similar could be said about the two countries’ stance on foreign direct investment, barring Bolivia’s most recent behaviour, which as I just mentioned, might reverse towards a more open approach in the following months.
Can you share with us some of the British Embassy in Bolivia’s initiatives to further develop these relations?
Early this year we organised the first ever British Week in Santa Cruz, with 14 British companies visiting the city and taking part in a number of commercial and cultural activities across the city and engaging with local businesses. We are already seeing the results of the initiative with two British companies already signing commercial and service contracts, but we expect many more to follow.
Also given the increased British presence in Bolivia, we are working in establishing the very first British Bolivian Chamber of Commerce, which shall focus on developing and supporting commercial and investment opportunities between the two countries in a very efficient and creative way.
We have also developed very positive and transparent relationships with a number of key stakeholders in the Bolivian public and private sector (national and local governments, state-owned enterprises, private trade associations) as we seek to facilitate the introduction of British companies in the local industry and society.
How has Covid-19 impacted these initiatives, and how is the Embassy adapting to the current health situation?
The Covid-19 crisis is still in its first wave in Bolivia, with the peak of positive cases expected mid-August, according to government estimates. A very strict quarantine was adopted much earlier (between March and June) which delayed the start of the crisis but also had quite a severe impact on the local economy.
In this sense, much of our work with local authorities and companies has suffered delays, as most efforts today focus on facing the crisis whilst trying to implement some policy measures to promote economic recovery. As the crisis fades in a few months, we expect our activities to return to their pre-Covid pace.
The British Government and its Diplomatic representations across the globe have also reacted to support its partner countries overcome the Covid-19 crisis. The British Embassy in Bolivia currently has a portfolio of around 10 small but extremely impactful projects that provide different types of help (provision of PPE and facemasks, technical assistance, access to specialised software and Covid-19 communication-related advice) to a number of key organizations within the Bolivian Government.
We are also providing valuable support in order to help Bolivia access the Covid-19 vaccine and implement an adequate vaccination plan, once the vaccine is finally developed and approved for human use.
Previous to your role as British Ambassador to Bolivia, you were Deputy Head of Mission at the British Embassy in Bogotá, Colombia. What would you say are key differences in the foreign policy outlook between these 2 countries?
Colombia is a member of the Pacific Alliance which is one of the most open, economically liberal trading blocks in Latin America. The UK has enjoyed an extremely close alliance with Bogotá throughout its history. Traditionally we have been on similar sides of the argument when it comes to issues such as free trade, international institutions, climate change and more. Bolivia has aligned itself in the recent past with countries such as Venezuela. This has changed and we look forward to a more productive dialogue with Bolivia on foreign policy and trade.
In your opinion, what are the greatest cultural differences British nationals and businesses may face when traveling or moving to Bolivia?
Personal relationships are extremely important in Bolivia when it comes to business and activities with the public sector. This facilitates access to information about business opportunities, procedures to be followed, future work and conflict resolution resources, which are not timely updated and are often unclear in official channels such as websites, press releases and even legal documentation, the latter often in the need of additional interpretation.
What would you say has been your greatest achievement as Ambassador to Bolivia, and why?
I was extremely proud of the embassy’s work in monitoring last October’s elections and supporting democracy and a peaceful transition following the social conflict that ensued from the flawed democratic process. I also feel that we have been able to project a modern and dynamic image of the UK to the Bolivian people through our social media activities such as @UKinBolivia on Twitter and @thegastrodiplomat on Instagram.
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