Interview with HM Ambassador to Guatemala, Carolyn Davidson

HM Ambassador to Guatemala, Carolyn Davidson, explains why UK businesses should take a closer look at the country…

What have you achieved since taking the post in late 2017?

Ambassador Davidson: My main priority since becoming ambassador has been continuing to work to advance the Prosperity Agenda in Guatemala. In terms of achievements, we were pleased to open the British Chamber of Commerce in Guatemala, which is a visible testament of our commitment to strengthen relations between the two countries. We set up the chamber with one eye on Brexit and the opportunities that will create, but also conscious of the opportunities and potential that Guatemala offers British firms.

In 2018 we arranged the visit of a board member of Anadie, the Guatemalan public private partnership body, and also a Guatemalan member of Congress, to Britain to speak to British infrastructure experts. The UK has a lot of knowledge in PPPs and we are keen to help Guatemala deliver the major projects that it needs to develop. We are also working on bringing an infrastructure trade mission from Britain to Guatemala to showcase the business opportunities that the country can offer British businesses.

Is it hard to persuade UK firms to come to Guatemala?

AD: As an embassy we don’t underestimate how difficult it can be, especially as Britain doesn’t have the same historical links with Central America as it does with other parts of the world. But the sorts of projects that Guatemala needs ties in with areas of UK expertise. Indeed, there are already some British companies watching events in Guatemala and waiting for projects to become available. Essentially it is a domino effect, because when you get a relatively large British firm winning a contract here then it creates interest in the UK. So far there have been a lack of projects available for investors. Despite having the PPP legislation approved for many years there is just one example – the motorway from Puerto Quetzal to Escuintla – that has been approved. So, things haven’t developed as quickly here as we would have hoped but that doesn’t detract from the significant potential the country holds for UK companies.

Is Guatemala’s long-running battle against corruption bad for business?

AD: I think it’s clear that the mood in Guatemala has changed from the initial euphoria of 2015, as the challenges of rooting out corruption have become more apparent. But deep-seated corruption is not something that can be removed overnight. If it’s woven into the business culture then it takes a while for things to change so there have been growing pains as society demands that its business and political leaders do things differently.

If you want a stable, prosperous future and a stable country then you need to fight corruption. The UK commitment to that has not changed at all. Indeed, that’s why we’d like to see more British companies here as they come with a badge of anti-corruption and act in accordance with the tough legislation that we have in the UK. So it would be helpful to have more British firms to show that such an approach is possible and prosperous. Ultimately there are local and international companies in Guatemala that are already conducting their business in a clean, transparent manner so UK companies that come here could be part of that.

"If you want a stable, prosperous future and a stable country then you need to fight corruption…"

The Odebrecht scandal shows that this is not just an issue in Guatemala and that corruption has been deeply entrenched in many countries across the region. However, it also demonstrates that society is changing. The tough consequences that have been delivered to members of the elite found to be engaging in corruption is a sign that there is far less tolerance of the old way of doing things. Guatemala wants to compete in the global economy and attract international investment so a company needs to know that the money is going to be invested transparently, not in commissions to individuals that ultimately won’t help the business in the long term.

How can the British Embassy in Guatemala help UK firms coming to the country?

AD: By helping set up the British Chamber of Commerce we have created a ready-made organisation that can connect incoming businesses with those already established in the country. However, as an embassy we can also help by helping firms make the right contacts with key local stakeholders. We have had success stories like Mabey Bridge, who show that British firms can win big contracts in Guatemala. The key is for companies to persevere and show commitment to the country.

In recent years the British embassies in Central America have been receiving more interest and engagement from London. With the discussions around creating a Global Britain, post Brexit, there are likely to be more resources available to diplomatic posts in the region to do more to attract UK businesses. I firmly believe that in Central America we need to take a regional approach, as there is no point us battling with our neighbours for attention. Realistically we are more attractive to prospective investors when we present ourselves as a joint opportunity. The appointment a HM Trade Commissioner for Latin America is a very positive step, especially as the Deputy Trade Commissioner is based in Mexico. We want to build on those links with British companies already in Mexico because if they have been able to succeed there then they can also do well in Guatemala.

Does the UK’s support for fighting corruption lead to conflict with the Guatemalan government?

AD: The UK has fundamental values and principles that it will stand up for all the time. Part of my role as ambassador is helping to advance the cause of those values. We support CICIG, the UN-backed anti-corruption body. And when it has disagreements with the Guatemalan government, we encourage both sides to find a way to resolve the dispute. We think it’s key that CICIG is able to function properly until its mandate ends at the end of this government’s term. What will happen next, we don’t know. Maybe in elections someone will stand on a Pro CICIG platform. But ultimately that’s up to the Guatemalan people. They invited CICIG into the country because they wanted an external body to handle their problems with impunity so the important thing is that it’s allowed to fulfil its mandate, by strengthening the public prosecutor’s office and advancing the judicial reform needed for Guatemala to be able to cope with these issues on its own. If you look at other countries in the region, such as Peru, you can see that they have been able to do it without international help. Guatemala invited CICIG because it felt it needed that help.

Where are the opportunities for British businesses?

AD: In addition to infrastructure, which I have already mentioned, there is a lot of interest in the education sector, especially vocational training. In recent years the UK has boosted its vocational training programmes and has a lot to offer. Indeed, the last British trade mission to Guatemala was focused on the education sector. Britain is strong in standards accreditation, effectively training the trainers, and can deliver improvement in Guatemala by forging associations and programmes with different UK education institutes. Meanwhile in Guatemala there is an enormous thirst for education. The private sector has highlighted the need to bridge the gap between academic education and hands-on experience. Vocational education is this bridge for promising sectors, such as construction, agriculture, and tourism & hospitality.