What Does Being a Developing Country Mean and What Does that Have to Do with Antitrust?

By Francisco Beneke*

What Is a Developing Country?

“Developing” is quite a broad label because we group under it countries as different as Brazil and Botswana, Mexico and Afghanistan, Pakistan and El Salvador. What about Russia or China? It sounds odd to put the largest successor state of the Soviet Union or the second largest economy in the world in the same pool as the other countries mentioned before. The issue is obviously not simple and certainly not a settled one.

The World Bank has a classification according to income per capita, which gives a simple measure for differentiating countries. However, it does not fully capture development differences. Venezuela, for example, is classified as a high-income country, but no one would argue that the standard of living there is similar to that of, say, Chile, which has a comparable income level.

GDP per capita growth as a measure of rising living standards has been under attack for some time and with good reason. One of the main critiques is that the measure does not capture how unequal growth is (fundamental in knowing how the situation of the most vulnerable parts of the population improves). In the US for example, in spite of continuous economic growth, the inflation-adjusted wages at the bottom of the income distribution have decreased.

The International Monetary Fund has its own classification of countries. In the World Economic Outlook yearly publication, the countries are classified either as advanced, transition, and emerging and developing economies. The criteria are not expressly set out but some information has been revealed as some countries get reclassified into the advanced category. An advanced country has basically a combination of high income per capita, well-developed financial systems, and a strong diversified economy. These criteria were mentioned when Israel, South Korea, and Singapore were promoted to advanced countries. However, there are no published parameters that a country has to reach in these areas to be classified in either category. The IMF observers simply know an advanced country when they see one.

The World Economic Forum takes a whole different approach and ranks economies by their competitiveness. The term is defined in the Global Competitiveness Report as the set of institutions, policies and factors that determine the level of productivity of a country. From lowest to highest competitiveness, the country classifications are: factor-driven, efficiency-driven, and innovation-driven economies. Between the three stages, there are countries classified as being in a transition period. Argentina and Brazil, for example, are in a transition between being an efficiency-driven economy to an innovation-driven one.

Finally, a discussion of what is development (which entails the question of what a non-developed country is) has to take into account the approach pioneered by Amartya Sen. According to the author, the correct approach of development policies should be to promote individual freedoms necessary for people to expand their capabilities.[1] His approach has been labeled as more humanistic since it attempts to focus development efforts on the individual’s liberties and not on macroeconomic indicators that obscure the multifaceted aspects of what makes someone fulfill his or her aspirations.

What Does All of These Have to Do With Antitrust? 

The income level of the population, the factors that affect productivity, and the conditions under which individuals can fulfill their potential are directly connected with competition policy in many ways. Since all of the previously mentioned classifications entail insights that are useful to antitrust analysis, it does not come as a surprise that the literature on the latter is not committed to one specific classification but rather has taken a more pragmatic approach. That is, commentators usually identify characteristics that are associated with lower development instead of discussing whether countries like Russia, Malaysia or Turkey are developing economies.[2]

As a first point, in a country with a low income level and a significant portion of the population living in poverty, the issue of whether antitrust law enforcement contributes to development becomes central. In a previous post I already analyzed some of the issues that are present in the literature, but the main conclusion is that there is no undisputed evidence that law enforcement activities lead to economic growth. A satisfactory methodological approach and good measures of the quality of competition policy are yet to be found.

Another issue closely connected to the previous one and already analyzed by Amine has been the establishment of enforcement priorities based on development goals such as the reduction of poverty. An additional related point is the use of antitrust policy to further the growth of local small and medium enterprises, protecting them from exclusionary conduct from dominant multinational firms. This has been the approach taken by China, much to the displeasure of the US.

Another point is that developing countries have some characteristics in common that affect the analysis within the cases. One example is the size of the informal economy, which in developing countries tends to be larger. The informal economy can affect an authority’s assessment of market power of firms in the formal sector. Usually, a key issue is to determine if producers in the informal sector can be considered as part of the same relevant market of firms in the formal sector and, thus, dilute the market shares of the latter. Other characteristics associated with developing countries that have been mentioned in the literature as variables that affect market conditions are corruption, underdeveloped financial markets, and scarcity of skilled labor.[3]

Finally, developing countries usually share a weak institutional environment. This is a factor that can affect antitrust analysis, especially within regulated industries, but it can also affect the effectiveness of competition policy itself. The authorities can in this respect find problems in procuring adequate budgets and staffing. Another important obstacle could be a slow and inefficient judiciary, postponing the final word on a decision in a case for years. Another practical problem is the lack of market information from public institutions (a given in countries like the US), which seriously hinders the investigation efforts of the competition authority.

Some Final Remarks

The main take away from examining various classifications of countries based on measures of development is that none of them fully captures the multifaceted aspects of the problem. To inform policy, one has to take the valuable insights that each of the relevant criteria gives and not focus only on, for example, increasing GDP growth.

Antitrust law is one of the tools of economic policy and, therefore, has to be shaped according to the specific needs of each country. Adapting competition policy to developing economies does not mean in general coming up with two categories of laws depending on whether a country is developed or not. It means establishing legal standards and enforcement priorities that suit, for example, El Salvador but that may not be adequate for China.

 *Co-editor, Developing World Antitrust


[1] Amartya Sen, “Development as Freedom”. Oxford University Press, First Edition (2000).

[2] A good example of this can be found in “The Economic Characteristics of Developing Jurisdictions: Their Implications for Competition Law”, Michal S. Gal, et al, eds.

[3] Michal S. Gal and Eleanor M. Fox, “Drafting Competition Law for Developing Jurisdictions: Learning from Experience”. In The Economic Characteristics of Developing Jurisdictions: Their Implications for Competition Law. Michal S. Gal, et al Eds. Edward Elgar Publishing (2015)


2 thoughts on “What Does Being a Developing Country Mean and What Does that Have to Do with Antitrust?

  1. Cesare Renzi says:

    Antitrust policy in developing countries is a ghost, a romantic desideratum to some, a neoclassical tool of oppression to others. Antitrust law in developing countries is rarely enforced or worst, selectively enforced (euphemism for enforced according to the whims of the political power). Antitrust authority in developing countries is a political tool, not a technical body.

    But generalizations, even among the poor nations, should be taken cum grano salis. So let’s talk in singular. Argentina enacted four antitrust laws in its story, all of them rarely enforced. The current Argentine antitrust act (1999) ordered the creation of an independent tribunal, it was never created: a Secretary of Commerce still has the last word in antitrust matters. The Kirchners used and abused Argentine antitrust law to punish or threaten political and economic rivals.

    That’s a taste of what being a developing country means and what it has to do with antitrust law.


    • Paco Beneke says:

      Hi Cesare, thanks for your comment. You point to something briefly mentioned in the post, how some conditions can hamper the functioning of competition policy. Regarding political influence, you would be surprised to see it is not a problem exclusive to developing countries. In Germany recently there was a merger in the grocery stores market that was blocked by the cartel office but was later allowed by the economy minister (this minister can approve mergers without consideration to competition concerns and veto the cartel office’s decision). The head of the cartel office resigned over the controversy (https://global.handelsblatt.com/edition/392/ressort/companies-markets/article/watchdog-quits-amid-supermarket-takeover-row#.Vu_rFZPIlCQ.twitter).

      On the other hand, there are some works that explore to what extent developing countries enforce their antitrust laws. One example is Dina Waked’s paper “Do Developing Countries Enforce Their Antitrust Laws?” Some neighboring countries to Argentina have a good track of enforcement activity such as Brazil and Chile, and recently Colombia has been very proactive in prosecuting cartels.

      In the case of Argentina, do you think the situation will change with the current government and the new head of the CNDC?


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