No matter how attractive the economic prospects of a particular country or region are, doing business there might prove to be financially disastrous if the host government(s) inflict(s) heavy financial penalties on a company or if unanticipated events in the political arena lead to the loss of income-generating assets.The political environment in which the firm operates (or plans to operate) will have a significant impact on a company’s international marketing activities. The greater the level of involvement in a foreign markets, the greater the need to monitor the political climate of the countries business is conducted. Changes in government often result in changes in policy and attitudes towards foreign business. Bearing in mind that a foreign company operates in a host country at the discretion of the government concerned, the government can either encourage foreign activities by offering attractive opportunities for investment and trade, or discourage its activities by imposing restrictions such as import quotas, etc. An exporter that is continuously aware of shifts in government attitude, will be able to adapt export marketing strategies accordingly.Nearly all governments today play active roles in their countries’ economies. Although evident to a greater or lesser extent in most countries, government ownership of economic activities is still prevalent in the former centrally planned economies, as well as in certain developing countries which lack a sufficiently well developed private sector to support a free market system.

The implications of government ownership to a company marketing abroad might be that certain sectors of the foreign market are the exclusive preserve of government enterprise or that the company is obliged to sell directly to a state trading organisation. In either case, the company’s influence on the market is greatly reduced. Similarly, if an exporter is seeking to establish a subsidiary in a country where there is a high degree of state influence over the factors of production, the investor should bear in mind that marketing activities in the country concerned may be restricted and that the so-called controllable elements of the marketing mix (see Chapter 4) will be less controllable.

Of primary concern to an exporter should be the stability of the target country’s political environment. A loss of confidence in this respect could lead to a company having to reduce its operations in the market or to withdraw from the market altogether. One of the surest indicators of political instability is a frequent change in regime. Although a change in government need not be accompanied by violence, it often heralds a change in policy towards business, particularly international business. Such a development could impact harshly on a firms long-term international marketing programme.

Reflected in a government’s attitudes and policies towards foreign business are its ideas about how best to promote national interest in the light of the country’s economic and political resources and objectives. Foreign products and investment seen to be vital to the growth and development of the economy often receive favourable treatment from the government in the form of reduced tax, exemption from quotas, etc. On the other hand, products considered by a government to be non-essential, undesirable, or a threat to local industry are frequently subjected to a variety of import restrictions such as quotas and tariffs. It is also important to be aware of the nature of the relationship between South Africa and the foreign target market. This was a major consideration during South Africa’s political isolation. Fortunately, South Africa’s international relations have normalised and today South Africa is viewed very favourably, from a political perspective, by the rest of the world.

The political environment is connected to the international business environment through the concept of political risk.

Political risk

Political risk is determined differently for different companies, as not all of them will be equally affected by political changes. For example, industries requiring heavy capital investment are generally considered to be more vulnerable to political risk than those requiring less capital investment. Vulnerability stems from the extent of capital invested in the export market, e.g. capital-intensive extracting or energy-related businesses operating in the foreign market are more vulnerable than manufacturing companies exporting from a South African base.

When business is conducted in developing countries, the risks of greatest concern are civil disorder, war and expropriation. When business is conducted in industrialised countries, labour disruptions and price controls are generally seen to pose the greatest threats to a company’s profitability.

Political risk can be defined as the impact of political change on the export firm’s operations and decision-making process.
Expropriation is the take-over of a foreign firm located in a host country, by the host country’s government.

A political risk checklist can be downloaded here.

All organisations doing business abroad should be aware of the fact that what they do could be the object of some political action. Hence, they need to recognise that their success or failure could depend on how well they cope with political decisions, and how well they anticipate changes in political attitudes and policies.