International support for the least developed countries: moving out of the mainstream

Next January the next United Nations Programme of Action for least developed countries (LDCs) will launch in Doha. It will set the framework for the next 10 years of international support for the world’s 46 officially poorest and most structurally disadvantaged countries, home to around a billion people.  

LDCs are low-income countries confronting severe structural impediments to sustainable development. Membership of the category is based on three criteria: income per capita, human assets and economic and environmental vulnerability.  

Assistance for LDCs currently falls under three categories: trade, aid and a range of ad hoc measures broadly aimed at help with taking part in the international system, such as lower contributions to the UN budget and support for travel to international meetings like the annual UN General Assembly.  

Support is largely based on the premise that LDCs are artificially or temporarily excluded from global commerce. Preferential market access, temporary development assistance and help with participating in multilateral processes are intended to tackle this defect, in turn helping the LDCs ‘catch up’.  

Dating to 1971, the category is the only one recognised in UN and multilateral legal texts. There is no official ‘developing country’ or ‘middle income’ category with associated support measures. Low income countries are not specifically targeted, and the small and vulnerable states are only recognised as a working group at the World Trade Organisation. They are not acknowledged in the legal texts. 

Although donors don’t meet aid pledges and support doesn’t go far enough, official targets are possible because the LDC group is officially recognised in the UN system and has legal bearing. An example of such a target is the commitment by developed countries to deliver 0.15-0.20% of gross national income (GNI) in development assistance to LDCs. The European Union offers duty-free, quota-free market access to LDC exports under its Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme for LDCs. 

The theory behind support for LDCs is implicitly based on the mainstream economics view that LDCs lag behind because they aren’t exposed enough to correct market prices and conditions. The removal of so-called distortions like overseas tariff and non-tariff barriers, alongside temporary development assistance and help taking part in the global system, is supposed to free up these economies to play a fuller role in the international economy. Economic growth will drive development and reduce poverty. 

The evidence shows that for most LDCs this theory never worked. Until the pandemic the economies of some LDCs were performing well. Up to 12 could leave the category in coming years. A few, like Bangladesh, Cambodia and Myanmar, were able to take advantage of lower tariffs for their garment exports. These three countries account for 87% of imports to the EU under EBA.  

But half were supposed to meet the criteria by 2020, according to international targets. 12 graduations falls well short. The six that have left since the formation of the category in 1971 have not all done so because of better international market access or special support measures. Commodity exports, tourism or improved health and education are mostly responsible.  

The remaining LDCs aren’t catching up. The gap is widening. The pandemic devastated the group. Gross domestic product (GDP) shrank 1.3% on average in 2020, with the economies of 37 contracting during the year and extreme poverty in the group rising by a staggering 84 million. But even before Covid, average real GDP per capita for the group had long diverged from other developing countries and the rest of the world.  

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The frailties of diaspora bonds 

The interest in diaspora bonds is sustained by the theoretical potential to finance development in poor economies by raising funds from expatriate communities, often labor migrants, living abroad. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, as developing nations faced sudden reversals in capital flows, diaspora bonds were hypothesized to counter the international capital markets’ volatility. A year later, the most recent bout of portfolio ‘de-risking’ and less optimistic outlook for emerging markets by the international institutional investors may prompt renewed calls for tapping into diaspora. But is the alternative scheme so easily deployable? 

Diaspora bonds are sovereign debt securities issued by countries appealing to the altruistic motives of their cultural and national diasporas across the world. Historically, there have been several attempts to leverage the diaspora premium, with Israel and India running the most effective diaspora bonds initiatives

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The Geopolitics of Financialisation and Development: Interview with Ilias Alami

This interview was originally published in German in the special issue on financialisation and development policies of the journal Peripherie, September 2021, No. 162/163. Frauke Banse and Anil Shah (both based at Kassel University) spoke with political economist Ilias Alami (Maastricht University) about some of his recent work on the relationship between geopolitics, financial flows for development and emerging forms of ‘state capitalism,’ as well as related new imperialist formations. The interview was conducted via email in May 2021.  

The interview covers a series of International Political Economy topics. Ilias first locates the emergence of the Wall Street Consensus in the long and turbulent histories of the relation between finance and development as well as in secular capitalist transformations. He then outlines some of the conceptual tools he’s developed in his work in order to make sense of the contemporary interconnections of money and finance and the reproduction of imperialism and race/coloniality. Next, he situates these interconnections within broader scholarly debates about financialisation and highlights the similarities and differences between ongoing sovereign debt crises in the global South and the so-called 1980s ‘Third World debt crisis.’ Finally, Ilias discusses the recent emergence of new forms of ‘state capitalism’ and their complex relation to the extension and deepening of market-based finance. 

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Internal and external constraints: economic development without currency crisis

Simply speaking, development macroeconomics can be summarized as the challenge of improving productivity and production capacity in poor countries. This involves the conditions that need to be fulfilled for a development process to start as well as the policy framework and instruments that support it. Heterodox approaches consider the state’s role in steering productivity growth as essential (Cardim de Carvalho, 1997). Markets may be able to exploit price signals and adjust resource allocation correspondingly. However, they guarantee neither sufficient profitability of key sectors nor the demand for the goods produced. Both the profit rate and effective demand are conditions for investment to take place (Oberholzer, 2020). It is thus up to the government to make public investment in priority sectors and to apply instruments such as taxes and subsidies in ways that simultaneously allow for economies of scale, higher productivity large-scale employment and demand. This is what is generally referred to as industrial policy (see for example Chang, 2006; Oqubay, 2018).

But this is not everything. Policymakers have to pursue such a development strategy in face of an (often permanent) shortage of foreign currency. While domestic currency can be generated via the domestic banking system including public development banks, the availability of foreign currency is limited unless a country is able to increase exports or restrict imports. Since larger export capacity and a higher degree of import substitution are long-term goals, the current account is determined by domestic and foreign economic growth. This insight has come to be known as the balance-of-payments-constrained model or Thirlwall’s law, respectively (Thirlwall, 1979, 2013): it is reasonable to assume that demand for a country’s exports grows in income in the rest of the world while imports increase with domestic economic growth because a part of increasing incomes is reliably spent on imported goods. Therefore, stability in the balance of payments requires that imports do not grow faster than foreign exchange earnings via exports allow. A limit to the growth of imports implies a limit to the country’s economic growth, hence the balance-of-payments-constrained growth rate.

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If the Washington Consensus was really over, what would that look like for development strategy?

If it still looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck – then it probably still is a duck.

Recent years have witnessed a notable re-embrace of the state’s role in the economy, leading some to declare that the set of free market economic policy reforms widely known as the Washington Consensus has come to an end.

First popularized by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, the Washington Consensus policies offered a set of policy guidelines for developing countries, many of which were struggling with high debt and high inflation at the time. These free market reforms included trade and financial liberalization, privatization, deregulation, the removal of capital controls, fiscal austerity (cutting public spending) in order to achieve strict targets for maintaining low inflation and low fiscal deficits, the adoption of independent central banks, and deregulating restrictions on foreign investment, among others. Broadly speaking, the policies sought to roll back the role of the state in the economy and unshackle the animal spirits of the free market. In the 1980s, adopting the policies became binding conditions for developing countries to receive debt relief and new lending by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, in the 1990s, the policies served as the basis for World Trade Organization (WTO) membership rules – and ever since then, the policies have become a cornerstone of the curricula in economics departments at universities across the world.

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Neoliberalism and global development before and after the Washington Consensus: Agricultural credit at the World Bank

We’ve witnessed a revival of debates about the Washington Consensus and the future of neoliberalism in recent months. Recent increases in public spending have led several commentators to conclude, or lament, that decades of neoliberal consensus have been shattered. Much of this debate is misguided, rooted in a mistaken dichotomy between ‘states’ and ‘markets’, and a corresponding conception of neoliberalism as primarily involving a reduction in the role of the former. Efforts to rehabilitate the Washington Consensus, meanwhile, rely on flimsy and heavily ideological counterfactuals.

In this post, I want to take up another angle on this question, asking: what is ‘the market’ in practice? In particular, I take a closer look at the emergence of the idea that ‘interest rates should be market-determined’. This was a core tenet of the ‘Washington Consensus’ in John Williamson’s original formulation. It was also, historically, a key argument of neoliberal economists. From the early 1970s, several influential pieces (e.g. McKinnon 1973; Shaw 1973) urged the deregulation of interest rates, arguing that while usury caps were intended to assist small farmers, they wound up forcing banks to concentrate on relatively low-risk loans to government or large-scale industry.

In practice, though, the relatively simple proposition that ‘interest rates should be left to the market’ invited a whole range of difficult questions and political challenges.

In a recent article in New Political Economy tracing the history of World Bank agricultural credit programmes (Bernards 2021), I show how neoliberal approaches to development have never really involved ‘shrinking the state’ and unleashing markets so much as fraught and failure-prone efforts to figure out who and what should be governed by, and how to construct, markets.

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National Fiscal Redistribution as “International” Development Assistance

The histories of international development and foreign aid often focus on aid between independent nations. Williams’ (2013: 234) history of international development aid only begins from the British Colonial Development Act of 1929. Markovits, Strange and Tingley’s (2019) history of foreign aid focuses on aid between “nations” or empires. Helleiner (2014), for instance, traces the origins of multilateral development finance proposals to China’s Sun Yat-sen in 1919.

There is, however, a major problem with these histories. Their starting points reveal a methodological nationalist approach. The history of states and societies since the modern era, is however more complex. The early modern era is well known for the spate of state consolidations and national formations. It may be argued that intra-national transfers within modernizing nations may represent important forms of regional development assistance that have been left out of the consideration of the history of development assistance.

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Financialisation of healthcare in Brazil: new evidence

By Norberto Montani Martins, Carlos Ocké-Reis and Daniel Drach

The covid-19 pandemic is showing how important universal health systems are. As the virus continues to devastate communities and economies, many governments have started to look at them with different lens. Investing in public health systems should be mandatory, but austerity policies in peripheral countries are still the priority. Moreover, the increasing financialisation of the health sector produces conflicts that constraint the achievement of a truly universal and comprehensive public healthcare. This is what we address in our recent paper, where we argue that lead firms in the provision of healthcare plans seem to have become platforms for the accumulation of wealth by financial investors, a process that is making shareholder value the main guiding principle of firm behaviour.

A good example of such contradictions is Brazil. A universal health system called the Unified Health System (Sistema Único de Saúde, or SUS) was established in the 1988 Constitution. However, it would be misleading to affirm it has provided universal access and comprehensive care: since its inception, SUS faced an inadequate low level of public spending that jeopardized its mission. In the 2000s, the Brazilian government eventually increased public spending in healthcare, but a kind of paradox emerged as it also set up many policies to foster private healthcare and private accumulation in that sector (e.g., health-related tax expenditures).

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