Sub-Saharan countries are taking on more debt, and women will bear the brunt of repaying it

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By Matthew BarlowJean Grugel and Jessica Omukuti

By May 2020, every African nation had registered cases of COVID-19. By late July, cases had exceeded 844,000. A key factor in Africa’s struggle to mount a response to the pandemic (although not the only one) is that years of debt servicing have eroded states’ capacities to build strong health systems.

Research on crisis and pandemics in different parts of the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), shows that countries will respond to COVID-19 in two phases – the fiscal expansion phase, which involves a series of stimulus packages, and the fiscal contraction phase, which is characterised by austerity. In the case of COVID-19, these phases will require significant levels of financing. In a region with predominantly low and narrow tax bases, debt and donor aid have become an alternative way for governments to finance state obligations. Currently average African debt-to-GDP is below the 60% (danger) threshold, which is way below the crisis levels of the 1980s and 1990s.

However, the cost of debt has exponentially increased due to low credit ratings translating into poor interest rates. By 2018, 18 SSA countries were at high risk of debt distress and governments made austerity cuts to public services to service their debt obligations. In 2018, 46 low-income countries — most of which are in SSA— were spending more on debt servicing than on healthcare. Annually, SSA countries were spending an average of $70 per capita on healthcare (supplemented with $10 external assistance), in contrast to $442 in China and an average of $3,040 in the EU.Read More »

Green Structural Adjustment in The World Bank’s Resilient Cities

 

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Jakarta, Indonesia

By Patrick Bigger and Sophie Webber

Cities across the world are facing a double-barreled existential problem: how to adapt to climate change and how to pay for it. Over the next thirty years, more than 570 coastal cities are poised to face frequent catastrophic flooding owing to sea level rise and more intense storms, while as many as 3.2 billion urban residents may run out of water by 2050. Other looming crises include soaring urban temperatures, the urgent need to transition away from fossil-fueled energy and transport systems, and plummeting rates of local biodiversity.

Responding to these problems will, international bodies project, require a virtually unprecedented buildout of infrastructure, from hardened municipal water and sewage systems, to urban afforestation, to renewable energy systems. This massive infrastructural program coincides with global economic conditions marked by the lingering ideological stranglehold of austerity, unprecedented levels of capital concentration, and now, myriad uncertainties produced by COVID-19. Cities across the world are facing a double-barreled existential problem: how to adapt to climate change and how to pay for it. Over the next thirty years, more than 570 coastal cities are poised to face frequent catastrophic flooding owing to sea level rise and more intense storms, while as many as 3.2 billion urban residents may run out of water by 2050. Other looming crises include soaring urban temperatures, the urgent need to transition away from fossil-fueled energy and transport systems, and plummeting rates of local biodiversity.

In response to the twin problems of resilient infrastructure needs and public fiscal constraints, the World Bank and an array of partner institutions from the Rockefeller Foundation to USAID have been ramping up programs to facilitate private investment in urban resilience. From a baseline of $10 billion across 77 cities in 2016, the World Bank aims to ‘catalyze’ investment of more than $500 billion into urban resilience projects across 500 cities by 2025. Read More »

Abolish Africa’s Sovereign Debtors’ Prisons Now

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By Ndongo Samba Sylla and Peter Doyle

This piece was written before the Coronavirus outbreak. It is a timely proposal of action. Given the high exposure of the developing world to the virus in contexts of medical and other logistical shortcomings, the damage to their productive capacity is likely to be much more severe than for the advanced world.  This fact is already reflected in particularly sharp virus-stirred capital outflows from these countries.  All this greatly increases their exposure to the present global structures for sovereign insolvency, and the urgent need for those structures to be radically reformed—as the authors propose with the Pre-Emptive Sovereign Insolvency Regime (PSIR).

In a radical call for reform of the IMF’s pro-creditor and anti-growth approach to indebted countries in Africa, Ndongo Sylla and Peter Doyle argue that the continent has a choice to make. Creditors, using the IMF, must be stopped from forcing devastating output losses by imposing high primary surpluses.

Within a decade, just to keep up with the flow of new entrants into its labour markets, sub-Saharan Africa needs to create 20 million new jobs every year. This is a huge challenge. But it is also a thrilling opportunity—to harness the energy and creativity of all of Africa’s young.

However, after it reviews these issues in Africa, the IMF’s immediate message—literally in the same sentence—is to pivot to ‘budget cuts to secure debt sustainability!’

That is plain wrong. For Africa to meet its development objectives, the IMF must radically change its pro-creditor anti-growth approach to highly indebted/insolvent countries.Read More »

Debt Moratoria in the Global South in the Age of Coronavirus

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Official calls are mounting. On March 23, African Finance Ministers met virtually to discuss their efforts on the social and economic impacts of COVID-19. Amidst a broad recognition of chronic financing gaps to meet development and climate objectives, they called for a moratorium on all debt interest payments, including the potential for principal payments for fragile states. The United Nations General Secretary addressed the G20 emergency meeting conference call on COVID-19. Along with calls for medical and protective equipment, the need to prioritise debt restructuring was stressed, “including immediate waivers on interest payments for 2020”. The World Bank President addressed the emergency G20 Finance Ministers encouraging bilateral IDA relief without missing the opportunity to plug for structural reforms. 

The G20 statement replete with grand aspirations, but no timeframe specified to fulfil them, was vague in respect to debt issues and far short of what is needed: “We will continue to address risks of debt vulnerabilities in low-income countries due to the pandemic.” Hardly commensurate to the alarm bells that have been ringing loudly and repeatedly over the past five years of growing debt difficulties in a number of countries. Read More »

Using Marx as a Pejorative to Defend the Ease of Doing Business: Analysing The World Bank’s attack on CGD

The recent attack by a Senior World Bank Official, against the Centre for Global Development (CGD) has been rightly publicised on social media, for failing to engage with critique and misconstruing it as ideology. The encounter was based on a discussion with a CGD economist, where an excerpt of a critique of World Bank’s much debated Ease of Doing Business Index was presented. The well researched and evidence-based critique prompted an unwarranted response by the World Bank employee, where the CGD economists were labelled as ‘reformed Marxists’ and the critique labelled as originating from Das-Capital.Read More »

From the Washington Consensus to the Wall Street Consensus

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Photo: Jpellgen

A new report published by the Washington DC office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation reviews the recent initiative being led by the G20 countries and their respective development finance institutions, including the major multilateral development banks, for the financialization of development lending that is based on the stepped-up use of securitization markets.

The report details how the initiative goes beyond the Washington Consensus reforms of the last few decades by calling on developing countries to adopt even farther-reaching degrees of financial liberalization on a new order of magnitude. In what Prof. Daniela Gabor of the University of West England, Bristol, calls the Wall Street Consensus,” such reforms would involve a wholesale reorganization of the financial sectors and the creation of new financial markets in developing countries in order to accommodate the investment practices of global institutional investors.

The new report, From the Washington Consensus to the Wall Street Consensus describes the key elements of the new initiative – specifically how securitization markets work and how the effort is designed to greatly increase the amount financing available for projects in developing countries by attracting new streams of private investment from private capital markets. The paper introduces the basic logic underpinning the initiative: to leverage the MDBs’ current USD 150 billion in annual public development lending into literally USD trillions for new development finance. In fact, the World Bank had initially called the initiative “From Billions to Trillions,” before finally calling it, “Maximizing Finance for Development.

While securitization can be useful for individual investors and borrowers under certain circumstances, the proposal to use securitization markets to finance international development projects in developing countries raises a set of major concerns. The report lists 7 important ways in which the G20-DFI initiative introduces a wide range of new risks to the financial systems in developing countries while undermining autonomous efforts at national economic development.

The key risks of securitization are:

  • The inherent risk because securitization relies on the use of the “shadow banking” system that is based on over-leveraged, high-risk investments that are largely unregulated and not backed by governments during financial crises;
  • The extensive use of public-private partnerships, despite the poor track record of PPPs, many of which have ended up costing taxpayers as much if not more than if the investments had been undertaken with traditional public financing;
  • The degree of proposed deregulation reforms in the domestic financial sector required of developing countries would undermine the ability of “developmental states” to regulate finance in favor of national economic development;
  • The degree of financial deregulation required would also undermine sovereignty by making the national economy increasingly dependent on shortterm flows from global private capital markets and thereby undermine the sovereign power of governments and their autonomous control of the domestic economy;
  • The uncertainty relating to governance and accountability for the environmental, social and governance standards associated with development projects. Such accountability has been fixed to traditional forms of public MDB financing for development project loans, but as future ownership of assets is commercialized and financialized, fiduciary obligations to investors may override obligations to enforce ESG implementation;
  • The deepening of the domestic financial sectors in developing countries, as required by the initiative, can create vulnerability as the size of the financial sector grows relative to that of the real sector within economies; and
  • The privatization and commercialization of public services, including infrastructure services, as called for by the initiative, has faced a growing backlash as reflected by the global trend of remunicipalizations. The fact that the securitization initiative is being promoted in such a high profile way by the G20 and leading DFIs despite all of these risks reflects an intensified contest between those supporting the public interest and those supporting the private interest.

The report also documents the relatively minor degree of interest expressed so far by global financial markets in the initiative, suggesting it is not likely to galvanize the trillions of dollars claimed by its proponents.

It concludes by reviewing the arguments for the scaled up use of traditional public financing mechanisms and several of the important ways in which this can be done, including steps that could be taken by G20 countries, DFIs and governments.

Rick Rowden recently completed his PhD in Economic Studies and Planning from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi.

 

Advocates of the SDGs have a monetarism problem

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UN Secretariat Headquarters, New York. UN Photo.

More expansionary fiscal and monetary policies are needed to meet the Sustainable Development Goals

This month, the international community will gather at the United Nations in New York to review progress on the implementation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are intended to reduce poverty, hunger and economic inequality and promote development, particularly in developing countries. But only one of the SDGs, #17, says anything about how to finance all the efforts. While SDG 17 calls for more international cooperation and foreign aid, it only suggests that developing countries strengthen domestic resource mobilization (DRM) by improving their tax collection and curtailing illicit financial flows, etc.

While important, this approach neglects much bigger problems with the prevailing set of macroeconomic policies that hamper the ability of developing countries to increase public investment, employment and scale-up the long-term investments in the underlying health and education infrastructure needed to achieve the SDGs. The policy framework used in many developing countries is characterized by an overly restrictive low-inflation target achieved by using high interest rates and backed up by strict inflation targeting regimes at independent central banks.Read More »

Philanthrocapitalism: How to Legitimize the Hegemony of the Rich with a “Good Vibes” Discourse

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Melinda Gates speaking at DFID. Photo: DFID.

Is philanthrocapitalism a vehicle for so-called “development”? In an article recently released in Globalizations (here), Juanjo Mediavilla (University of Valladolid, Spain) and I analysed the phenomenon of philanthrocapitalism as a financing for development (FfD) instrument from the perspective of Critical Development Studies and Discourse Theory. We argue that we are witnessing the deepening of a neoliberal development agenda, where philanthrocapitalism and the elites play a key role. Read More »