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In recent years, many commentators have asked if the World Bank is still relevant. We’re about to find out. To track the World Bank’s response to COVID-19, we’ve built a small interactive tool to display how much each country has received to date, and what’s currently in the pipeline for approval.
As the coronavirus spreads across the globe and claims an increasing number of victims, calls have been made for the international community to raise and disburse huge sums of money to protect poorer countries, whose poverty and weak health systems make them especially vulnerable.
It is often said that governments “fight the last war” during times of economic crisis. But based on David Malpass’ remarks from last week’s G20 Finance Ministers call, it appears the World Bank is preparing to fight the wars of the 1990s by revamping old—and largely discredited—crisis policy prescriptions to address what is likely to be a severe economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
There is a little-noticed but important difference between the World Bank’s original goal for poverty reduction and the first of the subsequent UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG1). The difference is that the Bank’s goal was to reach a 3 percent poverty rate by 2030, while the SDG1 is to “eradicate” poverty by 2030, where “eradicate” means zero. Yet that 3 percent could well make a big difference
In retrospect, the scale up in MDB financing during the 2008-2010 crisis, though significant, now looks conservative as we consider the potential scale of damage from the current COVID-19 pandemic. To put the question bluntly, if the human and economic devastation follows a worst-case scenario, just how much could the MDBs do to respond? We attempt to answer that question by assessing the legal, rather than prudential, constraints on MDB lending.
It is now only a question of when, not if, the COVID-19 pandemic will exact its human and economic toll on the poor and developing countries of South Asia, Africa, and Latin America the way it is already ravaging East Asia, Europe, and North America. And when it does, they too will need to respond with exceptional heath and financial measures in the face of this unprecedented global challenge.
Debt relief for low-income countries is on the table of measures to consider for coronavirus response. The imperative right now is to get cash to LICs as quickly as possible. Suspending some debt service payments may be a good first step in freeing up some budget space for new spending. Beyond that, protracted debt-relief negotiations with multilateral and commercial creditors right now could be a distraction at best but could also actively undermine the ability of institutions like the World Bank to offer new financing for crisis response.
The World Bank Group has some very clear (and very good) guidelines about what makes for a successful public-private partnership where governments contract service provision like energy supply or education from private firms. Sadly, the bank has been ignoring that rule recently. And that is a sign of a broader problem in donor-backed financing of public-private partnership deals.
The experience of the 2007 global financial crisis can tell us a few things about how low-income countries could be affected by the coronavirus pandemic in the near term, even as we recognize that the myriad economic problems created by the pandemic are almost certainly greater in number and scale than the problems in 2007.