Many developing countries are facing a renewed debt crisis. This is directly related to Covid-19, which is now sweeping across many poor countries in a new wave.
Between 2016 and 2020, debt service as a percentage of GDP rose from an average of 7.1% to 27.1% for South Asian countries, from 8.1% to 14.1% for Sub-Saharan African countries, from 13.1% to 42.3% for North African and Middle Eastern countries, and from 5.6% to 14.7% for East Asian and Pacific countries. These percentages are expected to climb again in 2021 by around 10% of GDP.
Incomes have fallen in developing countries with illness, lockdowns and business failures. This has been compounded by a fall in their exports as the world economy has contracted and by a 19% fall in aid in 2020. The fall in incomes has led to a decline in tax revenues and demands for increased government expenditure on healthcare and social support. Public-sector deficits have thus risen steeply.
And the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. Vaccination roll-outs in most developing countries are slow, with only a tiny fraction of the population having received just one jab. With the economic damage already caused, growth is likely to be subdued for some time.
This has put developing countries in a ‘trilemma’, as the IMF calls it. Governments must balance the objectives of:
- meeting increased spending needs from the emergency and its aftermath;
- limiting the substantial increase in public debt;
- trying to contain rises in taxes.
Developing countries are faced with a difficult trade-off between these objectives, as addressing one objective is likely to come at the expense of the other two. For example, higher spending would require higher deficits and debt or higher taxes.
The poorest countries have little scope for increased domestic borrowing and have been forced to borrow on international markets. But such debt is costly. Although international interest rates are generally low, many developing countries have had to take on increasing levels of borrowing from private lenders at much higher rates of interest, substantially adding to the servicing costs of their debt.
International agencies and groups, such as the IMF, the World Bank, the United Nations and the G20, have all advocated increased help to tackle this debt crisis. The IMF has allocated $100bn in lending through the Rapid Financing Instrument (RFI) and the Rapid Credit Facility (RCF) and nearly $500m in debt service relief grants through the Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust (CCRT). The World Bank is increasing operations to $160bn.
The IMF is also considering an increase in special drawing rights (SDRs) from the current level of 204.2bn ($293.3bn) to 452.6bn ($650bn) – a rise of 121.6%. This would be the first such expansion since 2009. It has received the support of both the G7 and the G20. SDRs are reserves created by the IMF whose value is a weighted average of five currencies – the US dollar (41.73%), the euro (30.93%), the Chinese yuan (10.92%), the Japanese yen (8.33%) and the pound sterling (8.09%).
Normally an increase in SDRs would be allocated to countries according their IMF quotas, which largely depend on the size of their GDP and their openness. Any new allocation under this formula would therefore go mainly to developed countries, with developing economies getting only around $60bn of the extra $357bn. It has thus been proposed that developed countries give much of their allocation to developing countries. These could then be used to cancel debts. This proposal has been backed by Janet Yellen, the US Secretary of the Treasury, who said she would “strongly encourage G20 members to channel excess SDRs in support of recovery efforts in low-income countries, alongside continued bilateral financing”.
The G20 countries, with the support of the IMF and World Bank, have committed to suspend debt service payments by eligible countries which request to participate in its Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI). There are 73 eligible countries. The scheme, now extended to 31 December 2021, provides a suspension of debt-service payments owed to official bilateral creditors. In return, borrowers commit to use freed-up resources to increase social, health or economic spending in response to the crisis. As of April 2021, 45 countries had requested to participate, with savings totalling more than $10bn. The G20 has also called on private creditors to join the DSSI, but so far without success.
Despite these initiatives, the scale of debt relief (as opposed to extra or deferred lending) remains small in comparison to earlier initiatives. Under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative (HIPC, launched 1996) and the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MDRI, launched 2005) more than $100bn of debt was cancelled.
Since the start of the pandemic, major developed countries have spent between $10 000 and $20 000 per head in stimulus and social support programmes. Sub-Saharan African countries on average are seeking only $365 per head in support.
Articles and blogs
- Imagine you are an economic advisor to a developing country attempting to rebuild the economy after the coronavirus pandemic. How would you advise it to proceed, given the ‘trilemma’ described above?
- How does the News24 article define ‘smart debt relief’. Do you agree with the definition and the means of achieving smart debt relief?
- To what extent is it in the interests of the developed world to provide additional debt relief to poor countries whose economies have been badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic?
- Research ‘debt-for-nature swaps’. To what extent can debt relief for countries affected by the coronavirus pandemic be linked to tackling climate change?
Each January, world political and business leaders gather at the ski resort of Davos in Switzerland for the World Economic Forum. They discuss a range of economic and political issues with the hope of guiding policy.
This year, leaders meet at a time when the global political context has and is changing rapidly. This year the focus is on ‘Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World’. As the Forum’s website states:
The global context has changed dramatically: geostrategic fissures have re-emerged on multiple fronts with wide-ranging political, economic and social consequences. Realpolitik is no longer just a relic of the Cold War. Economic prosperity and social cohesion are not one and the same. The global commons cannot protect or heal itself.
One of the main ‘fissures’ which threatens social cohesion is the widening gap between the very rich and the rest of the world. Indeed, inequality and poverty is one of the main agenda items at the Davos meeting and the Forum website includes an article titled, ‘We have built an unequal world. Here’s how we can change it’ (see second link in the Articles below). The article shows how the top 1% captured 27% of GDP growth between 1980 and 2016.
The first Guardian article below identifies seven different policy options to tackle the problem of inequality of income and wealth and asks you to say, using a drop-down menu, which one you think is most important. Perhaps it’s something you would like to do.
Project Davos: what’s the single best way to close the world’s wealth gap? The Guardian, Aidan Mac Guill (19/1/18)
We have built an unequal world. Here’s how we can change it World Economic Forum, Winnie Byanyima (22/1/18)
Oxfam highlights sharp inequality as Davos elite gathers ABC news, Pan Pylas (21/1/18)
Inequality gap widens as 42 people hold same wealth as 3.7bn poorest The Guardian, Larry Elliott (22/1/18)
There’s a huge gender component to income inequality that we’re ignoring Business Insider, Pedro Nicolaci da Costa (22/1/18)
Ahead of Davos, even the 1 percent worry about inequality Washington Post, Heather Long (22/1/18)
“Fractures, Fears and Failures:” World’s Ruling Elites Stare into the Abyss GlobalResearch, Bill Van Auken (18/1/18)
Why the world isn’t getting a pay raise CNN Money, Patrick Gillespie and Ivana Kottasová (1/11/17)
Articles on Inequality World Economic Forum
- Distinguish between income and wealth. In global terms, which is distributed more unequally?
- Why has global inequality of both income and wealth grown?
- Explain which of the seven policy options identified by the Guardian you would choose/did choose?
- Go through each one of the seven policy options and identify what costs would be associated with pursuing it.
- Identify any other policy options for tackling the problem.
World leaders are meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, in the Swiss Alps. This annual conference is an opportunity for politicans, economists and businesspeople from around the world to discuss the state of the world economy and to consider policy options.
To coincide with the conference, the BBC’s Newsnight has produced the following slide show, which presents some economic facts about the world economy. The slide show provides no commentary and there is no commentary either in this blog – just some questions for you to ponder.
Using the economics you’ve learned so far, try answering these questions, which focus on the reasons for the patterns in the figures, the likely future patterns and the policy implications.
Davos: 22 facts people should know BBC Newsnight (23/1/14)
For additional international data to help you answer the questions, see:
Economic Data freely available online Economics Network
- Go through each of the slides in the Newsnight presentation and select the ones of most interest to you. Then, as an economist, provide an explanation for them.
- Identify some patterns over time in the statistics. Then project forward 20 years and discuss whether the patterns are likely to have changed and, if so, why.
- What policies could governments adopt to reverse any undesirable trends you have identified? How likely are these policies to be implemented and how successful are they likely to be?
A two-week international climate change summit opened in Cancún, Mexico, on 29 November. But will the talks make any progress in tackling global warming? Will mechanisms be put in place to ensure that the previously agreed ceiling of 2°C warming is met?
After the largely unsuccessfuly talks in Copenhagen a year ago, hopes are not high. But a likely rise in global temperatures of considerably more than 2°C could have disasterous global consequences. Indeed, new evidence suggests that even a ceiling of 2°C may be too high and that, as temperatures rise towards that level, domino effects will start that may become virtually unstoppable. As Andrew Sims in the Guardian article notes:
This is the problem. Once the planet warms to the point where environmental changes that further add to warming feed off each other, it becomes almost meaningless to specify just how much warmer the planet may get. You’ve toppled the first domino and it becomes virtually impossible to stop the following chain of events. Honestly, nobody really knows exactly where that will end, but they do know it will end very, very badly.
The following podcasts and articles look at the importance of reaching international agreement but the difficulties of doing so.
Podcasts and webcasts
Post-Copenhagen, a Cancun compromise? Reuters (30/11/10)
Climate change ‘Dragons’ Den’: What are the options? BBC News, Roger Harrabin (29/11/10)
Cancun climate change summit seeks new emissions deal BBC News, David Shukman (3/12/10)
Can nudge theory change our habits? BBC News, Claudia Hammond (29/11/10)
Cancún climate change conference 2010 Guardian, (portal)
Q&A: Cancún COP16 climate talks Guardian, Shiona Tregaskis (8/10/10)
72 months and counting … Guardian, Andrew Simms (1/12/10)
Cancún climate talks: In search of the holy grail of climate change policy Guardian, Michael Jacobs (29/11/10)
Cancún and the new economics of climate change Guardian, Kevin Gallagher and Frank Ackerman (30/11/10)
Facing the consequences The Economist (25/11/10)
UN climate talks low on expectation BBC News, Richard Black (29/11/10)
Expect little from Cancun talks The Star (Malaysia), Martin Khor (29/11/10)
Don’t let us down: UN climate change talks in Cancun Independent, Jonathan Owen and Matt Chorley (28/11/10)
Cancun and Climate: Government Won’t Act, But Business Will Time Magazine: The Curious Capitalist, Zachary Karabell (28/11/10)
At Global Climate Change Talks, an Answer Grows Right Outside Huffington Post, Luis Ubiñas (29/11/10)
Cancun climate change talks: ‘last chance’ in the snakepit The Telegraph, Geoffrey Lean (29/11/10)
Climate Change Talks Must Deliver After Record Weather Year Scoop (New Zealand), Oxfam (29/11/10)
World climate talks kick off in Cancun DW-World, Amanda Price and Axel Rowohlt (29/11/10)
On international equity weights and national decision making on climate change Vox, David Anthoff and Richard S J Tol (29/11/10)
Climate treaties all bluster, no bite The Age, Dan Cass (10/12/10)
UNFCCC COP16/CMP6: Mexico 2010 Official site
- What would count as a ‘successful’ outcome of the climate change talks? Why might politicians interpret this differently from economists?
- What can governments do to internalise the externalities of greenhouse gas emissions?
- What insights can game theory provide into the difficulties of reaching binding climate change agreements?
- What are likely to be the most effective mechanisms for getting people to adapt their behaviour?
- Can nudge theory be used to change our habits towards the environment?
- Explain the use of equity weights in judging the effects of climate change. Are they a practical way forward in devising environmental policy?
The Paris Club is the name given to the grouping of 19 rich countries which meets in Paris monthly to consider the cancellation or rescheduling of official loans to poor countries (see Sloman Economics 7th edition, pages 784–5). For many of the 40 heavily indebted poor countries (HIPCs), this debt relief has been substantial, with 36 of the HIPCs receiving full or partial cancellation of their debts (see Sloman Economics7th edition, pages 788–90).
On 17 November it was the turn of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Paris Club cancelled 97.6% of the debt owed to its members by the DRC – $7.35 billion. As the Paris Club press statement says:
The representatives of the Paris Club creditor countries and Brazil met with the representatives of the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) on 17 November 2010 and agreed on a reduction of the debt following the DRC having reached its Completion Point under the enhanced initiative for the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (enhanced HIPC Initiative) on 1 July 2010.
As a contribution to restoring the DRC’s debt sustainability, the Paris Club creditors will provide a cancellation of USD 7350 million, fulfilling all their commitments under the enhanced HIPC initiative.
However, the Paris Club did have some reservations. These are explored in the articles below.
Paris Club cancels more than half of DR Congo’s debt International Business Times, Palash R. Ghosh (19/11/10)
Creditors agree Congo debt write-off, flag worries Reuters, Brian Love and Katrina Manson (18/11/10)
Paris Club and Brazil Cancel $7.35 Billion of Congo’s Debt Bloomberg Businessweek, Michael J. Kavanagh (18/11/10)
DR Congo gets US$ 7bn debt cancellation afrol News (18/11/10)
Paris Club Press Release
DRC Paris Club (17/11/10)
- Explain the process whereby HIPCs receive debt relief.
- What were the reservations expressed by the Paris Club in granting debt relief to the DRC?
- To what extent is there a moral hazard in granting debt relief? Explain.
- What can Paris Club members do to reduce the moral hazard?
- Find out what other debt relief has been given by the Paris Club to HIPCs over the past few months and whether concerns were expressed in those cases.