In October, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) published what is perhaps its most bleak economic outlook in a decade, forecasting that the world economy will grow by only 2.7 percent in 2023 and warning that “the worst is yet to come.” Not since the global financial crisis of 2007–2008 have we seen such pressure on vulnerable countries grappling with what Carnegie scholar Adam Tooze describes as “polycrisis.” Climate change, food and energy price inflation, debt distress, and an ongoing pandemic have created a dynamic where, in Tooze’s view, “the whole is even more dangerous than the sum of the parts.”
This constellation of crises demands that G20 leaders design a new global financial architecture that delivers urgent liquidity for vulnerable countries, a solution for countries facing debt distress, and long-term financing at an order of magnitude greater than currently available—all while giving those vulnerable countries a more meaningful voice in the design of that architecture.
This polycrisis comes to its most acute head within the twenty-five countries that, according to Bloomberg, are most vulnerable to debt distress. Home to 1.5 billion people, they range from middle-income countries like Pakistan and Egypt to low-income countries like Ethiopia. And while the UN’s Food Price Index has retreated from the all-time highs that appeared immediately in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, food prices remain higher than they were during the crises in 2008 and 2010—the latter of which precipitated unrest in more than forty countries as well as contributing to the Arab Spring protests. This is happening against a backdrop of increasing extreme weather events—from historic drought in the Horn of Africa to devastating floods in Pakistan that displaced 33 million people. In the first half of this year, extreme weather events cost an estimated $65 billion in damages globally.
Such an unprecedented cocktail of volatility is systemic in nature and is, in part, created by the collective inability of the world’s most powerful governments to build a multilateral system more resilient to these shocks. At a minimum, it warrants an unprecedented response from the international community. Unfortunately, those Western governments with decisionmaking power and resources to help vulnerable countries respond to the polycrisis are not inclined to use it, given domestic cost-of-living crises in G7 countries, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, and limited domestic political appetite for international initiatives.
A Dangerous Myopia on the Part of Western Leaders
Taking a step back, if leaders from Europe and North America have thus far been reluctant to meet the current crisis moment, this is myopic for two reasons.
First, helping vulnerable countries avoid widespread hunger, mitigate debt distress, and build resilience to climate shocks is not charity but enlightened self-interest. It will contribute to stability in those nations and help avert the challenges created when large populations migrate to flee conflict and famine in search of economic opportunity. Europe’s so-called migration crisis in 2016, which helped fuel a wave of populism on the continent, was catalyzed in part by instability in Libya and Syria.
Second, Western countries are increasingly aware that their relationships with countries in the Global South are not what they assumed. A succession of UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine, most recently on October 12, 2022, saw many African countries abstain (see figure 1). While there are a number of reasons for such nonalignment, it is clear that some African countries want to be free to chart their own path and choose their own partnerships—and that the choice of partners depends in part on what the partner country can bring to the table.
In this regard, the West risks falling behind. Russia, the largest supplier of weapons to Africa, now provides 44 percent of major arms to the region. China committed about $160 billion in infrastructure financing in Africa between 2000 and 2020 in comparison with $153.4 billion in official development assistance from the United States1. In June, China announced a restructuring of some African countries’ debts amid concerns of debt sustainability and agreed to co-chair Zambia’s creditor committee to address the restructuring of the country’s debt.
In contrast, leaders from the Global South at UN General Assembly meetings both in public and private have disparaged European countries for stepping back from their role as custodians of the multilateral system, for their lack of support during the coronavirus pandemic, and for a litany of promises that remain unfulfilled. While they are more positive that the United States is in listening mode, as reflected in the recently published U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa, they remain wary that U.S. domestic politics could see a shift of administration in two years’ time.
A study of developing countries’ attitudes compiled by Rosa Balfour, Lizza Bomassi, and Marta Martinelli at Carnegie Europe demonstrated the disconnect between how Europe thinks it is perceived and how it is actually perceived in key countries of the Global South. In many cases, the role of Europe’s development programming remains invisible to citizens of these countries, while steps to use the EU’s market access to enforce human rights and environmental standards, viewed at home as a positive impact of Europe in the world, are perceived elsewhere as simple market protectionism.
Likewise, a large-scale survey of African youth conducted by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation shows that in 2022, China overtook the United States as the geopolitical superpower viewed most favorably—in part because its actions on the continent are so visible. Analysis from Afrobarometer (see figure 2) presents a similar trend.
The West’s Crisis Response is Fueling Mistrust in the Global South
There is a growing perception among Africans that African countries are victims of crises created in and by other regions. This view is rooted in fact: the global financial crisis began in the U.S. housing market, the coronavirus pandemic began in China, and industrialized countries in the Global North caused the climate crisis (Africa has contributed just 4 percent to historical carbon emissions). In each case, Western countries’ policy responses to these crises further disadvantage African countries.
During the pandemic, Western countries have monopolized vaccine supply, and the current response to the climate crisis sees some Western governments seek to limit the ability of African countries to exploit natural gas to support economic and social development—while those Western countries continue to use natural gas themselves.
The cost-of-living crisis is the latest case in point. In advanced countries, the average inflation forecast is 6.6 percent. In emerging and developing countries the figure is 9.5 percent. Headline inflation in Africa has tripled from 3.5 percent in January 2020 to 10.6 percent in June 2022.
Not only is inflation greater in African countries, but it also has a more devastating impact on ordinary people. Analysis in a new data portal from the ONE Campaign, where the author is executive director for global policy, shows that, in comparison to higher-income countries, a larger proportion of Africans’ income is spent on food and other essential goods, leaving them more vulnerable to inflation (see figure 3).
Yet the current inflationary challenges illustrate the failure of global economic governance institutions to prevent macroeconomic policy decisions by major powers from spilling over to the wider world and harming vulnerable nations
The U.S. Federal Reserve’s steep interest rate hikes in recent months to quell inflation in the United States will greatly impact other countries, particularly those with heavy debt burdens. The U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency. About half of international trade is invoiced in dollars, about half of all international loans and global debt securities are denominated in dollars, and dollars are involved in 90 percent of foreign exchange transactions. As a result, increases in interest rates are hitting vulnerable countries in a number of ways.
First, a stronger U.S. dollar increases the cost of servicing U.S. dollar–denominated debt as well as of importing food and energy—and these imports are estimated to have increased by $9 billion in low-income countries this year. International investors have also pulled $70 billion from emerging market bond funds in 2022, making finance more costly and harder to come by. At the same time, China is tightening its lending to Africa as it weathers its own domestic economic challenges. As a result, analysts are warning of a “historic cascade of defaults” by developing countries.
The UN Conference on Trade and Development has warned that efforts to calm inflation in the form of fiscal tightening, particularly in the United States, could precipitate a recession in developing countries on a scale greater than the global financial crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, the latter of which saw global GDP growth fall by 6.3 percentage points. Many of the impacts will fall heaviest on Africa’s low-income countries, 60 percent of which are in or at high risk of debt distress.
An Architecture Fit for a Bygone Era
But while African countries’ fortunes are shaped by these global events, they have limited agency over the response, thanks in part to an outmoded global economic architecture created after the Second World War—before most African countries gained independence.
The Bretton Woods institutions—the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (now part of the World Bank Group)—were established in 1944 to safeguard the stability of the international financial system and finance postwar reconstruction. But their governance remains archaic.
Under a long-standing “gentleman’s agreement,” Europe gets to choose the managing director of the IMF and the United States chooses the World Bank president. The voting shares of these institutions are highly unequal, since they are pegged to the size of shareholders’ economies. As a result, the United States, with a population of 330 million people, controls roughly 16 percent of the voting power at the IMF and World Bank, while Africa’s fifty-four countries—accounting for 1.4 billion people—collectively have a voting share of roughly 7 percent. Per capita, an American’s vote is worth twenty times as much as a Nigerian’s at the IMF, and sixty-four times that of an Ethiopian. And even on its own terms, current quota shares disproportionately benefit wealthy countries—particularly Europe—at the expense of emerging economies.
Increasingly, countries in the Global South are demanding a meaningful seat at the table of international institutions. These calls were particularly prominent at this year’s UN General Assembly. Indian Minister for External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar described the current architecture as “anachronistic and ineffective.”
UN Secretary General António Guterres went further, saying:
We need to reform a morally bankrupt global financial system. This system was created by rich countries to benefit rich countries. Practically no African country was sitting at the table of the Bretton Woods Agreement; and in many other parts of the world, decolonization had not yet taken place. It perpetuates poverty and inequalities. We need to balance the scales between developed and developing countries and create a new global financial system that benefits all.
These increasingly emphatic statements are no longer general calls for reform. Instead, leaders from the Global South have an agenda and are putting specific proposals on the table.
In April, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, members of the Africa High-Level Working Group on the Global Financial Architecture, coordinated by the UN Economic Commission for Africa, proposed a specific set of measures to create fiscal space to help them respond to the invasion, including the recycling of $100 billion in special drawing rights, a renewed debt service suspension initiative, and a liquidity and sustainability facility to reduce the cost of African borrowing on capital markets.
Since then, Barbados’s Prime Minister Mia Mottley has proposed the Bridgetown Initiative, which seeks to address immediate fiscal concerns and proposes a more structural set of reforms to help vulnerable countries become resilient to economic, climate, and pandemic shocks.
A number of G7 countries have signaled a responsiveness to these calls for reform. In August, Japan lent its support to a proposal for a permanent African seat at the UN Security Council—a sentiment echoed by U.S. President Joe Biden in his speech to the UN General Assembly.
Yet debates about Bretton Woods reform risk becoming fragmented in a political environment in which achieving the necessary consensus for reform is challenging. Furthermore, in an era of great power competition, G20 countries are unlikely to voluntarily give up some of their power in these institutions.
As a result, a focused agenda is more likely to gain traction.
Firstly, G20 countries should urgently take steps to provide the necessary liquidity to help vulnerable countries weather the economic storm and build resilience for the future. They should reinstate the debt service suspension initiative, which helped free up fiscal space during the coronavirus pandemic, and make good on their promise, made in October 2021, to provide emergency liquidity in the form of $100 billion in special drawing rights. To date, $81 billion has been pledged (including $21bn from the US that is yet to be appropriated by Congress) to this target but very little has been disbursed. These funds should be urgently committed to the IMF’s Poverty Reduction and Growth Trust, the IMF’s newly established Resilience and Sustainability Trust, and multilateral development banks (MDBs), enabling vulnerable countries to draw down these resources.
Second, the polycrisis requires long-term resourcing that is an order of magnitude greater that what is currently on the table. There is hope on this front. In October, ahead of the IMF and World Bank annual meetings, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen signaled U.S. government support for the reform of MDBs relating both to how they lend and to how much they lend. Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States then announced an “evolution roadmap” for the World Bank to address its investment in cross-border challenges such as pandemic preparedness and climate change (in addition to its current model of bilateral lending to countries), and support for more risk-taking to more effectively leverage the World Bank’s balance sheet.
According to a G20-commissioned expert group, MDBs (including the World Bank) could mobilize up to an additional $1 trillion without risking their AAA credit ratings. The boards of the MDBs (largely composed of G7 finance ministers) should lay out a roadmap for implementing these recommendations and increasing the speed and flexibility of lending to vulnerable countries.
Finally, there are increasing calls for Global South countries to have a meaningful seat at the decisionmaking table. Establishing a permanent African Union seat at the G20 would send an important signal, and the IMF’s 2023 quota review could provide an opportunity for the creation of a new African chair on the IMF’s board as well as an increase in quota or a change in quota distribution in favor of African countries.
These specific steps would signal that Western countries are listening to countries in the Global South, provide urgent finance at a scale needed to address the current challenges, and catalyze a broader debate about the kinds of international institutions needed in the twenty-first century.
All of this could be accomplished without significant investments of domestic budgets or political capital. In this respect the usual explanations for inaction do not stand.
1 Author’s calculations of statistics from the Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. See Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Query Wizard for International Development Statistics (accessed October 18, 2022), https://stats.oecd.org/qwids/.