- The Washington Times - Friday, October 19, 2007

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund are grappling with diminished roles and relevance since China, Russia and other rapidly developing countries have amassed wealth to the point they now outstrip the Bretton Woods institutions as the biggest lenders in the world.

The $600 billion in reserves amassed by China and other emerging nations just in the first half of this year doubled the total reserves of the IMF, while those same nations have established “sovereign wealth funds” totaling $3 trillion that dwarf the aid budgets of the World Bank, IMF and Western nations. The U.S. government, by comparison, provides about $11 billion a year in international aid.

China, dipping into its more than $1 trillion in cash reserves, has taken the lead and is particularly eclipsing the World Bank in Africa by providing resource-rich countries such as Sudan with no-strings-attached loans in exchange for stable supplies of raw materials for its fast-growing economy.

The World Bank, by contrast, usually attaches unpopular conditions such as forced privatization to its loans and scrutinizes the corruption and human rights records of client countries. Development experts say the Chinese loans to corrupt regimes in Africa has made it easier for them to avoid international pressure to clean up graft.

Robert B. Zoellick, the new president of the World Bank, “has his work cut out,” said Elizabeth Stuart of Oxfam International, an anti-poverty group. “The bank now is facing more competition than ever as Africa looks to Beijing rather than Washington.”

Ms. Stuart said the bank will have to reassert its relevance by refocusing efforts on poverty reduction rather than on spreading Western-style economic policies as it did in the past.

The World Bank and IMF are holding their semi-annual fall meeting in Washington this weekend.

Mr. Zoellick yesterday said he would respond to the growing competition by for the first time seeking to enlarge the bank’s resources by taking contributions from private corporations as well as big developing countries. The bank’s loan funding now is derived largely from U.S., European and Japanese contributions.

IMF Managing Director Rodrigo De Rato yesterday called on China to cooperate with the World Bank and IMF and ensure that its lending in Africa doesn’t fuel a spiral of debt in the vacuum left by recent debt-forgiveness programs that wiped out the obligations of many African nations.

“China is showing a growing interest in Africa, and that is welcome,” he said. “But it should work with others to ensure that countries can absorb resources efficiently.”

The IMF, which in the 1990s frequently acted as the international lender of last resort and oversaw a raft of rescue operations triggered by the Asian financial crisis, today finds itself with few clients to bail out or school in Western economic ways. That is thanks largely to the strong financial positions and stores of cash reserves accumulated by former clients such as Russia, Brazil and South Korea, who have cast off their debts.

“Right now, the developing nations are flush with cash, with the U.S. among the main beneficiaries” as the poorer nations — in a role reversal — have financed nearly half of U.S. international debt this year, said Joseph Quinlan, chief market strategist at Bank of America.

The ironic result is that major emerging countries such as Brazil, China and Russia are comfortably insulated from the financial crisis that emerged this year in the U.S. with widespread defaults on subprime mortgages. While that debt crisis has cut growth in the U.S. and Europe, it presents little threat to the developing world, ratings agencies say.

The reversal of the world order as originally envisioned in the Bretton Woods agreement 60 years ago is producing increasing calls for an overhaul of the IMF and World Bank that would give developing countries a greater say. Today, the United States and Europe appoint the heads of the institutions and have veto power over the banks’ actions.

Russia, a principal client of the IMF in the 1990s which jolted global markets by defaulting on its debt in 1998, has shed its debt and is brimming with cash from export sales of oil and gas. It says it is considering dramatically increasing its contribution to the banks, but with the goal of increasing Russia’s voice as well as those of China, India and Brazil.

Other nations in Latin America and Africa also are stepping up demands. “They cannot ignore millions of voices around the world calling for reform,” said Kumi Naidoo, chairman of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty. “Countries in the South need to have a say at least in decisions that will have long-lasting consequences for them.”

Many Western aid experts agree that change is needed, although efforts at reform so far have been feeble.

“Global institutions need to reflect the changing demographic and economic balances,” said Johannes F. Linn of the Brookings Institution. “If China and India continue their rapid economic growth of recent decades, as they seem poised to do, they will surpass most, if not all, of the current industrial countries in economic size.”

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