The richest countries in the world have agreed to renew a debt relief initiative for the poorest until at least the first half of 2021, short of a World Bank call for a full year extension then that the coronavirus pandemic is worsening poverty.
The G20, in a statement released by Saudi Arabia, which holds the bloc’s presidency, said it could order another six-month extension next year. The statement said G20 members were disappointed at the lack of progress in extending the debt relief plan to involve private creditors.
In an online press conference, World Bank President David Malpass called for more measures for meaningful debt reduction. “There is an urgent need to make rapid progress on a framework as the risk of disorderly defaults increases,” he said.
The consequences for some countries are disastrous. African countries face a $ 345 billion funding gap through 2023, the IMF said last week, with some forced to choose between servicing debt or spending on health and social programs.
The group of industrialized economies unveiled the Debt Service Suspension Initiative in April to provide billions of dollars in relief to 73 eligible countries. So far, more than 40 people have requested the aid, which was to last until the end of December, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. The World Bank estimates that countries could save US $ 12 billion owed to government creditors this year.
Eligible countries can also ask private creditors to freeze repayments, but only a few have done so – a major failure according to advocacy groups. This point was also addressed by the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, on Wednesday.
The private sector has “unfortunately” shied away from debt relief, she told a virtual press conference. Meanwhile, “countries themselves have been reluctant to ask the private sector for fear it might erode their future market access, access which they have obtained the hard way in previous years,” she said.
Role of China
Malpass had called on the G20 to extend debt relief until the end of next year, and said hedge funds and China should participate more. China owes nearly 60% of the bilateral debt that the world’s poorest countries are expected to repay this year.
He won the backing of German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who on Wednesday called for an agreement that included “many other countries not currently participating in the debt suspension.” China must be “part of the solution,” he said.
Advocacy groups like the European Network on Debt and Development say government support alone is insufficient. In a recent report, he likened the initiative to “emptying the Titanic with a bucket” and argued that it was only pushing the risks of a debt crisis “further down the road”.
Lack of participation from private and multilateral lenders limited the impact of the program, the network said, noting that only 24% of debt payments owed by recipient countries between May and December 2020 were likely to be suspended.
Extending it to the first half of 2021 would cover 44% of debt payments by countries that have applied to participate, according to the report.
The G20 was also due to discuss digital taxation, but said the pandemic had affected work to that end. Disagreements between the European Union and President Donald Trump’s administration have also hampered years-long discussions over new rules. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development now aims to conclude the process by mid-2021, increasing the risk of a transatlantic trade dispute and a proliferation of contentious domestic levies on global tech giants.