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The United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) bold four-year Strategic Plan sets out to deliver solutions to end extreme poverty, reduce inequality, and build resilience to crises in order to help countries achieve the 2030 Agenda. But as the UN system grapples with funding challenges, as private finance is further mobilized for development, and as technological advances shape the development landscape, what is UNDP’s comparative advantage? We look forward to discussing these issues with UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner and key stakeholders.
(If you are an insider on the mandate of the G20 Eminent Persons Group regarding the international financial institutions, or you are an insider on the World Bank and the other multilateral development banks, you may want to skip this Background section. If you are not an insider, do keep reading!)
The G20 EPG (on global economic governance—do keep reading!) was created in the spring of 2017 to recommend practical reforms to improve the functioning of the international financial institutions (IFIs), and to ensure the IFIs are fit for purpose in a rapidly changing global system. The group focuses on the World Bank and other multilateral development banks (MDBs), my concern in this blog, as well as the International Monetary Fund and other IFIs focused on global financial stability.
It has been a relatively obscure and quiet group, perhaps by intention (its members are mostly apolitical experts).
Why is the EPG’s work important? After all, the World Bank and other multilateral development banks (MDBs)—the development financing arms of the multilateral system—appear well-insulated from the recent assaults on the open, liberal international order (Brexit, Trump-Bolton, nationalist and populist parties on the rise in Europe). The MDBs, for example, have substantial financial resources and solid AAA ratings—which allow them to borrow on capital markets at low cost, and on-lend to developing countries to support public and private investments with long-run social and economic returns. And the MDB model has been amply vindicated after all, by the creation of more and more of them, in the latest round by China.
On the other hand, the challenge for the MDBs, particularly the World Bank and its regional counterparts founded in the twentieth century, may be that very resilience. The risk is not a sudden withdrawal of support by major country shareholders (The United States and Europe especially), but a slow slide into irrelevance without adaptation and adjustments to the reality of this century’s challenges. Those challenges include the troubling infrastructure gap in most developing countries despite their growing access to private capital; political instability and conflict in low-income “fragile” states unable to borrow; and a critical set of collective action challenges: climate change, antibiotic resistance, unmanaged surges of cross-border migration, the risk of world-wide pandemics, inadequate increases in agricultural productivity to ensure long-run food security across Africa.
The group has just publicly released an update of its discussions in the last year, in anticipation of the G20 meeting of finance ministers later this month. Its final report is due in the fall, for discussion (presumably) at the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires—set for late November.
Disappointed but Hopeful: Three Areas where the EPG Could Set an Agenda for Change
I’m disappointed by the update—but still hopeful. In the case of the MDBs, the EPG may miss an opportunity to put some fundamental changes on the agenda—at least for discussion if not for full resolution. Even assuming differences of view on specific issues among EPG members, that should not amount to an insiders’ game; the members can use their knowledge and even their differences to propose an agenda with potential, as a colleague said well, to “shake the system rather than sculpt it.”
But I’m also hopeful. Here are three concrete issues that the group could raise regarding the MDBs.
1. The global commons
In late 2016, we at CGD issued Multilateral Development Banking for This Century’s Development Challenges, a report of a high-level panel (not of an “eminent persons group” though our panel members were all eminent too—see the link!). The first of five recommendations to MDB shareholders was for an explicit new mandate for the World Bank to promote global public goods (GPGs) critical to development “through the creation of a new financing window…with a target of deploying $10 billion a year.”
The EPG update does refer to growing threats to the global commons, including on the development side climate change and pandemic risks. These along with other collective action problems such as global food security and refugee issues, are challenges on which the MDBs could provide robust financing and related expertise that would complement the work of WHO, the Green Climate Fund and other UN agencies.
What is disappointing is that the update makes no reference to the hidden limits on the MDBs’ current ability to do so at sufficient scale and scope and effectiveness. (They all try to “green” their lending and the World Bank hosts and manages various trust funds and other special initiatives in health and climate—but these are ad hoc, and their financing is not secure over the long term.) That limit is the MDBs’ reliance, intrinsic to their business model, on the country-based loan to generate sufficient net income to cover the long-run cost of their operations.
The simplest approach would be for all MDBs to have a mandate from shareholders to secure grant financing dedicated to subsidizing their standard loan rates to encourage countries to borrow for investments that have positive global “spillover” benefits. These could be in renewable energy where it is not currently “least cost” compared to coal, for example; in mass transit and data-based efficient bus systems in Bangkok and Lagos that would reduce the commuting time of struggling low-income workers; in disease surveillance systems in the Congo and Cambodia; in deforestation programs in Indonesia and Brazil. The current limit to more lending of these kinds is the reasonable unwillingness of borrowers to pay standard (yes, partly subsidized compared to the private market) rates to finance investments that have substantial co-benefits for other countries. The example exists already in the case of donor-funded subsidies that are reducing the cost to Jordan and Lebanon of borrowing to provide social and other services to Syrian refugees in those countries.
The possibility of subsidizing loan rates would turn a constraint the banks face—the reliance on the country-based loan—to an advantage that builds on their comparative advantage.
This is a concrete idea that could be put on an agenda for broad discussion: Should the MDBs have a mandate to seek capital and other financing to address GPGs and other collective action problems beyond the current ad hoc, often unsustained approach of relying on one or another donor to one or another trust fund? This approach is hard to realize without a collective decision by all the shareholders of the MDBs, because it has no champion among any group of shareholders—low-income, middle-income or high-income countries. (See the 2016 CGD MBD report, last paragraph on page 9 for more information).
Moreover It raises a host of related questions. Where would this grant financing to cover subsidies come from? How much should loans be subsidized? Should the mandate to raise financing from its members be concentrated initially at the “global” World Bank? If so, should the World Bank be told to share resulting funds to other MDBs and lenders such as the Green Climate Fund (as recommended in our 2016 report)? And if such subsidies were available at any of the MDBs, how should member countries ensure and monitor adequate partnership with WHO on disease surveillance and emergency pandemic response, and with other UN agencies with expertise in other areas?
The clear reference in the update to threats to the global commons opens the door to putting some concrete ideas on the table for a more robust role for the MDBs on development-relevant GPGs. My hope resides in an allusion in the EPG update to the possibility of more flexibility in the pricing of loans. It’s only a footnote, but it hints at the idea of more flexible pricing, for one reason or another. Footnote 3 notes that “MDB engagements need to ensure access to…provision of global public goods in MICs.” and in that context suggests that “pricing policies should reflect declining subsidy components, as per capita income grows.” This reference to differential pricing by country, with presumably somewhat higher prices (lower subsidies relative to private markets) for middle-income countries; it opens the door to more flexible pricing in general, which in turn invites new thinking about lower prices (greater subsidies) when countries borrow for programs with global benefits.
2. The MDBs: cooperation, collaboration, and common platforms?
The EPG update calls for more collaboration across the MDBs on “principles, procedures, and country platforms”. But calls for collaboration in these (vaguely defined) areas are not new call and not likely to inspire any serious change. In fact, the banks do already cooperate where it is win-win for them, including co-financing large programs (e.g. the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank), and spend a lot of time at the field level on cooperation with bilateral donors in low-income countries. Otherwise, the natural tendency is for the banks to compete (e.g. the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank in Latin America) for projects and programs to finance, and in their analytic work too. And competition is not always a bad thing. It invites innovation and and useful debate, and in the case of loans creates healthy pressure on the banks to reduce burdensome transactions costs and delays, from which their “consumer-borrowers” can benefit. It also gives borrowing countries “ownership” of their own investment strategies.
More disappointing is the lack of any concrete suggestion that would have shareholders consider different roles for different institutions in the “system” (“different strokes for different folks”). The 2016 CGD report was shaped by the notion that the World Bank, as the sole “global bank,” could take leadership on “global” challenges including global public goods, including in the context of continued country lending, but with a greater mandate to do more lending with positive global spillovers; and that any need for increased capital in the MDB system, including to finance basic infrastructure, should be concentrated at the regional banks, with their greater proximity, sense of ownership and trust on the part of the borrowers. That is one specific and concrete idea that could be on an agenda for shareholder discussion.
In one area, the update is clear and concrete: the potential for “joined-up” initiatives across the MDBs that could bring more private sector capital to developing countries. These include pooling and insuring risks (the banks already trade their risk exposures to offset their otherwise region-specific concentrations) and system-wide securitization of pooled loans to bring institutional investors’ huge resources to the development table, as in this proposal from my CGD colleague Nancy Lee (and see this big idea too). On insuring political risk, there is a concrete proposal for the banks to jointly help increase the financial capacity of MIGA, the World Bank Group insurance arm; what is worthy of discussion is why the banks have not been willing to “price” the current guarantee instrument they have in a way to make it more attractive, and whether a joined-up MIGA would be more likely to address that reluctance.
3. The MDBs as a “System”
The EPG update is clear on the logic of common shareholders treating the MDBs as a group, or as a system in which the sum of their parts would be greater than the current whole. That is behind the call for more collaboration. It was the “system” point that gave rise to our recommendation in the 2016 CGD report for a cross-MDB review at the level of ministers every five years—what Caio Koch-Weser, one of our panel members, called a “mini-Bretton Woods” —and which influenced (we believe) the German hosts of the 2017 G20 to create the EPG in the first place.
On the agenda of such a review would be such fundamental questions as: Do the MDBs have enough capital as a group? Is shareholder capital reasonably allocated for the long run across the banks given different regional needs? Which of them might better optimize use of their balance sheets to stretch their existing capital? Should recapitalizations and replenishments be better coordinated, to help rationalize shareholder allocations? What’s needed to enable the World Bank to follow the Asian Development Bank’s lead?
Are there imbalances across the banks in financial capacity, given their mandates and relative comparative advantages over the next decade? Is the shrinking relative size of the African Development Bank concessional window compared to the World Bank’s IDA window in Africa (the latter at least five times bigger now) the outcome of a strategic decision among member contributors? Is it sensible for the long run? Should the common shareholders of those two banks consider the logic of the “local” bank being much smaller in the region with most of the world’s failed and fragile states, the highest growth of job-seeking cohorts, and the greatest poverty? Should a new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank focused on infrastructure in Asia and the huge potential financing role of the China Development Bank across Eurasia change or enhance the work of the Asian Development Bank in infrastructure? Should the EBRD, the World Bank, and the African Development Bank agree to some division of sectoral emphases in North Africa? And what about the Islamic Development Bank?
Also disappointing is the lack of any reference in the update to the corporate governance problem at the legacy MDBs. The problem is summarized well in the CGD MDB report: “The legacy MDBs have become overly bureaucratic, rigid, and rule-driven in large part because of shareholder governance that has failed to distinguish between appropriate strategic oversight (combined with accountability measures) and issues more appropriately within the purview of management.” Should governance issues—voice and votes, selection of heads and their roles as Chairs of the Board (except at AIIB), costs and benefits of resident boards—be on an agenda for periodic discussion by common shareholders across the banks?
Of all these questions, the most fundamental is whether the MDBs have sufficient resources for the coming decade and beyond—or as some might argue are too big given developing countries’ growing access to private capital. (On whether the IMF has sufficient resources, go here.)
On the other hand, there is time. The EPG can certainly put the idea of a periodic mini-Bretton Woods on the agenda for discussion in Buenos Aires (how often? what role for the G20?) and encourage the Argentines to take whatever next step is appropriate to ensure it “sticks.”
Imagine a G20 agenda that included: Should the MDBs have a “window” or consolidated “trust fund” with grant money, to subsidize loans with big positive global spillovers? Should MDB shareholders “assign” leadership to the World Bank on going green, and support concentrating additional capital to back traditional lending at the regional development banks? Should the shareholders debate the question: Are the MDBs as a group big enough for current development challenges? Should the shareholders consider a quinquennial mini-Bretton Woods meeting?
It is not too late. These kinds of questions need not be agreed or resolved by the EPG, only chosen, prioritized and organized—with sufficient factual background to enable a rich discussion grounded in shared facts at the common shareholder, ministerial level.
I remain hopeful that the EPG will propose a clear and compelling and necessarily controversial agenda of topics for discussion by the world’s sovereign shareholding members of the banks. I remain hopeful that a better system of “global economic governance” for development can be snatched from the jaws of insider obscurantism before the group finalizes its report this fall.
Given the changing global landscape, development finance – rather than aid – is poised to be the future of development. The spotlight is increasingly on Development Finance Institutions (DFIs) to be catalysts in mobilizing needed financing. At a time when their record on development finance mobilization and development impact is still debated, they are nevertheless being asked to play a critical role in helping to fill huge financing gaps associated with meeting the SDGs. Several countries have established new DFIs and others are considering expanding DFI operations.
International actors have criticized decisions by the Trump administration to reject the Paris Climate Accord, abandon the Trans Pacific Partnership, and withdraw from a United Nations declaration intended to protect the rights of migrants. However, there is one international body, the Paris Club, whose members may be rooting for the United States to leave. That’s because, in the absence of congressional action, continued US membership in the Paris Club could impair the economic prospects of some of the poorest countries in the world.
Some context on the Paris Club
The Paris Club, which first convened some 60 years ago, is a group of government representatives whose most important function is to negotiate agreements to reduce or relieve outstanding debt between debtor countries and Paris Club members. Over the years, the Club has concluded 433 agreements with 90 different debtor countries, with the number of agreements peaking at 24 in 1989. In recent years, as shown in the chart below, there has been little to no activity:
Paris Club Agreements by Calendar Year
In its negotiations with debtor countries, the Club operates in accordance with six principles:
Case by case: The Paris Club makes decisions on a case-by-case basis in order to tailor its action to each debtor country's individual situation.
Comparability of treatment: A debtor country that signs an agreement with the Paris Club agrees to seek comparable terms from all bilateral creditors, including non-Paris Club commercial and official creditors.
Conditionality: Agreements with debtor countries will be based on IMF reform programs that help ensure the sustainability of future debt servicing.
Consensus: Paris Club decisions cannot be taken without a consensus among the participating creditor countries.
Information sharing: Members will share views and data on their claims on a reciprocal basis.
Solidarity: All members of the Paris Club agree to act as a group in their dealings with a given debtor country.
The United States has historically played a major role in the Paris Club, due, in part, to the large number of loans and guarantees it has extended to other countries over the years. But as the result of a shift from loans to grants, US credit exposure to sovereign governments has fallen dramatically—from over $90 billion USD in 1999 to roughly $35 billion today—and much of what remains is in the form of guarantees. The number of countries that owe the United States money or have a guarantee has dropped from 135 to 85 over the same period.
US Government Credit Exposure to Official Obligors
Here’s the problem:
In cases where the US government is still a creditor, the consensus principle (cf. principle 4 above) stops any Paris Club debt negotiation from proceeding without US participation, but the United States is unlikely to participate in any agreement that requires debt reduction due to current budget constraints.
At the beginning of each negotiation process, the IMF seeks assurances (“financing assurances”) from individual Paris Club creditors that they are willing to provide the debt relief needed to fill the financing gap built into the debtor country’s IMF program (cf. principle 3 above). Historically, the US Paris Club representative has not provided such assurances without having the necessary authorization and appropriation of funds for debt reduction from Congress.
Under the Federal Credit Reform Act of 1990, an appropriation by Congress of the estimated cost of debt relief—on a net present value basis—is required for debt reduction. And there is a value for all debt owed to the United States, even if it hasn’t been serviced in decades (which is the case for several countries that currently owe money to the United States).
Unfortunately, the United States currently lacks any authorization or appropriation for debt relief so it is not in a position to provide the IMF with any financing assurances. Moreover, the outlook for future US funding isn’t great. The administration’s FY 20198 budget request seeks reduce the foreign assistance budget by almost 30 percent and there is no request to authorize debt relief. Congress, too, has shown little interest in providing funding for debt relief. Appropriators consistently rejected requests to fund the US commitment to the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative—to the point where the Obama administration stopped asking.
What’s more, the US budget process itself creates an enormous obstacle to future US participation in Paris Club agreements. The process for formulating a budget begins almost a year before the fiscal year begins, which means that Treasury Department planners are asked to anticipate the need for funding almost two years in advance of an actual request for financing. This is at odds with events in the real world, where liquidity and solvency issues in debtor countries can evolve quickly.
To date, neither the executive nor the legislative branch have demonstrated a willingness to establish “rainy day” funds for unforeseen emergencies. In the past, this problem has been avoided by packaging a request for debt relief money as part of a large, multilateral initiative such as the Heavily Indebted Poor Country Initiative, or by including it in a supplemental budget request for an emergency, such as defense spending for Iraq or the emergency spending for Tsunami relief. But amid growing budget pressures, future debt relief cases are unlikely to be able to take advantage of these vehicles.
The United States and the Paris Club are likely to confront this US funding problem head on when a country from sub-Saharan Africa comes to the Paris Club for debt relief, whether that’s one of the three remaining HIPC Initiative countries—Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea—or a country currently in debt distress such as Zimbabwe.
A potential nightmare scenario
In the summer of 2018, the IMF and the Government of Somalia agree on a staff-monitored program (SMP) that meets the standards needed for HIPC debt relief. Somalia fulfills the SMP requirements and requests an IMF funded program in 2019. So, in July of 2019, the IMF requests financing assurances from Paris Club members, at which point the United States refuses to provide assurances—due to the absence of authority and lack of funding—and stops Somalia from receiving debt relief despite support from every other creditor. Condemnation of the US position begins.
What can be done to prevent this nightmare scenario? I offer three potential options:
In the FY 2019 budget, Congress should re-institute language authorizing a transfer of resources from State Department to Treasury to cover the cost of bilateral debt relief. While the Treasury Department has been the US agency that has traditionally had to include the appropriation for debt relief in its budget, it makes more sense for State Department to take on this role, particularly given that Treasury has almost $2 billion USD in unmet commitments to the multilateral development banks.
Like many states have done to protect themselves from unforeseen emergencies, the executive branch should work with Congress to establish a “rainy day” fund that can be tapped when needed to cover the cost of bilateral debt relief. Congressional oversight could proceed by subjecting its use to a rigorous congressional notification process.
The executive branch and Congress should work to secure an understanding that the loans extended to countries before the Federal Credit Reform Act went into effect and which have not been serviced in decades are “uncollectible” and that no authorization and/or appropriation is required for the United States to participate in a Paris Club debt treatment agreement (the legal basis for doing this is subject to interpretation).
In the absence of one of these three options or some other creative means to address the lack of funding for bilateral debt relief, the United States will find itself in the position of preventing some of the poorest countries in the world from normalizing their relations with the international financial community—stifling their access to support for critical development needs. The administration and Congress can work in concert to avoid this truly untenable position, but if they fail, the United States may no longer be welcome in Paris.
As my colleague Sarah Rose aptly points out in a recent blog post, USAID is promoting domestic resource mobilization as a central component of USAID’s “journey to self-reliance” framework. But even for countries that are far away from graduating from foreign aid, the importance of domestic resource mobilization for maintaining macroeconomic stability and sustained economic growth is well documented. A look at the experience of countries that have received HIPC debt relief validates this point and underlines the need for attaching a high priority to tax policies and practices in international assistance programs for low income countries.
In 2008, a number of HIPC Initiative beneficiaries had yet to receive full debt relief from the initiative. Almost half were either in debt distress or were at a high risk of debt distress. By 2014, 35 of the 36 countries that have benefited from HIPC debt relief had reached the completion point of the process and had considerable amounts of debt wiped off their books. The impact with respect to reducing debt distress was impressive. However, as can be seen in the chart below, since 2014 there has been a steady increase in the risk of debt distress among HIPC beneficiaries, a rather alarming development given the billions of dollars that have gone into the initiative and the conditions attached to it.
A recently released report by the IMF entitled, “Macroeconomic Developments and Prospects in Low Income Developing Countries (LIDCs)” explains in great detail the reasons for the elevation in the risk of debt distress among low income countries, including the HIPC Initiative beneficiaries. One of the primary reasons was a decline in commodity prices that led to a drop in revenues for many commodity exporters not matched by a reduction in expenditures. But even among diversified exporters there has been a deterioration in fiscal balances leading to rising debt levels, with declining revenues the main factor in roughly one quarter of the cases.
While the IMF report shows that declining revenues are not the only reason countries face an increased risk of debt distress, a look at the record for HIPC Initiative beneficiaries shows there is clearly a strong link. The chart below shows the weighted average change in the domestic revenue to GDP ratio among three groups of HIPC beneficiaries, those currently rated at low risk of debt distress, those rated at moderate risk of debt distress, and those at a high risk of debt distress or in debt distress. The change is recorded as the difference between the revenue to GDP ratio in the year before the country received HIPC debt relief (completion point) and 2016:
Among all 36 HIPC beneficiaries, the weighted average increase in the domestic revenue to GDP ratio has been 9.8 percent, from 16.2 percent to 17.8 percent. For the five countries currently regarded as having a low risk of debt distress, the average ratio increased almost 30 percent, from 15.6 percent to 20.2 percent. For the 18 countries deemed to have a moderate risk of debt distress the average ratio increased a little over 11 percent. For the 13 countries at high risk or in debt distress, the average ratio actually fell a little over one percent (from 17.2 percent to 17.0 percent). It would have been a much greater decline absent Mozambique, which has fallen into debt distress due to malfeasance but has greatly increased its domestic revenue to GDP ratio since reaching HIPC completion point.
While countries in the high risk/in debt distress category have generally seen a decline in government revenues as a share of GDP, there are some notable exceptions. Both Afghanistan and Haiti, ranked as “high risk” due to weak institutional capacity rather than elevated debt levels, have had success in increasing tax revenues. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, tax collection in Haiti reached an average 14 percent of GDP during 2015-2016, up from 11 percent in 2008-2009 despite the devastating effects of the earthquake. In Afghanistan, revenue as a share of GDP rose from a low of 8.7 percent in 2014 to 10.3 percent in 2015 and well over 11 percent in 2016.
Much of the success in Afghanistan and Haiti is due to a concerted effort by government authorities with the support of the international donor community and international financial institutions. The embodiment of this collaborative approach is the little known Addis Tax Initiative (ATI), which was launched at the at the 3rd Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa in 2015. ATI is not a new international fund, but rather a pledge among like-minded countries to increase resources and attention on the basic practice of collecting taxes in a fair, efficient, and effective manner in order to fund government programs in a sustainable manner. It deserves the international community’s continued support through prominent references in communiques by the G20 and other groups. At the same time, more donors—including the United States—should fund the Revenue Mobilization Trust Fund at the IMF.
In what world would this “cascade” algorithm make sense? Without a good answer to that question, the cascade risks looking like ideology rather than sound development finance advice.
An economist explores the question
World Bank economist Tito Cordella has published a fascinating theoretical exploration of this question “Optimizing Finance for Development”, focused on the optimal sequencing of the three possibilities: reform, subsidies (risk mitigation), or public funding.
But as economists are wont to do, Cordella strips his model down to the bare minimum needed to analyse the question in hand. Yet his model contains some ingredients that could help us think about the cascade more broadly. Moreover, it is not always obvious how to connect his stylized model back to reality. This blog post tries to do that. Before proceeding, it should be noted that World Bank research economists do not speak for the Bank and so this is not an attempt to hoist the Bank on its own petard: what matters are the arguments being made, not who is making them.
As an economist, the first question Cordella asks is: which is more efficient, public or private? When Cordella writes that “to focus on the policy relevant trade-offs, most of the analysis features the case in which the private sector has an efficiency advantage”—that’s because for him when the public sector is more efficient the solution is trivial: the public sector should do it. That is a significant departure from, “if the private sector can do it, it should.”
But I suspect many people may feel that even basing the choice between public or private on efficiency is too reductive. Many North Americans fundamentally object to the idea of socialised medicine—for example—whilst many Europeans find the American health system equally objectionable. Societies have different ideas about fairness and equality. We could interpret “efficiency” more broadly, meaning that we want to satisfy social preferences in the most efficient manner possible. Or we could see the role of the Bank as setting out the costs of achieving various social outcomes and leaving it to the political process to decide what’s worth the price.
In Cordella’s model, public and private are assumed to have the same cost of capital but differing levels of efficiency across projects, which shows up in the form of different rates of financial return: greater efficiency means higher returns. Beneath the abstraction of a model, what do financial returns mean in the context of public provision? Some public projects charge user fees (e.g., utilities) but the government can also capture financial returns via incremental economic activity, which is taxed. Efficiency is a simple model parameter, but in reality the analysis of public versus private efficiency would (should) be complex: all else equal, perhaps public schooling is more efficient because it reaches the less well-off, and lower inequality is good for growth and tax revenues. Perhaps public roads are more efficient because they have a larger economic impact on overall economic activity than a toll road. The model also recognises that efficiency is not just about returns that can be internalised financially—projects create externalities. Cordella assumes externalities are the same under public and private provision, but that is merely because he is not interested in that aspect of the problem; the theoretical implications would be trivial: all else equal, if positive externalities are larger under public provision, the public should do it.
Cordella is focused on the set of projects where the private sector has an efficiency advantage, but the returns are not sufficient to induce investment. For these, there is an interesting problem of whether, and how, to bear the costs of overcoming that. His model introduces two helpful ideas: policy reforms that improve the commercial viability of projects can come at a social cost, and subsidies to induce private participation can be too expensive. This is a useful contribution to policy debates over “blended finance” which thus far have had little to say about when levering the private sector is not worth the trouble.
The analysis reveals that sequencing of the cascade algorithm only matters because governments are unable to perfectly fit instruments to projects. If subsidies and reforms are precise and project-specific, sequencing is irrelevant. But if the cascade approach is implemented in stages where, in effect, the “reforms department” does as much as it can with its instruments first before passing on the residual of projects to the “subsidies department,” then the sequencing is important. Cordella finds that contrary to the “cascade” it is best to apply subsidies first, and crowd-in the projects which are close to commercially viable at low cost, before turning to reforms when they come at a meaningful social cost. If reforms are cost free, the implications are trivial: do them. Cordella concludes:
The objective of maximizing private finance for development may conflict with the objective of optimizing finance for development.
A different motivation
However, the cascade is motivated by something that does not feature in Cordella’s model: the scarcity of public funds. There is no government budget constraint in the model. It could be introduced by assuming the cost of public finance is increasing in the quantity of public projects, so that “efficiency” becomes combination of costs and returns. The effect on Cordella’s model would be to expand the set of projects where the private sector has an efficiency advantage, and thus candidates for the cascade. Presumably the cost of financing subsidies would also reflect the increasing cost of public finance and the last-resort public option would become less often feasible, so the importance of reforms would rise. Behind the cascade model lies the idea that developing countries have reached the limit of fiscal space, so choosing private solutions where they are available is the only way of getting more done.
A counter argument is that if an economy can afford to pay for a new airport, for example, via users fees high enough for a private provider to make profits, then it should also be able to afford to pay those fees to a government-run airport or to pay via taxation. If the government has a profitable investment opportunity, it should be able to raise finance without seeing its cost of capital increase. Of course, if the government would be less efficient—perhaps it faces capacity constraints that aren’t about money but are about human resources—then that would settle it. But the cascade’s “private if possible” rule makes sense if the scarcity of public funds dominates efficiency considerations, otherwise relative efficiency should be the deciding factor. And if the public sector is equally efficient, in the sense of being equally able to capture financial returns, then it should also be able to find the money. The public budget should not be regarded as fixed, irrespective of what positive return investment opportunities that the government faces.
Maybe there are too many “shoulds” in the previous paragraph. Governments may not be able to finance all their positive-return projects. The cascade could be justified as a second-best solution for a second-best world. It may also be better seen as a signal that the Bank is now more receptive to collaborating with the private sector, rather than as a rule to be followed to the letter. But even on a more sympathetic reading, a stated policy of unconditional preference for private provision may be hard to sustain.
Unconditional support for private finance is untenable
Opinion in some of the Bank’s shareholder countries is turning againstprivate finance. More importantly, citizens of partner countries are reading stories like this: the American contractor Bechtel is lobbying the Kenyan government to choose conventional public procurement for a new Nairobi-Mombasa expressway, because it claims the financing cost under a PPP will be five times higher ($15bn versus $3bn). There is no mention of World Bank involvement in this project, but it’s a useful example. Kenya is a country with public debt approaching unsustainable levels so perhaps choosing private financing for this expressway would preserve fiscal space for something else, such as an investment in public rural roads.
What’s more, straight comparisons of financing costs can be misleading, because they obscure who carries the can for cost overruns under the two models (we should not assume a construction firm has the client’s best interests at heart, especially if advocating a cost-plus over a fixed-cost contract). The right choice is not obvious, so advice from the World Bank could be useful here. A flow chart that points straight to the private sector is not.
Cordella’s model sets aside theoretical possibilities if the implications are trivial. It may seem trivial to conclude that the choice between public and private finance should juggle both public financing constraints and comparative efficiency, but the cascade doesn’t work that way. And it should.