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Poor nations' gains at risk in global recession

Needs exceed funds of multilateral lenders, World Bank reports. Concerns mount over political stability.

March 09, 2009|Anthony Faiola | Faiola writes for the Washington Post.

The world is falling into the first global recession since World War II as the crisis that started in the U.S. engulfs once-booming developing nations, confronting them with massive financial shortfalls that could turn the clock back on poverty reduction by years, the World Bank warned Sunday.

The World Bank also cautioned that the cost of helping poorer nations in crisis would exceed the current financial resources of multilateral lenders. Such aid could prove crucial to political stability as concerns mount over unrest in poorer nations, particularly in Eastern Europe, generated by their sharp reversals of fortune as private investment evaporates and global trade collapses.

In its report, released ahead of a major summit of finance ministers in London this week, the World Bank called on developed nations struggling with their economic routs to dedicate 0.7% of the money they spend on stimulus programs toward a Vulnerability Fund to help developing countries.

The report predicted that the global economy would shrink this year for the first time since the 1940s, reducing earlier estimates that emerging markets would still propel the world to growth even as the United States, Europe and Japan contracted. The dire prediction underscored what many are calling a mounting crisis within a crisis, as the downturn that started in the wealthy nations washes over developing countries through a pullback in investment, trade and credit.

"We need to react in real time to a growing crisis that is hurting people in developing countries," World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick said in a statement. Action is needed by governments and multilateral lenders "to avoid social and political unrest."

The report says that 94 of 116 developing countries have been hit by economic slowdowns. Net private capital flows to emerging markets are plunging, set to fall to $165 billion this year -- or 17% of their 2007 levels. Falling demand in the West is sparking the sharpest drop in world trade in 80 years, sending sales of the products and commodities of poorer nations spiraling down, the report said.

That decline is touching off a wave of job losses. Cambodia has lost 30,000 jobs in the garment industry. In India, more than half a million jobs vanished in the last three months of 2008, including cuts in the gems, jewelry, auto and textile industries, according to the World Bank.

As a result, the report estimates that at least 98 countries may have problems financing at least $268 billion in public and private debt this year. It noted that worsening market conditions could raise that figure as high as $700 billion. Additionally, only one quarter of vulnerable developing countries, the World Bank said, have the ability to launch their own stimulus programs or independently finance measures such as job-creation or safety-net programs.

To help them, multilateral lenders will need to dig deep. The World Bank remains well-financed and is positioned to almost triple spending to $35 billion this year. But it warned that the scope of the need in the developing world would exceed the combined ability of major multilateral lenders to respond, and it called on governments in major nations and the private sector to pitch in more.

For instance, its sister organization, the International Monetary Fund, recently received $100 billion more from Japan but is still asking more-affluent nations to come up with an additional $150 billion to replenish its rapidly diminishing funds. While the World Bank aims to reduce global poverty largely through long-term projects in the developing world, the IMF is charged with offering bigger, more immediate bailouts to countries on the verge of economic collapse. The list of countries fitting that description has soared recently.

In November alone, the IMF parceled out $50 billion to nations in crisis -- the most the institution has ever spent in a single month. With more nations, particularly in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, facing serious trouble, the IMF is preparing to hand out tens of billions more.

The concern now, however, is that the scope of the crisis may be so vast that even an extra $150 billion may not be enough. Some fear that nations in Western Europe such as Austria, Ireland and Spain -- believed to have graduated from IMF lifelines decades ago -- may soon require bailouts, taking funds that would have been spent on poorer nations. It also could prove difficult to raise more money from hard-hit countries including the United States and Britain, where politicians and citizens may decide that charity begins at home.

"I'm worried about what happens when you see that a Greece or an Ireland might need bailouts," said Simon Johnson, an MIT economics professor and former IMF chief economist.

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Faiola writes for the Washington Post.

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