Sound management of public finance is critical to fiscal discipline and the efficient and effective use of scarce public resources. Weaknesses in public financial management and debt management (PFDM) can have wide-ranging implications for development, including by driving a wedge between public policy and its implementation.

A new report from IEG assesses the impact of efforts to promote sound PFDM, which is now more important than ever in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and as an increasing number of low-income countries (LICs) find themselves again at high risk of, or in, debt distress.

As governments rapidly shift policy and spending in response to the pandemic, robust, responsive, and flexible PFDM systems are crucial for:

  1. using scarce resources efficiently to ensure value for money and prevent the unauthorized use of funds,
  2. accelerating budget execution and the release of critical funds to deliver essential and emergency public services, and
  3. managing the costs and risks associated with the inevitable short-term increase in indebtedness.

Debt Crisis, Deja vu

Even before the onset of the pandemic, a resurgence in debt stress among low-income countries (LICs) was evident, including among past recipients of large-scale debt relief. Since 2013, the number of countries eligible for financing from IDA, the World Bank Group’s fund for the world’s poorest countries,  at high risk of, or in, debt distress more than doubled (from 13 to 34) and the average debt-to-GDP ratio increased from 40% to 60% . Between 2013 and 2018, median interest payments among LICs rose 128%. And this all occurred as the Bank and others were scaling up support to debt management.

Public financial management  and debt management are often looked at separately, even though the importance of addressing them together was clearly recognized in the 19th IDA replenishment:

the first challenge is to assist IDA countries to ensure that the benefits [of borrowed resources] exceed the costs of servicing their debt. IDA and other partners can help by supporting initiatives that enhance capacity in areas such as public finance management, public investment management … and debt management” (p 19).

Complementarity between the pillars of PFDM is at the heart of IEG’s new evaluation, World Bank Support for Public Financial and Debt Management in IDA-eligible Countries. It focuses on the decade following the 2008 global financial crisis, during which many LICs increased non-concessional and shorter-term borrowing, much of it sourced bilaterally and often on relatively opaque terms. Many LICs were also impacted by low commodity prices and the realization of large contingent liabilities, including those associated with state-owned enterprises. The period was also characterized by increasing attention to “growth enhancing” public spending and investment to close the infrastructure gap and meet the Millennium Development Goals and, subsequently, the Sustainable Development Goals.  

World Bank PFDM Support, Impactful but Uncoordinated

The evaluation found that the Bank’s support to IDA-eligible countries to strengthen PFDM led to positive, albeit limited, results. It contributed to the rollout of financial management information systems to help track and manage public expenditures but was less successful in encouraging the extension of systems to include high-value transactions. There was also an increase in the number of IDA-eligible countries that met minimum standards for several dimensions of debt management capacity, including being able to prepare Medium-Term Debt Strategies and debt sustainability analyses.

But, for many of the most vulnerable countries, debt management support was not systematically accompanied by, or coordinated with, efforts to improve public financial management, despite widely recognized synergies between borrowing, fiscal transparency, and the quality of public spending and investment. This is problematic, as many LICs were borrowing extensively from private markets and bilateral donors to finance investment projects, and thus could have benefited from improvements in institutional structures and systems to improve the quality and efficiency of public spending.

As a result, opportunities to increase the growth-enhancing impact of debt-financed public investment have likely been missed, with potentially negative consequences for debt sustainability. Public investment management (PIM) diagnostics have been undertaken by the Bank for less than half of IDA-eligible countries, with demand concentrated among higher-income LICs. Of the 32 IDA-eligible countries at high risk of, or in, debt distress in FY18, only 10 received PIM support over the previous decade. 

With the growing importance of improving the impact of scarce public resources in the face of rising debt levels, a more deliberate and coordinated approach to PFDM capacity building is warranted if the Bank is to achieve the IDA 19 objective of helping client countries ensure that debt burdens do not overwhelm their ability to reduce poverty or provide essential government functions. The decentralized and uncoordinated way PFDM diagnostics have been undertaken and used in the Bank suggests that there is scope to realize further synergies among PFDM pillars.

A Way Forward

The evaluation recommends that Bank staff maintain a clear and up-to-date picture of PFDM strengths and weaknesses for each IDA-eligible country, drawing on existing assessments of the main dimensions of PFDM. This has already been addressed within pillars of PFDM, but synergies across pillars remain underexploited.

It also recommends that the Bank more systematically support PFDM in IDA-eligible countries with better sequenced and complementary lending and nonlending support. Implementation of the new Sustainable Development Finance Policy and the associated identification of performance and policy actions provide an early opportunity to take a more holistic view of PFDM at the country level. In the wake of the economic shock associated with the pandemic, efforts to maintain a broader focus on both borrowing and spending will only increase in importance.  

Read the Evaluation: World Bank Support for Public Financial and Debt Management in IDA-eligible Countries

Image credit: Shutterstock/AntartStock

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