Reforming the international financial system is no act of charity

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Rolph van der Hoeven and Rob Vos are the authors of a chapter of the recently published book ‘COVID-19 and International Development’. In this post, they elaborate on their chapter, which is about the international financial system.

They urge governments worldwide to implement four reforms, necessary to create more fiscal space and access to adequate external finance for developing countries.

Deep inequalities in pandemic response capacity

The global economic crisis provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic has painfully revealed the fundamental flaws in the international financial and fiscal system (IFFS). While advanced countries could engage in massive fiscal and monetary support measures, low- and middle-income countries lacked such capacities and were hit disproportionally. During the first year of the pandemic (2020), advanced countries provided fiscal stimuli to the tune of 12.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on average.

This was three times more in relative terms than the stimulus in emerging and other middle-income countries, and almost 10 times more than governments in low-income countries could provide (Figure 1). This divergence in government support mimicked the inequality in vaccine roll-out.

Figure 1. Fiscal and monetary support in response to COVID-19, as of January 2021

Van der Hoeven and Vos

Source: Van der Hoeven and Vos (2022), based on data from IMF (2021), Fiscal Monitor, Database of Country Fiscal Measures in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Four reforms to overcome financing flaws

As with past crises, a lack of adequate contingency financing forced poorer nations to take a big hit with lasting consequences. While high-income countries could engage in massive, and almost costless fiscal and monetary expansion, low-income countries saw their external debts increase to severe distress levels. In addition, they were forced to devalue their currencies, and curtail economic and social support programmes.

Consequently, an estimated 100 million to 150 million more people faced hunger during 2020, lifting the total number of people with not enough to eat to 810 million.[1]

The lack of fiscal space and access to adequate external finance for developing countries has its origins in the weaknesses of the Illicit Financial Flows (IFFs). These structural weaknesses demand four urgent reforms, outlined below:

  1. Establish credible mechanisms for international tax coordination.

Such mechanisms would include, among other things, an internationally agreed, uniform corporate tax rate of approximately 25% to stop tax base erosion. This tax rate would hinder multinational companies shifting their profits to tax havens. Improved tax coordination should further include mandated publication of data on offshore wealth holdings. This would enable all jurisdictions to adopt effective progressive wealth taxes and facilitate the monitoring of income taxes effectively paid by the super wealthy. After years of deliberations, the G20 indeed agreed to a proposal for uniform corporate tax treatment in 2021. Unfortunately, at 15%, the rate is still significantly lower than we proposed, thereby falling short of making a more significant impact on boosting tax revenues and on limiting profit-shifting behaviour.[2]

  1. Establish a multilaterally backed sovereign debt workout mechanism.

Although existing mechanisms to renegotiate sovereign debts with private creditors have improved over the years, they are still far from adequate. This is due to the multiplicity of debt contracts, some of which are not subject to collective action clauses. These collective action clauses are perceived as preventing more drastic action in cases of crises; without them bonds could potentially lose a great amount of their value. A global institutional mechanism to renegotiate sovereign debts should, therefore, be put in place as soon as possible. To this day, sovereign debt solvency problems continue to be solved in an ad-hoc fashion, at little favourable terms to debt-distressed countries. Moreover, they are accompanied by policy conditionality. This leads to unnecessary hardship in affected countries.[3]

3. Reform of policy conditionality attached to International Monetary Fund (IMF) contingency financing.

While the IMF has recognized the need for enhanced public spending by developing country governments, including those facing debt distress, in practice, however, it continues providing pro-cyclical policy advice. This means that the IMF asks for fiscal restraint, rather than deficit spending when economies are in recession.

4. Increasing the availability of truly international liquidity by increasing Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) and making these available to developing countries.

As an important step in this direction, the IMF approved the issuance of US $650 billion in new SDRs in June 2021. However, no agreement has yet been reached regarding how these additional SDRs should be allocated to developing countries, and how they can leverage additional investment to foster sustainable development. Had such reforms been in place already, the pandemic response would have provided a fairer level playing field for emerging and developing countries. This would have mitigated the pandemic’s worst economic consequences.


None of these reforms should be seen as acts of charity. They are necessary to facilitate a global economic recovery that is both sustainable and equitable. As in past crises, government leaders have acted with a ‘me first’ attitude, as has been blatantly clear in the roll-out of vaccination programs. Some countries perceived this as a return to protectionism. This form of protectionism was evident in the unprecedented fiscal responses of high-income countries to protect the livelihoods of their own citizens, but which woefully disregarded the fate of people in low-income countries. The governments of those countries did not have the means to protect the livelihoods of their citizens to the same extent. Beggar-thy-neighbour policy responses, however, will affect global prosperity in the long term, and will make the Sustainable Development Goals elusive.

[1]  Laborde, D., Martin, W. and Vos, R. (2021) Impacts of COVID-19 on Global Poverty, Food Security and Diets, Agricultural Economics 52(3), and FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2021. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021.  Transforming food systems for food security, improved nutrition and affordable healthy diets for all.  Rome: FAO.

[2] A. Cobham, 2021 Is today a turning point against corporate tax abuse? Tax Justice Network, 4 June 2022

[3] INET. (2021). The pandemic and the economic crisis: A global agenda for urgent action (Interim report of the commission for global economic transformation). Institute for New Economic Thinking.

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Professor Rolph van der Hoeven


Dr Rob Bos

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