Breaking the Development Banks: How They Can Help and Hinder Development

Like fashion, international development is guided by trends. While some trends come and go, others withstand the test of time. If recent events are any indication, a new international development trend is on the horizon: development banks, governed by developing countries.

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Just before the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference in Bali last October, China announced the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). As its name suggests, the bank will devote its resources to finance national and regional infrastructure development projects throughout Asia. Startup capital for the new bank is expected to be $50 billion, with aspirations to match. One of the new bank’s notable plans is constructing a railway from Beijing to Baghdad. Though ambitious, China is willing to devote its resources to the cause. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, China spent 8.5% of its GDP on infrastructure from 1992 to 2011, more than any other country in the world.

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While plans for the AIIB are still underway, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) recently announced plans for their own bank. Like the AIIB, the New Development Bank (NDB) will finance infrastructure projects, with initial assets reaching $50 billion. An additional $100 billion will be designated for the Contingency Reserve Arrangement (CRA) for member states with suffering from severe current account deficits. Unlike the general infrastructure fund, to which all member states contributed equally, the CRA is dominated by Chinese assets. Of the $100 billion, the Chinese will contribute $41 billion with South Africa contributing $5 billion and Russia, Brazil, and India each contributing $18 billion. With the CRA, the NDB could prove a viable alternative to the IMF, and likely with fewer conditions.

In less than a year, two new development banks have taken root. Does this trend have staying power?

If anything, the new banks will remind the development community of the importance of infrastructure development. However, to be successful, the banks’ leaders must have realistic expectations with respect to international cooperation and lending capacity.

The AIIB and NDB challenge the structure of current global development institutions. The Bretton Woods system, created in 1944, reflects the economic structure of a bygone era in which the BRICS had not yet emerged. Decades later, the economy has changed though voting structure has not. The BRICS hold only 11% of the votes in the IMF, though their economies claim 20% of the world economy. A 2010 IMF agreement will redistribute some of the votes to give more weight to developing countries, thereby reducing the importance of financial contributions. The agreement, however still awaits ratification from the U.S. Congress. Until then, China, poised to be the world’s largest economy this year, will have fewer votes than Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg combined.

The World Bank estimates a $1 trillion infrastructure gap for low- and middle-income countries, and the AIIB and the NDB could help to close the gap through their own financial contributions, a collective $200 billion. Cooperation with preexisting institutions, however, could be more complicated. Though sizeable, the initial capital of the AIIB and the NDB is much smaller compared to the World Bank or even the Asian Development Bank, with $232 billion and $165 billion, respectively. Cooperating with the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and other institutions could mean that priority projects for both banks are deferred due to the financial might of its development predecessors. To be a serious alternative to preexisting institutions, both AIIB and NDB must raise additional capital.

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Perhaps the most notable shortcoming is both banks’ lack of involvement in any African country save for South Africa. According to the World Bank, approximately 70% of people in sub-Saharan Africa live without access to electricity. It is puzzling as to why other African countries are given the cold shoulder, particularly Nigeria and its 170 million people, the largest in Africa. Coupled with increasing GDP growth and decreasing inflation, the country is Africa’s second largest economy, and is expected to be one of the world’s top economies by 2030. China is Africa’s largest trading partner, though the country’s trade with the continent is only a 5% share of China’s global trade. Given that Africa has some of the world’s most pressing infrastructure needs, Africa’s lack of inclusion is questionable at best.

Both banks must exercise caution in their financial management and project execution. In plans for both banks, China is set to be a chief financial contributor, however the country remains a top beneficiary of World Bank funds. China, along with Brazil and India owe a collective $66 billion in outstanding loans. Additionally, both banks must remain cognizant of the impact of infrastructure in the least developed areas. In a 2013 Center for Economic Performance paper, economist Ben Faber found that small countries with only recently connected highway systems experienced GDP growth that was on average 19% less than small countries unconnected to highway systems. This was due to the inflow of inexpensive goods that replaced demand for local goods.

While the benefits of infrastructure are numerous, it is by no means a poverty-eradicating panacea. But it is very helpful. Increased productivity and competition make infrastructure investment key driver of economic growth and a lasting trend.

Do development banks governed by developing countries have lasting power? Only time- and perhaps the international community- will tell.

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