Nearly two decades ago, an unprecedented international effort—the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Debt initiative—resulted in writing off the unsustainable debt of poor countries to levels that they could manage without compromising their economic and social development.
The hope was that a combination of responsible borrowing and lending practices and a more productive use of any new liabilities, all under the watchful eyes of the IMF and World Bank, would prevent a recurrence of excessive debt buildup.
Alas, as a just-released IMF paper points out, the situation has turned out to be much less favorable. Since the financial crisis and the more recent collapse in commodity prices, there has been a sharp buildup of debt by low-income countries, to the point that 40 percent of them (24 out of 60) are now either already in a debt crisis or highly vulnerable to one—twice as many as only five years ago.
Moreover, the majority, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa, have fallen into difficulties through relatively recent actions by themselves or their creditors. But they also include a large number of diversified exporters (Ethiopia, Ghana, and the Gambia among others) where the run-up in debt is a reflection of larger-than-planned fiscal deficits, often financing overruns in current spending or, in a few cases, substantial fraud and corruption (the Gambia, Moldova, and Mozambique).
How likely is it that these countries are heading for a debt crisis, and how difficult will it be to resolve one if it happens? The fact that there has been a near doubling in the past five years of the number of countries in debt distress or at high risk is itself not encouraging.