Financing for Investment

Realizing the Potential of the Multilateral Development Banks

Editor's Note: Johannes Linn discusses the potential of multilateral development banks in the latest G-20 Research Group briefing book on the St. Petersburg G-20 Summit. Read the full collection here.

The origins of the multilateral development banks (MDBs) lie with the creation of the World Bank at Bretton Woods in 1944. Its initial purpose, as the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, was the reconstruction of wartorn countries after the Second World War. 

As Europe and Japan recovered in the 1950s, the World Bank turned to providing financial assistance to the developing world. Then came the foundation of the InterAmerican Development Bank (IADB) in 1959, of the African Development Bank (AfDB) in 1964 and of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 1966, each to assist the development of countries in their respective regions. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) was set up in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, to assist with the transition of countries in the former Soviet sphere. 

The MDBs are thus rooted in two key aspects of the geopolitical reality of the postwar 20th century: the Cold War between capitalist ‘West’ and communist ‘East’, and the division of the world into the industrial ‘North’ and the developing ‘South’. The former aspect was mirrored in the MDBs for many years by the absence of countries from the Eastern Bloc. This was only remedied after the fall of the Bamboo and Iron curtains. The latter aspect remains deeply embedded even today in the mandate, financing pattern and governance structures of the MDBs. 

Changing global financial architecture 

From the 1950s to the 1990s, the international financial architecture consisted of only three pillars: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the MDBs represented the multilateral official pillar; the aid agencies of the industrial countries represented bilateral official pillar; and the commercial banks and investors from industrial countries made up the private pillar. 

Today, the picture is dramatically different. Private commercial flows vastly exceed official flows, except during global financial crises. New channels of development assistance have multiplied, as foundations and religious and non-governmental organisations rival the official assistance flows in size. 

The multilateral assistance architecture, previously dominated by the MDBs, is now a maze of multilateral development agencies, with a slew of sub-regional development banks, some exceeding the traditional MDBs in size. For example, the European Investment Bank lends more than the World Bank, and the Caja Andina de Fomento (CAF, the Latin American Development Bank) more than the IADB. There are also a number of large ‘vertical funds’ for specific purposes, such as the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. There are  specialized trust funds, attached to MDBs, but often with their own governance structures.

End of the North-South divide 

Finally, the traditional North-South divide is breaking down, as emerging markets have started to close the development gap, as global poverty has dropped and as many developing countries have large domestic capacities. This means that the new power houses in the South need little financial and technical assistance and are now providing official financial and technical support to their less fortunate neighbors. China’s assistance to Africa outstrips that of the World Bank.

The future for MDBs 

In this changed environment is there a future for MDBs? Three options might be considered: 

1. Do away with the MDBs as a relic of the past. Some more radical market ideologues might argue that, if there ever was a justification for the MDBs, that time is now well past. In 2000, a US congressional commission recommended the less radical solution of shifting the World Bank’s loan business to the regional MDBs. Even if shutting down MDBs were the right option, it is highly unlikely to happen. No multilateral financial institution created after the Second World War has ever been closed. Indeed, recently the Nordic Development Fund was to be shut down, but its owners reversed their decision and it will carry on, albeit with a focus on climate change. 

2. Carry on with business as usual. Currently, MDBs are on a track that, if continued, would mean a weakened mandate, loss of clients, hollowed-out financial strength and diluted technical capacity. Given their tight focus on the fight against poverty, the MDBs will work themselves out of a job as global poverty, according to traditional metrics, is on a dramatic downward trend. 

Many middle-income country borrowers are drifting away from the MDBs, since they find other sources of finance and technical advice more attractive. These include the sub-regional development banks, which are more nimble in disbursing their loans and whose governance is not dominated by the industrial countries. These countries, now facing major long-term budget constraints, will be unable to continue supporting the growth of the MDBs’ capital base. But they are also unwilling to let the emerging market economies provide relatively more funding and acquire a greater voice in these institutions.

Finally, while the MDBs retain professional staff that represents a valuable global asset, their technical strength relative to other sources of advice – and by some measures, even their absolute strength – has been waning. 

If left unattended, this would mean that MDBs 10 years from now, while still limping along, are likely to have lost their ability to provide effective financial and technical services on a scale and with a quality that matter globally or regionally. 

3. Give the MDBs a new mandate, new governance and new financing. If one starts from the proposition that a globalised 21st-century world needs capable global institutions that can provide long-term finance to meet critical physical and social infrastructure needs regionally and globally, and that can serve as critical knowledge hubs in an increasingly interconnected world, then it would be folly to let the currently still considerable institutional and financial strengths of the MDBs wither away.

Globally and regionally, the world faces infrastructure deficits, epidemic threats, conflicts and natural disasters, financial crises, environmental degradation and the spectre of global climate change. It would seem only natural to call on the MDBs, which have retained their triple-A ratings and shown their ability to address these issues in the past, although on a scale that  has been insufficient. Three steps would be taken under this option:


• The mandate of the MDBs should be adapted to move beyond preoccupation with poverty eradication to focus explicitly on global and regional public goods as a way to help sustain global economic growth and human welfare. Moreover, the MDBs should be able to provide assistance to all their members, not only developing country members. 

• The governance of the MDBs should be changed to give the South a voice commensurate with the greater global role it now plays in economic and political terms. MDB leaders should be selected on merit without consideration of nationality. 

• The financing structure should be matched to give more space to capital contributions from the South and to significantly expand the MDBs’ capital resources in the face of the current severe capital constraints.

In addition, MDB management should be guided by banks’ membership to streamline their operational practices in line with those widely used by sub-regional development banks, and they should be supported in preserving and, where possible, strengthening their professional capacity so that they can serve as international knowledge hubs. 

A new MDB agenda for the G20 

The G20 has taken on a vast development agenda. This is fine, but it risks getting bogged down in the minutiae of development policy design and implementation that go far beyond what global leaders can and should deal with. What is missing is a serious preoccupation of the G20 with that issue on which it is uniquely well equipped to lead: reform of the global financial institutional architecture. 

What better place than to start with than the MDBs? The G20 should review the trends, strengths and weaknesses of MDBs in recent decades and endeavour to create new mandates, governance and financing structures that make them serve as effective pillars of the global institutional system in the 21st century. If done correctly, this would also mean no more need for new institutions, such as the BRICS development bank currently being created by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. It would be far better to fix the existing institutions than to create new ones that mostly add to the already overwhelming fragmentation of the global institutional system.