COVID-19 gets political and IFC agrees to reforms: This week in development

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The International Finance Corporation headquarters in Washington. Photo by: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

COVID-19 stirs tension — but temporarily stops a war, and the World Bank’s private sector arm agrees to greater transparency and social protections. This week in development:

The COVID-19 pandemic is testing international cooperation, as the spread of the new coronavirus continues to upend societies, freeze economies, and reshape global health and development. With more than 1.5 million cases of COVID-19 now reported — and over 90,000 deaths — the pandemic has created an unprecedented global health crisis, with nearly every country and institution in the world grappling with how to respond. According to a new report from the United Nations University, the pandemic could force half a billion people into poverty.

In Yemen, the COVID-19 outbreak has temporarily suspended a war. The Saudi-led coalition fighting in the country has implemented a unilateral two-week ceasefire, saying it hopes to support a political solution to the conflict and help prevent the spread of COVID-19. While United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the decision, a Houthi opposition official described the move as “just another ploy” and called for the “removal of the siege on Yemen.”

The pandemic has emerged as a new battleground for global influence. European leaders are striving to create a united front of assistance to African countries bracing for COVID-19, in response to what some of them perceive as an effort by China to position itself as low-income countries’ ally. “COVID-19 risks being politicised to the advantage of international actors with a different agenda to ours. This is the case of China, which has moved on from being the cause and the epicentre of the crisis to being perceived as a strong supporter of efforts by affected third countries to contain the crisis,” wrote Koen Doens, director-general of the European Commission’s development arm, DEVCO, in an internal memo calling for a unified “Team Europe” approach to mounting a global coronavirus response.

In the U.S., the Trump administration and its Republican allies have grown increasingly hostile toward the World Health Organization and its secretary-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. On Tuesday, Trump threatened to “put a very powerful hold” on U.S. funding to WHO, saying that the global health body has been “wrong about a lot of things.” Much of the criticism from U.S. conservatives alleges that WHO has been overly apologetic of China’s handling of the outbreak and that the institution did not act quickly enough to raise alarms about COVID-19. In response, Tedros — who has reportedly received death threats — warned against politicizing the pandemic, which he said would result in “many more body bags.”

The International Finance Corporation has agreed to a reform package, which cleared the way for a $5.5 billion capital increase included in the massive $2 trillion COVID-19 spending bill passed by the U.S. Congress last month. On Wednesday, the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services described the details of the reforms, which were backed by Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democrat from California and chairwoman of the committee, as well as civil society groups that have advocated for stronger social protections and scrutiny of private sector subsidies at IFC. IFC and the White House agreed to greater transparency around the development institution’s investments in financial intermediaries, including reporting the names, locations, and sectors for projects supported through such intermediaries that are the most environmentally or socially concerning. The reforms also include an audit of IFC’s investments in Myanmar, greater transparency around the use of resources from the World Bank’s fund for low-income countries — the International Development Association — for subsidizing private firms, and “an official freeze of any direct or indirect investments in private for-profit K-12 schools” — a move that Oxfam and other advocacy organizations have long hoped to see. In a statement, Waters said World Bank President David Malpass and IFC CEO Philippe Le Houérou deserve “enormous credit” for recognizing the importance of the reforms.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.