World Bank approves nearly $2B in COVID-19 projects

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Workers prepare beds at a quarantine facility in Howrah on the outskirts of Kolkata, India. Photo by: REUTERS / Rupak De Chowdhuri

WASHINGTON — The World Bank’s board approved its first COVID-19 projects at a meeting on Thursday, sending $1.9 billion to fund work in 25 countries.

“If the bank wants to do this kind of emergency response, then it can’t wait to approve the funds.”

— Anonymous World Bank official

Countries can begin spending the funds as soon as legal agreements are signed, which is expected to be done as early as Friday in some cases, according to the World Bank. Some borrowers may have already been spending for certain needs, including purchasing necessary equipment, and may be eligible for retroactive financing once agreements are signed.

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The World Bank is working with more than 40 countries through its “fast-track process” to develop programs that will be presented to the board and approved “as soon as possible,” according to the bank.

A trio of countries in South Asia will receive the largest allocations from the first round of approvals, with India set to get $1 billion to support emergency health needs; $200 million going to Pakistan for preparedness and emergency health response along with social protection and education funding; and Afghanistan set to receive $100 million to slow and limit the spread of COVID-19.

Ethiopia will get $82 million for preparedness and response, including for medical equipment and health system capacity building, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo will receive $47 million to support containment strategies, medical staff training, and the provision of equipment to help with case detection and contact tracing.

Mongolia, Cambodia, Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Haiti, Ecuador, Yemen, and Djibouti will also receive funding to support COVID-19 response efforts in their countries.

Source: World Bank

The bank’s management has repeatedly emphasized how fast the process has been — Axel van Trotsenburg, managing director of operations, told the Telegraph newspaper the speed of approval was unprecedented — but others within the bank complained of delays and confusion about when country packages needed to be submitted and when they would be signed off.

At least two countries, including Ethiopia and Afghanistan, were told by bank staff to have their government-approved project documents ready to submit to the board by last week in the expectation that the board would sign off Thursday, March 26, according to one senior bank official, who spoke to Devex on the condition of anonymity to preserve professional ties.

However, staff were then told that the board would not consider the packages until a week later, on April 2, leading to concerns about the availability of critical medical products such as ventilators and personal protective equipment.

“If the bank wants to do this kind of emergency response, then it can’t wait to approve the funds until all the ventilators in the world have been bought up. The global market for essential equipment is collapsing, and a week’s delay could undermine the whole program,” the bank staffer said.

Meanwhile, bank staff also spoke of their frustration and embarrassment at having to go back to ministers of finance to explain the delay. In one country, parliament had been recalled early specifically to ratify the package in time for the earlier deadline, Devex learned.

A bank spokesperson said there had been no delays but admitted to some internal confusion over the timeline for board approval.

In addition to approving the new funding, the World Bank is looking to “redeploy” resources — $1.7 billion — from existing projects through restructuring and the use of emergency mechanisms, according to the bank. About 40 countries, across every region, are looking to redirect existing resources, but the World Bank did not specify where the funds would come from or what the impacts would be of diverting those funds.

The World Bank Group is prepared to spend up to $160 billion during the next 15 months to “support COVID-19 measures that will help countries respond to immediate health consequences of the pandemic and bolster economic recovery,” according to a statement.

“We are working to strengthen developing nations’ ability to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and shorten the time to economic and social recovery. The poorest and most vulnerable countries will likely be hit the hardest, and our teams around the world remain focused on country-level and regional solutions to address the ongoing crisis,” World Bank Group President David Malpass said in a statement.

Visit our dedicated COVID-19 page for news, job opportunities, and funding insights.

About the authors

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.
  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.