Global Austerity Alert: Looming Budget Cuts in 2021-25 and Alternatives

5 May by Isabel Ortiz , Matthew Cummins

Map of countries with projected austerity cuts in 2021-2022, in terms of GDP, based on IMF fiscal projections. Credit: I. Ortiz and M. Cummins, 2021

Rather than exploring financing options to provide direly-needed support for socio-economic recovery, many governments—advised by the IMF, the G20 and others—are opting for austerity.

Last week Ministers of Finance met virtually at the Spring Meetings of the International Monetary Fund IMF
International Monetary Fund
Along with the World Bank, the IMF was founded on the day the Bretton Woods Agreements were signed. Its first mission was to support the new system of standard exchange rates.

When the Bretton Wood fixed rates system came to an end in 1971, the main function of the IMF became that of being both policeman and fireman for global capital: it acts as policeman when it enforces its Structural Adjustment Policies and as fireman when it steps in to help out governments in risk of defaulting on debt repayments.

As for the World Bank, a weighted voting system operates: depending on the amount paid as contribution by each member state. 85% of the votes is required to modify the IMF Charter (which means that the USA with 17,68% % of the votes has a de facto veto on any change).

The institution is dominated by five countries: the United States (16,74%), Japan (6,23%), Germany (5,81%), France (4,29%) and the UK (4,29%).
The other 183 member countries are divided into groups led by one country. The most important one (6,57% of the votes) is led by Belgium. The least important group of countries (1,55% of the votes) is led by Gabon and brings together African countries.
(IMF) and the World Bank World Bank
The World Bank was founded as part of the new international monetary system set up at Bretton Woods in 1944. Its capital is provided by member states’ contributions and loans on the international money markets. It financed public and private projects in Third World and East European countries.

It consists of several closely associated institutions, among which :

1. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD, 189 members in 2017), which provides loans in productive sectors such as farming or energy ;

2. The International Development Association (IDA, 159 members in 1997), which provides less advanced countries with long-term loans (35-40 years) at very low interest (1%) ;

3. The International Finance Corporation (IFC), which provides both loan and equity finance for business ventures in developing countries.

As Third World Debt gets worse, the World Bank (along with the IMF) tends to adopt a macro-economic perspective. For instance, it enforces adjustment policies that are intended to balance heavily indebted countries’ payments. The World Bank advises those countries that have to undergo the IMF’s therapy on such matters as how to reduce budget deficits, round up savings, enduce foreign investors to settle within their borders, or free prices and exchange rates.

to discuss policies to tackle the pandemic and socio-economic recovery.

But a global study just published by the Initiative for Policy Dialogue at Columbia University, international trade unions and civil society organizations, sounds an alert of an emerging austerity shock: Most governments are imposing budget cuts, precisely at a time when their citizens and economies are in greater need of public support.

Analysis of IMF fiscal projections shows that budget cuts are expected in 154 countries this year, and as many as 159 countries in 2022. This means that 6.6 billion people or 85% of the global population will be living under austerity conditions by next year, a trend likely to continue at least until 2025.

The high levels of expenditures needed to cope with the pandemic have left governments with growing fiscal deficit and debt. However, rather than exploring financing options to provide direly-needed support for socio-economic recovery, governments—advised by the IMF, the G20 G20 The Group of Twenty (G20 or G-20) is a group made up of nineteen countries and the European Union whose ministers, central-bank directors and heads of state meet regularly. It was created in 1999 after the series of financial crises in the 1990s. Its aim is to encourage international consultation on the principle of broadening dialogue in keeping with the growing economic importance of a certain number of countries. Its members are Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, USA, UK and the European Union (represented by the presidents of the Council and of the European Central Bank). and others—are opting for austerity.

The post-pandemic fiscal shock appears to be far more intense than the one that followed the global financial and economic crisis a decade ago. The average expenditure contraction in 2021 is estimated at 3.3% of GDP GDP
Gross Domestic Product
Gross Domestic Product is an aggregate measure of total production within a given territory equal to the sum of the gross values added. The measure is notoriously incomplete; for example it does not take into account any activity that does not enter into a commercial exchange. The GDP takes into account both the production of goods and the production of services. Economic growth is defined as the variation of the GDP from one period to another.
, which is nearly double the size of the previous crisis. More than 40 governments are forecasted to spend less than the (already low) pre-pandemic levels, with budgets 12% smaller on average in 2021-22 than those in 2018-19 before Covid-19, including countries with high developmental needs like Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, Kiribati, Liberia, Libya, Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Yemen, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The dangers of early and overly aggressive austerity are clear from the past decade of adjustment. From 2010 to 2019, billions of people were affected by reduced pensions and social security benefits; by lower subsidies, including for food, agricultural inputs and fuel; by wage bill cuts and caps, which hampered the delivery of public services like education, health, social work, water and public transport; by the rationalization and narrow-targeting of social protection programs so that only the poorest populations received smaller and smaller benefits, while most people were excluded; and by less employment security for workers, as labor regulations were dismantled. Many governments also introduced regressive taxes, like consumption taxes, which further lowered disposable household income. In many countries, public services were downsized or privatized, including health. Austerity proved to be a deadly policy. The weak state of public health systems—overburdened, underfunded and understaffed from a decade of austerity—aggravated health inequalities and made populations more vulnerable to Covid-19.

Today, it is imperative to watch out for austerity measures with negative social outcomes. After Covid-19’s devastating impacts, austerity will only cause more unnecessary suffering and hardship.

Austerity is bad policy. There are, in fact, alternatives even in the poorest countries. Instead of slashing spending, governments can and must explore financing options to increase public budgets.

First, governments can increase tax revenues on wealth, property, and corporate income, including on the financial sector that remains generally untaxed. For example, Bolivia, Mongolia and Zambia are financing universal pensions, child benefits and other schemes from mining and gas taxes; Brazil introduced a tax on financial transactions to expand social protection coverage.

Second, more than sixty governments have successfully restructured/reduced their debt obligations to free up resources for development. Third, addressing illicit financial flows such as tax evasion and money laundering is a huge opportunity to generate revenue. Fourth, governments can simply decide to reprioritize their spending, away from low social impact investments areas like defense and bank/corporate bailouts; for example, Costa Rica and Thailand redirected military expenditures to public health.

Fifth, another financing option is to use accumulated fiscal and foreign reserves in Central Banks. Sixth, attract greater transfers/development assistance or concessional loans. A seventh option is to adopt more accommodative macroeconomic frameworks. And eighth, governments can formalize workers in the informal economy with good contracts and wages, which increases the contribution pool and expands social protection coverage.

Expenditure and financing decisions that affect the lives of millions of people cannot be taken behind closed doors at the Ministry of Finance. All options should be carefully examined in an inclusive national social dialogue with representatives from trade unions, employers, civil society organizations and other relevant stakeholders.

#EndAusterity is a global campaign to stop austerity measures that have negative social impacts. Since 2020, more than 500 organizations and academics from 87 countries have called on the IMF and Ministries of Finance to immediately stop austerity, and instead prioritize policies that advance gender justice, reduce inequality, and put people and planet first.

Isabel Ortiz

is Director of the Global Social Justice Program at the Initiative for Policy Dialogue, Columbia University, and former director of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UNICEF.

Other articles in English by Isabel Ortiz (6)

Matthew Cummins

Matthew Cummins is an economist who has worked at UNDP, UNICEF and the World Bank.

Other articles in English by Matthew Cummins (2)




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