Government and business leaders attending the Americas Conference went home Wednesday with a renewed sense of accomplishment after devoting two intense days to tackling an ambitious yet urgent agenda for the region’s future.
The grand rooms of the historic Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables still reverberate from the animated discussions that took place here amid the lush settings of Miami’s oldest city. These discussions will likely steer the debate on two of the most important issues facing the region: the global financial crisis and renewed threats to democracy in the region as embodied in the Honduran crisis.
The Americas Conference got off to a good start today after addressing two of the most pressing issues facing the region: the impact of the financial crisis, that has engulfed Latin America for more than a year, and the political impasse that is rocking democracy in Honduras.
A group of World Bank experts told the meeting of Government and business leaders that Latin America is turning the corner vis-a-vis the financial crisis -one of the region’s worst-, as some countries were already showing signs of an early recovery.
As the dust settles in Latin America in the wake of the global financial crisis, along with the tough challenges ahead for the economic recovery, there seem to be unique opportunities to improve our region’s long-term outlook.
I have no doubt that this important Miami Conference –where Latin America converges in many ways, cultural and economic- is the ideal place to bring these ideas to the table and kick off a fruitful debate.
On the eve of the 2009 World Bank-IMF Annual Meetings, Bank President Robert Zoellick called on world leaders to reshape the multilateral system and forge a “responsible globalization”—one that would encourage balanced global growth and financial stability, embrace global efforts to counter climate change, and advance opportunity for the poorest.
“Coming out of this crisis, we have an opportunity to reshape our policies, architecture, and institutions,” Zoellick said, speaking at the DC-based Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University.
“As agreed in Pittsburgh last week, the G-20 should become the premier forum for international economic cooperation among the advanced industrialized countries and rising powers. But it cannot be a stand-alone committee,” the Bank’s president noted.
In a speech laden with historical references, he spoke of the legacy of institutions established to deal with the global economy some 60 years ago and how the economic crisis is contributing to a changing multilateral global architecture.
"Bretton Woods is being overhauled before our eyes," Zoellick said.
The crisis has underscored the growing importance of the large emerging economies. “The current assumption is that the post-crisis political economy will reflect the rising influence of China, probably of India, and of other large emerging economies,” Zoellick said. “[T]he Greenback’s fortunes will depend heavily on U.S. choices.”
I’ve no doubt that the upcoming Americas Conference has the potential to become a platform to project a more dynamic, competitive and democratic Latin America as it exits its worst financial and economic crisis in decades.
Costa Rica’s President Oscar Arias will attend the Miami forum as a special guest, whose voice is one of moderation and respect for the region’s diversity, but also of uncompromising commitment to the core values of democracy and peace.
His vision as chief mediator in the Honduras crisis and author of the San Jose Accord should provide an important contribution to discussions on the plight of this Central American nation.
Political stability in the region is, clearly, one of the key topics being addressed at the Miami conference, which lends particular relevance to the presence of former President and special UN envoy to Haiti, Bill Clinton.
Old rumors fill corridors and grand rooms mimmicking 12th century Sevillian architecture. Perhaps are distant echoes from heated discussions that shaped Government agendas in previous years.
Or maybe it’s just small talk. Either way, it isn’t a stretch of the imagination to think about the Bushes, Clintons, Arias, Uribes or Bachelets of this world exchanging quick policy jabs within the corridors of the historic Biltmore walls as part of the decade-old Americas Conference, only a few days away now from trying to ignite once again an animated debate about the region’s political and economic future.
Cocooned in its limbo of palm trees and warm Miami breeze, the Biltmore Hotel seems to spur high stakes decision-making that has truly contributed to the region’s history -from Free Trade Agreements to Plan Colombia –while serving as a vacation hub for countless royalty and regional elites since the hotel was built in 1926.
In its first effort of this kind, the World Bank has joined this prestigious Conference as a partner, in the hopes of further engaging in a dialogue with the region as it exits the global financial crisis.
The latest move is part of the World Bank Group’s proactive approach to the crisis. It already has contributed an unprecedented US$17 billion in FY09 –triple previous annual commitments- to help countries in the region weather the financial crisis.
At a recent press conference, three African finance chiefs chastised international credit rating agencies for failing to forecast the global financial crisis and challenged international financial institutions to do a better job of monitoring the global economy and of holding rich and developing countries accountable in the same way.
The Ministers from Zambia, Cote d’Ivoire and Tanzania spoke about the crisis and its effect on Africa. Mustafa Mkulo, Tanzania’s Minister for Finance and Economic Affairs, said:
"This crisis has come when African governments have taken broad based measures to reform their economies, followed by significant achievements. It is now threatening to wipe out our gains of the past ten years and disrupt all our plans for further progress."
- Press Release: African Ministers Outline Impact of Crisis on their Countries
- Website: The Financial Crisis in Africa
- Blog: Africa Can End Poverty
“We are here to listen—tell us how we can better assist you. And please, be frank,” said Obiageli Ezekwesili, World Bank Africa Region Vice President.
Ezekwesili asked the ministers from Liberia, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to discuss capacity development efforts in their countries, and to identify what has and has not worked, and how donors can provide more effective support for human development, infrastructure, and public sector reforms.
Several common themes emerged from the ministers’ interventions, including:
- Donors prioritizing support for primary and secondary education, and not higher education
- Donors pressing a “one size fits all” approach on countries, trying to replicate programs that were successful elsewhere
- The failure by expatriate advisors in civil service posts to transfer their knowledge and skills to local counterparts
- Tension among returning members of the Diaspora and local populations that stayed behind, partly around incentive structures for civil service
- An urgent need to deliver skills-training and create job opportunities for young ex-combatants
Augustine Ngafaun, Minister of Finance for Liberia, outlined the enormity of the challenges facing his country, which has “75 percent of the educational facilities destroyed” combined with a “massive brain drain” as a result of professionals fleeing during Liberia’s recent conflict.
“We have very few doctors, teachers and hardly any engineers,” said Ngafaun, Liberia's Minister of Finance.
He also noted that, despite the importance of the mining sector for Liberia’s growth, there are not even five geologists in the entire country.
Rwanda’s Finance Minister James Musoni noted that even though the reconstruction challenges were daunting, his country has made significant progress since the 1994 genocide. He said it is crucial for the donor community to understand the context in which each country operates, as in some cases the political leadership may not be ready.
Ezekwesili stressed the need to build confidence in all sectors, pointing out that “development solutions work only to the extent that the capacities of the nation-state, the private sector, and civil society are strong.”
“The lack of capacity is magnified by the stress of the post conflict environment,” Ezekwesili said.
Flanked by the finance and development ministers of France and Germany, World Bank Group President Robert B. Zoellick launched two initiatives today that together are expected to mobilize more than $55 billion in financing for infrastructure projects over the next three years.
The multibillion dollar initiatives—the Infrastructure Recovery and Assets (INFRA) platform and Infrastructure Crisis Facility—were created to address the falloff in funding for the construction of roads, water systems, power generation and distribution, and other critical infrastructure.
There is no doubt infrastructure plays a huge role in economic growth and development, Zoellick said.
“In this crisis, we will need more and more to identify creative ways to mobilize additional financing. This facility sends an important market signal,” encouraging the private sector to continue infrastructure investment and development.
France and Germany became the first to sign on to the Infrastructure Crisis Facility with commitments of about $660 million through German development bank KfW and roughly $1.3 billion through French development bank Proparco.
INFRA is designed to help countries offset the negative effects of the financial crisis on their infrastructure services and investment programs, with up to $45 billion available over the next three years. Assistance will be global, but Africa is expected to see a large share of the funding.
The Infrastructure Crisis Facility, administered by IFC, a private sector branch of the Bank Group, is expected to attract more than $10 billion to help bridge the infrastructure financing gap.
At today’s signing, German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul appealed to industrialized countries to support the initiative and take into account the situation in developing countries. “They’re not responsible for the crisis. We have a special responsibility to be at their side.”
French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde added: This is a time “when we can put our money where our mouth is and commit to deliver…I think the World Bank has done an outstanding job dealing with issues that are difficult. This is a good illustration of how projects should be conducted. They should be focused where they can actually make a difference.”
On a related note, I caught up earlier today with the Bank’s director for energy, transport and water, Jamal Saghir, who said the Bank’s Board has approved $9 billion in infrastructure projects already this fiscal year. That puts the Bank 47 percent ahead of the amount of infrastructure funding approved this time last year.
Saghir gave a shout-out to staff, who he credited with working hard to speed up project implementation to respond to the crisis.
For more information
- Press release: World Bank Group Launches Multi-Billion Infrastructure Initiatives to Help Developing Countries Weather Crisis
- Website: Infrastructure Recovery and Assets Platform
- Website: Infrastructure Crisis Facility
- Feature story: Infrastructure Financing Gap Endangers Development Goals