Unsustainable Levels of Public Debt – A Global Crisis class=

Unsustainable Levels of Public Debt – A Global Crisis

Guess what was top of mind at the IMF and World Bank Annual Meetings?

You guessed it: increasing and unsustainable public debt

The good news, however, is that there were a number of Public Financial Management (PFM) lessons about Resilience, Recovery and Reform that were shared and which need to be headed if we wish to avert the worst of the current global crisis.

FreeBalance took part in the Annual Meetings and has a number of recommendations on the implications for Government Resource Planning (GRP) solutions such as Integrated Financial Management Information Systems (IFMIS).

The Elephant in the Room

Lurking behind every session at the Annual Meetings was the impact of the global public debt crisis on citizens. The question being asked by everyone was: how can governments and the international community deal with poverty, food insecurity, inflation, and climate change with disappearing fiscal space?

There’s no question that aid is required. The problem is how much, what type, by whom, to whom, and when.

Multilateral Development Banks and debt relief
Global wicked problems include poverty, food insecurity, inflation, and climate change
IMF downgrades 2023 global outlook
IMF finds that global public debt to reach new global heights

The Bretton Woods Institutions faced criticism for perceived:

1. Forced government austerity, by cutting spending, when citizens most need social protection and spending. “Countries should prioritize protecting the vulnerable through targeted support while keeping a tight fiscal stance to help fight inflation.”1 The balance between fiscal stewardship and supporting the vulnerable did not seem to satisfy many in the development community.

Criticism that the IMF and World Bank demand government spending austerity when social protection desperately needed

2. “Loan sharking” by Development Finance Institutions with activists disrupting to demand that the that the IMF and World Bank cancel all debt.

Activists interrupt IMF session with banner and chants to cancel all debt
Who’s responsible for fixing the debt crisis? Indebted countries, G20, World Bank, vulture funds, G7, China, IMF?

3. Unfairness of voting quota system that favours developed country interests. Famed economist Larry Summers suggested: “The World Bank should be a major vehicle for crisis response, post-conflict reconstruction, and, most importantly, for supporting the huge investments necessary for sustainable and healthy global development. But currently it is not.”2

Political influence on Development Financial Institutions
IMF and impoverished country priorities differ

4. Losing the poverty plot: many of the detailed non-plenary sessions provided technical insight. But, attendees wanted more asking more questions about how to solve high level problems than in previous years.

Many sessions at the IMF and World Bank meetings were technical in nature, lost the poverty plot

There are no easy answers…

…but some PFM solution themes emerged:

  • Resilience: why some countries that have managed crises better
  • Recovery: how countries can recover economically and socially from crises
  • Reform: what lessons were learned to inform public finance modernization to improve future resilience to crises


1. Fiscal Rules: governments with fiscal rules were more able to manage social expenditure requirements and leverage fiscal space. Many developing countries faced with spending more for debt re-payments than education.

FreeBalance Accountability Suite. Learn More
Fiscal rules reduces public debt in disaster-prone countries
In disaster-prone countries, when it rains it really rains

2. Fiscal Transparency: governments with fiscal transparency took on more sustainable debt before crises, while enjoying lower corruption levels during crises

  • PFM implication: support debt and budget transparency
  • IFMIS implication: integration of debt in budget formulation, automate fiscal transparency through portals integrated with back-office systems – such as the Transparency Portals of the FreeBalance Accountability Suite™
IMF data standards to improve transparency effectiveness
Debt transparency a precondition for debt sustainability
Lack of debt transparency leads countries to debt crisis
Fiscal transparency helped reduce corruption during the pandemic


1. Debt relief: widespread agreement that developing countries need debt relief.

  • PFM implication: negotiations for debt restructuring based on needed fiscal space
  • IFMIS implication: scenario planning based on historical data within financial systems to determine appropriate debt envelopes – such as the functionality of FreeBalance’s (GTDM) Debt Management module
Government Treasury Management
Time to change the austerity paradigm?

2. Social public investments: recognition that citizen wellbeing is threatened. Governments realize that debt sustainability needs to be balanced by social cohesion sustainability.

  • PFM implication: model implications of any debt restructuring on needed social spending
  • IFMIS implication: support program budgeting methods to better track expenditures for priorities while showing potential savings by reducing non-priority spending – such as FreeBalance’s (PEM) Public Expenditure Management modules
Public Expenditure Management - Learn More
Need to fund education even in crises


1. Wellbeing: the need for shared prosperity was analyzed in a recent World Bank paper that analyzed the toll on from the pandemic on poverty in developing countries.

  • PFM implication: public policy focus beyond GDP to what matters most to citizens [links?] within national development strategies
  • IFMIS implication: support program budgeting methods during formulation, including output and outcome performance targets, enabling tracking results against government objectives – such as the functionality of FreeBalance’s (GPM) Government Performance Management modules.
Government Performance Management
Consider the social contract during crises to prioritize

2. Transparency and statistical reform: integration of fiscal transparency with statistical information provides governments, civil society, and credit rating agencies with early warning.

Statistics and fiscal capacity needed in governments
Voluntary public debt transparency standards

3. Fiscal rules: reform beyond traditional fiscal rules to anticipate unusual shocks with sufficient flexibility tied to more than to debt targets

Public Financials Management
Fiscal rules needs to be a precondition for debt restructuring to reduce the risk of recurrence

4. Corruption: state capture operates during good times while fiscal crisis often introduces temptations as controls loosened for needed purchases and new donor funds materialize. Corruption vulnerability analysis helps governments to use a risk-based approach.

  • PFM implication: temporarily loosen controls where corruption risk is low, provide full spending transparency, while tracking all crisis spending for auditing
  • IFMIS implication: provide automated and searchable fiscal transaction data – not just PDFs, to enable civil society oversight, while leveraging audit trails to identify suspicious activity – as is available with FreeBalance’s Transparency Portals
Analyze corruption vulnerabilities
IMF framework for PFM corruption detection
Government procurement was a major source of corruption during the pandemic

GovTech Lessons Learned

The pandemic encouraged governments to accelerate digital service delivery. Government inefficiencies across the budget cycle were identified – many of which can be addressed through GovTech digital government technologies.

1. GovTech and PFM linkages: support of back-office FMIS systems of record were critical for fiscal transparency and financial service delivery during the pandemic. Domestic Revenue Mobilization was improved. Effective systems of record improve data quality and timeliness for more effective decision-making. This makes FMIS back-office systems a cornerstone for effective government digital transformation.

Technology integration with fiscal policy through GovTech
Domestic Revenue Mobilization and social investment expenditures supported by good digital technology
Financial GovTech improves efficiency and effectiveness

2. Integration and interoperability: the lack of integration among government financial management systems had significant negative consequences including the lack of:

  • Controls in e-procurement systems not tightly integrated with IFMIS commitment and segregation of duties functions
  • Consolidated revenue, expenditure, and debt information for decision-makers
  • Timely and trusted government fiscal transparency
  • Civil service delivery quality
  • Asset and inventory availability and locations to inform purchasing spend management across the health procurement lifecycle
Public debt and core financial management systems, IFMIS, only superficially or manually integrated
Lack of interoperability among government financial systems reduces effectiveness

Was the public debt “elephant in the room” addressed during the IMF and World Bank meetings?

Partly, at best. We need to recognize that these events are as much about arranging loans and grants as addressing global problems. Donor countries are lobbied to provide more funding. Recipient country representatives are encouraged to accept loans and grants with conditions. There is wining and dining in much the same way that large private sector enterprises seek more sales.

This leads to some final observations:

To speak to a Public Financial Management expert about how FreeBalance can enable PFM reform in your country, please get in touch.