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World Bank Warns Record Debt Burdens Haunt Developing Economies

Surging interest rates are saddling the world’s poorest countries with record levels of debt and complicating investments in public health, education and infrastructure initiatives that are key to helping their populations emerge from poverty, the World Bank warned on Wednesday.

In its latest report on international debt, the World Bank said that low- and middle-income countries had paid $443.5 billion toward principal and interest in 2022. That is the highest level in history and a 5 percent increase from 2021. The organization projected that total would rise by nearly 40 percent in 2023 and 2024. The bank estimated that more than half of the world’s low-income countries were facing debt distress and called for their obligations to be restructured to avoid a “lost decade.”

“Record debt levels and high interest rates have set many countries on a path to crisis,” said Indermit Gill, the World Bank Group’s chief economist.

The World Bank pointed to the variable interest rates on the debt that many developing countries owe and are struggling to repay as a looming threat to their solvency. The bank also noted that the stronger U.S. dollar, which has made those countries’ currencies worth less on global markets, has been making repayment more costly.

Governments have defaulted on their debts 18 times in the last three years, including in places like Zambia, Sri Lanka and Lebanon. That surpasses the total number of defaults that were recorded in the previous two decades, underscoring how unsustainable debt burdens have become.

The predicament has also made it more difficult for developing countries to attract new investment and financing. According to the World Bank, new loan commitments to developing countries declined by 23 percent last year to $371 billion. It was the first time since 2015 that private creditors had received more money than they invested in developing countries.

The mounting debt burdens have put additional pressure on multilateral development institutions such as the World Bank to provide low-cost loans to poor countries. International coalitions such as the Group of 20 have also been pushing to accelerate debt relief, but those efforts have been moving slowly.

China, the world’s largest creditor, has faced criticism for being an obstacle to debt restructuring agreements because of its reluctance to assume losses on its loans. Earlier this year, China reached an agreement in principle with Zambia to restructure $4 billion in debt, but the deal has not been finalized amid lingering objections about concessions from some of its creditors.

Sri Lanka, which declared bankruptcy last year, is also working on a restructuring package with creditors including China, Japan and India.

With rich countries facing their own high debt burdens and global economic growth remaining sluggish, relief for developing economies could continue to be elusive.

Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said at a Wall Street Journal CEO Council event on Wednesday that debt relief was one of the most important issues that the U.S. and China needed to work together to address, and that it was a regular subject of discussion with her Chinese counterparts.

“A lot of countries around the world are really suffering, especially with high interest rates from unsustainable debt burdens,” Ms. Yellen said. “They need to restructure their debt and we need to cooperate to do it.”