The COVID-19 pandemic is, we hope, only a temporary shock to economies everywhere. The appropriate policy response to such a disruption is to borrow to cushion the impact on consumption and investment. But for many emerging markets and developing countries, borrowing could result in debt-servicing difficulties that require years of austerity to overcome. Yet, if they do not borrow, they will have to cut public spending, which could mean major health crises, children out of school, job losses, and prolonged recession.

What to do? Borrow and risk a debt crisis, or choose austerity and risk a development crisis?

In 2020, countries took very different approaches, largely linked to their income. Governments in advanced economies provided trillions of dollars of direct and indirect fiscal support, equivalent to 24 percent of GDP, while those in emerging and developing economies provided just 6 percent and 2 percent of GDP, respectively.

Because private capital markets are procyclical, the risks of debt distress are large and growing. Global foreign direct investment fell by 40 percent in 2020 and is expected to decline by another $100 billion in 2021. Greenfield investment projects and cross-border mergers and acquisitions were likewise down 50 percent last year.

Half of all low-income countries were in debt distress or at high risk before the pandemic, according to the International Monetary Fund, and six have defaulted in the past year. In addition, 36 developing countries have had their sovereign credit rating downgraded by one of the three major ratings agencies, and 28 others have had their outlook downgraded. While many middle-income countries have returned to international bond markets since the pandemic began, only two Sub-Saharan African countries (Ivory Coast and Benin) have accessed the market.

The risks of widespread development distress are also growing. The IMF estimates that low-income countries need $450 billion through 2025 to respond to the pandemic and accelerate sustainable investments. Total investment in developing countries (excluding China) fell by 10 percent in 2020, and is likely to remain below 2019 levels this year and next. And if growth slows, creditworthiness will deteriorate, making debt distress even more likely.

Read the full article about balancing debt and development by Homi Kharas and Meagan Dooley at Brookings.