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Building a global infrastructure for growth

Multilateral development banks, which provide direct financing to help developing countries and countries in transition meet their economic goals, have laid the foundation for sustainable growth and poverty reduction. They are the bedrock of today's global development architecture.

These institutions have evolved to meet the changing scale, scope and diversity of challenges to economic growth and stability. In the 1960s, the system adapted to major changes in the international landscape by creating regional development banks tailored to the needs of Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean. In the early 1990s, the system further evolved to meet challenges specific to the transition economies of Central and Eastern Europe. And the United States continues to work with these institutions to modernize their practices and standards, including by setting up a new office at Treasury that will focus on the review of projects and key safeguards.

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New challenges underscore the need for a strong and dynamic international development architecture – challenges like meeting the infrastructure needs of developing countries, combating epidemics such as Ebola, reinforcing the transition in Arab countries, or supporting Ukraine in the face of an economic crisis. These institutions have offered rapid and effective responses to emerging challenges, and they continue to evolve to meet the defining challenges of the future.

Underlying these institutions' effectiveness is a set of core principles that reflect decades of experience and lessons learned.

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First, these institutions prioritize transparency and sound governance in their own operations and in the standards they set. By requiring extensive consultations with policy makers, members of civil society, affected communities and others; by releasing information about their activities to the public; by carefully evaluating their impact and results; and by insisting on the direct oversight of an engaged board of directors, these institutions set a high standard. And the bar continues to rise. For example, the Asian Development Bank recently updated its policies to ensure that communities where new development projects will take place will have timely access to information about these projects.

Second, these institutions help ensure debt sustainability and curtail the cycle of debt dependency that has plagued countries in the past. In 2005, the World Bank and IMF launched the Debt Sustainability Framework to help individual countries finance their most pressing development needs without succumbing to unsustainable levels of debt.

Third, these institutions have adopted environmental and social safeguards to match current science. These standards are regularly updated, including at the African Development Bank last year and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development earlier this year.

Fourth, these institutions have high standards for project procurement to ensure that scarce development resources are well used. And with leadership from the World Bank, procurement standards are being modernized to provide better value for money and enhanced international competition.

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Two new institutions seem poised to join this existing architecture: the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRICS' New Development Bank, whose primary mandates will be to finance infrastructure.

We believe that each new addition to the architecture should be designed to add value to the system as a whole, and have a clear role alongside of, and complementary to, the existing institutions. Also, any new institution – to add constructively – must incorporate the principles that we have described which have helped ensure that activities of the existing institutions remain effective and responsive, and must implement sound governance policies at the outset. Participating countries should demand no less as they invest not just fiscal resources but their own national standing to the enterprises.

Co-financing projects with one or more of the existing institutions and specifically initiatives that have focused on infrastructure, like the Asian Development Bank, and the Global Infrastructure Fund, would be particularly valuable during these new institutions' initial years of operation, so that the lessons of the past 70 years are respected and the high quality standards developed over time are maintained. By taking these important steps, these new institutions could add global value.

The United States stands ready to welcome new institutions into the international development architecture, provided that they share the international community's strong commitment to complementing the existing institutions and maintaining time-tested, and ever-improving, principles and standards. Indeed, the existing institutions continue to evolve to meet global challenges, to enhance their efficiency and efficacy, and to raise their standards to match a dynamic global economy.

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The United States has worked hard to ensure that all of these institutions meet the highest standards of transparency and sound governance, debt sustainability, environmental and social safeguards, and procurement. But this work is never complete. The United States, along with all its international partners, will continue to find ways to work together to help ensure that multilateral institutions contribute to the growth, stability, and development that will ultimately boost the ability of developing countries to build a more prosperous and sustainable future.

Commentary by Nathan Sheets, the Under Secretary for International Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.