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Can the International Community Still Do Big Things?

Born during the darkest days of the twentieth century, the Bretton Woods system created a powerful vehicle for mobilizing finance on a global scale. But, rather than leveraging the system to help poor countries recover from the pandemic and meet broader development goals, the rich world continues to court danger by playing it safe.

LONDON – When US Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau opened the Bretton Woods Conference almost 80 years ago, he reminded delegates that failures of international cooperation had led to the Great Depression, social division, and ultimately war. “Prosperity, like peace, is indivisible,” he concluded, “we cannot afford to have it scattered here or there among the fortunate ... Poverty, wherever it exists, is menacing to us all.”

That message speaks across the ages. We are again facing global challenges that can be met only through international cooperation. Large swaths of the developing world are being excluded from global prosperity. Extreme poverty is rising. Hard-won gains in health, education, and nutrition are under threat. Already obscene economic inequalities between and within countries are widening. The window of opportunity for averting a climate catastrophe is about to slam shut. And yet multilateral cooperation is paralyzed by complacency, petty rivalries, and inward-looking nationalism.

Consider this year’s International Monetary Fund and World Bank Spring Meetings, which offered an opportunity to mobilize the finance needed to prevent wholesale reversals of progress toward the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Instead, Western governments and the G20 arrived with no shared agenda, spent a week swapping platitudes, and left the world with a set of vague and incoherent declarations.

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