IMF will sell gold reserves to reduce debt in Third World

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Plans to reduce the debt burden on the world's poorest countries will be given the formal go-ahead at next week's annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund in Washington.

The proposal to sell a small part of the IMF's gold reserves and reinvest the proceeds was nearly derailed by stubborn German opposition. However, Michel Camdessus, the fund's managing director, announced last week that it would be able to finance its share of the debt relief plan.

Senior officials believe the IMF can use alternative reserves for the next two years, after which it will sell a smaller part of its gold.

The debt relief plan is the culmination of two years of work, with Kenneth Clarke, Chancellor of the Exchequer, due a large part of the credit for putting the issue on the international agenda.

The total reduction in debt payments due from about 20 of the world's poorest countries will be worth about $5.6bn at present values.

The Germans are thought to have blocked the IMF gold sales proposals because of their fears that the Bundesbank would have come under pressure to sell some of its gold in order to help Germany meet the debt and deficit criteria for the Single European Currency.

Funding for the package will split between the World Bank, the IMF and the Paris Club, the group of national governments which have lent to developing countries. All three have now agreed in principle to the plan.

Poor countries will benefit to varying degrees. Uganda, Cote D'Ivoire, Nicaragua, Ethiopia and Niger - with fund-approved economic programmes but such a heavy debt burden that they could never hope to escape it - are among the countries likely to qualify.

The relief will mostly take the form of extensions in the term over which they must repay debt or reductions in interest rates. They must also show a record of sticking to economic policies approved by the IMF.

A senior UK official admitted the plan did not go far enough, but said: "It provides a mechanism for putting some poor countries in a sustainable position."

Next week's annual IMF and World Bank meeting will also see the formal acceptance of the fund's post-Mexico "arrangement to borrow", the emergency financing to be provided by increasingly important countries such as Korea, Singapore and Malaysia.

Officials also hope for progress on areas such as the co-ordination of international financial regulation and money laundering.

There will be a preliminary discussion about an issue of Special Drawing Rights, the IMF currency, to members who joined after their last issue in 1981. A disagreement between developing and industrial countries about the terms of an issue of SDRs led to an embarrassing row at the annual meeting two years ago.

The tension in what promises to be an unusually constructive event is likely to come in the meeting of G7 finance ministers. European officials expect the US to call for lower European interest rates.

The US Federal Reserve's policy committee meets on Tuesday. Analysts think there is a good chance it might vote to raise US interest rates.