With just hours left before their holiday break, the boards of the two lending organizations were putting the final touches on programs for the African nations of Rwanda and Guinea.
In a joint statement, World Bank President James Wolfensohn and IMF Managing Director Horst Koehler said these efforts ``will lift some $34 billion in debt service obligations of 22 countries, 18 of them in Africa'' over the coming years. Four countries are in Latin America.
Wolfensohn and Koehler said once the 22 nations provide the IMF and the bank with poverty reduction strategies and develop economic reform programs, they will become eligible to receive the full benefits of debt relief.
This should amount to a reduction of around half of their foreign debt burdens, rising to two thirds once government and commercial lenders fulfill their own debt pledges.
Started by the two institutions in 1996, the Heavily Indebted Poor Country initiative had been criticized by the major industrialized nations as too slow, putting up too many economic hurdles before a country could qualify.
The United States and the six other G-7 nations called last year for the program to be speeded up and set 20 countries by the end of 2000 as the objective.
Both lending institutions and the industrialized nations came under pressure to accelerate the program from a diverse group called Jubilee 2000 that included religious leaders, rock stars and international relief organizations dedicated to securing debt relief to coincide with the new millennium.
However Jubilee 2000 has complained that 16 of the 22 countries would still be spending more on debt payments than on health.
But they said the international community had to help too by raising foreign aid to internationally agreed levels and opening their markets to exports from poor countries, giving them a better chance to succeed on their own.
``The international community must play its full part to improve the lot of poor countries for there cannot be a good future for the rich nations if the poor nations don't share prosperity,'' Wolfensohn and Koehler said.
Earlier the two organizations announced that the Indian Ocean island nation of Madagascar was the latest country to qualify, receiving $800 million in debt relief and becoming the 20th nation to join the HIPC program. Rwanda and Guinea were expected to get $500 million each.
Nicaragua and Malawi were approved on Thursday as the two institutions' boards raced to complete their work before the holiday break.
The bank and the IMF said Nicaragua's debt burden would be reduced by $3.3 billion, ``the largest debt relief package yet committed under the HIPC initiative.''
``The impact of HIPC assistance is substantial and will help Nicaragua build on its strong reconstruction efforts after Hurricane Mitch toward a stable long term development strategy,'' the bank said.
Malawi also qualified for debt relief and will see its burden cut by $643 million.
Barring any problems with Friday's approval process, here's the final list of HIPC debt relief recipients: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia in Africa; Bolivia, Guyana, Honduras and Nicaragua in Latin America.