Purpose – The regularity of default by countries on their sovereign debt has led to the establishment of a number of evolving institutions or “Clubs”. These institutions' objective is to optimise the impact of imminent default or actual default on both international lending and borrowing. The purpose of this article is to discuss the informal institutions concerned with managing debt between national governments – the Paris Club, between governments and commercial banks – the London Club – and the currently ad hoc dealings with sovereign bonds. Design/methodology/approach – The Clubs' changing approaches through the increasing depth and number of international financial crises from the Latin American debt crises of the 1980s, the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s and the circumstances of the ex-Soviet economies, plus the ongoing debt sub-Saharan African debt crisis are discussed. Findings – The shifts in the principles underlying the debt management system are manifest by the changing content of reschedulings, from simply deferring payments to actual reduction in their present value. Practical implications – The functioning of principles of comparable treatment of all creditors are discussed with respect to the growing need for a body representing bondholders' interests. Originality/value – The paper highlights the IMF's multiple and sometimes conflicting roles in the international financial system.