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What Has the IMF Done For You Lately?

09.05.2000 | POLITICS

There are a number of perfectly sound arguments which may be produced against the World Bank, the IMF, and the system they represent and embody. These arguments are heard more and more frequently, articulated by thoughtful and careful critics. We will come to these in a minute. There is also another class of argument, which is produced even more frequently, and this is the argument based on emotion: based, in the end, on the exciting idea that the IMF and the World Bank are criminal organizations, determined to impoverish the world, spread AIDS, force everyone to subsist on MacDonald's and Coca-Cola in perpetuity, or whatever it might be. The unfortunate truth is that the supporters of the IMF and the World Bank, a group that includes not only the employees of these bodies but also the U.S. Treasury, find both classes of argument equally easy to resist. It is perhaps for this reason that the more energetic of the critics, finding that the appeal to reason makes no headway, turn impatiently to the appeal to emotion: and base their protests on the gut-level sentiments of horror and shame that contemplating the state of the world naturally provokes. Someone must be to blame, after all, and so the IMF and World Bank are being made to carry the can for all the monstrous injustices perpetrated for the benefit of the world financial system; they are being held responsible for the wholesale starvation and disease and ignorance it lives off.

Is this unreasonable? Not entirely. For the bankers and economists who make the decisions at the IMF and World Bank are indeed committed to the world financial system as it stands, and to the idea that spreading it further is the best way to promote general well-being. Many of them are genuine and hard-working people, who have real faith in this project. Strengthening this same system's hold on the throats of the starving, however, turns out to be a very effective way of silencing their protests; and if the Indian or African or South American poor are left with no voice to complain about the way they are being treated, then those of us in the rich world who do still have a voice may with some justice feel a duty to raise it on behalf of those less fortunate than ourselves.

There are, I think, three unanswerable charges against the World Bank and IMF.

Number one is that the unelected officials of these organizations dictate policy to the elected officials of poor countries. Whatever they might say, this is directly anti-democratic, and devalues democracy in the developing world—promoting instead a paternalist, neo-colonialist agenda not on behalf of rich countries directly, but on behalf of multi-national corporations, speculative finance, and the dollar economy.

The second charge is that the idea of development that has been promoted throughout the existence of the Bretton Woods system is essentially that private business must be developed at all costs; a principle which has routinely led to measures that enrich the rich at the expense of the poor in the target countries. Unsurprisingly, the rich have indeed got richer as a result of these measures.

And the third and perhaps the most damning charge is simply that the IMF and World Bank idea has already failed. They have had plenty of time and money and political support to achieve some measurable results: so where are these results? Is there one single country that has been 'developed' successfully after nearly fifty years of this expensive and irrelevant nonsense? Inequality is growing everywhere, and at the same time very serious real world problems are just not being dealt with. The rain forests continue to be destroyed simply to enrich the loggers and those who invest in their activities. The seas and rivers are ever more polluted for similar reasons. The air is progressively harder to breathe. And half the world's population subsists on less than $2 a day. What has the IMF been doing about it? Handing over millions of dollars to the Russian government so it can be stolen in the name of capitalism.

But there is almost no chance of getting any World Bank or IMF official to address these criticisms directly. Why should they descend from their air-conditioned offices and jet-setting lifestyles, after all, for such a thankless and pointless task? Many of them come from just the privileged poor-world elite that have most benefited from this style of 'development', after all; so as far as they can see there is nothing wrong with the system. It has already sent them to fancy universities and got them well-paid jobs in Washington D.C.: jobs which are ideal stepping-stones to positions in megabuck private corporations once they feel that their contributions to public service may gracefully be concluded. And yes, it is certainly true that many of the more excitable protesters do make wild and unfounded attacks, based on no real understanding of what these organizations actually do. The critics quite clearly don't know what they are talking about, in fact, which is a perfect justification for never answering their criticisms with anything more than condescension: or at the most with an off-hand dose of technocratic mumbo-jumbo just to demonstrate how futile it is even to think of resisting.

But well, someone has to take the blame. So many millions of people in the rich world (and especially the young, who have not yet corrupted themselves by buying their own stake in corporate capitalism) feel angry and disgusted by the hypocrisy and inhumanity of the world commercial system that any group that identifies itself with that system is fair game. It could be the World Trade Organization, it could be the G7, it could be the World Economic Forum at Davos. But in Prague in September it will be the turn of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. So let slip the dogs of war. These people have never missed a meal in their lives.

About the Author
Christopher Lord's new book, Parallel Cultures, has just been published by Ashgate.
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