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date: 21 January 2018

International Economic Institutions and Global Justice

Summary and Keywords

The international financial institutions (IFIs) have adapted and changed their policies over time to focus on global justice and poverty alleviation. This evolution is explored, with close attention to the role of political economy scholars and international events that increased the pressure on the IFIs to change their policies. Events such as the failure of structural adjustment policies, and the increasing role of nongovernmental organizations after the end of the Cold War were strong forces advocating for both debt relief policies and efforts designed to alleviate poverty. Problems surrounding the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals in 2015 and the increased role of the IFIs during the 2008 global financial crisis are also discussed.

Keywords: International Financial Institutions, global justice, poverty alleviation, political economy, nongovernmental organizations, Millennium Development Goals, 2008 Global Financial Crisis, poverty reduction strategies

The international economic institutions (otherwise known as the international financial institutions or IFIs) comprising the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank created in 1944 at the end of World War II were certainly not created to foster global justice. Instead, they were created by the most powerful state at the time, the United States, in order to continue a type of political and economic free-market capitalist framework in sharp contrast with that of the Soviet Union. In addition, the United States and to some degree the United Kingdom, wanted to provide states with mechanisms to help them should they experience economic difficulties. The IMF, or Fund, was to provide states with loans to help with their balance of payments problems so that countries would not devalue their currencies or restrict imports of goods. Both of these policies termed “beggar-thy-neighbor” policies were used during the 1930s and were believed to have exacerbated the Great Depression. The World Bank, or Bank, was primarily created to help the countries of Europe re-build after the war by providing loans for reconstruction and infrastructure projects.

The ways in which scholars have examined the evolution of the IFIs are reviewed. Specifically, both the theoretical frameworks used to interpret the IFIs and the events and policies that have shaped changes in the institutions are examined. These frameworks include those that have evolved around the larger international political economy literature such as hegemonic stability theory, neoliberal institutionalist theory and principle-agent theories. Events that have resulted in changing the policies of the IFIs will also be explored. These events include the end of the fixed exchange rate system in 1973, the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s, and the end of the Soviet Union in the beginning of the 1990s. It was largely the failure of the structural adjustment policies (SAPs) implemented to assist the countries during the latter two events, and how IR scholars and other actors documented these trends, that led to the poverty reduction strategies implemented by the institutions in the mid-1990s. Literature regarding the policies of the IFIs during two contemporary events—the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015 and the 2008 global financial crisis—will be updated.

Early Analysis of the IFIs

The field of international relations did not truly engage in a study of the international financial institutions (IFIs) until after the development of the international political economy (IPE). Katzenstein, Keohane, and Krasner (1998, p. 652) provide a thorough overview of the development of the field of IPE, in addition to noting the fact that international relations scholars before the 1970s “paid little systematic attention to the political analysis of economic issues.” Prior to this political scientists focused on the political aspects of the IFIs from the perspective of hegemonic stability theory (HST). Interestingly enough, the framework for HST was developed by an economist, Charles Kindleberger. Kindleberger (1973) wrote about the need for one state to assume a leadership role in both the international economic and monetary system in order to prevent another economic depression as seen in the 1930s. Political scientists largely ignored his emphasis on economic and monetary issues and emphasized the political aspects of IFIs, specifically focusing on the need for their establishment by the hegemonic leader based on the theoretical framework of realism (Gilpin, 1975, 1987). Ruggie (1982) also argued that the liberal order established at Bretton Woods was done to benefit U.S. interests but there was little analysis of the specific policies of the IFIs. Economists, on the other hand, rarely considered the political implications of decisions made by the IFIs (Haberler, 1945, 1954; Horsefield, 1969; De Vries, 1976).

Indeed, Susan Strange (1970) should be given the most credit in sounding the battle cry for an end to separating politics from economics in international relations. She asserted that the change to an increased focus on IPE had also been reflected in events beginning with the decision in 1971 by U.S. president Nixon to end the fixed exchange rate system and thus one of the pillars of the Bretton Woods system (Strange, 1995, p. 155). This event would result in fundamental changes concerning how scholars would view the IFIs for two reasons. First, many economists (and policymakers) began to question the viability of the institutions given that political and economic forces would now determine exchange rates under a floating exchange rate system (Scammell, 1975; Eichengreen, 1996, pp. 93–135). However, this concern was not debated very long due to the spike in oil prices in 1973, which would result in the first event that would provide the impetus to keep the institutions intact. This event justified the relevance of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), or Fund, because the institutions would be responsible for providing loans to countries experiencing severe balance of payments problems as a result of the increase in the price of petroleum imports (Crockett, 1992). International relations scholars then began to incorporate an understanding of the interplay between political and economic events using the framework of complex interdependence (Keohane & Nye, 1977). Complex interdependence provides explanations for why states react differently to the same event. For example, while the United States and Europe were sensitive to the increase in the price of oil, the countries in Latin America and Africa were vulnerable to the increases, and thus turned to the IMF and the World Bank for loans. These countries were required to implement structural adjustment policies (SAPs) in order to continue to receive those loans.

Many economists addressed the underlying problems that had resulted in the dire situation of these countries and, thus, their need to turn to the IMF and the World Bank, or Bank, for loans. Specifically, the economists focused on whether the problems were the result of domestic policies implemented by the countries or the result of “exogenous” factors such as the increase in oil prices and the drop in commodity prices as a result of a worldwide economic downturn (Dell & Lawrence, 1980; Wheeler, 1984; Stewart, 1995). Other economists focused on the domestic policies themselves with attention to issues of growth and poverty (Srinivasan, 1988; Streeten, 1987). However, economists did not focus on the political justifications or explanations for these policies. Economists generally do not view the institutions and their lending policies as having political overtures. In other words, economists rarely wrote about the decision-making structures of the IFIs and whether the more powerful states have influence over decision-making in the institutions due to differences in voting percentages or seats on the Executive Board.

Very few international relations scholars wrote specifically about the policies of the Bank and the Fund during this time because it was not clear (at the time) how these policies would have political implications. Instead, scholars would begin to focus on how the IFIs functioned based on the frameworks of neoliberal institutionalism. Neoliberal institutionalists essentially believe that institutions serve the interests of states by fostering cooperation through shared interests (Mitrany, 1975; Keohane, 1984). Keohane’s (1984, p. 78) seminal work on this topic mentions the Fund, for example, in the context of the benefits provided to states with the statement that, “Only members of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) can borrow from the Fund, although nonmembers may also be the beneficiaries of IMF action to stabilize exchange rates or avoid a debt collapse.” This framework would form the basis for the beginning of a way to analyze the relationships between the powerful states in the IMF—the ones that had seemed to be advocating for the SAPs—and the impacts on the states that had implemented them.

The underlying premise of the SAPs included a focus on free-market policies including privatization, deregulation, and an overall decrease in the level of government involvement in economies. These policies are (were) broadly known and referred to as the “Washington Consensus,” a term attributed to John Williamson in his chapter explaining what the policies of Washington, DC, really entailed for the countries in Latin America (1990). Williamson explains that:

the Washington of this paper is both the political Washington of Congress and senior members of the administration and the technocratic Washington of the international financial institutions, the economic agencies of the US government, the Federal Reserve Board, and the think tanks.

(Williamson, 1990, p. 7)

He identified 10 policy instruments that he deemed to be an important part of this consensus, including reducing fiscal deficits, prioritizing public expenditures, outward-oriented economic policies, and privatization of state enterprises (Williamson, 1990, pp. 7–17).

Indeed, the political support for these free-market policies came from the change in leadership in two of the more powerful states in the institutions: Ronald Reagan as president of the United States in 1980 and Margaret Thatcher as prime minister of the United Kingdom in May 1979. Both leaders came to power advocating the need for these types of economic policy reforms in their own countries as well as for countries that would be requesting loans from the IFIs (Stiglitz, 2003, p. 13; Sachs, 2005, pp. 81–82).

An examination of these policies (and of the political actors who had advocated them) became even more important when it became clear that poverty levels in Latin America and Africa, the countries that had implemented these policies, had increased compared to levels prior to the implementation of these policies. Thus, scholars would now be prepared to analyze the political aspects of decision-making, including the influence of the more powerful states, and how these political structures had directly impacted poverty and inequality in developing states.

Assessing the Failures of Structural Adjustment

In fact, the implementation of the structural adjustment policies (SAPs) was deemed directly responsible for the rising poverty and inequality in both Latin America and Africa evident by the end of the 1980s (Stewart, 1995). Researchers examined the policies that the institutions had advocated as well as their impacts on development and growth (Edwards & Dornbush, 1994; Edwards, 1995; Chossukovsky, 1997). Haggard, Lafay, and Morrison (1995) explain in detail how the behavior of the international financial institutions (IFIs), social groups, and that of the governments involved must all be taken into account when examining the effects of the adjustment measures implemented. They describe this relationship in the following manner:

in practice the ultimate content of programmes is determined in bilateral negotiations between the national government and the international organization. Our analysis must also take into account the reactions of social groups, however, for these reactions will influence the behavior not only of governments, but of the international organizations as well. We begin with the behavior of the international financial institutions, before turning to the other two actors in the drama: organized social groups and the government itself.

(Haggard, Lafay, & Morrison, 1995, p. 28)

The volume then provides chapters that detail the reactions of social groups and the governments of some countries (Ecuador, Venezuela, the Philippines) to the effects from the structural adjustment measures (chapters 5 and 7) and the role of the international donors (chapter 6). Scholars also focused on the structures of decision-making in the institutions and the ways in which politics has influenced the institutions. Specifically, research has centered on the importance of the United States in both the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (Bank) as a result of its large voting percentages and, thus, its perceived influence over the institutions (Ascher, 1992; Karns & Mingst, 1992; Pauly, 1997). Ngaire Woods’s (2003) chapter on U.S. power and influence in the Bank and the IMF is one of the most detailed on this topic.

The second event, following closely on the first, that would increase the pressure on the IFIs to change their policies to focus on issues of global justice and poverty alleviation was the end of the Soviet Union in 1990. Political and economic reasons dictated that the IMF and the World Bank (along with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development [EBRD]) would be the institutions advising these newly independent states. For a time there were brief discussions about whether the United States would allocate resources similar to that of the Marshall Plan but soon it became highly unlikely that the United States would provide this financial assistance after “winning” the Cold War. However, there were fundamental differences in what these institutions would be asked to do to assist these countries. Unlike the Latin American and African countries, the former Soviet republics did not have distorted economies; they had instead functioned without any type of a market structure. The shock therapy approach was the primary framework for economic reform advised for these countries from economists working for and with the IMF. The basic premise centered on the fact that the countries should undertake all economic reforms at once (price liberalization, privatization, stabilization) in order to completely change from command to free-market–based economies (Fischer & Frenkel, 1992). The IMF and the Bank failed to recognize the necessity of including issues of poverty and inequality (once again) in their reform programs and instead focused on macroeconomic issues such as stabilization, price liberalization, and privatization (Citrinin & Lahiri, 1995, p. 1; World Bank, 1996). One World Bank publication explained that it was difficult to document poverty and inequality levels in these countries due to “measurement problems” (World Bank, 1996, p. 67). However, a later Bank publication found that in Eastern Europe and Central Asia the percent of the population living on less than $1 a day had increased from 1.5% in 1990 to 5.1% in 1998 (World Bank, 2002, p. 8). Because under the Soviet system the state had provided social services including a social safety net for its citizens, it became clear that the policies advocated by the IFIs had once again borne some of the responsibility for the increases in poverty. Indeed, articles addressing some of the shortcomings of the IMF and World Bank policies designed for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe were the focus of an entire issue of the Journal of Comparative Economics in 1995 (Brada, Schӧnfeld, & Slay, 1995).

The end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union also resulted in a shift in the early 1990s from the “high politics” of military and security to the “low politics” of economics and human rights issues. McCorquodale and Fairbrother (1999) examined changes in the institutions and whether they had evolved in their ability to address human rights issues. Sigrun I. Skogly’s (1993) article titled “Structural Adjustment and Development: Human Rights—An Agenda for Change” was more forthright in emphasizing the non-economic factors necessary for development. Indeed, a wide body of literature began to focus on structural adjustment lending by the IFIs and its effects on citizens inside states (Sadasivam, 1997; Handa & King, 1997; Abouharb & Cingranelli, 2006a, 2007, 2009). Scholars became more willing to engage in writing about the IFIs and in criticizing their policies.

This new era in world politics consequently decreased the importance of states as primary actors and elevated the importance of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and increased the focus on the role of civil society in the international system (Matthews, 1997). Consequently, NGOs began to also turn their focus to the policies of the IFIs, benefiting from the ease of communication brought about by telecommunications advances that allowed for greater coordination and communication between people (Matthews, 1997, pp. 51–52). NGOs were also pushing the IFIs to disclose more information and be more accountable for the results of their policies (Woods, 2001). Indeed, the volume by O’Brien, Goetz, Scholte, and Williams (2000) reviews the importance of various NGOs such as Oxfam, Friends of the Earth, and the Jubilee 2000 Movement and how they have affected policy changes at the IMF, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The development of the WTO in January 1995 from the less formal structure of trade regulation and agreements known as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) also reflected a recognition of “low politics” issues in international relations in two key ways. First and foremost, NGOs are formally allowed to participate in matters of concern to the WTO as part of the agreements establishing the WTO. The basis for this participation is provided in Article v.2, which allows for arrangements to be made regarding “consultation and cooperation with nongovernmental organizations concerned with matters related to those of the WTO” (as cited in O’Brien et al., 2000, p. 138). Lida (2004) finds that the inclusion of NGOs has made the processes of the WTO more transparent because it allows other important (nonstate) actors to have input into decisions made by the organization. Specifically, in 1997 the Appellate Body of the WTO allowed environmental NGOs to attach briefs in support of the U.S. government’s case requesting a ban on shrimp imports from countries that did not use devices to protect sea turtles from shrimp-trawling devices (Lida, 2004; Shaffer, 2005, pp. 140–141). The fact that the WTO would hear this case, known as the shrimp-turtle case, based on environmental concerns (there was existing U.S. legislation that mandated the use of these devices) explains the other significant change seen in the inclusion of an area of “low politics” in the WTO through a clause to protect the environment.

The preamble of the agreement that established the WTO explicitly notes that trade liberalization policies should be pursued by states within the context of “sustainable development” including means to “protect and preserve the environment” (as cited in O’Brien et al., 2000, p. 145). The WTO is fundamentally different from the World Bank and the IMF, as it specifically allows for formal participation by NGOs and explicitly provides for the protection of the environment even in trade matters. This can primarily be explained by the fact that the WTO was formed during a time period in which there was a much greater recognition of the growing contributions of NGOs and a heightened awareness of the need for environmental protection policies. The WTO is also fundamentally different from the World Bank and the IMF because the institution does not provide economic restructuring advice or loans to its member states. Therefore, while the institution is heavily criticized for its promotion of trade policies that many groups believe to be harmful, there are not the issues of debt repayment or poor economic advice that have plagued both the World Bank and the IMF and have been taken up more vociferously by NGOs.

For example, women’s groups such as “Women’s Eyes on the Bank” and the “African Women’s Economic Policy Network” (AWEPON) addressed the institutional problems of the IMF and the World Bank, including a lack of a gendered focus on economic development programs, as well as criticized the SAPs for their disproportionate burdens placed on women (Women’s Eyes on the Bank, 1997; AWEPON, 1996). Cleary these two problems were related, but a failure to incorporate an analysis of gender in economic development led to the fact that many indicators of poverty had increased as a result of the implementation of the SAPs (Blackmon, 2009). These two groups as well as other NGOs came together at the 1995 World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China, and put together a “Platform for Action” outlining goals that these groups wanted to see the World Bank implement, including policies to increase a gendered perspective in Bank policies and programs (Williams, 1999, p. 237). James Wolfensohn, as the incoming president of the World Bank in 1995, attended the Conference (the first Bank president to do so) and “pledg(ed) to engage in dialogue with women’s groups to implement the petition’s demands” (Williams, 1999, pp. 236–237; Dorsey, 2005). Other NGOs such as Oxfam and CARE pushed for the IFIs to agree to debt forgiveness for the poorest countries, something also requested by AWEPON.

Thus, a combination of events occurred that persuaded the institutions (and other actors) that the format of the policies of the institutions must change in order to alleviate poverty. The first step in changing the policies was the implementation of the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC) in 1996. Basically, the HIPC Initiative provided debt relief for the poorest countries. The premise behind this initiative was to allow countries to spend less money servicing their debt and instead be able to use this money toward poverty-alleviating initiatives such as increased spending on social services (health, education, etc.). The development of this initiative represented a fundamental shift in policy by the IFIs on two fronts. First, it was at least an indirect acknowledgement that the SAPs had been flawed, because poverty had increased in the countries that had implemented the policies. Second, the situation in the poorest countries was seen to be so dire that even with some criticism about these actions leading to “moral hazard,” as well as the need to derive revenue from additional sources, the initiative was still implemented (Easterly, 2001; Becker, 2004; International Development Association [IDA], 2005). However, soon after the HIPC Initiative was formulated, it was deemed to be too restrictive in its formula for qualifying countries for debt relief. For example, while 14 countries were considered for eligibility under the HIPC, assistance under this initiative was offered to only 7 that met the qualifications for additional debt relief assistance (Andrews et al., 1999, p. 7).

Therefore, after a review of the initiative conducted jointly by the IMF and the World Bank in September 1999, the program was broadened and renamed the “Enhanced HIPC Initiative” in order to serve two additional functions (International Monetary Fund & World Bank, 2001). First, it lowered the targets and performance requirements deemed too difficult for poor countries to reach under the HIPC. Second, the Enhanced HIPC was also designed to, “strength(en) the link between debt relief and poverty reduction” in that countries would now have to prepare Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) in order to have access to the HIPC debt relief (Andrews et al., 1999, p. 13). Additionally, beginning in 1999, the IMF would begin to use a new lending facility, the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF), as a “transformation” from the Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility (ESAF) as the primary means to provide support for low-income countries as they implemented their PRSPs (Gupta et al., 2002, pp. 1–3). The PRSP was one of the strongest direct country initiatives to date in alleviating poverty because one of the purposes of the PRSP was to redirect resources that had previously gone to servicing a country’s debt, and to use them for specific poverty reduction programs primarily aimed at social services such as healthcare and education (IMF & World Bank, 2001; Gupta et al., 2004; IMF Independent Evaluation Office [IEO], 2004, p. 51; Blackmon, 2008).

The development of these new programs was the result of many actors pushing for changes in the institutions and the institutions responding to those actors. For example Busby (2007, p. 256) finds that

just as creditors finally reached agreement on a program to partially write off multilateral debt, NGOs were gearing up their own campaign to pursue more wide-ranging debt forgiveness in time for the new millennium.

Bhagwati (2001) and others (Raghavan, 2000; Dunning, 2000; Stiglitz, 2003) attribute the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back to the 1999 WTO meetings in Seattle, Washington, and the effectiveness whereby organized groups and protesters were able to disrupt the trade organization’s ministerial meeting. Indeed, these circumstances and the growing importance of other (nonstate) actors would result in the need to redefine the theoretical frameworks in which scholars study the IFIs. Incorporating principle-agent theory is a way to understand better the relationships and the delegation of power between states, institutions, and other actors (NGOs). Hawkins, Lake, Nielson, and Tierney (2006, p. 5) explain that this is important because while neo-realists do not believe that institutions matter and neoliberal institutionalists argue that institutions do facilitate cooperation among states, we need to understand how institutions operate. Furthermore, this theory brings in an analysis of “third parties,” which in this case would correspond to NGOs:

We expect third parties will vigorously pursue their interests and may attempt to influence the principles, (states) who then instruct their agents (IFIs) to act in certain ways. Alternatively, third parties may bypass the principals and try to influence agents directly, who may then act independently of their principals. However, third parties necessarily have a different relationship with principles and agents than those two actors have with each other.

(Hawkins, Lake, Nielson, & Tierney, 2006, p. 9)

The contributors to their volume address the “initial act of delegation, while others pursue problems that result once delegation has taken place” (Hawkins et al., 2006, p. 12). Broz and Hawes (2006, pp. 77–106) examine how U.S. domestic politics through the roles of U.S. policymakers and banks have influenced IMF policy. Martin (2006, pp. 140–164) and Gould (2006, pp. 281–311) focus on the degree to which state preferences influence IMF conditionality.

As explained by Hawkins, Lake, Nielson, and Tierney (2006, p. 12) most of the work on the institutions can largely be divided into two areas: what determines lending by the institutions and then, what are the impacts on the countries after the lending has occurred. The volume by Ranis, Vreeland, and Kosack (2006) brings together scholars conducting research more or less on one of these two areas. Abouharb and Cingranelli (2006b, pp. 204–230) analyze the determinants of structural lending by the World Bank; determinants of IMF lending is taken up by Thacker (2006, pp. 111–142). Admittedly, there is some degree of overlap between the two areas, and again, this is where incorporating aspects of delegation and agency become more useful as an analytical framework. For example, Smith and Vreeland (2006, pp. 263–289) in this volume provide explanations as to why governments turn to the IMF for loans arguing that

the reasons that leaders turn to the IMF and their behavior under these programs also depends upon the institutional context. In this study we examine how IMF agreements affect the survival of leaders, and how this survival depends upon both domestic political institutions and the context under which leaders seek IMF programs.

(Smith & Vreeland, 2006, p. 263, emphasis added)

Finally, Stewart and Wang (2006, pp. 290–321) (also as contributors in the aforementioned volume) specifically address the new Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers program to assess whether they are in fact new programs, representing a new direction for the IMF and the World Bank or whether they, “ (re)enforce the power of the international agencies by giving the appearance of ownership without the reality” (Stewart & Wang, 2006, p. 290).

In light of the shift of the IFIs in implementing these new programs, this is one of the areas in which scholars have been turning more recently. Recall that the Enhanced HIPC was designed to accomplish two things beyond the HIPC Initiative. First, the E-HIPC lowered the debt criteria that countries would have to meet to become eligible for debt relief. The debt-to-exports target was decreased from the threshold of 200–250% in 1996 to 150% in 1999 (IMF & World Bank, 2001, p. 2). In other words, the likelihood that countries would be able to pay down their debt given their present ability to derive revenue from their exports in addition to traditional debt relief mechanisms provided by the institutions was lowered. Second, the E-HIPC required that the country develop the PRSP in cooperation with civil society groups to outline how the money that was to be allocated toward debt repayment would be used instead for poverty-alleviating initiatives. Countries are required to at least prepare an interim PRSP as part of the criteria to move to the decision point, whereby the debt-to-exports target would determine if they could reach external debt sustainability. If it is determined that the country would be viable, the country would still receive assistance through IFI-supported programs (and special treatment from other creditors) but would not qualify for debt relief. If it is determined that the country could not reach external debt sustainability, the country moves on toward the completion point in which support is provided “within the framework of a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy, designed by governments, with broad participation of civil society and the donor community” (IMF & World Bank, 2001, p. 5). A flow chart that depicts this process is provided in Figure 1.

International Economic Institutions and Global JusticeClick to view larger

Figure 1. Review of the HIPC Process: The Importance of the PRSP

Source: Compiled by the author from Andrews et al. (1999, pp. 2–5)

Thus, some scholars have been critical of these new initiatives based on the assumption that the only real change is a shift in language that refers to a new form of governance and that the way in which the IFIs understand poverty reduction has not fundamentally changed (Grindle, 2004; Weber, 2004; Wade, 2004; Cammack, 2004; Imboela, 2005; Stewart & Wang, 2006). Indeed, countries still must follow a macroeconomic program for three years to begin the HIPC process. Countries moving on to the completion point agree to follow an additional economic program although the time frame for this program is flexible and is “determined by progress toward implementing measures that will reduce poverty in a sustained manner” (IMF & World Bank, 2001, p. 3; see Figure 1). Others (Mosley, 2004; Weaver & Leiteritz, 2005; Woods, 2006; St. Clair, 2006; Blackmon, 2008) have found changes in the ways that the institutions have evolved to deal with poverty, although these scholars (save Mosley) find more structural and institutional change occurring at the World Bank than at the IMF.

The Future of the Poverty Reduction Strategies

The debate continues as to whether these are new policies and indeed, whether these are part of a new framework developed by the institutions to better deal with issues of development and poverty in the poorest countries. The edited volume by Serra and Stiglitz (2008) titled The Washington Consensus Reconsidered comes full circle in addressing many of these changes. Williamson (2008, pp. 14–30) explains the chain of events leading up to his original piece in which he coined the term “Washington Consensus” and concludes that, “we need to go beyond (the Washington Consensus)” (Williamson, 2008, p. 30). Stiglitz’s (2008, pp. 41–56) chapter in this volume discusses whether there is a post–Washington Consensus consensus and what this new consensus would contain. He argues that

A post-Washington Consensus consensus cannot be arrived at simply within the confines of Washington. The development of a successful development strategy will have to involve those in the developing world in an important and meaningful way.

(Stiglitz, 2008, p. 53)

The importance placed on the need for a nationally owned strategy to alleviate poverty was recognized by the UN Millennium Declaration and was included as part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In fact, Goal 8 of the MDGs includes the enhanced program of debt relief for the HIPCs and debt cancellation as part of addressing the needs of the least developed countries in order to “develop a global partnership for development” (United Nations Development Program [UNDP], 2004, p. 136). There are two recent developments whereby researchers have turned their attention regarding the policies of the IFIs: the deadline for the MDGs in 2015 and the 2008 global financial crisis.

Alleviating Poverty, Debt Relief, and the MDGs in 2015: What Went Wrong?

Unfortunately, it has been known for some time that most countries were unlikely to reach their Millennium Development Goals (MDG) targets by the 2015 deadline. However, it is important to understand why the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative as part of the MDGs in particular, did not result in substantial poverty alleviation and debt relief for developing countries. Some of the shortcomings of Enhanced HIPC (E-HIPC) were addressed in the section on the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs), such as the fact that while the process of preparing a PRSP may have changed the conceptual understanding of poverty, it is not clear that these efforts resulted in sustained poverty alleviation (Booth, 2003). Indeed, Nur (2015) points out that poverty in absolute terms has increased in developing countries since 1999, a problem exacerbated by the global financial crisis; he further argues that neoliberal principles still dominate even in these new policy frameworks.

Researchers have shown that governments under International Monetary Fund (IMF) programs contributed less to their health systems than countries that were not under IMF programs during the time frame 1996–2006 (Stuckler, Basu, & McKee, 2011). This finding confirms some of the earlier research on potential problems with HIPC such as the “re-directing” of debt relief to be used for specific poverty reduction programs such as healthcare, previously criticized by Easterly (2001).

There has also been much attention paid to the fact that most sub-Saharan African countries were unlikely to meet the MDGs by 2015, problematic because the MDGs were primarily designed to assist countries in this region (Blair Commission for Africa, 2005). However, researchers have noted that these countries have made more progress in many areas compared with other non-African developing countries. For example, Easterly (2009) argued that the numerical targets of the MDGs for Africa in particular were unfair because African countries were further away from other developing countries in attaining the goals. He finds that compared with other non-African developing countries on MDGs #1–#7 (notably, he did not include Goal 8) that Africa showed substantial progress (Easterly, 2009, pp. 28–32). The misperception that Africa has failed to make progress on the MDGs is also addressed in Wilkinson and Hulme (2012), and the contributing authors to this volume describe what steps the development community should take post-2015. Indeed, these steps have already been proceeding via the UN’s newly proposed Sustainable Development Goals (of which there are seventeen, none of which address debt relief) developed during working groups held during 2013 and 2014.

Studies that have examined the progress made by countries under HIPC have shown mixed results. While there is evidence that HIPC countries have been rewarded by donors for improvements in governance indicators, there has not been much evidence to support substantial debt relief. For example, Freytag and Pehnelt (2009) conclude that indicators for quality of governance were taken into account by donor countries beginning in the 21st century, but not when countries initially began the HIPC Initiative in the 1990s. Arnone and Presbitero (2010) also provide evidence to show that over time donors have been rewarding countries with better policies and institutions through greater debt forgiveness. These findings about improvements in governance are encouraging especially given that HIPC eligibility criteria did not include indicators to measure the quality of governance in the countries.

Debt forgiveness did not result in substantial debt relief in these countries for many reasons. First, at least one study has shown that debt relief is correlated with increasing domestic debt in HIPCs due to a “shift from external to internal financing,” which diminishes the positive effects of reducing external debt (Presbitero, 2009, p. 553). Recall that HIPC was primarily focused on reducing the multilateral debt of these countries. In many cases, countries have not had substantial increases in outside investment and economic growth that was supposed to result from debt relief. Thus, the countries have had to rely on governmental sources of financing, which has resulted in increasing the level of domestic debt.

Second, since HIPC was primarily designed to deal with concessional debt, it only addressed high levels of nonconcessional debt more narrowly. Nonconcessional debt was predominately from foreign government institutions such as Export Credit Agencies (ECAs), which provide guarantees and loans for the foreign purchase of their country’s domestic exports. Debt from ECAs is most often rescheduled or cancelled through the Paris Club, which is an informal group of creditor countries with 20 permanent members (Blackmon, 2013). In fact, Paris Club creditors hold considerable amounts of HIPC debt. From 2009 to 2012 the World Bank has estimated that the Paris Club was the creditor group that would bear the greatest costs of the HIPC Initiative, compared with the other creditor groups, which include the World Bank, IMF AFDB Group, IADB, Other Multilateral Creditors, Other Official Bilateral Creditors, and Commercial Creditors (data from IMF/World Bank meetings). This was problematic because there is evidence that HIPC countries and other developing countries have continued to receive these types of export credit facilities, thereby increasing their overall debt (Eurodad, 2011; Blackmon, 2014). Finally, the finding that autocratic governments are more likely to become indebted than democracies is also related to the lack of governance criteria in the original framework of HIPC (Oatley, 2010).

The IFIs and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis

The role of the international financial institutions (IFIs) in the 2008 crisis was notable for at least two reasons. First, it was the first time in more than 50 years that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had provided loans to developed countries on such a widespread scale (Ireland, Iceland, Portugal, Hungary, Ukraine, and Greece as of 2013). The IMF involvement in Greece has received the most attention, but this is probably also due to the heavy involvement of the European Commission and the European Central Bank (the three institutions have been collectively known as “the troika”), as well as the ongoing discussions as to whether the situation in Greece is so bad that the country should leave the euro zone, the European Union, or both (Moravcsik, 2012). It bears noting that many of the “older” criticisms of IMF structural adjustment policies, including the arguments that these austerity measures have increased poverty in Greece, have also been prevalent in this discourse (Kakissis, 2013; Kosmidis, 2014). Second, and more relevant here, scholars have debated whether this crisis represented a turning point for the IFIs (Desai & Vreeland, 2011). This framework rests on two related changes in circumstances brought about by the crisis.

Scholars representing the first type of change contend that because the crisis originated in the Western developed countries (notably the United States) and because the economies of these countries were most affected by the crisis, this event represented a greater role for emerging economies, specifically those in the G20. The G20 also played a larger role than the G8 during this crisis, with G20 summits in London on April 2, 2009, and in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on September 24–25, 2009 (G20 Trade Finance Meeting, 2012). In addition, many of these scholars argue that the IFIs and the Bretton Woods framework stressing neoliberal policies and free market capitalism, constructed by Western developed countries, had finally lost its raison d’être. For example, Roger Altman details how the crisis was an indictment of the U.S. model of free market capitalism, and to make his point, he included a quote from former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, “Le laisser-faire, c’est fini” (Altman, 2009, p. 11). In addition, Review of International Political Economy recently devoted a special issue (22, 2015) to the management of capital flows during the crisis, which included articles on changes in IMF policy regarding these flows as a result of the crisis (Sigurgeirsdottir & Wade, 2015; Grabel, 2015).

Scholars representing the second type of change maintain that since there was not a complete meltdown of the international system and a recession along the lines of the 1930s that this is evidence that the “system worked.” Indeed, Daniel Drezner’s (2014a, 2014b) research provides the most compelling evidence to prove this point, and he seeks to dispel the myth (probably embraced by the former scholars) that there was no cooperation in formal and informal systems of governance during the crisis. Eric Helleiner (2012) also observed greater levels of cooperation among states in managing this crisis compared with previous crises such the Depression in the 1930s.

Finally, there is little doubt about the resilience of the IMF, yet again, as a result of this crisis. Even Allan Meltzer (2011, p. 445), who is not a fan of the IMF, noted, “the crisis revived the IMF.” He makes a compelling point by noting that countries had voted to increase the resources of the IMF by $500 billion, as a result of the crisis (Meltzer, 2011, p. 445). Certainly prior to this crisis, there was waning support for the IMF, and even former IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn was concerned about the perception that the IMF was no longer relevant. However, what is so interesting about the IMF is that just when the international community believes that there is no longer a need for the IMF, there is some cataclysmic event that propels the institution back into necessity. This was the case with the end of the fixed exchange rate regime, followed on the heels of the OPEC oil embargo and the subsequent Latin American debt crisis. The end of the Cold War brought an unprecedented 15 formerly planned economies struggling to adopt free market economies simultaneously. The failure of policies advocated by the IFIs and undertaken by countries during both of those events caused both the IMF and World Bank to restructure their frameworks to better address poverty alleviation during the late 1990s and into the 21st century. There is also compelling evidence that many of the origins of the 2008 crisis have not been fixed, especially with regards to international regulatory reforms (Helleiner, 2014). Thus, it appears safe to say that the IFIs will remain relevant for the near future, and ready for the next (new?) crisis.

Center for Global Development. A nonprofit policy research organization focused on reducing poverty and inequality among the world’s poor. Through its research connections and experts aims to influence the decision-making and policies of powerful states, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Organization (WTO) to improve economic and social programs designed for the poor. Includes links for research topics, publications, experts, and initiatives. Also includes links to papers and publications on the Washington Consensus.

Factsheet for the IMF’s Response to the Global Crisis. This is an information sheet that details what programs and changes the IMF has initiated to deal with the 2008 financial crisis. There are also embedded live links to specific terms to guide the reader to additional information.

Global Economic Governance Programme. Provides information on topics such as trade, aid, health migration, and finance and how people in developing countries can be better assisted through international organizations and market forces. Ngaire Woods is the director of the program. Includes links for publications, events, and fellowships supported through the program.

Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) assessment of the World Bank Group. This is a PDF document that evaluates the response of the World Bank Group to the crisis, with a focus on events since mid-2008.

International Monetary Fund (IMF) home page. It is possible to access IMF publications and country data, including the position that each member country currently has with the Fund. Country information is primarily focused on macroeconomic indicators such as inflation, deficits, and current account balances. There is also data on press releases, and information on the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, specifically the facility of the Fund—the Poverty Reduction Growth Facility.

Poverty Reduction Strategies—Country Papers and Joint Staff Assessments (JSAs). There are links for all of the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers and Interim PRSPs for all of the countries that have begun this process on this page. They are listed in reverse chronological order and the links make clear whether the document was an Interim PRSP as well as the year that the Paper was submitted by the government. The JSAs are also listed for each country. Links are also provided for more general and updated information on the PRSP process.

Sustainable Development Goals. These are the goals for developing countries to achieve by 2030, and replace the Millennium Development Goals, which were designed to be achieved by 2015. These goals are notable for their inclusion of environmental issues (7 of the goals) and the fact that there are many more of them (17) as compared to the previous MDGs (which had 8).

World Bank home page. Similar to the IMF web page, although country data is also available and searchable by geographic region. Country information is descriptive on poverty socioeconomic growth issues including data on the structure of the economy (growth and percent of GDP composed from the agricultural, manufacturing, and services sectors). A good source for specific country information is the country “At a glance” documents.


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