Bretton Woods Project - Critical voices on the World Bank and IMF

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What are the main concerns and criticism about the World Bank and IMF?

Criticism of the World Bank and the IMF encompasses a whole range of issues but they generally centre around concern about the approaches adopted by the World Bank and the IMF in formulating their policies, and the way they are governed. This includes the social and economic impact these policies have on the population of countries who avail themselves of financial assistance from these two institutions, and accountability for these impacts.

Critics of the World Bank and the IMF are concerned about the ‘conditionalities’ imposed on borrower countries. The World Bank and the IMF often attach loan conditionalities based on what is termed the ‘Washington Consensus’, focusing on liberalisation—of trade, investment and the financial sector—, deregulation and privatisation of nationalised industries. Often the conditionalities are attached without due regard for the borrower countries’ individual circumstances and the prescriptive recommendations by the World Bank and IMF fail to resolve the economic problems within the countries.

IMF conditionalities may additionally result in the loss of a state’s authority to govern its own economy as national economic policies are predetermined under IMF packages. Issues of representation are raised as a consequence of the shift in the regulation of national economies from state governments to a Washington-based financial institution in which most developing countries hold little voting power. IMF packages have also been associated with negative social outcomes such as reduced investment in public health and education.

With the World Bank, there are concerns about the types of development projects funded. Many infrastructure projects financed by the World Bank Group have social and environmental implications for the populations in the affected areas and criticism has centred on the ethical issues of funding such projects. For example, World Bank-funded construction of hydroelectric dams in various countries has resulted in the displacement of indigenous peoples of the area.

The World Bank’s role in the global climate change finance architecture has also caused much controversy. Civil society groups see the Bank as unfit for a role in climate finance because of the conditionalities and advisory services usually attached to its loans. The Bank’s undemocratic governance structure – which is dominated by industrialised countries – its privileging of the private sector and the controversy over the performance of World Bank-housed Climate Investment Funds have also been subject to criticism in debates around this issue. Moreover, the Bank’s role as a central player in climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts is in direct conflict with its carbon-intensive lending portfolio and continuing financial support for heavily polluting industries, which includes coal power.

There are also concerns that the World Bank working in partnership with the private sector may undermine the role of the state as the primary provider of essential goods and services, such as healthcare and education, resulting in the shortfall of such services in countries badly in need of them. As an increasing shift from public to private funding in development finance has been observed recently, the Bank’s private sector lending arm – the International Finance Corporation (IFC) – has also been criticised for its business model, the increasing use of financial intermediaries such as private equity funds and funding of companies associated with tax havens.

Critics of the World Bank and the IMF are also apprehensive about the role of the Bretton Woods institutions in shaping the development discourse through their research, training and publishing activities. As the World Bank and the IMF are regarded as experts in the field of financial regulation and economic development, their views and prescriptions may undermine or eliminate alternative perspectives on development.

There are also criticisms against the World Bank and IMF governance structures which are dominated by industrialised countries. Decisions are made and policies implemented by leading industrialised countries—the G7—because they represent the largest donors without much consultation with poor and developing countries.

Published: Tuesday 23rd August 2005, last edited: Thursday 24th May 2012

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