The Thistle Volume 13, Number 2: Sept./Oct., 2000.

The IMF and the WORLD BANK: Puppets of the Neoliberal Onslaught

Today, September 26, thousands of activists are protesting in Prague, in the Czech Republic, against the policies and institutional structures of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. These protests are the latest action in a growing movement that is highly critical of the neoliberal economic policies being imposed on people all over the world, including those in western countries. As Robert McChesney concisely describes it, neoliberalism “refers to the policies and processes whereby a relative handful of private interests are permitted to control as much as possible of social life in order to maximize their personal profit.” The major beneficiaries of neoliberalism are large trans-national corporations and wealthy investors. The implementation of neoliberal policies came into full force during the eighties under Thatcher and Reagan. Today, the principles of neoliberalism are widely held with near-religious fervor by most major political parties in the US and Britain and are gaining acceptance by those holding power elsewhere.

Although the proponents of neoliberalism extol the virtues of free markets, free trade, private enterprise and consumer choice, the effects of neoliberal policies is quite the opposite. In fact, these policies typically result in very protectionist markets dominated by a few trans-national corporations. Many sectors of the economy - ranging from food processing and distribution to the corporate media to aviation - are oligopolies and can be characterized as highly centralized command economies that are only a shade more competitive than the economy of the former Soviet Union. A major theme of neoliberal policies is deregulation and the removal of government interference in the economy. Consistently, such policies are applied in a one sided way, and always in a manner that benefits large trans-national corporations, the most influential entities in policy making. Hence, within neoliberalism as it is actually applied, capital is allowed to roam the world freely with very few restrictions, yet workers are to remain trapped within the borders of their countries. This serves trans-national corporations well, though for some, not well enough. According to Jack Welsh, CEO of GE, he and GE’s shareholders would be best served if factories were on barges so that when workers demand higher wages and better working conditions, the barges could easily be moved to a country with more compliant workers. Another component of neoliberalism is the dismantling of the welfare state. Again, in practice, this policy is applied to the majority of the population, who have to accept cut backs in unemployment benefits and health care, while large corporations continue to receive massive subsidies and tax breaks.

The effects of neoliberal policies on people everywhere has been devastating. During the last two to three decades, wealth disparity has increased many fold within countries as well as between countries. In the US, inflation adjusted median wages are lower today than they were in 1973 (when median wages reached their peak) while the wealth of the top 1% of society has soared. One out of every five children in the US lives in a state of poverty characterized by continual hunger, insecurity and lack of adequate health care. This, after almost ten years of a record breaking economic boom. For the poorest people in the world, the situation has become even more desperate. John Gershman and Alec Irwin state in “Dying for growth”:

    100 countries have undergone grave economic decline over the past three decades. Per capita income in these 100 countries is now lower than it was 10, 15, 20 or in some cases even 30 years ago. In Africa, the average household consumes 20 percent less today than it did 25 years ago. Worldwide, more than 1 billion people saw their real incomes fall during the period 1980-1993. Meanwhile, according to the United Nations Development Program’s 1998 Human Development Report, the 15 richest people in the world enjoy combined assets that exceed the total annual gross domestic product of sub-Saharan Africa. At the end of the 1990’s, the wealth of the three richest individuals on earth surpassed the combined annual GDP of the 48 least developed countries.

The Thistle won’t waste ink on how the wealthy have fared since the mainstream corporate press does a very commendable job in this respect.

Neoliberalism has been a disaster for the environment as well. Despite the growing awareness in the late eighties that the rate of fossil fuel consumption at that time would cause global warming and many other forms of unpredictable and dangerous environmental changes, energy consumption has continued to increase at an alarming rate. This has been facilitated by neoliberal deregulation of environmental protections championed by corporate puppets such as Newt Gingrich and Tom Delay. In their continued quest for windfall profits, for example, corporations such as Ford and GM aggressively marketed (and continue to do so) highly polluting sports utility vehicles (SUVs) while ignoring cleaner and more efficient technologies. This was made possible by loop holes in environmental laws allowing SUVs to be sold that do not meet the emission standards imposed on passenger cars. Consumer Reports Magazine (Nov. pg. 54) noted in 1997, that “the growing popularity of SUVs, has helped make the 1997 automotive model year the least fuel-efficient in the last 16 years”. Due to the subservience of government to large corporations, these loop holes are still in place. Today, the qualitative predictions of a decade ago are starting to manifesting themselves. The average temperature of the world has risen over the last decade and for the first time, water has been observed on the polar caps.

One industry that has benefited significantly from neoliberal policies is the biotech industry, though not without potentially catastrophic costs for the majority of the population. While large biotech corporations such as Monsanto and Dupont are aiming for massive profits, the environment and our food supply is irreversibly being altered in the process, creating a situation where large portions of the population and all future generations are subjected to potentially severe and unpredictable health risks. As a way to promote the nascent biotech industry, the Bush administration in the early nineties adopted a policy which held that regulations should not be created in such a way as to be a burden on the industry. The Clinton administration has continued this policy, and today approximately 60% of our food is genetically modified. This transformation of our food supply has occurred with scant public knowledge or oversight. And although genes from viruses, bacteria or arctic fish with anti-freeze properties are inserted into crops, the federal regulatory agencies, with heavy industry influence, maintain that genetically modified foods are no different from crops obtained with traditional breeding techniques and therefore do not need to be approved (unless the transported genes are known to induce a human allergen). Studies investigating the long term health and environmental effects of genetically modified crops are not required by any federal agency and are rarely performed. In this atmosphere of deregulation and concentrated corporate control, it is only a matter of time before a serious biological catastrophe occurs.

What does the IMF and World Bank have to do with this?

The IMF and World Bank were both created at the end of world war II in a political climate the is very different from that of today. Nevertheless, their roles and modalities have been suitably updated to serve the interests of those that benefit from neoliberalism. The institutional structures of the IMF and World Bank were framed at an international conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. Initially, the primary focus of the IMF was to regulate currency exchange rates to facilitate orderly international trade and to be a lender of last resort when a member country experiences balance of payments difficulties and is unable to borrow money from other sources. The original purpose of the World Bank was to lend money to Western European governments to help them rebuild their countries after the war. In later years, the World Bank shifted its attention towards development loans to third world countries.

Immediately after world war II, most western countries, including the US, had ‘New Deal’ style social contracts with sufficient welfare provisions to ensure ‘stability’ between labor and capital. It was understood that restrictions on international capital flow were necessary to protect these social contracts. The postwar ‘Bretton Woods’ economic system which lasted until the early seventies, was based on the right and obligation of governments to regulate capital flow and was characterized by rapid economic growth. In the early seventies, the Nixon administration unilaterally abandoned the Bretton Woods system by dropping the gold standard and lifting restrictions on capital flows. The ensuing period has been marked by dramatically increased financial speculation and low growth rates.

Although seemingly neutral institutions, in practice, the IMF and World Bank end up serving powerful interests of western countries. At both institutions, the voting power of a given country is not measured by, for example, population, but by how much capital that country contributes to the institutions and by other political factors reflecting the power the country wields in the world. The G7 plays a dominant role in determining policy, with the US, France, Germany, Japan and Great Britain each having their own director on the institution’s executive board while 19 other directors are elected by the rest of the approximately 150 member countries. The president of the World Bank is traditionally an American citizen and is chosen with US congressional involvement. The managing director of the IMF is traditionally a European. On the IMF board of governors, comprised of treasury secretaries, the G7 have a combined voting power of 46%.

The power of the IMF becomes clear when a country gets into financial trouble and needs funds to make payments on private loans. Before the IMF grants a loan, it imposes conditions on that country, requiring it to make structural changes in its economy. These conditions are called ‘Structural Adjustment Programs’ (SAPs) and are designed to increase money flow into the country by promoting exports so that the country can pay off its debts. Not surprisingly, in view of the dominance of the G7 in IMF policy making, the SAPs are highly neoliberal. The effective power of the IMF is often larger than that associated with the size of its loans because private lenders often deem a country credit-worthy based on actions of the IMF.

The World Bank plays a qualitatively different role than the IMF, but works tightly within the stringent SAP framework imposed by the IMF. It focuses on development loans for specific projects, such as the building of dams, roads, harbors etc that are considered necessary for ‘economic growth’ in a developing country. Since it is a multilateral institution, the World Bank is less likely than unilateral lending institutions such as the Export Import Bank of the US to offer loans for the purpose of promoting and subsidizing particular corporations. Nevertheless, the conceptions of growth and economic well being within the World Bank are very much molded by western corporate values and rarely take account of local cultural concerns. This is clearly exhibited by the modalities of its projects, such as the ‘Green Revolution’ in agriculture, heavily promoted in the third world by the World Bank in the sixties and seventies. The ‘Green Revolution’ refers to the massive industrialization of agriculture, involving the replacement of a multitude of indigenous crops with a few high-yielding varieties that require expensive investments of chemicals, fertilizers and machinery. In the third world, the ‘Green Revolution’ was often imposed on indigenous populations with reasonably sustainable and self sufficient traditions of rural agriculture. The mechanization of food production in third world countries, which have a large surplus labor pool, has led to the marginalization of many people, disconnecting them from the economy and exacerbating wealth disparity in these countries. Furthermore, excessive chemical agriculture has led to soil desertification and erosion, increasing the occurrence of famines. While the ‘Green Revolution’ was a catastrophe for the poor in third world countries, western chemical corporations such as Monsanto, Dow and Dupont fared very well, cashing in high profits and increasing their control over food production in third world countries.

Today, the World Bank is at it again. This time it is promoting the use of genetically modified seeds in the third world and works with governments to solidify patent laws which would grant biotech corporations like Monsanto unprecedented control over food production. The pattern is clear, whether deliberate or nor, the World Bank serves to set the stage for large trans-national corporations to enter third world countries, extract large profits and then leave with carnage in their wake.

While the World Bank publicly emphasizes that it aims to alleviate poverty in the world, imperialistic attitudes occasionally emerge from its leading figures. In 1991, then chief economist Lawrence Summers (now US Secretary of the Treasury) wrote in an internal memo that was leaked:

    Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [less developed countries]? ... The economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable, and we should face up to that ... Under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City .... The concern over an agent that causes a one-in-a-million chance in the odds of prostate cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostate cancer than in a country where under-five mortality is 200 per thousand.

And thistle thought that the World Bank tried to extend lives in developing countries, not take advantage of low life expectancy.

How do countries get into financial troubles, the Debt Crisis.

The most devastating program imposed by the IMF and the World Bank on third world countries are the Structural Adjustment Programs. The widespread use of SAPs started in the early eighties after a major debt crisis. The debt crisis arose from a combination of (i) reckless lending by western commercial banks to third world countries, (ii) mismanagement within third world countries and (iii) changes in the international economy.

During the seventies, rising oil prices generated enormous profits for petrochemical corporations. These profits ended up in large commercial banks which then sought to reinvest the capital. Much of this capital was invested in the form of high risk loans to third world countries, many of which were run by corrupt dictators. Instead of investing the capital in productive projects that would benefit the general population, dictators often diverted the funds to personal Swiss bank accounts or used the them to purchase military equipment for domestic repression. This state of affairs persisted for a while, since commodity prices remained stable and interest rates were relatively low enabling third world countries to adequately service their debts. In 1979, the situation changed, however, when Paul Volker, the new Federal Reserve Chairman, raised interest rates. This dramatically increased the cost of debtor countries’ loans. At the same time, the US was heading into a recession and world commodity prices dropped, tightening cash flows necessary for debt payment. The possibility that many third world countries would default on their debt payments threatened a major financial crisis that would result in large commercial bank failures. To prevent this, powerful countries from the G7 stepped in and actively used the IMF and World Bank to bail out third world countries. Yet the bail-out packages were contingent upon the third world countries introducing major neoliberal policies (i.e. SAPs) to promote exports.

Examples of SAP prescriptions include:

    - an increase in ‘labor flexibility’ which means caps on minimum wages, and policies to weaken trade unions and worker’s bargaining power.
    - tax increases combined with cuts in social spending such as education and health care, to free up funds for debt repayment.
    - privatization of public sector enterprises, such as utility companies and public transport
    - financial liberalization designed to remove restrictions on the flow of international capital in and out of the country coupled with the removal of restrictions on what foreign corporations and banks can buy.

    Despite almost two decades of Structural Adjustment Programs, many third world countries have not been able to pull themselves out of massive debt. The SAPs have, however, served corporations superbly, offering them new opportunities to exploit workers and natural resources.

    As Prof. Chomsky often says, the debt crisis is an ideological construct. In a true capitalist society, the third world debt would be wiped out. The Banks who made the risky loans would have to accept the losses, and the dictators and their entourage would have to repay the money they embezzled. The power structure in society however, prevents this from happening. In the west tax payers end up assuming the risk while the large banks run off with the high profits often derived from high risk loans. In the third world, the people end up paying the costs while their elites retire in the French Riviera.

    It is important to realize that the IMF and World Bank are tools for powerful entities in society such as trans-national corporations and wealthy investors. The Thistle believes that massive world poverty and environmental destruction is the result of the appalling concentration of power in the hands of a small minority whose sights are blinded by dollar signs and whose passions are the aggrandizement of ever more power. The Thistle holds that an equitable and democratic world centered around cooperation and solidarity would be more able to deal with environmental and human crises.

    T O P

The Thistle Volume 13, Number 2: Sept./Oct., 2000.