Africa Falls Off the IMF Agenda (Again)

World leaders and celebrities declared 2005 to be the “year of Africa” with much fanfare. Beginning with the UK’s Commission on Africa report, and culminating in some supposed gains for the continent at the summit meeting of the Group of Eight (G8) wealthy countries, who were cajoled at several musical extravaganzas featuring the likes of U2, Madonna and Youssou N’Dour to do more to end global poverty, the year was billed as a “turning point” for Africa.

Sure, since that G-8 meeting, some African debt has been cancelled. But most of the promises made in 2005 have gone largely unfulfilled. Instead, poverty continues to deepen in most African countries, and the international financial institutions have returned to business as usual in 2006.

The clearest indication that old habits are back came at the IMF/World Bank annual meetings, held in Singapore in September. There, the IMF’s Board of Governors formally approved a previously announced reshuffling of voting shares designed to increase the voting power of four middle income countries — China, Mexico, Turkey, and South Korea. The biggest loser was sub-Saharan Africa; its collective voting share, already a paltry 5%, was cut in half.

Over the last year, warnings from G8 country officials that the IMF was adrift have prodded the institution to seek a facelift. The U.S. Treasury Department calls for it to be a tougher cop on currency values – a barely-veiled plea for it to pressure the Chinese government to devalue its yuan. Western European governments, which by antiquated tradition select the IMF’s Managing Director — who has as a result always been a Western European — want to ensure the institution remains high-profile. However, they aren’t quite sure what exactly they want the Fund to do.

While criticism, even from powerful countries, need not be life-threatening for the IMF, other developments may be. Civil society advocates, and some of the bolder officials of borrowing governments, have long complained bitterly about the debilitating “reforms” demanded by the IMF – harsh measures that tend to strangle rather than revive economies. Recent moves by client governments have alerted G8 officials that the institution’s legitimacy, and even its solvency, are seriously threatened.

Many of the countries, particularly in East Asia, who have been big borrowers in the past have built up unprecedented currency reserves so they need never call on the IMF again. And at least six governments, including major borrowers Brazil, Argentina and Indonesia, are opting to repay IMF and World Bank loans before they are due. That means decreased interest revenue for the IMF.

The writing on the wall is easy to read: governments will go out of their way to avoid borrowing from the IMF. Only African countries, which can afford neither early repayments nor rich reserves, will remain firmly under the IMF’s thumb.

The IMF’s response, in part, has been to refashion itself from rule-maker and enforcer to mediator. It wants to bring together the major players in the world economy – such as China, the U.S., and the E.U. – and convince them to roll back trade imbalances and deficits. How this differs from other fora for economic talks is unclear, but G8 officials have rushed to persuade the world, and themselves, that this shift is just the thing to revitalize the organization.

Even as it takes on a new role, the Fund is not shedding its old one. In African countries, and other nations unable to extricate themselves from the IMF’s grip, the policy demands for which the IMF is notorious – trade and investment liberalization, public sector layoffs and budget cuts, withdrawal of subsidies, high interest rates, reduced budgets for health and education, and privatization – will continue to be imposed. Even in the case of countries that are not trying to borrow from the IMF, any defiance can lead to it expressing disapproval over economic policy. That step, in turn, can lead to the withholding of aid and credit by rich nations and other international organizations.

The juggling of board votes has demonstrated that at the IMF, those nations who are the least likely to be subjected to the institution’s policies wield the most power over the direction those policies take. Countries that must take the IMF’s medicine get the fewest votes. They should expect to lose even those.

While the four beneficiaries of this reform may see a symbolic, or psychological, boost from the maneuver, the real power at the IMF will not shift. The United States will continue to control at least as many votes as before, and as always, is assured of a “veto” by virtue of its 17% share and an 85% “supermajority” rule for major decisions. The U.S. and the other G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the U.K.) will continue to exercise pervasive influence at the IMF, utilizing the “consensus” model of decision-making that obscures any dissent from the status quo.

The shunting aside of Africa in this latest reform demonstrates how far from fair the current IMF is. Recognition that most of the institution’s funding now comes from repayments by the developing countries would warrant a much larger voice for those that must swallow the IMF’s bitter pills.

Most urgent, however, is diminishing the institution’s power to coerce governments into accepting damaging economic policies. For even substantial vote realignment is unlikely to prod the institution that has designed and enforced a radically unbalanced global economic system to undo the damage. With the prospect of breaking the IMF of its bad habits so remote, the only reforms that matter will be those that defang it.

Sameer Dossani is Director of 50 Years Is Enough: U.S Network for Global Economic Justice in Washington, DC. Soren Ambrose is Coordinator of Solidarity Africa Network in Nairobi. They are both contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus.