Africans query World Bank, IMF governance mantra

5 April 2001

A week-long “listening tour” brought World Bank President James Wolfensohn and IMF Managing Director Horst Köhler to Mali and Tanzania to meet 22 African leaders in February. Others like the Tanzania Gender Networking Programme questioned who the leaders came to listen to, and what they expected to hear from Heads of State who are financially dependent on their institutions.

A recurring theme was good governance – the importance of the rule of law and strengthened links between government and the governed. Yet, ironically, the efforts to listen to civil society groups directly were minimal. A meeting with Tanzanian civil society and the heads of IMF and World Bank was cut short so the the officials could leave for the Ngorongoro Crater Area tourist and wildlife parks.

“The whole exercise calls into question the meaning of participation and consultation from the perspective of the international financial institutions and their client governments,” says Prof. Majorie Mbilinyi, a member of the Tanzania Gender Networking Programme. “The arrogance portrayed by leaders of institutions and nations is symptomatic of the gap between them and the people they rule.”

The World Bank says it has recently shifted towards an “explicit emphasis on poverty reduction and the quality of governance” in Africa. The extent and meaning of this shift are debated, however. The Bank prioritises creating a stable environment for foreign investment, while Tanzanian and Malian NGO networks emphasise the democratic deficits in their countries and the high social costs of privatising basic services.

Whilst there is clearly debate about appropriate policies for Africa, a new Bank report, Aid and Reform in Africa, could foreclose it. The report argues that aid agencies should become more selective, stressing that aid to countries with “poor” macroeconomic, structural and social policies “may be insulating developing countries from the need to adopt reforms.” However, pointing to Uganda and Ghana as successful examples, it argues that aid finance combined with policy advice and technical assistance can support the the reform process.

But the Archbishop of Gulu in Uganda, John Baptist Odama, is not convinced. He denounced the creation of an upper class in the country of just 15 per cent of the people, accusing the World Bank and IMF of being “advocates of principle” while reality on the ground is completely different.

Clearly, a “new path” for the international financial institutions’ involvement in Africa is needed beyond symbolic public relations meetings with Heads of State and tours of wildlife parks.

The Tanzania Gender Networking Programme and protesters in Mali called on the World Bank and IMF to:

  • develop clear and transparent planning, implementation and monitoring processes, involving ordinary people;
  • end privatisation and user fees in health, education, water and sanitation;
  • ensure that macroeconomic reform is redesigned to prioritise poorer people;
  • cancel all debt.

Some African leaders were more cautious. “We need to understand what put us in this position in the first place. Otherwise we’ll just cancel [the debt] and then start all over again,” commented Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade.

These recent debates about the roles of the World Bank and IMF in Africa call into question how the institutions themselves are governed. The Mozambican Debt Group suggests that the World Bank increase the voting power of the African states in the Board of Executive Directors. The combined voting share of sub-Saharan Africa’s 47 countries currently equals that of Germany – seven per cent. Increasing Africa’s say on the Board, the group claims, “would give the continent a voice where it matters”.

Tanzania Gender Networking Programme

Aid and reform in Africa