Evaluations suggest IMF, World Bank research ideologically driven

14 September 2011

A report by the IMF’s arms-length evaluation body, the Independent Evaluation Office (IEO), suggests that Fund research does not allow room for alternative perspectives, while academics attack the World Bank for pursuing ideological research agendas.

In June the IEO released a stinging critique of the Fund’s research.  Their evaluation examined the Fund’s research between 1999 and 2008, which amounted to “about 650 publications annually, at a cost of about 10 per cent of the IMF budget.”  Whilst finding that this “included a large number of high-quality and very useful publications” the IEO went on to detail significant failings, particularly the tendency of the IMF to tailor research plans and even conclusions to its existing policy positions.

According to the IEO, “many [country] authorities believed IMF research was highly predictable and did not allow for alternative perspectives.” In fact, in response to an IEO survey as part of the evaluation process,“almost half of the [country] authorities … disagreed ‘strongly’ or ‘somewhat strongly’ that the IMF allowed for alternative perspectives.” External academics and think tanks disagreed “even more sharply”, saying that “a large part of the conclusions and recommendations in WPs [Working Papers] and SIPs [Selected Issues Papers] were not substantiated by the analysis.”

The findings from staff interviews were even more damning, with “about 43 per cent of the respondents [disagreeing] that IMF research allowed for alternative perspectives.” Further, “62 per cent of all staff respondents reported that their research and its conclusions had to be aligned with IMF views ‘very frequently’ or ‘somewhat frequently’”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the Fund’s controversial record in fiscal policy (see Update 77, 71, 70), these views were most strongly held by members of the Fund’s Fiscal Affairs Department.

The IEO also noted that “the technical quality of IMF research publications was quite diverse”, while the “quality of SIPs and WPs, which are not subject to a rigorous quality review, was lower and more variable” than that of flagship publications such as the World Economic Outlook.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the IEO also found that a 1999 external evaluation’s recommendations that IMF research products be subject to external review had not been implemented.

Finally, the evaluation found that “the relevance of research was often hampered by lack of early consultation with country authorities on research themes and by lack of country and institutional context.” Much of the IEO’s criticism echoes their previous evaluation of the IMF’s response to the economic crisis (see Update 74).

IEO demands reform

The IEO made a series of recommendations, including that: country authorities should be consulted when defining research priorities; review processes be significantly strengthened, including through external reviews; and that a senior staff member be appointed to oversee reform, who would report annually to the board.  They also said that the Fund needed to change its institutional culture so that “researchers should be allowed to explore issues without preconceived conclusions or messages”.

The IMF board found the criticism of message-driven research to be “worrisome” and “broadly endorsed” the IEO’s recommendations, but IMF acting managing director, John Lipsky said he was “heartened” by the report’s overall findings, despite the many failings it found.

Commenting on the report, AV Rajwade, visiting professor at the Indian Institute of Management said: “our [country] authorities need to be far more cautious in accepting what Washington advocates on the virtue of market-determined exchange rates as the gospel truth.”

A June special edition of the International Journal of Labour Research added further voices to the chorus claiming the IMF has not changed its policy prescriptions enough after the first wave of the financial crisis. Iyanatul Islam of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) takes issue with IMF economists’ failure to prioritise the goal of full employment in their macroeconomic frameworks. The editor of the journal, Pierre Laliberté, argues that though the tone of the IMF has changed, its policy prescriptions in the eurozone (see Update 77) and elsewhere propose a cure that will “be painful for most [and] might bleed the patient to death.” Finally, Robert Wade of the London School of Economics argues that “the dysfunctions of global organisations”, such as the G20 and the IMF, might “induce the growth of compensating regional governance mechanisms, such as the Chiang Mai Initiative” (see page 9).

Deep critique of Bank research

A new book, The political economy of development, written by academics at the University of London’s School of African and Oriental Studies bemoans the Bank’s failure to rethink its knowledge role in the light of the independent 2006 Deaton report that questioned the quality of Bank research (see Update 54). Detailed chapters from a host of academics “in essence take issue with the [Bank’s] neoliberal framework and systematically demonstrate its failings across a set of areas.” They include criticism of the Bank’s research on agriculture (see Update 77), financial sector (see Update 63), water, conflict, HIV/AIDS, social capital and health.

Elisa Van Waeyenberge and Ben Fine argue that the failure of the Bank to take on board the Deaton report’s critique “is all the more surprising and disappointing given the severity and nature of the criticism levelled at Bank research practice”. In a concluding chapter, Van Waeyenberge, Fine and Kate Bayliss say that the Bank “is apparently unaware of the contexts and power relationships within which its policies and research are undertaken” and that “Bank research [implicitly] assumes no agendas, history, power or politics”.  They draw several conclusions for the Bank, including that “the nature and role of research (at the Bank but also more widely) should not be assessed in isolation from its rhetorical and policy context”, and that “the Bank’s own research has had the effect of precluding more radical approaches from consideration.”