What are the Bretton Woods Institutions?

1 January 2019 | FAQ

The Bretton Woods Institutions are the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). They were set up at a meeting of 43 countries in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, USA in July 1944. Their aims were to help rebuild the shattered postwar economy and to promote international economic cooperation. The original Bretton Woods agreement also included plans for an International Trade Organisation (ITO) but these lay dormant until the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was created in the early 1990s.

The creation of the World Bank and the IMF came at the end of the Second World War. They were based on the ideas of a trio of key experts – US Treasury Secretary Henry Morganthau, his chief economic advisor Harry Dexter White, and British economist John Maynard Keynes. They wanted to establish a postwar economic order based on notions of consensual decision-making and cooperation in the realm of trade and economic relations. It was felt by leaders of the Allied countries, particularly the US and Britain, that a multilateral framework was needed to overcome the destabilising effects of the previous global economic depression and trade battles.

In his opening speech at the Bretton Woods conference, Henry Morganthau said the “bewilderment and bitterness” resulting from the Depression became “the breeders of fascism, and finally, of war”. Proponents of the new institutions felt that global economic interaction was necessary to maintain international peace and security. The institutions would facilitate, in Morganthau’s words, “[the] creation of a dynamic world community in which the peoples of every nation will be able to realise their potentialities in peace.”

The IMF would create a stable climate for international trade by harmonising its members’ monetary policies, and maintaining exchange stability. It would be able to provide temporary financial assistance to countries encountering difficulties with their balance of payments. The World Bank, on the other hand, would serve to improve the capacity of countries to trade by lending money to war-ravaged and impoverished countries for reconstruction and development projects.