Uprising and discontent: Global protests erupt against IMF-backed policies

12 December 2019

General strike in Tunisia.

Recent months have proven particularly tumultuous for the IMF, with thousands taking to the streets around the globe to demand change. Against a turbulent backdrop in Latin America, IMF-backed policies have triggered civil unrest across the region, resulting in civil society organisation (CSO) Latindadd spearheading a joint statement to the IMF in October condemning the “familiar austerity policies” that have led to “devastating economic and social impacts.” In Ecuador, nation-wide protests, led by indigenous leaders, broke out against IMF-backed austerity as part of a $4.2 billion loan, resulting in fuel subsidy cuts being reversed in October 2019 (see Dispatch Annuals 2019). In Argentina, the Fund’s largest-ever loan was met with extensive protests in 2018 and 2019 and, in October, Mauricio Macri lost the presidential vote to IMF-critic Alberto Fernández (see Observer Autumn 2019, Summer 2018).

While developments in Latin America have dominated headlines, protests linked to IMF policy recommendations have also erupted once again across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region (see Observer Summer 2018).

Egypt, which received a $12 billion IMF loan in 2016, has seen a wave of protests in response to Fund policy recommendations, despite threats of force by Egyptian authorities. In October, authorities were forced to lower fuel prices back down following demonstrations, despite the Fund’s deputy managing director in July backing the “elimination of most fuel subsidies.” While the loan was hailed a success with the country’s fast-growing economy being favoured by international investors, the poverty ratio jumped from 27.8 per cent in 2015 – prior to the IMF loan – to almost one-third today.

The austerity policies supported by the IMF contributed to a decrease in social spending and an increase in povertyAbdo Nabil, Oxfam

In Lebanon, widespread protests, strikes and roadblocks took place in October, culminating in Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation on 29 October, with demonstrators demanding changes such as poverty reduction and an end to corruption. While the IMF does not have a loan programme in Lebanon, its 2018 Article IV called for austerity measures such as “restraining public wages.” Its 2019 Article IV, released on the first day of the uprisings on 17 October, called for, “front-loaded and sustained fiscal consolidation,” with news-agency Reuters reporting in the same month that the Fund insists on, “tough austerity measures,” that politicians have, “publicly vowed not to take.” This ‘business as usual’ approach to economic crises management is unlikely to appease protesters. CSO Arab NGO Network on Development noted in its October/November bulletin that the Lebanon protests arose from, “a structurally flawed economic system,” and that today’s situation can be attributed to, “the direct consequences of the rentier economy and liberal macroeconomic policies the country has openly adopted since the 1990s, and will definitely constitute the fuel to the revolution that shall not stop before changing the entire economic and political systems.”

Strikes in Tunisia overturned an IMF-backed wage bill in February, which was followed by Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission seeking reparations from the IMF and World Bank for human rights violations linked to the legacy of structural adjustment programmes (see Observer Autumn 2019, Spring 2019). Further, in Jordan, Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki resigned in June 2018, amid the biggest protests in Jordan since the 2011 Arab Spring, after pushing through unpopular IMF-supported reforms (see Observer Summer 2018).

A report on IMF programmes in Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia by CSO Oxfam International, presented to the Fund in October, found that, “The austerity policies supported by the IMF contributed to a decrease in social spending and an increase in poverty, leaving women the most affected.”