The Annual Meetings of the board of governors of the World Bank Group (WBG) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) are one of the two official yearly convenings held by the Bretton Woods Institutions (BWIs) in autumn each year, usually in mid-October.
During this gathering of BWI officials, policymakers, civil society and media, the institutions’ governing bodies and management engage in discussions about important institutional and global events as well as trends impacting on their mandates. Internal high-level meetings between finance ministers and other senior officials are supplemented by ‘flagship’ events in which World Bank and IMF officials participate in high-visibility exchanges with prominent journalists and international figures. Influential publications such as the World Economic Outlook report and the Fiscal Monitor frame discussions at the Annual Meetings. Most notably for civil society, the Civil Society Policy Forum (CSPF) occurs alongside official meetings and provides a formal opportunity for engagement with the BWIs.
Annual Meetings have taken place every year since the inception of the BWIs in 1944 (see Background What are the Bretton Woods Institutions?), usually at the WBG & IMF headquarters in Washington DC for two years and then hosted by a member state every third year. The Covid-19 pandemic moved the Meetings to a virtual format from Spring 2020, with in-person Annuals resuming in October 2022. Prior to the pandemic, the event was widely attended by around 13,000 people.
The event typically opens with the IMF Managing Director’s and the World Bank President’s opening speeches, striking the tone for the forthcoming meetings and contextualising them in the wider geopolitical climate of the moment. The joint Bank-IMF Development Committee, made up of ministers and central bank governors, meets to discuss the progress of the work of the BWIs, as does the International Monetary and Financial Committee (IMFC). The Boards of Governors for each institution also meet, consisting of one governor from every member country, to discuss the future and planned work for the institutions, as well as potential policy and major global issues. The Intergovernmental Group of 24 (G24), a group of member states from across Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean, also meet, as does the Group of 20 (G20), a group of some of the world’s largest economies. These meetings are closed, but communiqués are released to outline discussions (see Dispatch Annuals 2020).
Aside from the official closed-door meetings, the Annual Meetings are characterised by a plethora of side events, both formal and informal, attended by representatives from other intergovernmental organisations, financial institutions, journalists, academics, activists and civil society members. A programme of seminars on the world economy, financial stability, and economic development, primarily highlighting research by the BWIs, also occurs.
Civil society engagement with the Annual Meetings
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Annuals programme for civil society is the Civil Society Policy Forum (CSPF). Usually held prior to the ministerial-level meetings at both Springs and Annuals, the CSPF is the BWIs’ largest platform for engagement with civil society. Civil society organisations (CSOs), ranging from grassroots to international in size, meet to engage in critical discussions with Bank and Fund officials. Topics such as governance and accountability of the BWIs, climate change, gender, austerity and economic policy alternatives are discussed, with Bank and IMF staff participating in most of the panel events. A CSPF working group, comprised of CSO representatives, engages with the BWIs to help organise the programme of events. The Bank and Fund facilitate and publicise the CSPF, which they call “integral” to the meetings, “providing an open space for CSOs to dialogue and exchange views with World Bank and IMF staff, their peers, government delegations, and other stakeholders on a wide range of topics.”
Critically, the CSPF was initially set up after CSOs expressed frustration about the BWIs’ ‘closed door’ approach to the meetings and decided to instead discuss and critique Bank and IMF activities from the outside. The CSPF is now an official and key feature of the meetings. This has become a source of contestation between some civil society actors, with many considering the BWIs’ involvement in civil society spaces as a public relations exercise that offers the institutions an opportunity to claim to be inclusive of civil society and Global South voices in its decision making. For some, this hinders truly critical discussion and BWI accountability, and rarely results in notable policy change. Others see the CSPF as a vital opportunity to influence the institutions and present cases for policy change. Regardless of influence on the BWIs, it is a valuable opportunity for civil society strategising.
Despite the CSPF’s historical development from a site of opposition to becoming an official programme item, the Annual Meetings have continued to face significant criticism over the years. In 2015, BWP wrote to the Bank and Fund, along with numerous other civil society signatories, to highlight the lack of consultation and accountability in the organising of the CSPF, stating that Bank and Fund staff would “vet and alter event proposals, diminishing the space for constructive engagement and potentially stifling criticism,” leading to many participants cancelling events and attendance. Poor and chaotic organisation was also cited, particularly impacting Southern attendees, and often leaving civil society events physically separated from the main action of the meetings, in far away or inadequate meeting spaces. This letter was one of the key motivations for the BWIs to set up the aforementioned CSPF Working Group, but issues remain. The CSPF continues to be hosted in side buildings.
Broader issues with civil society engagement are also still salient. In 2018, the Indonesian host government actively undermined an independent grassroots side event (see Observer Winter 2018). Ensuring a safe and open space for critical civil society engagement without threat of repercussion will be a concern at the 2023 Annuals in Morocco as well.