Assessing the Bretton Woods Institutions’ legacy

Critical views from the MENA region and Sub-Saharan Africa

3 October 2023 | Briefings

Protest at COP27, celebrated in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt in November 2022. Credit: Oliver Kornblihtt / Mídia NINJA

Protest at COP27, celebrated in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt in November 2022. Credit: Oliver Kornblihtt / Mídia NINJA

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Table of contents

I. Aggiornamento or planned (destructive) obsolescence? The Bretton Woods Institutions at crossroads. By Ndongo Samba Sylla

II.To deliver for the MENA region, the IMF needs urgent reform. By Leïla Oulhaj & Shereen Talaat

III. Food security in Africa from a feminist lens. By Leonida Odongo

IV. How the IMF became part of Egypt’s problem. By Amr Adly

V. Old dogs need real structural reform, not new tricks. By Dean Bhebhe & Colin Bessans 

About the authors


As the World Bank and IMF hold their Annual Meetings in Marrakech, Morocco, for the first time in Africa in 50 years, the Bretton Woods Project is pleased to present this edited volume titled, Assessing the Bretton Woods Institutions’ legacy: Critical views from the MENA region and Sub-Saharan Africa.

The 2023 Annual Meetings will take place during what the World Bank Evolution Roadmap document and former World Bank President David Malpass have described as a ‘crisis of development’. Unfortunately, the Middle East and North Africa, and the continent more broadly, are bearing the brunt of the crisis. UNCTAD’s State of Commodity Dependence 2023 report noted, for example, that half of the world’s commodity dependent countries are in Africa. The 2022 World Inequality Report meanwhile found that the MENA region is the world’s most unequal, with the top 10 per cent of the population holding 58 per cent of the income. The continent and region are also extremely vulnerable to climate change, food insecurity, extreme poverty and – as recent events have made clear – political and social instability.

This collection of essays, written by regional authors, argues that the hardships faced by the region’s poor and marginalised, and the development challenges faced by its states, are to a significant degree the result of current and historic IMF and World Bank policies and programmes, which support an unjust and extractionist world economic order.

Aggiornamento or planned (destructive) obsolescence? The Bretton Woods Institutions at crossroads

This first contribution, by Ndongo Samba Sylla, of International Development Economics Associates (IDEAs), introduces the role of the IMF and World Bank in the global economy, with a focus on the MENA region and Sub Saharan Africa, from their inception after World War II to their failed neoliberal model, the climate crisis and the way forward. 

To deliver for the MENA region, the IMF needs urgent reform 

The second contribution, by Leïla Oulhaj, of CNCD-11.11.11, and Shereen Talaat, of MenaFem Movement for Economic Development and Ecological Justice, argues that IMF-supported policies in the MENA region have added fuel to the fire of austerity, food insecurity and vulnerability, as well as gender inequality. It notes that the failure of IMF programmes to bring about urgently required economic transformation and development necessary for long-term economic and political stability both in the region and globally, demonstrate the need for a fairer system capable of providing dignified living conditions for all people, not just the most powerful.

Food security in Africa from a feminist lens

The third contribution, by Leonida Odongo, of Haki Nawiri Afrika, argues that food security in Africa is a gendered issue as demonstrated by the continued prevalance of patriarchy, which means the control of natural resources like land, the basis of food production, is held predominantly by men. The piece illustrates the central role the World Bank and IMF have played in creating such conditions through historical structural adjustment programmes and current austerity-focused loan conditionalities.

How the IMF became part of Egypt’s problem

The fourth contribution, by Amr Adly, of American University in Cairo, notes that IMF’s increasing involvement in MENA was an unmistakable signal of troubled finances and deteriorating macroeconomic conditions in MENA in the wake of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and the Arab revolutions of 2011 and 2019. The article discusses the IMF’s engagement with Egypt as a poignant example of the broader above-mentioned trends. Whereas the IMF’s initial involvement in Egypt was allegedly to help reform its economy and regain financial stability, just six years later the country is struggling to generate enough dollars to service its huge external debt. Ironically, the IMF has become Egypt’s largest creditor. In turn, Egypt is the Fund’s second biggest debtor after Argentina, owing $18 billion to the IMF. Not only has the IMF not contributed to solving Egypt’s economic problem, but it has also become a part of the country’s debt problem.

Old dogs need real structural reform, not new tricks

The final contribution, by Dean Bhebhe, of University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, and Colin Bessans, of Power Shift Africa, highlights how the Bretton Woods Institutions have spent decades actively undermining African development, deepening structural dependencies rather than supporting domestic sovereignty, and creating debt spirals that continue to hold Africa back. As these institutions seek to remain relevant in a changing world, incremental reform of governance and addition of “green” and “sustainable” to existing development philosophies is wholly insufficient. If the soon-to-be octogenarian institutions hope to hold a meaningful place in the future of the world’s youngest continent they will need meaningful structural reform and a renewed understanding of what real development looks like.

We hope that this publication will in some small way contribute to mobilising regional and international calls for reform of the unjust economic governance structure of which World Bank and the IMF are pivotal elements. As the World Bank executive board considers its Evolution Roadmap and the IMF revisits allocations of its quota system, we are hopeful that this modest compilation will assist those demanding significant reforms that may truly support a just and equitable green transformation in the continent.