The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has become somewhat infamous as one of the most well-funded failures of Western attempts at development.  On the continent of Africa, the rather unsuccessful IMF policies of the past have included damaging structural adjustment policies and large loans to undemocratic and irresponsible regimes – with the only result being large debts that poor countries do not have the ability to repay.  Many civil society groups accuse the IMF of creating severe global economic injustice, citing it as simply another tool of Western neo-colonialism. Many believe that the IMF’s flawed polices have actively “impoverished Sub-Saharan Africa” and that it is an institution that exists only for the benefit of corporations and the Western elite, which results in devastating effects on the poor.

These claims are not unfounded – the actions of the IMF are controlled by countries through a voting system that heavily favors Western nations, with the US holding exclusive veto power. Additionally, the position of managing director has traditionally been reserved for a European.  While 185 countries hold IMF membership, many (in Africa, especially) have no real voice within the institutional framework.

Given all of the IMF’s past failures, it is difficult to believe that anything good can result from its initiatives.  However, its newest director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (who began his term in November 2007) has called for reform and seems to be leading the IMF in an entirely new direction.  His commitment to hearing the voices of Africans seems almost unprecedented in aninstitution that has traditionally run on the interests of the West.

At a recent discussion of the effects of the global economic crisis on low-income countries, Strauss-Kahn showed that he is working to break the traditional IMF mold of serving Western interests at the expense of Sub-Saharan Africa. The purpose of the discussion was to encourage international financial assistance to low-income countries despite the current economic crisis. However, Strauss-Kahn showed a new side of the IMF when he discussed the necessity of country-specific policies, tailored to meet the individual needs of each country. He also called for the doubling of efforts in the non-financial sector, including technical assistance centers and most importantly, the inclusion of African leaders the reform process.

A promising sign that these words are more than just lofty rhetoric is the upcoming Changes conference, a joint effort between the IMF and Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete.  The stated purpose of the conference (to be held in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania) is to receive feedback from Africa and allow for the exchange of ideas between African leaders and policy makers.  Strauss-Kahn cited concern with the upcoming G-20 meeting as one reason for the conference, considering that “twenty countries in the room means that 165 countries won’t be there.” Ideally, the IMF will represent the interests of African nations based on ideas and opinions generated at the conference.

The sincerity of these efforts remains to be seen.  The Changes conference has the potential to successfully bring African-led solutions to the table, but if history is any indication, “changes” may amount to nothing more than the title of the conference. However, the willingness of Strauss-Kahn to facilitate conversation and his recognition of the importance of African voices in IMF policy-making seem like a big step forward for the IMF of the past.  After 65 years of damaging economic policies, it’s about time for reform – but only time will tell if it is truly achieved. AFJN will continue to follow this issue, recognizing that the “Washington Consensus” around the IMF and World Bank will be difficult to reverse without continued pressure from civil society around the world.

Written by Meghan Mattern