World Bank Fact Sheet

  • What is the World Bank?
  • What is the IMF?
  • Why are they so important?
  • What are structural adjustment programs (SAPs)?
  • Is structural adjustment working?
  • If structural adjustment doesn't work, then why are they promoting it?
  • What about Third World debt?
  • What is the relationship between debt and structural adjustment?
  • Who makes the decisions?
  • How do companies benefit from the lending programs at the World Bank?
  • Why is this bad?
  • Can they be reformed?
  • How can I make a difference?

    What is the World Bank?

    Created at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944, the World Bank Group is comprised of five agencies that make loans or guarantee credit to 177 member countries. It aims to help countries reduce poverty by making long-term
    loans to governments for projects such as dams or bridges, or to back
    economic reform programmes. The World Bank also produces many influential
    research reports and has affiliates which back private companies investing
    in poor countries.


    What is the IMF?

    Also created at the Bretton Woods Conference, the International Monetary Fund seeks to maintain an orderly balance of international trade and payments by regularly assessing economies and making short-term loans to those with balance of payments difficulties. Countries wanting to join the World Bank must first become members of the IMF.


    Why are they so important?

    The two agencies determine whether developing countries get access to aid
    money and how it is spent. Northern governments use them to carry out
    certain foreign and commercial policy objectives, but as multilateral
    institutions they have the potential to foster cooperative international
    approaches on key issues such as environmental change.


    What are structural adjustment programs (SAPs)?

    Structural adjustment programs (SAPs) are a set of economic policies required by the World Bank and the IMF as a condition of loans these institutions make to developing countries. These programs often include austerity measures such as high interest rates and reduced access to credit, which result in slower economic growth as well as increased poverty and unemployment. Other adjustment policies include cuts in government spending on health care and education, increases in the cost of food, health care and other basic necessities, mandates to open markets to foreign trade and investment, and privatization of state-run enterprises.


    Is structural adjustment working?

    No, structural adjustment has exacerbated poverty in most
    countries where it has been applied, contributing to the
    suffering of millions and causing widespread environmental
    degradation. And since the 1980s, adjustment has helped
    create a net outflow of wealth from the developing world,
    which has paid out five times as much capital to the
    industrialized countries of the North as it has received.


    I know there are a lot of qualified people at the World
    Bank and IMF who are experts in economics and other fields.
    If structural adjustment doesn't work, then why are they
    promoting it?

    The wealthy Northern countries which control the World
    Bank and IMF dictate the agendas of these institutions, and
    their interests are best served by defending the status quo.
    Furthermore, the Bank's staff is currently dominated by
    economists who have spent their careers defending the
    validity of neoclassical economics, the foundation of the
    World Bank model of development. This orthodox view holds
    sacred the efficiency of free markets and private producers
    and the benefits of international trade and competition.
    Given the lack of accountability to outside parties, there
    is little incentive for the Bank and IMF to alter the design
    of structural adjustment, even when faced with mounting
    evidence attesting to the failure of these programs.


    I hear a lot about the debt crisis in the Third World and
    know that many of the loans are owed to commercial banks and
    Northern governments. People say that some or all of this
    debt should be canceled to give developing countries a
    chance to recover economically. Shouldn't they pay?

    Much of this debt dates back to 1970s, when it was lent
    irresponsibly by commercial banks and borrowed recklessly by
    foreign governments, most of which were not popularly
    elected and which no longer hold power. The advent of the
    debt crisis, which occurred in the early 1980s due to a
    worldwide collapse in the prices of commodities that
    developing countries export (e.g., coffee, cocoa) and to
    rising oil prices and interest rates, forced these countries
    into a position where they were unable to make payments. Yet
    there's no such thing as bankruptcy protection for a
    country, regardless of the circumstances. When the U.S.
    department store Macy's filed for bankruptcy under chapter
    11 in January 1992, it received instant protection from
    creditors and working capital to keep open. At the same
    time, when Russia told the West that it could not meet
    government had to wait for more than a year before the IMF
    provided financial help.


    What is the relationship between debt and structural

    Since the 1980s the debt situation has steadily worsened,
    so that now the total debt of the developing world equals
    about one-half their combined GNP and nearly twice their
    total annual export earnings. Because of this crushing
    debt-service burden, foreign governments have virtually no
    bargaining power when negotiating a structural adjustment
    program and must accept any conditions imposed by the World
    Bank and the IMF. And SAPs themselves, by orienting
    economies toward generating foreign exchange, are designed
    to ensure that debtor countries continue to make debt
    payments, further enriching Northern creditors at the
    expense of domestic programs in the South.


    Who makes the decisions?

    Decisions at the World Bank and IMF are made by a vote of
    the Board of Executive Directors, which represents member
    countries. Unlike the United Nations, where each member
    nation has an equal vote, voting power at the World Bank and
    IMF is determined by the level of a nation's financial
    contribution. Therefore, the United States has roughly 17%
    of the vote, with the seven largest industrialized countries
    (G-7) holding a total of 45%. Because of the scale of its
    contribution, the United States has always had a dominant
    voice and has at all times exercised an effective veto. At
    the same time, developing countries have relatively little
    power within the institution, which, through the programs
    and policies they decide to finance, have tremendous impact
    throughout local economies and societies. Furthermore, the
    President of the World Bank is by tradition an American, and
    the IMF President is a European.


    How is it that U.S. business and other companies benefit
    from the lending programs at the World Bank?

    Development projects undertaken with World Bank financing
    typically include money to pay for materials and consulting
    services provided by Northern countries. U.S. Treasury
    Department officials calculate that for every U.S.$1 the
    United States contributes to international development
    banks, U.S. exporters win more than U.S.$2 in bank-financed
    procurement contracts.


    Why is this bad?

    Given this self-interest, the Bank tends to finance
    bigger, more expensive projects--which almost always require
    the materials and technical expertise of Northern
    contractors--and ignores smaller-scale, locally appropriate alternatives. The mission of the World Bank to alleviate poverty, not provide business for U.S.


    Can they be reformed?

    Most incoming World Bank Presidents promise major reforms, normally
    emphasising poverty and the environment. The latest, James Wolfensohn, is
    being particularly bold in his aims and has unveiled a number of positive
    initiatives towards openness and a more balanced view of economic reform.
    But many previous plans have been thwarted by the Bank's institutional
    culture, which prevents internal debate, and rewards large loans regardless
    of whether they help poor people.

    The IMF remains a very secretive and technocratic organisation with little
    concern for poverty or environmental issues, but recently has made some
    attempts to open up.


    How can I make a difference?

    Get informed and tell others. Not enough people know what is going on with
    these distant international agencies. If you are from a rich country your government (Finance, Foreign Affairs or Aid/International Cooperation Ministries) is contributing your aid money to the World Bank and IMF, and will have a strong voice in how Bank money is used. You can contact your Ministers or officials to make your views known and ask for their response. If you are from a developing country then you now have the right to obtain information about what the World Bank and IMF are doing in your countries.

AMP Section Name:World Financial Institutions
  • 194 World Financial Institutions

Stay Informed