The UK’s vote in June to leave the European Union, combined with an extraordinary backlash against trade agreements as manifested in the US presidential election, has set off an unprecedented public debate about globalization and even some of the neoliberal principles that it embodies in its current form. It is therefore of great relevance to look at what is happening to one of the most powerful promoters of neoliberal globalization in the world economy: the International Monetary Fund.
An article in the June issue of the IMF’s quarterly magazine, Finance and Development, raised a lot of eyebrows in Washington policy circles. “Neoliberalism: Oversold?” was the title, and the authors presented some evidence in the affirmative, for at least some important neoliberal policies. To most of us, it was like an op-ed from Donald Trump titled “Insulting Your Opponents: Oversold?”
Neoliberalism refers to a set of policies that the IMF has been promoting all over the world for decades. These include tighter fiscal and monetary policies (sometimes even when the economy is weak or in recession); an indiscriminate opening up of countries to international trade and capital flows; the abandonment of state-led industrial and development policies; privatization of public enterprises; and various forms of deregulation, including financial.
It’s not exactly a household word in the United States, but in South America in the 21st century, for example, most of the winning presidential campaigns were against it. There were some solid reasons for their opposition: During the last two decades of the 20th century, when neoliberal reforms were being implemented, income per person in Latin America barely grew. Whereas in the previous two decades—when governments did most of the things that neoliberalism was designed to reverse—income per person nearly doubled.
If we look at the world as a whole during the decades of neoliberal reform (1980–2000), there was also a sharp slowdown in economic growth in the vast majority of low- and middle-income countries, as well as a decline in progress on such indicators as life expectancy and infant mortality. So yes, neoliberalism appears to be worse than oversold.
As a result, the IMF—the most powerful institution promoting neoliberal policies—lost most of its influence in the world during the 21st century. This may seem surprising at first, since the IMF more than tripled its resources, from $250 billion before the Great Recession to $750 billion by 2009, and has even more today. But the majority of its lending—with policy conditions that have once again proven disastrous—is in Europe. And in Europe it is a subordinate partner, with the major decisions regarding its loans and conditions made by the more powerful European governments. The real power that it has had over economic policy has been in developing countries, with the middle-income countries having mostly escaped.