Invited but Invisible: Civil Society at the IMF, World Bank Meetings

A demonstration at the IMF & World Bank annual meetings in Marrakech on October 13, 2023. Photo by Jakob Plaschke.

At this year’s annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB), the new World Bank president Ajay Banga had a message for civil society representatives.

“In this room, you have a range of perspectives, expertise, skillsets… That doesn’t mean that I have to agree with you all the time. But I promise I will always listen, and I will approach these conversations with the decency they demand and the fairness you deserve,” Banga said during an October 10 event billed as a “townhall.”

But while Banga and his colleagues in the WB and the IMF say they consider Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) active partners and have committed to engaging with them, the experience of CSO participants at this year’s annual meetings from October 9 to 15, including a large Tunisian representation, was quite different.

“They [the IMF and WB] didn’t come to our panel. We weren’t given any information on that. And then they told us: ‘We weren’t able to secure enough staff for the panel,’” said Sahar Mechmech, a public policy analyst with the Tunis-based Ali Ben Ghedhahem Center for Fiscal Justice. “That’s unfortunate, because we would have loved to hear what the IMF has to say in terms of the impacts of their policies, but also why they choose to not go for alternative policies that have proven successful in other… developing countries.”

On the civil-society-designated sidelines of the annual meetings in Marrakech, Mechmech and her colleague Amine Bouzaïane, presented the research they had contributed to a recent Oxfam report in a panel entitled “Time to Tax Wealth in the MENA region.” The panel also featured interventions by Omar Ghannam, an Egyptian political economist, and Salma Jrad, executive director of the Tunisian CSO Al Bawsala.

In the original master schedule for the Civil Society Policy Forum (CSPF)—the name given to the civil society events that take place within the official summit site—both an IMF representative and a high-level government representative from Tunisia or Morocco were listed under participants as “TBC,” i.e. “to be confirmed.” However, no such representatives attended, and no IMF or WB representatives in the audience made their attendance known when panelists asked the audience if any were in attendance.

From Meshkal’s observations attending the sessions and according to numerous civil society participants, the CSPF consisted of four days of presentations mostly given by civil society, to civil society audiences, despite their content consisting mostly of policy suggestions aimed at the two International Financial Institutions (IFIs).

In many of the panels, an IFI representative would join as a panelist. One such panel was on social protection systems in the Arab region, where Roberto Cardarelli, an Assistant Director in the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia department, participated. Farah Al Shami, a policy and development economist and Senior Fellow at the Arab Reform Initiative (ARI), was also a panelist on the same panel:

“In this case, which is rare and a bit different, what we thought he was saying was: ‘Things are out of our control’, you know?” explained Al Shami. “We prepared the messages. We prepared the research findings. We prepared our presentations. Those presentations were heard by a person, a real person, sitting with us. So here, you are 100% sure that these were heard,” she continued. “Now whether he will [convey our messages] or not, we cannot control. And we cannot be sure…that he will transmit them to the right people. We’re just hoping he will.“

Meshkal reached out to Roberto Cardarelli via email asking about his takeaways from the panel and how he is bringing them forward within the IMF. He referred us to the IMF’s public affairs team handling civil society issues who responded to our questions.

Video recordings of both panels were posted to the IMF’s website here.

Structural Resistance to Alternatives

While CSOs said they struggled to convey their research on the harmful social impacts of IFI lending policies across to IFI representatives at the annual meetings, this reported lack of openness to criticism is structural according to some.

One economist from a Global South country who negotiated with the IMF in their country’s debt restructuring negotiations explained to Meshkal: “They are not interested in that part [social impact-focused policies] of the agreement. They are always thinking about the [currency] reserves, the money and the monetary policy.”

“So when you bring that up, do they just shrug it off?” I asked.

“No they say: ‘Ah okay yeah, we’ll incorporate it,’ because they know that no one will follow that. Nobody will say: ‘Oh, you are not having results in that area’. Nobody cares. They say: ‘Okay, we’ll incorporate it,’ they’ll incorporate everything. But nobody cares,” the former negotiator continued, speaking on condition of anonymity given the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue.

As for how the negotiations actually take place, the former negotiator said that the IMF used “different characters, like bad cop-good cop.” Of the main IMF negotiators in the room, one would make you feel “he is like your best friend… Everything you say, you feel like you’re having a conversation with a friend,” they said, comparing the negotiator to a “snake charmer.” The other, they said, would cross legs and arms and put on a cold demeanor throughout the process. “You have to connect with them, but it’s all false. Because they are not your friends and never will be your friends.”

A lack of constructive engagement

Given the disappointment expressed to Meshkal about the IMF and WB’s engagement with civil society at the annual meetings, Meshkal asked some civil society participants what they had hoped to get out of participating.

“We thought that presenting the material to the IMF in their own spaces and countering their arguments there was the best choice in terms of confronting these institutions with… the failures of their own policies,” said Mechmech.

However, as a recent Oxfam report about the IMF’s engagement with Civil Society noted, CSOs and IMF staff have different objectives with their CSO-engagement. Despite expecting “CSOs to bring detailed analyses and discussion of policies or potential policies in the [IMF] loan programs to meetings,” IMF staff see the engagement primarily as a “temperature check” on public perception of IMF programs. For their part, CSOs see the engagement as an opportunity to influence IMF at a policy level.

In a call with Meshkal, Nisreen Farhan, Chief of Public Affairs at the IMF, explained that summaries are written of every CSPF session and sent to the management team, “so it’s all on the record… for further feedback and to feed into management meetings with civil society.” Also, an IMF-wide “post-mortem” was held a week after the annual meetings in which “our division sent input on how we saw civil society, what are the problems we had,” seeking to improve the “process for the [annual] Spring Meetings.” As for informal interactions between CSO representatives and IMF staff on the sidelines of the annual meetings, Farhan noted that summaries are made and sent around to topically or country-specialized teams.

“But I think…the importance of these meetings is the regular contact and the regular engagement because if we meet just once a year or twice a year, that regular piece disappears, and it doesn’t become in our bloodstream. So we make a point of doing all of these not necessarily to feed directly into a staff report or a policy paper but to get that engagement as part of our ‘this is what we do for a living, we always hear voices and we bring it in,’” Farhan added, noting that officials who meet CSO members at the meeting may reach out to them again during country visits.

“The [sideline] meetings during the annual meetings [are] just a way to make sure that when official missions happen for reports, then we can do follow-up meetings with the same group or open it up to more groups. It’s a stepping stone,” added Farhan.

Invisible Civil Society

All the civil society panels took place in the designated Civil Society Zone – a remote corner of the massive summit site in the Bab Ighli complex in Marrakech, making it unlikely anyone would find it unless they were searching for it. Several civil society participants interviewed by Meshkal complained about its placement.

The IMF events hosted in the Civil Society Zone were also not listed on “IMF Connect,” a web portal which the IMF advertised as hosting the conference’s “entire calendar,” according to at least two emails the IMF sent to conference attendees and press. The online calendar did include the World Bank’s CSPF events, as well as side-events co-hosted by the IMF and outside organizations, like think tanks.

The IMF’s Public Affairs chief Farhan told Meshkal that this was a glitch that would have been fixed had it been noticed.

Civil society events also were not included on information screens around the summit site that displayed a running schedule of the conference’s events and their locations. Multiple civil society participants also said they were unaware of the existence of IMF Connect altogether. One told Meshkal they had only been presented with a PDF of the Civil Society Policy Forum schedule and no information on other events at the site.

Farhan said that all CSO registrants had full access to IMF Connect and highlighted that the IMF hosted poorly attended weekly office hours in the lead-up to the meetings where civil society participants could have asked for more information.

“But if our interlocutors don’t know about IMF Connect, then this is again a lesson by the IMF, that we need to do a better job advertising for IMF Connect,” Farhan said.

“We heard of meetings after they happened. I was pulled into a meeting last minute for example that I didn’t know about [in advance] and didn’t have a chance to prepare for,” said Mechmech who described the replies of IMF representatives in the few instances when she managed to talk to them as “diplomatic” and “evasive.”

Other civil society attendees who had been promised more concrete interactions from the IMF and the WB left disappointed as well.

“It’s clear. Even the way we are structured at the meetings, the CSOs are kept in one side to allow them to talk to themselves, while ‘We [the IFIs] continue our business in some high-profile way,’” said Joel Odigie who is the Deputy General Secretary of ITUC-Africa, a trade union confederation that represents around 17 million trade union members in 51 African countries, including Tunisia’s UGTT.

“Before now, we made a series of appointments to speak with some of these representatives [of the IMF and the WB], because we know they’ll be busy. But if we could have side meetings one-on-one with them to discuss our concerns, at least that would be something. We tried, but nothing. I think there was only one reply. No follow-up,” Odigie added.

“The other ones did not reply?” I asked.

“No, not at all. The opportunity to meet with them on the sidelines and have these discussions is not forthcoming,” he replied.

Farah Al Shami, the economist at ARI, claimed that even very senior IFI staff members have limited political mandates, something she believes hinders constructive engagement. She called engagement with the senior staff present at the civil society panels “wasting our time a little bit,” highlighting that at the end of the day, the staff are restricted by their political mandates from higher-ups, including not only the presidents of the WB and IMF but also the institutions’ member states with the biggest voting shares.

“Even if the staff is convinced and if they dare to… scientifically negotiate and discuss, you hear: ‘Yeah, but we can’t do anything about it;’ or they say: ‘Yes, but there’s little we can do, it is what it is.’ You feel that they are bound by something,” Al Shami related.

In her book, The Globalizers: The IMF, the World Bank, and Their Borrowers, Ngaire Woods make a similar evaluation but on a systemic level. The economic policy followed by the IMF and the WB follows a policy template that permits “the Fund [IMF] and [World] Bank to “stand above” local knowledge and to claim a universally applicable expertise, based squarely in the discipline of economics,” combined with a hierarchical structure which incentivizes staff to follow the policy blueprint, not ‘second guess’ upper management or the Executive Board and leaves “very little room for experimentation or for taking account of local circumstances and knowledge,” (pages 62-64).

Townhalls with high-level staff

Aside from the civil-society organized panels, there were four main events at the annual meetings for IFI engagement with the attending CSOs: one “townhall” with the IMF’s Managing Director Kristina Georgieva, one with WB President Ajay Banga, and one “roundtable” each with the institutions’ respective executive directors. There, CSOs would ostensibly have a direct line of communication to the top decision-makers within the IFIs. Presumably, the executive directors would be less bound by political mandates than their staff attending the CSPF panels. However despite these events being presented to civil society as an opportunity to engage with the IFIs, Rose Kimeu Craigue, Lead of Stakeholder Engagement with the World Bank, introduced the townhall with Banga in her opening remarks as a Q&A rather than a discussion, and the format did not lend itself to engagement.

“We saw that they didn’t come prepared to answer our questions and concerns and to engage with our feedback genuinely,” said Al Shami. “They cannot negate or alter any of [their] positions, because they are representing the official position of their institution.”

According to her, the townhall for CSOs with IMF’s Georgieva was even less engaging than the World Bank’s townhall with Banga. One Tunisian civil society participant related that a large part of the townhall was taken up by pre-submitted questions. Asked by Meshkal whether the questions could be characterized as “soft-ball” or anodyne questions, the participant agreed. The interactive component to the townhall had CSO participants physically stand up and form a line for the microphone, as their questions were taken a few at a time. According to Al Shami, who was in attendance, Georgieva “wasn’t really addressing the questions,” beyond pre-prepared talking points. Al Shami also said that follow-up questions were not allowed.

IMF representatives told Meshkal that the event was not recorded, so it was not possible to verify this characterization.

A similar dynamic seems to have also shaped the roundtables with the executive directors. The format of the roundtables was more engaging at the World Bank side than at the IMF side, according to Al Shami who participated in both. However, she said that neither meeting was interactive enough, and that the executive directors were on the defensive rather than prepared to engage. At previous annual meetings, she explained, the IMF had organized intimate brownbag lunches with CSOs and relevant IMF representatives, but this engagement was missing this time.

“The townhalls were all about justifying the [policy] failures,” said Mechmech the policy analyst. “They said they’re here to learn, but what we hear is more that they’re here to justify their own policies than to learn from the examples of failures that are well-documented.”

“CSO-washing… I feel it’s very representative of what happened. They just want to check boxes,” said Al Shami.

Counter events, protests

Concurrently with the IMF-World Bank Annual Meetings, Marrakech was overflowing with counter-summits and protest activities. In the eyes of many involved, this disregard for CSO inputs may stem from the view that the primary role of the BWIs has little to do with inputs from CSOs and everything to do with the investors’ ability to collect on debt on behalf of their creditors.

“They [the IMF and the World Bank] are forcing you to implement these policies to cut down on social spending, so that you can repay your debt, so basically acting as debt collectors,” explained Joab Okanda, who during the conference functioned as Pan-Africa Spokesperson for the Fighting Inequality Alliance, which organized the People’s Tribunal on World Bank and IMF.

The Tribunal was a one-day event, as part of the People’s Alternative Actions organized by the Fight Inequality Alliance. It featured a jury of experts and 12 representatives of communities affected by IMF and WB policies who gave testimony on the first-hand impacts of IFI policies. Each testimony was probed by the jury for their specific relationships with the IFIs, after which a verdict was decided upon. The verdict found “the IFIs seriously guilty of fuelling inequality by colluding with the financial sector and powerful multinational corporations,” and called for them to stop working for the rich.

“This global People’s Tribunal is a culmination of a number of activities that have been happening in communities across the world. We’ve been having people’s caravans and national tribunals in different countries on the IMF and the World Bank [where] communities have been sharing… how they’ve been impacted by IMF and World Bank policies and practices,” said Okanda. “What has come out in particular is the impact of austerity on the common person’s life, which the policy advice from the IMF and the World Bank are giving to governments in the Global South.”

Currently, over 60% of low-income countries are in debt distress. Okanda pointed out that the solution to this from the IFIs is to cut social spending and raise taxes on consumer products – a process that happens almost automatically in most settings, since countries have laws that require them to pay back debt and service their debt. That the IFIs are at the end of the day debt collectors was a commonly held viewpoint across the various counter-actions in Marrakech, in which people from the Global South dominated. In addition to the tribunal, this included the Reclaim Our Future Conference, a Worker’s Town Hall hosted by the Moroccan Workers’ Union and the large Global Counter-Summit of Social Movements, as well as End Austerity Annual Meetings which Meshkal was unable to attend.

A delegation of around 40 Tunisians traveled to Morocco to participate in the counter-activities, representing Al Bawsala, the Tunisian Observatory for the Economy, Generation Against Marginalization, Debt for Climate Tunisia, Aswat Nisaa, Working Group for Energy Democracy Tunisia, Nomad 08, the North African Network for Food Sovereignty, Cartographie Citoyenne, El Warcha, HIVOS, Extinction Rebellion Tunisia, UGTT and more, all of whom also organized workshops as part of the Global Counter-Summit of Social Movements. According to Siwar Mohamed Salah, a member of the Global Counter-Summit’s communications team with whom Meshkal met in Kairouan in the run-up to the events, the Global Counter-Summit offered a bit of economic support via its main organizer, the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions and Citizen’s Action (ATTAC) to participants who could not fund their travel to Marrackech.

The counter-actions held at the meetings were diverse in their formats. The Reclaim Our Future Conference consisted primarily of workshops with scholars and activists presenting critical perspectives on various aspects of the IFIs, as well as networking and connecting, plenary sessions and a final declaration calling to shut down the IMF and World Bank and hold them accountable.

“The conference is called Reclaim Our Future, because our pasts and presents have been dictated upon by these institutions,” explained Rodolfo Lahoy of IBON International, one of the co-organizers of the conference. “Our countries, from Palestine to the Philippines and across the Global South have been dictated upon by these institutions.”

According to Lahoy, the most important aspects of the conference was to have a space in which social movements and civil society could come together to speak on their own terms, because in the IMF and World Bank, they are “always forcing you to speak in their terms, look at things from their perspective,” and exist in spaces that “are structured in a way where you’re only talking to a wall.” He highlighted the need to organize across borders ahead of next year’s 80-year anniversary of the Bretton Woods agreement, which founded the two IFIs.

“Next year they will be saying our 80 years are about helping countries develop themselves… We already know… this narrative of hiding their role in… plundering resources [and] in plundering financial resources through debt,” Lahoy said. “They will be writing their own history to tell us that they’re actually good. So that’s why we’re saying as early as now, we have to start thinking about how to build a people’s history.”

“They [the IMF and World Bank] should be shut down. There should be a different path. If we want to develop the global south, we should create our own economics, our own path,” added Liza Maza who is General Secretary of the International League of People’s Struggles, another co-organizer of the conference. Maza is also a former parliamentarian and head of the National Anti-Poverty Commission in the Philippines, who claims to have faced consequences for her activism, such as being denied entry to the U.S. to participate in a popular tribunal against President Barack Obama, or facing false murder charges in the Philippines because of her dissent from then-president of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs policy.

“[The IMF and World Bank] are the primary carriers of U.S. colonial and imperialist dogma through neoliberal economic policies, deregulation and privatization, and these policies have stunted our economics. Now we are here to talk about our stories… and see where we can unite… and continue with our struggle back home,” Maza added.

Later in the week, the Global Counter-Summit of Social Movements was the only one of the counter-actions that organized a protest march through the streets of Marrakech, which took place on the first day of the four-day summit, traversed much of the city center, and lasted several hours. Protesters from across the world joined, calling for things like debt cancellation, ending fossil fuel usage and investments in it, reparations for the Global South, ending austerity and, supporting Palestine as it faced the beginning of Israel’s U.S.-supported aerial bombing campaign apparently targeting densely-populated Palestinian civilian neighborhoods, hospitals, schools, mosques, churches, and journalists in Gaza.

The Counter-Summit, in its panel discussions, hosted a Moroccan activist who spoke about the plight of Omar Radi, a Moroccan journalist imprisoned on espionage and rape charges in a trial that human rights groups have said was unfair. An organizer with the Counter-Summit told Meshkal that insisting on hosting more controversial talks caused some to back out of participating or partaking in organizing.

None of the counter-actions in Marrakech during the week addressed the Western Sahara question, which was seen as too risky to bring up, even with the added protection stemming from Morocco’s heightened visibility during the Annual Meetings.

“I’m talking about the entire Global South. We really want to stop the bleeding from this colonialism and from the dictates from the World Bank, the IMF and others,” said Salah of the Counter-Summit’s communications team. “And the main reason why I’m [personally] part of the Counter-Summit is that I want tomorrow’s Tunisia to be better.”


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