Reform of the global financial architecture and of the role of the international financial institutions : the labour movement's perspective / Peter Bakvis ; James Howard. - [Electronic ed.]. - Bonn, 2000. - 9 Bl. = 48 Kb, Text . - (Studies on international financial architecture ; 2000,8 : IMF special)
Electronic ed.: Bonn : FES Library, 2000.
Significant Commitments needed to Poverty Reduction
Requirements for a Successful Poverty Reduction Strategy
Core Labour Standards
Attention to Primary Education and Health Care
Taking Social Protection Serious
Industrial Relations to be improved
Debt Relief for Developing Countries
Stabilising the International Financial System
In June 1999, the ICFTUs (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions) report to its Economic and Social Committee on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank noted in its conclusion that as the worst of the Asian crisis has passed from the news headlines the political momentum for far-reaching reform [of the international financial system] shows signs of dissipating". This prediction has been borne out with the continuation into the year 2000 of strong economic growth in several industrial countries as well as in some of the Asian countries previously beset by financial crisis. A sense of complacency does appear to have installed itself once again in many quarters within the two international financial institutions (IFIs).
Such complacency is, though, counteracted by a growing and increasingly vocal sector of world opinion concerned by the persistence of severe economic problems in many countries and the potential for renewed financial instability on a global scale. The April 2000 meetings of the IFIs in Washington received unprecedented public attention, which may well be repeated at future meetings of the IMF and World Bank for some time to come. The Finance Ministers and Central Bank governors of the world who attend such meetings will have to anticipate a level of public scrutiny far greater than they are accustomed to. Such public attention can be explained first and foremost by the fact that never since the international financial institutions were created has the contrast been so striking between the growing wealth and prosperity enjoyed by a few and the increasing poverty experienced by a vastly greater number:
The IMF and World Bank must assume their share of responsibility in this situation of growing misery, inequality, and uncertainty in a world of ever-increasing wealth. Fifty-six years after their creation, the Bretton Woods institutions can make no claim to having achieved a system of economic justice and stability in which the entire world community can participate. It is this failure that explains the decline in confidence in the institutions, and which has led a number of critics, both in the industrial and developing world, both on the left and right, to call for a substantial curtailment or even the cessation of their activities.
The IMF and World Bank must make major and concrete steps towards reversing the growing polarisation of wealth and access to resources in the world economy if they wish to preserve their credibility in combating poverty, inequality and economic instability. Failure to do so cannot but reinforce the body of world opinion which considers the institutions to be a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution to finding a better way forward. These solutions would include new and more effective commitments in the areas of poverty reduction, social protection, debt relief and international financial stability.
The World Economic Situation in the year 2000: No Grounds for Complacency
Several, though certainly not all, industrial economies have been experiencing continued strong growth in their GNP while inflation has been moderate. Some of the East Asian countries that underwent serious economic crisis in the late 1990s are participating in this growth. This has led some governments of IMF and World Bank member countries to display signs of complacency and an attitude that the end-of-the-millennium problems of world capitalism have now been overcome, that nothing stands in the way of continued prosperity. But in actual fact, this "prosperity" has been both very unequally distributed and particularly fragile, so that a sudden downturn cannot be ruled out.
The current boom of consumption and investment depends on what many commentators consider a significantly overvalued stock market. Interest rate hikes in the United States could force a slow-down of economic growth both there and in other countries that are far from a situation of operating at full capacity. In Europe, it is essential that the European Central Bank adopts an accommodating monetary policy stance that allows faster growth to continue so as to exploit fully the potential of the new economy". And the world's second-biggest national economy, that of Japan, has not yet seen the end of a decade-long period of stagnation. Any increase in interest rates could cut short recent indications of some economic recovery in Japan. Such developments would also create serious damage for the Asian economies that have managed to put themselves back in a growth mode after the severe turbulence of the 1997-98 period. However some Asian countries, most notably Indonesia, remain mired in serious difficulty; none have recuperated all the ground lost during the crisis; and all remain vulnerable to large-scale capital movements by nervous international investors and speculators.
The majority of countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States have yet to see the light at the end of the tunnel of the transition to market economies. Except for a small minority of holders of large assets who have benefited from the privatisation of former public enterprises, most citizens in these countries have not seen an improvement in their welfare. In most of these countries, total production and employment have not yet returned to pre-transition days, while most social indicators, including average life expectancy, have deteriorated significantly. The situation is particularly severe in the CIS, which has yet to begin a significant recovery from Russia's economic and monetary collapse of August 1998.
While much attention is given to the growth rates of a few star-performer "emerging" economies, the majority of the countries of Asia, Africa and the Americas find their economies in situations of stagnation, if not outright recession, with growing poverty and unemployment. This situation exists, in spite of many of them having accepted the international financial institutions' recommendations to privatise, liberalise, and deregulate. There is no indication that developing economies which have undergone the radical structural adjustment prescribed by the IMF and World Bank subsequently enjoyed higher growth rates than those that did not. A case in point is Argentina. Over the past decade, the country has privatised every public service capable of generating a profit, including the postal system; has substantially decreased social expenditures; has dismantled most tariff and non-tariff trade barriers; and has "dollarised" the national currency, thus renouncing any autonomous monetary policy. Over the past two years the already high level of unemployment began increasing once again and is over 15% in urban areas, while real wages have declined in the past decade. And yet on 11 July 2000, Argentina was again being referred to approvingly by the IMF in its assessment of Argentinas economic performance.
Significant Commitments needed to Poverty Reduction
Both the IMF and World Bank have given much attention to poverty reduction in the wake of the social turmoil resulting from the Asian financial crisis. The objective of poverty reduction was given top billing during the 1999 IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings and subsequently led to the adoption of a joint Bank-Fund approach claiming to ensure the primacy of poverty reduction in all future lending. As a condition for receiving new lending or debt relief, countries are required to formulate a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP), which defines certain specific goals for poverty reduction which are to be assessed as a determinant for funding. The commitment to reducing world poverty was reiterated in the report prepared in June 2000 by the IMF and World Bank jointly with the UN and OECD, A Better World for All, in which the four institutions enunciate seven specific goals for reducing absolute poverty by 2015.
The new commitments to poverty reduction by the IMF and World Bank are welcome, insofar as they are intended to lead to concrete policy changes which would reduce poverty both internationally and on a country level. Unfortunately, many of the new policy statements in favour of poverty reduction tend to be long on generalities and short on real evidence of policy change. For example, A Better World for All appropriately pinpoints some of the key root problems which explain the persistence of poverty, but then recommends a classic 1980s-type model of structural adjustment measures (trade liberalisation, freer capital flows, anti-inflation measures), which have clearly not succeeded in reducing poverty over the past decade and a half. "More of the same" is not an acceptable answer to the enormous challenge of growing world inequality. And it is essential that the IMF, under pressure to redefine its role to concentrate its lending on short-term balance of payments assistance, must not reduce its commitment to promoting poverty reduction strategies in the PRSPs and other programmes.
The same type of reflex to revert to structural adjustment-type policies under the guise of poverty reduction continues to occur on a country level. Funding required to develop or modernise badly required services or infrastructures is often only available if the government agrees to privatise the infrastructure or service in question. Assistance for publicly owned and operated services seems to out of the question. This pro-privatisation drive takes place even in emergency situations. For example, in a Country Assistance Strategy for Honduras recently produced by the World Bank, the report notes the urgent needs that still exist to rebuild infrastructures such as roads, water systems, and electricity distribution networks that were destroyed by Hurricane Mitch in October 1998. The report continues that the World Bank's International Financial Corporation "could include Honduras" in its electricity generation and distribution projects, but that such assistance could only be provided insofar as "the privatisation process continues".
Under the PRSP process, countries receiving lending assistance must identify targets for poverty reduction outcome indicators and monitor these indicators as a condition of the country's access for debt relief and loan support. There is no indication, however, that failure to achieve the poverty-reduction goals would be as binding as have been the international financial institutions' traditional structural adjustment conditionality, where failure to meet the conditions could lead to suspension of financial assistance. Also, despite the fact that the PRSP process requires countries to put part of the resources received from the Fund and the Bank into poverty-reduction programmes, countries often find themselves obliged to reduce spending on these same types of programmes (which could include basic education, primary health care, rural roads and housing assistance) in order to reduce government spending deficits so they can be eligible for assistance in the first place.
The involvement of civil society in the PRSP process, not only in the formulation of the PRSP but also in the implementation, is one of the key characteristics of the poverty reduction approach. Unfortunately, the international financial institutions give no specific instructions as to which civil society organisations should be included in the process or how they are to be included. ICFTU affiliates in countries as diverse as Ecuador and Uganda where PRSP processes have been put in place have reported that trade unions have not been included in the process. Government claims to involve civil society in the poverty reduction strategy would be very hollow if trade unions, often the most organised component of civil society, are not even consulted.
Although the IMF and World Bank have stated that the active involvement of civil society is a necessary element of a successful poverty reduction strategy, the institutions themselves are not consistent in their own practices in this regard. It would almost appear that such involvement is considered useful only inasmuch as the civil society groups concerned are prepared to endorse the institutions' predetermined plan of action. A recent Country Assistance Strategy for Colombia prepared by the World Bank makes much of the Bank's relations with civil society groups which have marked "a turning point " and "should help harness domestic support to implement the necessary reforms". Unfortunately, the only reference to trade unions in the sixty-page document appears under the title "Evaluation of Risks" where it is stated that IMF-sponsored structural adjustment reforms "may prove difficult to implement due to labour resistance to reform measures". It is unfortunate indeed that the Colombian trade union movement, which has already suffered 80 assassinations (and hundreds more death threats) from paramilitary and security forces in the past year alone, is considered by the institutions as nothing more than an impediment to reform.
Requirements for a Successful Poverty Reduction Strategy
The new PRSP approach adopted by the IMF and World Bank, which puts the responsibility on governments to produce a coherent national programme for reducing poverty, constitutes a new degree of commitment on the part of the institutions that the international trade union movement has welcomed. We note that, despite the emphasis given to country-ownership of poverty reduction", the institutions will provide advice to the country drawing up the PRSP and must approve the document before assistance is given. Obviously, governments are much more likely to take the poverty-reduction commitments seriously if the IMF and World Bank practice what they preach and are serious in their insistence on poverty reduction. The corollary must be a review and easing of fiscal and monetary targets under structural adjustment programmes.
In line with the decisions of the of the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Summit for Social Development and beyond: achieving social development for all in a globalising world" (Geneva, 26-30 June 2000), the IMF and World Bank must participate fully in the elaboration of systems for ensuring the ex ante assessment and continuous monitoring of the social impact of economic policies at both the international and national levels" and by taking measures to protect basic social services, in particular education and health, in the policies and programmes adopted by countries when dealing with international financial crises". Since poverty is a growing world phenomenon and is increasing even within richer countries, the institutions must maintain their preoccupation with poverty reduction in all of their country-level policy advice. That is why the institutions must include the following social components in their dialogue with governments, notably in discussions under IMF Article IV Consultations and on the Country Assistance Strategies of the World Bank as well as in PRSPs themselves.
Core Labour Standards
Core labour standards as defined in the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998) must become system-wide" and given effect in the programmes of all the international institutions including the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Full respect of human rights, including trade union rights, needs to be incorporated in the overall policy of the IMF, World Bank and regional development banks, entailing respect for core labour standards in the Procurement Guidelines of the World Bank and mandatory labour clauses offering real protection to workers in the Standard Bidding Documents and other contractual documentation of the World Bank and other development banks.
Attention to Primary Education and Health Care
Primary Education and Health-Care constitute important pillars on which any successful widely-shared development strategy must be based. The Geneva 2000 UNGASS meeting restated the Copenhagen commitments to time-bound targets for achieving universal and equitable access to quality education, the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, and the access of all to primary health care". Priority must be given to programmes aimed at maintaining and enhancing school participation, especially for girls, up to the minimum school leaving age and up to at least 14, and spreading the availability of health care for all. In addition, all countries should be requested to develop or improve comprehensive strategies for the elimination of child labour, giving priority to its worst forms, in light of the adoption of ILO Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour in 1999. Yet once again, this objective seems to be at variance with the reality of IMF/ World Bank programmes on the ground. For example, the World Bank recently approved a Country Assistance Strategy for Ecuador in which public spending for health and education in 2000 will have declined precipitously from levels of 1995 (in the case of health, spending will have fallen from 5.50% to 2.83% of budgetary spending). Given that many Ecuadorians already do not have access to basic education and health care, it is difficult to see how, under those budget constraints, availability of these services can be enhanced.
Gender Equality is essential to maximising economic growth, achieving social development and ensuring food security. Yet many adjustment programmes have typically involved public expenditure cuts and public sector reform, including retrenchment in education, health and the civil service, which have caused a deterioration in vital social services that are predominantly needed by women. The Bretton Woods institutions should systematically review both the labour market implications of their policies, and the prevailing labour market situation at country level and should incorporate gender perspectives into these reviews as an essential component of the social dimension. They should further affirm their commitment to closing the gender gap on the basis of the consensus reached at the United Nations Special Session on Gender Equality, Development and Peace (New York, 5-9 June 2000).
Taking Social Protection Serious
Social Protection measures also constitute an important component of an effective poverty reduction strategy. The IMF and World Bank should, as agreed at the Geneva 2000 UNGASS meeting, work in an ILO-led process to develop social protection systems for vulnerable, unprotected and uninsured people". Governments must be encouraged to develop a comprehensive system of social safety nets, including retirement pensions, unemployment benefits, child support, maternity, and sickness and injury benefits. IMF Article IV Consultation staff reports usually in fact do the opposite, berating governments for not moving fast enough to eliminate one or other part of the social safety net. Unemployment insurance programmes often come under the IMF's guns, as was the case in recent Article IV staff reports for Macedonia and Canada, where governments were told they should reduce the number of those receiving benefits by decreasing the duration of unemployment assistance. In the case of Canada where significant cutbacks in unemployment insurance have already taken place, barely one-third of the country's unemployed are currently receiving benefits versus close to four-fifths in 1990. One has to wonder at what point the IMF would consider such a scheme ceases to be overly generous. Also in the case of Canada, IMF staff "expressed concern about the government's recent proposal to increase maternity and parental leave benefits".
Full Employment and Building Social Institutions are other important pillars of a successful poverty reduction strategy and were re-emphasised at the Geneva 2000 UNGASS meeting. Programmes to increase vocational training, establish and improve job search systems, implement labour-intensive public works programmes and counteract discrimination need to be enhanced. With the active engagement of the ILO, the IMF and World Bank should encourage the participation of trade unions, employers' organisations and non-governmental organisations in the development and implementation of economic and social policies, in line with the Geneva 2000 UNGASS decision to strengthen national institutions and consultative mechanisms for economic policy formulation, involving improved transparency and consultation with civil society".
Industrial Relations to be improved
Developing Sound Industrial Relations: Labour market reform must be founded on respect of the ILO's competence in the development of the institutional framework for collective bargaining and labour law. Yet instead, the promotion of good labour practices has generally been absent from specific country reports, which more often emphasise the need for greater labour-market flexibility. Some recent examples of this are IMF recommendations regarding Argentina and Poland. In Argentina, IMF representatives intervened publicly in favour of controversial measures reducing the scope of sectoral collective bargaining. In a recent IMF Article IV staff report on Poland, government authorities were admonished to resist pressures for reducing the working week, even though unemployment reached 13% in 1999, and encouraged instead to promote "increased flexibility of labour market structures including the work week".
Debt Relief for Developing Countries
The ICFTU (working together with the International Trade Secretariats (ITS) that represent workers in different sectors, and with the Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC) to the OECD) has for many years pressed the international community to accord substantial debt relief to the developing countries. Not only is a reduction of the debt burden essential for the welfare of our members in developing countries (where two-thirds of ICFTU membership is to be found) but it is also a prerequisite for permitting development of the global economy on a more stable, sustainable and equitable footing. The additional commitments made at the G-8 summit in Cologne in June 1999, which led to the creation of the enhanced Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative, were welcome improvements. However they are still a far cry even from the relatively modest Jubilee 2000 proposals, which the ICFTU has endorsed, and which would expand from 40 to 52 the number of countries eligible for partial debt reduction under the HIPC plan. It is inconceivable that countries like Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, or Nigeria, the country with the largest debt in Africa, are excluded from the HIPC Initiative because they don't quite meet the strict eligibility requirements.
We are concerned that the industrial countries still have a long way to go to make the commitments originally made in Cologne and reiterated at the 1999 Annual Meetings. The IMF and World Bank Spring Meetings underlined the fact that substantial progress needed to be made in order to finance the HIPC Initiative, both in terms of cancellation of bilateral debt and contributions to the World Bank trust fund created to finance reduction of multilateral debt. ICFTU and TUAC affiliates in industrial countries have been strongly encouraging their governments to quickly move forward and fulfil their commitments to the Initiative. The same affiliates have been encouraging their governments to increase Official Development Assistance, noting that, in many cases, OECD-member governments are in surplus or close to balanced budget situations and can no longer use the pretext of budget difficulties to resist increases.
In addition to some industrial countries being slow in delivering on their promises, the implementation of the HIPC process has been sluggish for other reasons as well. In some cases, failure of potentially eligible countries to apply structural adjustment reforms fast enough to accommodate the conditions of the international financial institutions have led to delays. In other cases, individual large creditor countries have actually pressured countries not to apply for debt cancellation under the HIPC Initiative under threat of seeing bilateral assistance curtailed. At the time of the Spring 2000 Meetings of the IMF and World Bank, only five countries had actually reached the HIPC "decision point", less than half the number that were to have reached the point by this time according to announcements made by the Fund and the Bank in 1999. These obstacles to implementation augur badly for the credibility of the entire Initiative, as do the financing difficulties.
The ICFTU has called for an overhaul of the HIPC Initiative with the aim of quickly making debt relief available to the eligible countries and to increase the number of eligible countries provided trade union and other human rights are respected and social spending is prioritised. The overhaul would include:
The ICFTU has further urged the IMF and World Bank to join with the United Nations and World Trade Organisation in the recently-launched proposal to hold a global conference or similar high-level event on Financing for Development (FfD) before the end of 2001. This initiative, originating in the UN General Assembly, has the potential for developing a co-ordinated approach for mobilising the resources necessary to make a substantially increased assistance to developing countries in their efforts to overcome the barriers to their development. The international trade union movement intends to co-operate fully in the successful realisation of the FfD conference.
Stabilising the International Financial System
The fact that some of the countries that underwent financial upheaval in the late 1990s are now experiencing positive growth should not obscure the serious flaws in the international financial system which allowed such a crisis to happen and which could lead to its recurrence. It has been observed that, while IMF and World Bank policies have forced governments to be more disciplined, it was an imprudent private sector, and not imprudent government, that provoked the crises of 1997-98. And it has been working people, who suffered massive lay-offs, slashed social benefits, and reduced real wages, who took most of the brunt of the crises. Far-reaching measures are needed to regulate and manage international financial markets if crises are not to repeat themselves at regular intervals, and the markets are to be of assistance to achieving stable, widely-shared economic development, rather than a hindrance.
The recent crises have highlighted the need for a new approach to the governance of the international economic and financial system which balances macro-economic policies with a framework for action to promote just and equitable societies. Social policy guidelines need to be adopted formally as part of IMF/World Bank policies at all levels, not merely as a soft" annex to a list of incremental financial market reforms but as an integral part of their structures. Furthermore, a new approach must serve to widen participation in policy formulation at both national and international level to ensure that in future those who have had to bear the burdens of recent policy failures have, in future, a voice in the process of reform and rebuilding. As part of such a new approach, the IMF and the World Bank should resume their internal debate on incorporating the conclusions of the 1995 UN Copenhagen Summit for Social Development and, now, the Geneva 2000 UNGASS into a set of social principles and practices to guide their work in the coming years.
The IMF has given much attention to strengthening surveillance standards through such measures as the Data Dissemination Standards, the Basel Core Principles and the Financial Sector Assessment Programme. The IMF and World Bank have also assisted member countries in overseeing external debt by establishing guidelines for sovereign debt management. However IMF attempts to involve the private financial sector in crisis prevention and resolution have been limited to trying to obtain voluntary private sector co-operation on an ad hoc basis, rather than in forcing the private sector to share in the cost of resolving such crises.
While the experience in Asia demonstrates that controls placed on cross-border capital controls can play a beneficial role in rendering countries less vulnerable to external crises (the examples of India and China) or in mitigating the impact of the crisis (the example of Malaysia), the IMF has continued past policies of combating any and all capital controls. A recent IMF Article IV Consultation staff report for Poland informed the county's authorities that any delays in abolishing remaining controls on capital flows were "unwarranted", government fears of speculative pressures on the national currency notwithstanding. We urge the IMF to cease trying to force governments to dismantle capital controls and, instead, recognise that such controls can play a positive role in limiting the destabilising impact of rapid capital inflows and outflows.
The ICFTU has, in the past, frequently asserted that the debate over international financial market reform is much too important to be left to bankers and their regulators. Such is, however, the case of the Financial Stability Forum, whose discussions have taken place behind closed doors under the auspices of the Bank for International Settlements. We have urged that governments must create a broad-based international commission, which would have a mandate to provide recommendations for establishing an effective international regulatory framework for a new financial order. At the very least, the Financial Stability Forum should hold public hearings to which trade unions and other representative organisations would be invited. The IMF, for its part, should make public the nature of the recommendations it has received from the Forum regarding international capital flows, hedge funds and offshore centres and explain why it has refused the proposal that it undertake surveillance of offshore centres.
The international financial institutions must assume the necessary leadership and put forward proposals for a newly regulated international financial system which would achieve stable, sustainable development by all countries. The necessary measures would include:
The IMF or World Bank are not solely responsible for the failure to fulfil their stated mandates to reduce world poverty, promote human development, or assure international financial stability. However they have not taken the necessary leadership to put forward concrete solutions to resolve these crises and, in some cases, have actually exacerbated the problems. Nor have they been ready to take into account the objectives and policy approaches of the United Nations conferences and summits" as was stressed once more at the Geneva 2000 UNGASS meeting on Social Development.
The ICFTU therefore urges the IMF and World Bank to consider very seriously the proposals such as those outlined in this article and to make substantial new contributions in the areas of poverty reduction, social protection, debt relief, effective international financial regulation and improved dialogue between the IMF and the World Bank and trade unions both at national and international levels. By doing so, the institutions can demonstrate their capacity to address the rising popular concerns about their relevance in solving these key global problems.
Peter Bakvis, Director of the Washington Office of the ICFTU and the International Trade Secretariats (ITS)
James Howard, Director of the Priority Group on Employment and International Labour Standards at the ICFTU
The Studies on International Financial Architecture published by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung are a contribution to the national and international discussion on the building up of a sustainable international financial order. They represent the debate in selected threshold and developing countries.
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