Is the IMF going to start listening to civil society now?

Amidst rising political instability in southern and eastern Europe, a refugee crisis in Iraq and Syria, and terrorism spreading throughout large swathes of east and west Africa, the IMF is updating its 2015 Guidelines for the IMF Staff Engagement with Civil Society Organizations.

Comments on the updated document can only be made in an almost unnoticed online consultation process.

Does that mean the IMF will start listening to and learning from civil society organisations (CSOs)?

Well, it certainly should. The orthodox policies that the IMF has promulgated in the wake of the Great Recession failed abysmally in Greece and throughout much of Europe, where output has yet to recover to its 2007 level.

In the early days of the recovery, the Economist Intelligence Unit classified 95 out of 165 countries as having a high or very high risk of social unrest – a big increase since 2007. Citizens in many countries have rejected orthodox austerity policies with protests, demonstrations, and support for non-mainstream political parties.

For its part, the IMF has come to recognise the dangers of inequality and the value of trade unions and collective bargaining in its research. It talks about the benefits of broader consultation as improving IMF policy and analysis, acknowledging that the IMF “as a public institution…is committed to being transparent about its work”.

Ideally, the IMF’s updated consultation guidelines for staff to deal with civic society could help move the IMF from a Washington (Consensus)-based technocracy into the world of democratic discourse and accountability. Sadly, the new guidelines do nothing of the kind.



The proposed revision does not address the IMF’s own findings on the problems of engaging with civic society organisations. Most of the staff interviewed in the new consultation document “did not know that the 2003 policy on IMF staff engagement existed”. They “expressed their desire for a clearer protocol on how to engage with CSOs,” and “for a more systematic interaction with local CSOs” and “incentives for engagement to be better institutionalized within the Fund”.

Staff complained that while they “would like to share more information with CSOs on discussions with country officials, they are prevented from doing so by Fund mandates and the Executive Board”.

Instead of responding with best practice guidance on who and when to invite, where to meet, what to share in advance and how to formulise a concrete outcome or follow-up, the guidelines urge staff to communicate everything through the IMF’s in-house watch dogs, the communication department, and warn staff against raising issues “that could put the government in an awkward position” and to “use their relations with CSOs to put direct or indirect pressure on governments”.

Neglecting reality in many IMF client countries where opaque government repress public opinion and opposition, the report emphasises that “the IMF remains accountable to its member governments” and advises staff “to encourage CSOs to take their views and proposals to their relevant national authorities”.

Going to the national authorities contradicts the document’s earlier recommendation for staff to “aim at making a strategic and diverse selection of CSOs”. The IMF laments the imbalance of representation of CSO from the northern and southern hemisphere at the annual and spring meetings but offers no solution through institutionalised consultations during IMF missions in the country.

On the CSO side, 59 per cent of those interviewed for the revised guidelines complain that consultations in the past have been “too rushed or too technical”, with “poor follow up” – window dressing that did not involve “substantive input into policy strategy, analysis, and decisions”.

Tell it to the online consultation email. The new, improved “thank you for your concern” program will now “thank you for your comments on the revised guidelines,” and “thank you for being foolish enough to hope for change”. “Thank you, Civil Society!” “Good to hear from you!” “Till next time in 2027, take care!” - Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.