IMF considered harmful

In The Independent, Johann Hari describes the IMF's catastrophic pattern of "helping" poor countries by ordering them to abolish programs that help people so that the financial sector can take home more money. Hari suggests that while Dominique Strauss-Kahn's rape accusation needs to be taken seriously, the IMF has been raping whole countries for its whole existence.
So when in 2001 the IMF found out the Malawian government had built up large stockpiles of grain in case there was a crop failure, they ordered them to sell it off to private companies at once. They told Malawi to get their priorities straight by using the proceeds to pay off a loan from a large bank the IMF had told them to take out in the first place, at a 56 per cent annual rate of interest. The Malawian president protested and said this was dangerous. But he had little choice. The grain was sold. The banks were paid.

The next year, the crops failed. The Malawian government had almost nothing to hand out. The starving population was reduced to eating the bark off the trees, and any rats they could capture. The BBC described it as Malawi's "worst ever famine." There had been a much worse crop failure in 1991-2, but there was no famine because then the government had grain stocks to distribute. So at least a thousand innocent people starved to death.

At the height of the starvation, the IMF suspended $47m in aid, because the government had 'slowed' in implementing the marketeering 'reforms' that had led to the disaster. ActionAid, the leading provider of help on the ground, conducted an autopsy into the famine. They concluded that the IMF "bears responsibility for the disaster."

Then, in the starved wreckage, Malawi did something poor countries are not supposed to do. They told the IMF to get out. Suddenly free to answer to their own people rather than foreign bankers, Malawi disregarded all the IMF's 'advice', and brought back subsidies for the fertiliser, along with a range of other services to ordinary people. Within two years, the country was transformed from being a beggar to being so abundant they were supplying food aid to Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Johann Hari: It's not just Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The IMF itself should be on trial (via Making Light)


  1. The IMF saw how great privatization worked with Enron and now they want to duplicate that success all over the world.

    1. I want to second this book as I was about to mention it as well. An excellent read and a great first person perspective on how these international organizations work behind the scenes and what the ultimate interests are. And through this (although an extrapolation from the material), a better understanding of why certain countries ‘hate America’ while loving American culture.

  2. Ask anyone in Argentina about this :)
    Anyway, poor countries also have their share on this (this type of corruption occurs always with green light from local government).

  3. imf is one of many of the added “complexities” of the modern world that seems so awesome on paper, but in practice just leads to more trouble than it’s worth. other examples include nuclear weapons, pesticides, fossil-fuel-based energy infrastructure, and industrialized agriculture. even noncontroversial efforts like anti-malaria campaigns are counterproductive if the result is the human exploitation of the few remaining wildernesses we need to preserve biodiversity and scrub our pollutants from the air.

    1. I like your point.

      “Give me a level large enough and a fulcrum on which to place it and I will move the world”.

      All those things you mentioned are levers which do not need to exist, but exist to extend power at a distance, and I would call the last 100 years evidence that this is not how humans work best.

  4. How long before people who complain that the fucking bankers are ruling the world in an incredibly evil fashion cease to be derided as conspiracy theorists, you think?

  5. You can’t go around spreading nonsense like this! Think of the rich people!

    Remember – there’s a reason it’s called the international MONETARY fund. It’s that whole “money is the only important thing, everything else is subservient to the needs of money and those that have it”.

  6. Malawi is a poor country. But don’t think for a minute they are run by an honest, for the people government. It is highly corrupt, and has made many bad decisions both for the economy and for the people.

    I’m not necessarily a big fan of the IMF, but this story sounds extremely biased and disregarding facts.

    1. Indeed many poor countries do have corrupt government. This fact only makes the IMF more morally questionable as they knowingly loan money to these dictatorships which is often pocketed or spent on arms to enforce illegitimate rule over the population who the IMF does very little to help.
      In theory the IMF could be a good idea but in practice it adds to the problem of third world debt and contributes to exploitation by forcing “structual adjustments” which remove economic protections which in my view developing countries need.
      Liberalised trade is alright in theory but since no-one actually practices it it is unreasonable to force them onto the third world.

  7. Yay for the truth! Hari is consistent that way. I second the rec of Confessions of an Econ Hitman too–it confirmed my growing sense of how the world really works.

  8. Why is it increasingly harder everyday to remember why a genocide of the bankers would be morally wrong? No thats not right, not even morally, just logically.

  9. Instead of skimming $50 mil from the fertilizer subsidy, the government minister took a $100 mil kickback when they unloaded the grain in a “stupendously corrupt” transaction. The govt of Malawi is more to blame than the IMF. Particularly since it was the World Bank, not IMF, that advised privatization of the food industry. And 56% interest rate my ass. Hari wasn’t the original writer of this story in 2007, so the errors aren’t his fault.

  10. Some days ago I watched Adam Curtis television documentary series “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”. His discription of the role of the IMF in the world economy hits it pretty well.

  11. Am I the only one who thinks of the Impossible Missions Force when they see IMF? Jim Phelps would not have allowed this to happen.

    1. argh. amen. this is news? not to us I suppose but man, why isn’t everyone talking about the IMF this way?

  12. Anyone who takes what was written in that opinion pieces as “the facts” is a close-minded fool. Just a cursory google search on Malawi IMF famine will reveal far more complex reasons for what happened, including rampant corruption and theft willfully ignored by those who would rather blame the IMF first.

  13. Thats right up there with helping farmers in the third world by forcing them to use farming practices they can’t sustain, causing them to sell their land and work as virtual slave labour for less than what they were getting before the ‘assistance’.

  14. Anon: “Just a cursory google search on Malawi IMF famine will reveal far more complex reasons for what happened, including rampant corruption and theft willfully ignored by those who would rather blame the IMF first.”

    The problem with your reply is that third world corruption, and tax evasion, is massively and systematically aided by the secrecy jurisdiction financial systems (“offshore”) that the IMF and other neoliberal power houses have helped created.

    So your reply boils down to: it is wrong to blame IMF for killing thousands of innocent people through means A, when in fact they did the killing through means B.

  15. Maybe the greater problem is rather than examining each country and figuring out how to help them, the general idea is to walk in and demand they do it the “right way”.

    The answer to the problem is not always the same, yet often we see the same cookie cutter approaches made in different countries with varying degrees of success or failure.

  16. Pft, the strategy hasn’t failed, just the implementation.

    If people had the balls to follow the advice to its’ logical conclusion there would be far, far fewer poor people needing help.

    Obviously this sensible plan for removing poverty doesn’t work if you chicken out at the end and don’t let them die of starvation. Genocide only works if you don’t wuss out and start trying to save lives, any idiot worth more than $3 billion knows that.


  17. Comparing things to rape is a bad policy in general– at least this isn’t someone saying Transformers “raped” their childhood, but rape is a real thing, & a thing that often gets swept under the rug. “I know he raped a girl, BUT…” is never a good thing to say, even if the rest of it is “…the IMF has been raping developing nations for years!” No. No, there is an actual rape trial right now. We can talk about destructive IMF policies & fear of encroaching plutocracy, but lets not capitalize on an ACTUAL RAPE as a segue to an economic debate.

    1. Perhaps. But the unfortunate comparison works both ways. What the IMF has done over the years has resulted in thousands of deaths and the destruction of life-chances for many more. It should be the world’s biggest scandal. Instead the organisation is the one our governments trust to save us from economic collapse…

  18. Hari’s facts are junk.

    The interest rate was 56%. Inflation was 57%. So the real interest rate was actually -1%.

    The IMF did not force Malawi to sell their grain reserves. The govt sold the grain reserves themselves, then when everything went tits up, the Malawian President *lied* and said that the IMF forced him to.

    1. I don’t think the loans are given or paid back in local currency. 57% inflation of your local currency doesn’t make a loan of dollars any easier to pay back, since the exchange rate will shift along with the inflation.

      Also, charging 56% annual interest makes you a loan shark.

      And finally, do you have a citation for your version of what happened in Malawi? Hari doesn’t cite any sources either, so I’m curious where everyone’s information is coming from.

  19. mordicai: “economic debate”? The IMF has pushed policies onto developing countries, based on an implausible neoliberal ideology or just pure corporate elite greed. Those policies that has wreaked havoc in entire nations. The social effects of those policies include starvation, death, social turmoil and yes, actual despicable acts of rape against actual people.

  20. Something to keep in mind: The IMF normally only gets involved when a country has messed themselves up pretty badly. The usual cause of this is unsustainable social spending used to buy popular support.

    Should that social spending continue unabated on the IMF’s dime???

    1. Unsustainable social spending may a part of it, but another is getting more and more loans to pay off the exorbitant accumulated interest of previous loans.

      The proccess described in the article can be observed with Greece right now.
      Strict austerity measures prescribed by the EU and the IMF froze the economy (the actual market, not the numbers), the country’s money making assets are about to be sold-off (privatized) and the only ones getting paid are the international bankers who will be getting their loans back with full interest. It’s a slow death, when the quick euthanasia of default and restructuring would have been more practical for all (except the loan sharks)

      This is an 2001 Stiglitz interview, still relevant:

      The analogy with rape is apt because it’s a crime that involves a lot of victim blaming and shaming: “look at those lazy/ bureaucratic/dirty PIGS / we would never do such things! / if only they weren’t all thieves!” (stereotypes and unconcealed racism help with the country-blaming no end). Instead of an examination of how corrupt governments/IMF/WB/etc work against economically vulnerable countries what is reported is a simplified moralizing narrative.

  21. Because of the way economic factors are handled at all levels(and always have been), if you deal in money, your hands are covered in a certain amount of blood by default.

    This simple point will always get argued away by those that depend on the misery of others for their living.

    Say this in public, get enough people to listen, and all that will happen is someone will shoot the messenger to discredit the message.

    Prove me wrong. I dare you…..

  22. “IMF Considered Harmful.” I despair that this is a revelation to anyone, but thanks boingboing for bringing this to a new audience. People need to understand that in the past the world was divided into religions, nations, cold war ideologies, tyrants and the opressed, but today the dominant antagonism is financiers vs everyone else. Governments are playthings of the former, ignorance of what is going on is endemic to the latter.

  23. This is a very interesting accusation. Up until now, I’ve thought that IMF was generally a positive force in world affairs. If this accusation is well founded, and can be backed up by other smoking-gun incidents where IMF commands directly led to the deaths of human beings, then it would certainly change my viewpoint.

    The problem is that any irrational bias against the IMF would be quickly visible, and completely destroy the credibility of said accusations. So it’s important that the reviews of the IMF’s motivations and actions be truly impartial… In other words, harsh, but fair. Then the accusations would have real weight, and dog the organization for years to come.

  24. Argentina severed ties with the IMF in 2005 and has since enjoyed the longest (and largest!) period of economic expansion in its history.

    1. There’s a correlation without explicit causality problem with your statement. Perhaps they severed ties because they were undergoing economic expansion and not undergoing expansion because they severed ties?

      This happens all the time in modern media – two separate factors only loosely related are brought together and phrased to imply that one leads to the other, omg! But an instant worth of critical thought often reveals that reversing the two factors leads to an equally reasonable statement.

      But hey, unfounded correlates make for great headlines!

  25. The comments about how “it’s not the IMF’s fault it was really the WTO or the world bank,” or “it’s more the fault of the corrupt government than the IMF” all fail to see how these institutions work in concert. The iron triangle of the IMF, WB, and WTO are the primary enablers of corruption in small national governments.
    The capital liberalizations that are forced upon these countries are the main way that the multinationals get in and the main way that corrupt elites get their spoils out. None of this is accidental in any way.

    1. Would be interesting if the moderators could do some IP Tracking and see if there is a marketing firm or other in the wings. Iirc such a trace was mentioned in relation to a different issue, and there most of the comments made to defend the accused (so to speak) was made from a single marketing address.

  26. I agree with everything in the article except the rape comparison. Rape is just not an OK metaphor to use, period. The economic policies described are terrible but they have nothing to do with actual rape, and this metaphor is only a couple of steps up from “frape” and “that song is so awful it’s raping my ears”. It’s disgusting that the 3% of people who have experienced real, actual rape have to continually hear stupid, insensitive, belittling metaphors like this.

  27. This is hardly news, though. The IMF have been known to do this for years. Remember the Asian financial crisis back in 2007? Then, the countries which followed the IMF advice suffered, and those which ignored it prospered.

    They’ve been doing this ever since the institution was captured by “Washington Consensus” types back in the 70’s. Before that the IMF’s role was the exact opposite to what they do today.

    1. It was 1997. But I agree. I’m from one of those countries that told them to go away. Even back then, it was already well known for a long time that the IMF and WB didn’t really help their victims.

  28. I was going to write a critical letter of those who don’t have enough confidence in their own opinion to sign in. Who is “anon”? If you can’t stand behind your opinion then keep quiet!

    THEN I spent an HOUR and 4 tries to get signed up on BOING BOING! What a pain in the watoozie!! I don’t blame you. STAY “Anon” until this outfit fixes their signup routine!!

  29. The IMF is not purposely evil. It is just stupid and out of touch. It is a case of over-simplified economic models being generalised to conditions for which they were never designed

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