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Conversations between the IMF and Civil Society: Lost in Translation?

I was recently asked to moderate a panel on the Triennial Surveillance Review (hereafter TSR) for the Civil Society Policy Forum during the IMF/World Bank Spring Meeting. The panel was for the team conducting the surveillance review to get feedback on the design of the study. I am writing a book on the use of surveillance by the IMF and WTO, so I certainly have an academic interest in this topic, but I am also a member of the New Rules for Global Finance coalition, and I’ve used my position as a scholar to prod the Fund in ways that it might not like.

Empirical studies based on interviews find that the Fund’s interactions with civil society are limited. In a sense, this is by design, as the Fund’s shareholders are states. But both the Fund and civil society groups recognize that their interests do not fully overlap, and this hasn’t deterred a dialogue. The IMF is certainly aware of the role that civil society can play. The past two triennial surveillance reviews included surveys of civil society organizations, and the Fund is currently revising the policy handbook for staff-civil society relations. Both the Fund and civil society want surveillance to work more effectively. The Fund would like its advice to have more traction, and civil society wants the dialogue about surveillance broadened to incorporate employment and inequality and not merely focus on the balance of payments. These aligning interests have been aided by shifts in the Fund’s research department, though the extent to which research findings can be rapidly integrated into policy advice is an open question.

So, what did I learn from this exercise?

These conversations can be difficult, but not for the reasons you would think. It’s more daunting to evaluate a research plan to assess if the approach is correct than it is to assess completed findings. The presentation was a research plan that was vetted by the Executive Board as well as an external advisory team to the TSR, so what the civil society organizations saw was a very polished product. It is worth noting that the 2014 TSR team is proposing hard questions in the evaluation, including whether Fund surveillance treats countries similarly. Many will be awaiting these findings, since the evidence suggests that surveillance is prone to the same geopolitical biases as lending.

Lack of response doesn’t indicate lack of opinion. One civil society respondent explained that the staff in his organization is small. Because they have numerous other responsibilities, even finding the time to weigh in on the consultation can be daunting. The evidence does support this, as previous TSRs have had low response rates from civil society. In 2008, surveys were sent to 1000 civil society organizations, and the response rate was .3%. The 2011 TSR, in contrast, surveyed a much smaller number of organizations, which raised concerns about the size of the sample.

Technology might help with the response rate, but more needs to be done. This year, in conjunction with the meeting, the Fund created a webpage to house documents as well as an email account for feedback that will be open until the end of April. While technology might help capture more responses, other options, including webchats, a google hangout, or an electronic town hall meeting should be considered for the 2017 TSR.

Clear communication is a constant challenge. IMF documents are not always easy to read, since they often require a strong grasp of economics. The 2011 TSR found that the average Article IV staff report seem to be readable by someone with between 10 and 11 years of schooling. (Anecdotal comments from my students would take issue with this finding.) The solution to this problem is easier than one might think. Given that IMF norms now stress that Article IV staff reports are presumed to be public information unless countries notify otherwise, there is no reason that the Fund couldn’t similarly stipulate that clear executive summaries written for a non-expert audience accompany the release of these reports. If the IMF wants civil society engagement, it needs to lower the barriers to understand what it does. This is not dumbing down; this is taking dialogue seriously.

Martin S. Edwards

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