One of the main functions of both the IMF and the World Bank is to lend money to developing countries. The IMF lends money to countries specifically for addressing balance of payment problems while the World Bank lends money to countries more generally for economic development. Typically, disbursement of money is contingent on implementing specific economic policies that are meant to address the economic problems that initiated the country’s request for a loan. And, typically, conditions have tended to include privatization and liberalization of the economy.
In her recent book, Globalization and Global Justice (CUP, 2012), Nicole Hassoun presents an account of what is wrong with loan conditionality. She writes
many countries’ participation in international institutions is not voluntary . . . Countries often pay significant penalties if they do not abide by . . . . WB or IMF rules. Sometimes these countries do not have other decent options and, so, are not free to resist these organization’s conditions. Highly indebted poor countries facing default, for instance, may have to abide by IMF conditionality. The consequences of refusing to do so can be devastating (Hassoun, 2012, p. 73).
Highly indebted countries are in significant need of loans. Without loans many individuals within such countries would go hungry, for example. Hassoun claims that loan conditionality is problematic because highly indebted states are in need of a loan and they have no “options but to abide by international institutions’ rules” (Hassoun, 2012, p. 74). This means they are coerced into accepting loan conditions, since, on her view, coercion occurs when there exists no option but to comply with a set of demands or rules.
While Hassoun does not give a detailed explanation as to why she thinks that borrowing states have no other options available to them but to borrow from the IMF and World Bank, an argument can easily be given.
Contrast private borrowing with international borrowing. If a private individual is in need of a loan, she has opportunities to borrow from a variety of different sources. She can apply to different banks, seek investments from the private sector, borrow money from family members and friends, or take up an extra job and attempt to save the extra income. The international sphere is not like this. If a country is in need of a loan, it does not have options outside of borrowing from the IMF and World Bank. The kind of borrowing options that exist at the local private level simply do not exist at the international level. This is because the IMF and the World Bank are “lenders of last resort.” They lend money to countries when no one else will. Moreover, the IMF and the World Bank are essentially the same institutions in the sense that they coordinate all of their actions. A country cannot receive a loan from one without receiving approval from the other. Furthermore, if they choose not to lend to a country, then no one else will do so either. Approval from the IMF and the World Bank is the gold standard of international finance; it guarantees loans from other private investors. So, if the IMF and the World Bank decide that a certain country is not worthy of a loan (say, because it has a bad credit rating), then other lenders such as private banks or investors are unlikely to give that country a loan. In short, if a highly indebted state is in need of a loan, outside of borrowing from the IMF and World Bank, there are no other realistic options to pursue. So, Hassoun seems right in her claim: borrowing countries and the individuals within them have no option but to accept the conditions that the IMF and the Bank place on their loans, if they hope to secure a loan. If Hassoun is right and coercion occurs when there exists no option but to comply with a set of demands or rules, then the IMF and World Bank’s loan conditionality is coercive.
Hassoun’s account of coercion, though accepted by many, is not ultimately compelling. Hassoun argues that if X consents to rule R being imposed on her by Y but X has no other options available to her, then X’s consent is coerced by Y (see Hassoun, 2012, p. 73-75). It is not clear to me, even if these conditions are met, that X’s consent is coerced rather than genuine.
Imagine that Aalok lives on the streets of Kolkata and is starving. For a variety of reasons, Aalok has decided that he will convert to Catholicism as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Unfortunately, due to food shortage, all but one of the local charities is closed. Aalok happens to walk by this charity, the Mother House of the Missionaries of Charity. Mother Teresa is standing at the door and states, “I will feed you on the condition that you convert to Catholicism.” Aalok consents.
In this case, Aalok has no option but to accept Mother Teresa’s conditions. He is in need of food. There is nowhere else to go for help. Yet, I would argue, Aalok’s consent to the conversion is not coerced. Aalok consents to Mother Teresa’s offer in a way that is consistent with and expressive of his genuine (or authentic) and rational commitments and aims. He is autonomous in Hassoun’s sense: he consents in a way that is expressive of his ability “to reason about, make, and carry out significant plans” on the basis of his “commitments” (see Hassoun, 2012, p. 26).
Similar things could be argued, at least in principle, about loan conditionality. A country’s consent to certain conditions, say, to privatization of the water industry, may not be coerced. If a country, such as India was already planning to privatize its water industry and then consents to an IMF loan on the condition of privatizing its water industry, it would not be coerced into accepting such conditions.
In short, establishing that someone has a lack of alternative options is not sufficient to establish that her consent is coerced. If this conclusion is correct, then, even if there are no other options available to borrowing countries, these countries may not be coerced by the IMF and World Bank into accepting loan conditions. Hassoun has not convincingly established that the IMF and World Bank coerce borrowing countries.
This discussion also suggests that an alternative account of coercion is needed. A plausible account of coercion must take into consideration both the motivations (the rational plans and commitments) of Aalok, in the case of Mother Teresa, and of those within developing countries’, in the case of the IMF and World Bank. Without such an account we cannot determine whether either are being genuinely coerced or not.