2. The Bretton Woods Institutions and Economic Reform in Africa

Author: Adeoye O. Akinola
Date Published: 31 August 2021
Publication: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History
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The activities of International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (together comprising the Bretton Woods Institutions) in Africa have continued to generate questions about the impact of economic reforms on democratization and economic growth. The Bretton Woods Institutions strongly believe that economic growth contributes significantly to poverty alleviation efforts and hence generates improvements in living standards, particularly in developing countries, including those in Africa. In the mid-1980s, as many African countries struggled to service their external debts and qualify for additional credit to provide services to their citizens and promote economic growth and development, the World Bank and the IMF offered to help them. However, the Bretton Woods Institutions conditioned their assistance on the willingness of each African country to undertake necessary structural reforms, which included a reduction in the public sector, devaluation of the national currency, deregulation of the foreign trade sector, and more reliance on markets for the allocation of resources.

These aid programs, which came to be known as Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) consisted of conditional lending to African countries in economic crisis. At this time, the World Bank felt that the effectiveness of its development programs in Africa and other regions of the world was being undermined by bloated and dysfunctional bureaucratic structures and governmental systems that were hostile to the market generally and entrepreneurship in particular. The World Bank’s desire to condition the extension of credit to African countries on institutional reforms was supposedly to improve bureaucratic efficiency, as well as economic performance, and enhance the effectiveness of the World Bank’s projects in these countries. Thus, the IMF and the World Bank emerged in the 1990s as major players in efforts to improve economic growth and development in Africa.

The SAPs were expected to improve macroeconomic performance, produce rapid economic growth, achieve economic diversification, and provide each African country with the resources that it needed to confront poverty and improve national living standards. In fact, in 1994, the World Bank expressed a lot of optimism about the impact of SAPs on African economies. However, many critics have argued that SAPs had virtually no positive impact on the macroeconomic performance of African economies and, instead, created a series of internal political and economic contradictions that have continued to haunt the continent to this day. As a result, critics say, many countries that implemented SAPs continue to suffer from high levels of poverty and became more dependent on external financial resources (such as loans, development aid, and food aid) than before they got involved with the Bretton Woods Institutions and their adjustment programs.

Keywords: Bretton Woods Institutions, economic reforms, poverty alleviation, SAPs, political liberalization, Africa, World Bank, International Monetary Fund.

Dr Adeoye Akinola is the Head of Research and Teaching at the Institute of Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa.

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