Friday, July 21, 2006

A dissonant harmonization

The IMF has a compact agenda and is governed by an as homogeneous group of power agents you can get – Central Bank bankers – while the World Bank is much more split up, on all fronts. In this respect there can be no doubt whatsoever about who will have to shut up the most, if collaboration between IMF and the World Bank starts morphing into a silencing harmonization.

Imposing too strict harmonization safeguards on all those bright and dedicated professionals who work in the Bank and in the Fund, and dare to be creative, risks silencing the voice of those the world needs the most.

The following are the three observations I sent in reply to the IMF and World Bank's public request of comments on the proposed improvements to Bank-Fund collaboration. Though the issue has a quite innocuous ring to it, “of course they should collaborate,” to me it goes very much to the heart of how to handle the world of tomorrow in a world where relations and interdependency of countries are intensifying, day by day.

The first comment relates to the overriding issue of world governance, the second to what I refer to as the biodiversity of ideas, and the last to give an example of a specific area where previous collaboration might have had some negative consequences. (As this is no new issue to me and as I have been an Executive Director at the World Bank and recently finalized a book, Voice and Noise, I also appended some very specific and relevant extracts from it.)

1. How should we try to achieve Good Governance for our World, from the center or through participation?
“The Bank and the Fund share the same goal of raising living standards in their member countries, but their approaches to this goal are complementary, with the IMF focusing on ensuring the stability of the international financial system and the World Bank concentrating on long-term economic development and reduction of poverty.”

Clearly the differences in the two approaches, which are indeed complementary in the long term, provide room for many conflicting positions on how best to balance the different objectives in the short term. In this sense, what is really at stake when discussing “collaboration,” or “harmonization,” as it has also been called, is whether international financial organizations should try to settle all their many differences in-house and present a common front, or whether they should spell out their differences and let the countries decide for themselves.

As so many of the local and global issues have by nature no clear and absolute answers, their debate could naturally provoke local or global confusion, and inaction, at a moment when both individual countries and the world at large is in deep need of responsible decision making, and this could speak for more collaboration. But, if one were to consider the possibility that the Bank and the Fund, by harmonizing their differences, could in effect be killing the debate, in a sort of collusion of intellects, then this could also make a mockery of all those many recent discussions about the need to ascertain stronger “ownership” by the individual countries of their own decisions.

There is no clear solution to the above, but I for one have a feeling that if the World and individual countries cannot simply get their act together in a participatory way, then we are simply heading toward a one-centered world in a sort of End of History Empire, or into a Cold War II scenario, something that is perhaps even more worrying when the probable need for a new standoff between sides could seriously interfere with the need of solving urgent mutual global problems, such as the destruction of the environment.

As neither of the previous alternatives carries much appeal to me, I sincerely wish to keep alive, for as long as possible, the dream of our world being able to handle the challenges among all of us, and in that sense I would not favor killing the debate but instead being even more forthright about the difficulties, about the pro and cons, and allowing and stimulating the participation of all.

Yes there comes a moment where we as a world cannot afford destructive pariahs, who will have to be controlled, therefore diminishing the bio-diversity of governments, and perhaps also that way, little by little, leading us into the same end results listed above but, given a choice between being dominated or being co-opted, I must much prefer the second.

In a nutshell, collaboration between the Bank and the Fund, beyond fairly basic needs, does not go in the direction of world democracy and, if we are not willing to defend democracy on a world scale, our strength to promote it for individual nations is much reduced.

2. The need for a biodiversity of ideas
One of the most dangerous parts of the collaboration between the Bank and the Fund is that as it will occur between two already “serious consensus-grinding machines,” it could only further the reduction of the much needed biodiversity of ideas.

Frankly, and to be a bit blunt about it, to think that limiting the discussions on how to balance stability with the development movement to an internal Bank and Fund pre analysis, as if they are the anointed sole bearers of truths, is too arrogant.

In the same way as the next world-saving medicine might find its origins in a little organism in a tropical forest with a large biodiversity, so could the next world-saving idea be found in the poorest of the poorest underdeveloped nations. Do not shut them out or tell them what to do, but invite them instead to the debate. It behooves us all.

At a moment when the world is in need of a renaissance of ideas, do not slap it with some consensual dogmas.

3. An example of a doubtful harmonization

I hereby permit myself to quote in length the following self-explicatory note from my Voice and Noise.

The Financial Sector Assessment Handbook—a postscript

In September 2005, the World Bank and The International Monetary Fund published the Financial Sector Assessment Handbook and as I read it, it is a perfect example of what I mean by excessive harmonization, so I need to make a special comment here.

You might have already read extensively in the chapter “BASEL—Regulating for what?” about my strong belief that the world is giving too much emphasis to how to avoid crises potentially occurring in the financial sector, as opposed to how that sector is performing its role intermediating credits, generating growth, and distributing opportunities for access to capital. Yes, bank crises are setbacks, but, if in their wake they leave continuous step-by-step advances in development, we might still prefer that to a financial sector that receives a perfect bill of health but does little for the rest of the economy. In fact, such avoidance of a crisis is most probably just a temporary mirage. Developing is balancing various risks, not looking to eliminate one.

Well, in this handbook, which is more than 450 pages long, only a very few pages, perhaps fewer than ten, salute the flag of assessing and helping the banks perform their true function in development, the WB’s basic agenda. Instead, most of this handbook centers on how to supervise banks and minimize the risk of bank failures, the IMF’s basic agenda. Chapter Four contains most of the little there is about development, and “4.6.4 Development Obstacles Imposed by Unwarranted Prudential Regulation,” gives us sixteen complete lines about how entry or start-up regulation and uneven supervisory practices can hamper competitiveness and create “undue reliance on tools that are likely to disadvantage small new firms (such as excessive mandatory collateralization requirements for bank loans).” If I have ever seen what amounts to mere flag-waving, this is it, but, on the other hand, I must admit that these flag-wavers are at least quite transparent. Under the interesting subtitle “The Demand-Side Reviews and the Effect of Finance on the Real Sector,” we can read, “development assessments are interested in the users and the extent to which the financial services they receive (including from abroad) are adequate to their needs. Development assessments must express a general view on this issue, though in many countries, especially low-income countries, detailed quantification may be beyond the scope of the assessment. Friends, I rest my case. It is quite obvious that on this vital issue, WB has been harmoniously silenced.

Pssst… just between us, I feel that what’s valid for us is equally valid for the IMF. The Fund could also benefit from the clarity of not having to harmonize with someone who has other institutional objectives. End of quote.

PS. The Malan Report It states: "Good examples of collaboration involve the Financial Sector Assessment Program (FSAP)". So as you can see they did not listen one iota to what I said.

PS. As an ED I had stated much of this at the Board or the World Bank