The Revolving Door of the World Bank

By Prashant Bhushan

Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate and former Chief Economist of the World Bank in his frank critique of the World Bank and IMF, “Globalisation and its discontents”, notes that “The institutions are dominated not just by the wealthiest industrial countries but also by commercial and financial interests in those countries, and the policies of the institutions naturally reflect this”. This, he says, happens because the World Bank and other Multi-lateral financial institutions are controlled by the wealthy countries. For the WB/IMF, these countries are represented by their Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors. He goes on to say, “The Finance Ministers and Central Bank governors typically have close ties with the financial community; they come from financial firms, and after their period in government service, that is where they return. These individuals naturally see the world through the eyes of the financial community. The decisions of any institution naturally reflect the perspectives and interests of those who make the decisions; not surprisingly, the policies of the international financial institutions are all too often closely aligned with the commercial and financial interests of those in the advanced industrial countries.”

Though an insider with impeccable credentials and credibility like Stiglitz has laid bare this fact which was known by most people much earlier, yet it is obvious that the government of India’s policies regarding the revolving door between the government and the World Bank/IMF are totally oblivious to this. How else would one explain the fact that for much of the last 20 years, and particularly since 1991, many if not most of the top economic policy makers including members of the planning commission, secretaries of the Finance Ministry and Governors of the Reserve Bank have been staffers of the World Bank/IMF. They have moved smoothly and seamlessly between the World Bank/IMF and the government of India, as if the government of India were just a division of the World Bank/IMF.

Since the mid 80s it has become common to find World Bank staffers occupying key policy making positions in the Government of India. Starting with Montek Singh Ahluwalia, and Bimal Jalan, the vast majority of the key officials of the Finance Ministry and the Reserve Bank have moved seamlessly back and forth between the World Bank/IMF and the Government of India. They include such influential policy makers and Finance Secretaries such as Shankar Acharya, who like Montek started with the World Bank in the 70s and then again like him joined the government as Economic advisor in 1985. In 1990 he was back at the World Bank as Chief of the Public Economic Division till 1993, when he was appointed Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India. He was thereafter appointed to the Board of SEBI, the EXIM Bank and various other policy making bodies.

We then have Rakesh Mohan who also initially worked with the World Bank (1976-80, 1983-86) and later became Economic Advisor to the Ministry of Industry, Government of India. He then served in top positions of many policy making bodies of the government including Deputy governor of the Reserve Bank, Secretary of the Department of Economic affairs etc.

We have Parthasarthy Shome who worked at the IMF for most of the time between 1983 and 2004. In between he was called in as Chairman, Advisory group on Taxation for the 9th 5 year plan, then as Chairman of the Advisory group on Tax policy, and most recently as Special advisor to the Finance Minister (2004-2007).

We also have other persons like Ashok Lahiri, who worked for many years in the IMF before being brought in to the government as Chief Economic Advisor and then sent to the ADB as Executive Director in 2007. These are only some examples of persons who started their careers with the Bank/IMF and were brought into influential policy making positions of the Government, then allowed to move back and forth between the bank and the government as if the Government of India were just a division of the Bank/IMF). Such examples could be multiplied endlessly.

This revolving door with the Bank/IMF and the filling of most economic policy making positions of the government by these Bank staffers has allowed the bank to impose its ideology and policies on India. It has not only ensured that these policy makers are schooled in the World Bank school of economics, by allowing them to move back and forth but also ensured that the Bank/IMF retains a complete stronghold on these persons wherein they step out of line only at the cost of losing their lucrative jobs/assignments with the Bank/IMF.

In fact, key officials of the Finance Ministry and other important Ministries dealing with World Bank proposals and projects have been freely allowed to negotiate and take up jobs at the World Bank while in service and immediately after retirement. Many of them are deputed by the Government of India. These deputations also work through the network of Old boys of the World Bank occupying key positions in the government of India. Apart from deputations, there are hosts of other jobs, consultancies, assignments, even travel grants and huge honoraria paid for attending meetings of the World Bank and associated agencies. Thus, R.A. Mashelkar as DG CSIR went on at least 50 trips abroad during his tenure which were paid for by the Bank or the World Intellectual Property Organisation. For most of these trips, he was paid an honorarium of around 500 British pounds a day. As a result of this, he got more as honoraria for these trips than he got as salary from the Government of India. As DG CSIR, he presided over several policy-making committees and advised the government to (for example) amend the Patents Act in line with the needs of multinational corporations of the West. He says that he honestly believes that it is in the best interest of India as well. But, when one knows that juicy junkets, honoraria and assignments depend on whether he falls in line with the Bank and similar agencies, it is easy to convince yourself of the righteousness of the course that is likely to land you with these juicy assignments.

The officials are selected eventually by the Bank and their salaries and honoraria are decided by them, depending on their level and “utility” to the Bank. However, in all cases they are several times, usually ten times or more than, the salaries they get in India. This creates an enormous incentive for the Officials to seek World Bank jobs, assignments, consultancies and even travel grants. Since it is obvious that one is more likely to get these if one toes the World Bank line, it creates an enormous incentive for Officials to fall in line. This is particularly so for “honest” officials who see these jobs and assignments as the only legitimate way of doubling or trebling their savings in a very short while.

The Foreign Contribution Regulation Act which makes it an offence for a government official to accept any material contribution from a foreign agency also exempts the World Bank and other “United Nations agencies”. This has further smoothened the path of those seeking World Bank/IMF/ADB jobs, assignments and travel grants.

This is why there is no critical evaluation of World Bank policies and projects at the government level and they are all virtually accepted uncritically and pushed through. All this has had an enormously deforming effect on policy making, particularly economic policy making in the Government of India. It would not be incorrect to say that it is the World Bank which runs the Reserve Bank, the Finance Ministry and other economic policy making bodies of this country.

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