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Rooms with no windows

Atle Hetland

Many times, institutions, organisations, companies, and also groups of people and individuals, make decisions without really knowing reality, not having had their feet on the ground, lacking empirical data, as we say in academia. It becomes like living in rooms with no windows, or with only glimpses of daylight and truth coming through between drawn curtains. In my article today, I shall write about some important and powerful institutions which are like that, not even knowing it, or being arrogant about it, thinking they know best in any case. I shall draw attention to the world’s leading financial institutions, lenders and donors, in whose hands all the world’s countries are, indeed the poor countries.

Pakistan has recently signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for loans. I hope that the agreement was based on the IMF having fair knowledge and a realistic understanding about the country they are mandated to support, and that Pakistan also has policies that are sound enough.

When I worked in the World Bank in the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) division, which is the IMF’s sister organisation downtown in Washington DC, a couple of decades ago, I was often surprised by how limited knowledge the organisation’s staff had about the countries we provide credits and grants to, in my case, in the Sahel region and West Africa, the world’s poorest countries. On top of limited knowledge, IBRD and IMF had quite heavy-handed policies, made by donors, and accepted by the recipients which had little choice. This was in the mid 1990s and the so-called structural adjustment policies were still in place, before some years later, they were finally shelved.

Poor countries in Africa and elsewhere, including Pakistan, were forced to follow right-wing policies of privatisation. Pakistan’s last IBRD’s project was cancelled before it was completed because there were doubts about its impact. Later, it was realised that many of the policies and approaches had been wrong, but then it was too late and no apologies and compensations were given.

I had earlier worked in East Africa, in Kenya for the UN, and in Tanzania for the Norwegian Embassy, and policies there, too, in education, literacy, and research, which I mainly dealt with, were similar made by the Bank from rooms with no windows. I remember that teacher training in Kenya was given less priority, leading to major shortages later, and in Tanzania, secondary education was not given the right attention, in spite of bilateral grants coming on top of credits. In Pakistan, the government education system was stopped from developing and the private school system supported. There should have been an emphasis on building a good government led public school system, not draining it through money-making private schools; true, some have done well but at a high cost to the parents and the country, which will take long to correct, if ever.

All this was caused by IBRD’s leadership in development aid, and because it had not done its homework the way it should. At the same time, the IBRD staff members and project officers were well educated and had read the latest books, at least such of a certain political and technocratic leaning. Staff members were afraid of making mistakes, of not following policies, for example always having to phone or fax their division chiefs in Washington before completing any agreements, so-called aide memoire, while on mission. Yes, it was a rigid and pretentious organisation and the recipients had no way of getting their alternative arguments heard. Well and good, perhaps, even if not democratic, had the IBRD been right in its demands, project administration, and policies. Sadly, the opposite was often the case.

Was it bad will? No, it wasn’t only bad will; it was heavy-handed politics and often wrong policies. It was selling Western capitalism, making developing countries fall into the USA’s and the West’s fold. In that way, they have been successful, but they have also slowed down development and progress in the poor countries—well, until China today is becoming a counter force. The world is no longer entirely unipolar, although no country can quite develop unless it is America-friendly, too, and to some extent, Europe-friendly.

The ruling world order was established after WWII. It wasn’t democratically made and it is not likely to change soon even now over seventy years hence. As it is with those who have power, they will not give it up unless they are forced to do so from below. There are changes at the surface, of course, which justify the way things are, so that there won’t be too much opposition against the existing order.

In my article today, I have in particular criticised the Bretton Woods system, as the World Bank Group and IMF are sometimes called as they were established at a hotel by that name on America’s north-east coast in 1944. The UN came a bit later, and IBRD is supposed to fall under the UN, but they get away with being independent, well, under America’s control, as is IMF, too, but with a bit more European influence. We all follow these institutions, and none of the rich countries ever challenge them properly. True, some criticism is voiced by some political parties on the left in rich countries, and in developing countries, but they don’t have real power to change much of the world order. China will probably change some things over time.

It seems truer than ever that we live in rooms with no windows. Sadly, we are unwilling to do what we should, look out and see the truth and act on what we see, an unfair and unequal world. When I worked in the World Bank, in the Africa Building on F Street downtown Washington DC, I was in a building which had received awards for good architectural design. True, it was an elegant building for visitors. Alas, few offices had windows and daylight. Most offices only had windows to neighbouring offices and the corridors, not the real world so we could see the sun and sky, know if it rained or was cloudy. Bosses had windows and could see outside, but they didn’t tell the rest of us what they saw. Besides, they had been in rooms without windows for so long before they got promoted, that they had probably forgotten to interpret what they saw. They were drowning in heavy busy bureaucratic and technocratic tasks.

I should mention that in Washington DC, no building must be higher than the Washington Monument, so no New York skyscrapers there. Hence, buildings had to be wide rather than high. That was the reason for making buildings with rooms with no windows; they even made several basement floors, since land was scarce downtown the world’s capital. In any case, if people don’t see the world, they will not know what and how to change things either. Rooms with no windows keep people calm and quiet, and a bit drowsy, too. Status quo can remain, never mind the consequences for those who don’t have rooms at all, those who live under the sky, affected by the elements, environmental and climate change.