Thank God neither Trevor Manuel nor any other African will be the next IMF chief

Jun 10, 2011

Former IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn allegedly carelessly and violently let his pants (or towel) down in a New York hotel room, and the rest is history. Poor rich Kahn had to resign his job in the ensuing storm of controversy, and the IMF has begun the process of replacing him. Who will be his successor? Will someone from the global South have a shot at the job for the first time?

For a little while there was much debate about whether the first-ever non-European might replace Kahn, given the economic emergence of the non-Western world, in particular of Asia. Former South African finance minister Trevor Manuel's name was at least half-heatedly bandied about as a potential candidate from Africa.

But the Europeans, many of their countries in unprecedented economic crisis that might need the intervention of the IMF, were not amused by the nonsense talk of an Asian, African or Latin American taking the position and moved to quickly put an end to it. In backroom machinations that would have made many an African dictator proud, the Europeans engineered the placement of a Frenchwoman as the front-runner. There will still be a formal election of course, but that is just for show; the deal has already been done.  

Manuel and other first mooted candidates wisely and diplomatically mostly kept silent. But now that it is obvious that the process has pretty much been wrapped up behind closed doors, Manuel has come out to formally pull out from consideration for the position.

"It is important to understand that decisions take place in the context of world politics. Against that backdrop, I have decided not to avail myself," said Manuel at a press conference.

The late timing of his withdrawal suggests he did not want to go through the humiliation of going through a 'democratic' process in which the voters have all been either bought off, arm-twisted or otherwise coerced. Whatever rhetoric of solidarity for one of their own uttered by the mostly poor voting member countries of the IMF, they were certainly not likely to go against the wishes of the US and European donors for a European to succeed Strauss-Kahn. So in a way Manuel is understandably saving face against what will be a fixed farce of an 'election,' as it has always been.

if Manuel had no interest in the position he would have come out to say so weeks ago when his name was first mentioned. That he does so now, using the words he did, is merely recognition of the reality that at this time in the history of the IMF, he stood no chance. He would merely have been a window-dresser to to give the process a veneer of 'democracy' it doesn't have in reality. In the past and at least for a while longer, that position 'belongs' to a European, case closed.

Now that the obvious is out of the way, would it have made any real difference if Manuel or another 'global southerner' were to head the IMF in its present form? Would the poor countries that have to endure the IMF's almost-always disastrous and widely-derived loan 'conditionalities' have felt any better to be screwed by an IMF with one of their own at its head instead of a European?

  In the entertaining, purely academic discussion of a non-European MD, no one ha suggested that this would automatically lead to any change in the much-criticised whole ethos of the organisation in regards to bailing out countries in export/balance of payments problems. The funds loaned by the IMF to countries in trouble on such ruinous terms mostly come from the us and the European countries. Any IMF MD will have to take the job knowing that s/he is there to implement their version of economic orthodoxy.

The MD's powers to change this are limited, and it would arguably be a slow, long process. A candidate with the idea of radical reform to the way the IMF works would probably not have any realistic prospect of winning the position, or even getting anywhere within shot of standing for it. By its very nature, and the chubbiness of the kind of people who would be within sight of such a position, are already 'pre-qualified' to be safe organisation types who will not rock the boat.

Therefore both by inclination and by the realpolitik limitation of getting and keeping the job, no economic radical is going to be IMF managing director. So an IMF with an African or Asian as its head would still keep on screwing poor indebted countries, making them weaker and more dependent in the long term in exchange for short-term emergency loans.

The rude ironies of what Frenchman Strauss-Kahn is alleged to have done to a poor, struggling working woman from Guinea are bad enough. It would have been too much for it to be possible to say that an African is now the boss of the IMF, supervising the rape of struggling African economies.    

Until the whole ethos and manner of how the IMF works with economies in trouble changes, there is no benefit to be gained from having a person who is a figurehead of the old system, except with black or brown skin. That would be window-dressing humiliation in addition to the social and economic depredations the IMF has inflicted on many poor countries.

The IMF will take a long time to live down the connections in many minds between what an old European in a New York hotel room is alleged to have done to a poor African woman, and the organisation's "structural adjustment programmes" are blamed for in many poor African countries. If that perhaps unfair parallel is not bad enough, try to think of the imagery of a well-paid but hapless African IMF figurehead holding down African and other poor country economies as they get violated by the organisation s/he represents. .

Trevor Manuel should consider himself very lucky. Thank goodness an African won't be the next IMF boss. 


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