The Banker’s “Development” Rhetoric: What the World Bank Conceals and Reveals

Melissa Hussain*, Republished from NewAge Eid Special Issue, September 2007

The power of the World Bank is not only its money, but its ability to accumulate and manipulate knowledge.
Arundhati Roy, The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile (15)

Introduction: situating the World Bank’s money/power/knowledge network

A few years ago the World Bank passed its sixtieth anniversary, and it continues to be an extremely powerful and influential institution in the global economy. Since it emerged in 1944 as one of the three financial institutions to come out of the Bretton Woods, New Hampshire conference – along with the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation – the World Bank has been a major institution of the capitalist system. The opposition to the World Bank, the IMF, and the WTO is widespread and collective, as we witnessed during the protests on the streets of Seattle, Washington, DC, Davos, Quebec City, and numerous other sites across the globe. In 2000 alone, there were as many as 200 demonstrations and strikes in Asia, Africa, and Latin America against the World Bank. And so many scholarly works have been produced that argue for the complete dismantling of the World Bank and the other capitalist financial institutions, such as 50 Years Is Enough: The Case Against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, edited by Kevin Danaher.1 And recently a number of scholars in various disciplines across the humanities have published critiques of the World Bank. One can name, for instance, Unholy Trinity: The IMF, World Bank and WTO (2003), by Richard Peet, et al, and Knowledge for Development? Comparing British, Japanese, Swedish and World Bank Aid (2004), by Kenneth King and Simon McGrath; Postcolonialism Meets Economics (2004), edited by Eiman O Zein-Elabdin and S Charusheela; and World Bank Literature (2003), edited by Amitava Kumar.

But despite all of the protests and critiques, the World Bank, the IMF, and the WTO all continue to run full steam ahead. The World Bank’s publications, studies, and plans for ‘development’ affect the lives of millions of people in the world every day, including the lives of the poor in Bangladesh. And the World Bank gains its massive power not only through its monetary resources, but through the ways in which it produces and distributes knowledge about the Third World in order to justify its capitalist projects through enacting what I wish to call – by inflecting Michel Foucault’s famous formulation in political-economic directions – the ‘money/power/knowledge’ nexus of the World Bank. Similarly, in Imperial Nature: The World Bank and Struggles for Social Justice in the Age of Globalization, Michael Goldman observes: ‘[O]ne of the Bank’s greatest accomplishments has been to make its worldview, its development framework, and its data sets the ones that people around the world choose above others. This is one reason why the Bank’s influence continues to grow, even with mounting pressure from critics (xv).’

How does the World Bank have such a massive global influence despite so much resistance? First of all, it is backed by a small minority of extremely wealthy capitalists and CEOs whose interests its studies serve. Secondly, it is in the business of producing whatever ‘truth’ is necessary to gain consent in the public sphere. This is the project of hegemony at work, to use Antonio Gramsci’s term.2 Thus the World Bank fully deploys its money/power/knowledge network, to invoke Foucault again. To put it simply, the World Bank uses its money and power to create knowledges about the Third World that serve the purpose of capital. In other words, the World Bank itself enacts connections between political economy and rhetoric, in order to hegemonise the forcefield of competing ideas about the World Bank in the interest of promoting imperialist capitalism. Indeed, the World Bank goes global not by itself; it always travels with its own arsenal of rhetorics that serve the business of truth-telling. Therefore, the ‘truth’ told by the World Bank is wrought with unequal power-relations and production-relations. This might be called the ‘political economy of truth,’ to use Foucault’s own language, which he describes in his work Power/Knowledge thus:

In societies like ours, the ‘political economy’ of truth is characterized by five important traits. ‘Truth’ is centred on the form of scientific discourse and the institutions which produce it; it is subject to constant economic and political incitement (the demand for truth, as much for economic production as for political power); it is the object, under diverse forms, of immense diffusion and consumption (circulating through apparatuses of education and information whose extent is relatively broad in the social body, notwithstanding certain strict limitations); it is produced and transmitted under the control, dominant if not exclusive, of a few great political and economic apparatuses (university, army, writing, media); lastly, it is the issue of a whole political debate and social confrontation (‘ideological’ struggles). (131-132)

Indeed, the five traits of the political economy of truth that Foucault spells out in the above passage are evident in the World Bank’s business of knowledge-production. The World Bank employs a scientific discourse in its studies; there is a constant demand for the production of its documents; its ‘truth’ is very widely disseminated – in fact, World Bank studies are among the most quoted studies in the world; it is one of the few extremely powerful capitalist institutions that enacts and controls huge circuits of the production and distribution of knowledge; and there is a massive ideological struggle over its findings. However, Foucault’s ‘political economy of truth’ does not get to how the political and the economic turn out to be the sites of life-and-death struggle for the millions of people in the Third World countries whose daily living is directly impacted by the interrelated dynamics of capitalism and imperialism, or ‘capitalist imperialism,’ as Ellen Meiksins Wood puts it (Empire of Capital 6). I argue that a rhetorical analysis of the World Bank’s own documents will help us to see how it constructs truth in order to sanction and legitimise the project of ‘capitalist imperialism,’ interlinked as it is with racism, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression.

The Colour of Class: demystifying the rhetoric of the World Bank

In the current war waged against Iraq by the US, racism once again becomes a decisive material force whereby capitalism intersects with imperialism. Thus I find it necessary to study the World Bank’s use of a racialised rhetoric to advance its agenda in the service of capital – to be specific, First World capital – at the expense of the majority of the people in the Third World who are people of colour.

In order to see how racism comes into play, affecting the very political economy of capitalism, it is also important also to see how the World Bank, to begin with, bypasses the very question of class itself. Richard Wolff, for instance, argues in ‘World Bank/Class Blindness’ that the issue of class inequality is purposefully avoided by the World Bank and development theorists alike. Wolff writes:

[T]he debates over ‘development’ swirl instead around issues carefully kept away from their class dimensions. The objects of contention endlessly recycled in those debates include whether there should be more or less privatization, more or less state planning, more or less infrastructural investment, more or less free trade, and so on. The criteria of the debates are likewise class-cleansed: which path assures greater ‘efficiency’ and/or ‘equity,’ with both terms kept free from any class content or implications. The result is to disconnect consciousness and policy from any explicit discussion of how class changes might figure in the ends and means of ‘development.’ (177)

Wolff rightly points out that this apparent commitment to social change yet complete avoidance of the question of class change allows for the World Bank to ignore the uncomfortable question of why its capitalist projects keep wreaking havoc on the poor in Third World who it claims to help.

In fact, the World Bank’s own literature claims to be extremely attentive to the poor. Yet capitalism and class never enters into the discourse. For instance, the World Bank proclaims in its own 2003 publication, A Guide to the World Bank, that ‘broader participation in the development process and empowerment of poor people to play a role are key objectives of the Bank Group’ (119). And, in the same publication, the World Bank proudly pronounces the fact that it has ‘conducted conversations with 60,000 poor people in 60 countries and has worked to incorporate poor people’s perspectives in its day-to-day work’ (119). The Guide also insists that ‘fighting poverty is central to the Bank Group’s mission’ (135). This is also the message of former World Bank president James Wolfensohn’s address entitled ‘We Have Come Together to Deal with Poverty,’ given at the High-Level Encounter of the World Council of Churches, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund on October 22, 2004. Wolfensohn’s address appears in a collection of his writings published by the World Bank, entitled – and mark the title – Voice for the World’s Poor. Wolfensohn argues:

The issue that we face is the human issue of injustice, inequity, and the human condition, and that we measure our objectives in terms, we would like to say, of poverty eradication. That is my dream. But at the moment, the task is poverty alleviation, because 200 heads of state decided [at the UN Millenium Assembly] in New York that we would set a goal of halving the incidence of poverty by 2015, and that was the task that was given to us. And we’re not doing a great job even on alleviation, let alone eradication. (509)

As Wolfensohn mourns the fact that his dream of eradicating poverty has not been going well, he points to ‘the need in developing countries to have better capacity, to have better governance in judicial and financial systems, and to fight corruption’ (510). In other words, he sees corruption in Third World governments as a major reason why poverty has not so far been alleviated since the UN Millennium Assembly, although capitalism and imperialism are not mentioned, of course. And this speech is only one example of how the World Bank overall remains extremely preoccupied with the question of corruption in Third World governments, something that Heather Marquette discusses at great length in Corruption, Politics and Development: The Role of the World Bank.3

But Wolfensohn’s lofty-sounding dreams do not translate into real-world alleviation of poverty in the World Bank’s policies, particularly when the blame for the failure is placed on Third World governments. Certainly there is corruption among the national ruling classes in the Third World, but those classes operate in alliance with, or have even been bought out by First World capitalist elite and are thus not the source of the global problem of poverty. In other words, what is lacking in Wolfensohn’s analysis is how the local remains connected to the global. For instance, first, such an analysis brutally bypasses the relationship between the corruption of Third World national bourgeoisie and US imperialism that supports it. Writers like William Blum and Eduardo Galeano have repeatedly shown how Third World dictatorial military and corrupt governments have been backed by US imperialism at least since 1945.4 Second, Wolfensohn’s analysis does not pay any attention to how resources – natural and human – are routinely extracted by US multinational corporations from Third World countries, of course, in alliance with the national ruling classes located in those countries. Third, Wolfensohn’s analysis does not pay any attention whatsoever to how the World Bank’s own structural adjustment programmes have immensely impoverished a number of Third World countries. Fourth, Wolfensohn’s analysis hides how international financial institutions – not only the World Bank but also the IMF and the WTO – do not promote the development of ‘national capital’ and, for that matter, also local/national developmental initiatives in the Third World, because such institutions remain invested in promoting the agendas of First World multinational corporations, particularly the US ones.5

Among the four points I have made above, I intend to take up the structural adjustment programmes in particular because they continue to have serious material implications for poverty in Bangladesh and other Third World countries. I admire John McMurtry’s own critique of such programmes in The Cancer Stage of Capitalism – by far the most pointed critique from the perspectives of political economy. In this work McMurtry usefully outlines eight major underlying principles of the World Bank, the IMF, and structural adjustment programmes as follows:

1.The debts are not to be repaid, but the compound-interest payments are to be ensured in orderly increase;

2. Devaluation of currencies is typically prescribed, with the consequence that wages and salaries are reduced in real terms and people work longer and harder for enough to survive;

3. Food or other commodities for export are demanded to ensure the hard currency is paid to international money lenders;

4. Local investment by government or the maintenance of self-employed co-operatives to provide means of life for domestic populations are dismantled, thereby requiring local dependency on imported commodities and export of unprocessed products to First World markets to pay for the imports and to provide hard currency to pay debt charges;

5. All unpriced or government subsidized goods of food, shelter, education, public health-care or other life-goods are converted to market mechanisms of price and profit;

6. Financial assistance for ‘safety nets’ is consumed by foreign financial advisers and temporary assistance to volunteer-run schools and clinics without stable public funding;

7. Environmental resources and other exploitable local economic sectors are opened to unobstructed access, ownership and control by transnational corporations so as to ensure foreign currency for interest payments, reduced cost inputs, and unprotected markets for transnational commodities and capital;

8. All of the above must be agreed to by local governments to ensure against international financial blacklisting. (181-82)

While I cannot adequately address all eight principles in the space of this paper, I will try to address at least some of them briefly. In particular, I want to emphasise that each of these economic principles indicate the World Bank’s own imperialist project. Thus, as a microcosm of the larger structure of capitalism, the World Bank provides for us a case study for how capitalism is in the business of exponentially devastating the Third World for profit.

While I completely agree with McMurtry’s analysis of structural adjustment programmes in general, he does not, however, at all factor into his analysis the question of the World Bank’s racist agendas that actually make the Third World people of colour the worst sufferers. Also, even Wolff, whom I mentioned earlier and who is otherwise extremely critical of the World Bank, shows the same lack of attention to race and racism. Wolff does not, for instance, account for how class continues to remain racialised in the Third World context. However, in the very light of the criticisms of the World Bank that both McMurtry and Wolff otherwise commendably advance, it is possible to speak of racism at various levels: first, racism in terms of the deployment of development rhetorics that separate the ‘developed’ from the ‘developing’ countries; second, racism in terms of inhibiting self-sufficient national development programmes (with the assumption that Third World countries are not capable of developing their own programs); third, racism in terms of dictating the agendas for even the Third World national bourgeoisie (with the very assumption that they cannot govern themselves and that they must be governed); and fourth, environmental racism. For instance, McMurtry talks about the problems of the environment, but he does not really tell us why the Third World people of colour in particular are subject to such environmental problems created by transnational corporations and their promoter – the World Bank.

But the people with whom the World Bank purports to work in Bangladesh and in other Third World countries are mostly women. It is in this context that the World Bank raises further problems concerning gender. As we have seen, the World Bank, while using its language and rhetoric, never even casually mentions ‘race’ or ‘class’ (as if they are the unutterable ‘devil-terms,’ to borrow from Kenneth Burke). However, it does claim to attend to the question of gender in its various rhetorical deployments. In the next section, then, I propose to examine and interrogate the World Bank’s racialised rhetoric of gender to show why the World Bank pays such a great deal of attention to gender and how this does not translate into its proposed ‘liberation of women,’ but rather works to further subjugate women.

The World Bank’s gender project: the self-appointed ‘liberator’ of women

Let me then begin by looking at the World Bank’s rhetoric of gender which, I also claim, is a vital question of political economy. In the context of the ongoing US war against Iraq, I’d like to pay particular attention to the World Bank online article ‘Listening to Iraqi Women,’ from 2003. In this piece, the World Bank claims to have listened to Iraqi women because a group of eighteen Iraqi women – all of them upper class, of course – met with World Bank officials to supply input for the ‘Iraqi Joint Needs Assessment.’ President Wolfensohn opened the meeting by saying: ‘Without gender involvement, you cannot have effective development’ (The World Bank Group, ‘Listening’ par. 3). And, the piece declares that Iraq’s women, who were ‘[o]nce a highly educated group […] have lost ground in the last 10-15 years’ (par. 4). The document gives no indication as to why this is the case.

Might the UN Security Council’s crippling sanctions against Iraq that began in 1991 (which corresponds to the 10-15 year timeline) have something to do with a decline in women’s education? The sanctions disallowed – among many things – basic medicine and educational supplies from entering Iraq, supposedly as a barrier to the country’s military regime. (Really, what do pencils or infant formula have to do with weapons?) And, for that matter, who gave Iraq the few weapons they had? Could it be the US? Throughout the 1980s Saddam Hussein’s repressive regime – which was anything but favourable to women – was fully backed financially and militarily by the US administration. Only when Saddam Hussein made a move to nationalise Iraq’s oil fields did his regime become a ‘threat’ to US national security and the plight of Iraqi women suddenly became a concern of our administration.

But I digress. Let me return to the article at hand. I want to highlight one more statement made by the World Bank in ‘Listening to Iraqi Women’: ‘Across the Middle East and North Africa region, women remain a largely untapped resource in the region despite generous public spending over the last few decades on health and education’ (par. 13). Throughout this piece women are characterised as an ‘untapped resource,’ while women’s participation in the labour force is described as ‘effective development.’ Is the World Bank’s agenda really a libratory one? Who is tapping into this ‘resource,’ and when development is ‘effective,’ who exactly is it effective for?

The article refers to a World Bank report, Gender and Development in the Middle East and North Africa: Women in the Public Sphere (2004), which further articulates the World Bank’s position vis-à-vis gender inclusion. The report indicates progress has been made for women in the Middle East when increasing numbers of women enter into the labour force. And the World Bank has no qualms about explicitly describing women as exploitable commodities here:

Gender inequality—the differential access to opportunity and security for women and girls—has become an important and visible issue for the economies of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). […] Gender inequality holds back a country’s economic performance. Barriers that reduce open competition impede a country’s ability to draw on its best talents, and they ultimately undermine economic growth and productivity. The MENA economies, which are no longer able to rely on oil, remittances, and the public sector to drive growth, must look to new models of growth and development that rely more heavily on exports and private investment and that make more productive use of nonoil resources, especially human capital. Women […] make up 49 percent of the population and, in some countries, as much as 63 percent of university students. However, they represent only 28 percent of the labor force. (1-2, emphasis mine).

The fact that the World Bank can unblinkingly declare human lives as ‘capital’ is in itself disturbing. Also disturbing is the assumption here that women participating in the labour force will bring about greater gender equality. And what the World Bank describes as ‘growth’ is really nothing more than the project of refining and heightening the exploitation of labour-power in order to extract more surplus value for the capitalists.

I’d like to read this report in conjunction with another report of the World Bank. In Balancing the Development Agenda: The Transformation of the World Bank under James D. Wolfensohn, 1995-2005, the World Bank writes in glowing terms of how gender equality has increased on a global scale due to the World Bank’s initiatives under the guidance of Wolfensohn. And the report commends Wolfensohn’s presence at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing as an indication of the World Bank’s unswerving commitment to the gender equality. However, as a vast majority of representatives from Third World countries expressed at the Beijing conference, the conference did not bring about positive change for poor women in Third World countries, but kept the global hierarchy intact where First World representatives dictated to Third World representatives how their women would be ‘liberated.’ Let me point out one section of the report, in particular, that reveals how the World Bank relies on the argument that Third World patriarchy – in collusion with Third World government corruption – stands in the way of poverty alleviation:

A Policy Research Report on gender marshaled a range of compelling evidence about the inextricable links between gender equality and poverty, reiterating that ignoring gender disparities comes at great cost to people’s well-being and to countries’ abilities to grow sustainably, to govern effectively, and thus to reduce poverty. (12)

What all of these World Bank documents seem to say about gender is that ‘equality’ for women in Third World societies means that they must be fully incorporated into the capitalist system – in other words, even more exploited than their male counterparts. A whole host of feminist critics have argued, however, that inclusion in the capitalist labour force does by no means equal liberation for women. Silva Federici, for instance – in her article ‘Reproduction and Feminist Struggle in the New International Division of Labor’ – argues that feminists in the US and Europe need to combat the structural inequalities of capitalist institutions like the World Bank:

[I]f we examine the perspectives that inspire feminist politics in the United States and Europe, we must conclude that most feminists have not yet reckoned with the changes that the new global economy has produced in the conditions of women, or have recognized their implications for feminist organizing. In particular, many feminists fail to acknowledge that the restructuring of the world economy is responsible not only for the global spread of poverty, but also for the emergence of a new colonial order, that deepens the divisions among women, and that this new colonialism must be a main target for feminist struggles if women’s liberation is to be possible. […] [E]ven those who are critical of the global economy and of the policies pursued by international agencies like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.), often settle for reformist positions that condemn gender discrimination, but leave the structural problems connected with the global hegemony of capitalist relations intact. (48)

What I find particularly compelling here is Federici’s point that it is not enough to reform institutions such as the World Bank in the service of anti-patriarchal struggle, since the very structure of capitalism itself reinforces patriarchy. In other words, patriarchy is inextricably linked with capitalism at this historical conjuncture, so it is impossible to achieve women’s liberation within a capitalist economy. Federici does not fully account for how such relations of power and production as capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, patriarchy, and racism are all inter-connected and how the question of women’s liberation in the current conjuncture involves struggle against not only patriarchy but also against racism, capitalism, and imperialism that all keep, strengthen, and reproduce patriarchal power-relations on both local and global scales.

Another point I want to bring up vis-à-vis the excerpts from World Bank documents I have cited above is the significance of the fact that the World Bank blames underdevelopment – at least in part – on the culture of patriarchy in the Third World. As the Marxist-feminist scholar Rosemary Hennessy argues in her essay ‘¡Ya Basta! We Are Rising Up! World Bank Culture and Collective Opposition in the North,’ this is a means for the World Bank to sidestep the question of how capitalism itself drives the patriarchal division of labour:

It is no coincidence that at the same time that the prevailing discourses of culture theory deny that questions of political economy are pertinent to cultural analysis, the World Bank is meeting with grassroots women’s groups in Mexico to confer with them about its new programs in education, programs that aim to address what the World Bank sees as the “real” problem of underdevelopment in Latin America: the culture of machismo and the gender system it spawns. Deflecting attention to gender as a cultural problem and away from analysis of the ways gender (and education for the marketplace) is imbricated in the division of labor is a way of seeing that reinforces the structures of neoliberalism because it substitutes culture for capitalism and keeps invisible the massive exploitation on which globalization depends. (45)

Hennessy’s example here is of the World Bank’s work in Latin America, but what might be called the World Bank’s culturalisation of gender inequality is applicable to the rest of the Third World as well, as Suzanne Bergeron and Gayatri Spivak both variously argue. Bergeron, for instance, argues in ‘Challenging the World Bank’s Narrative of Inclusion that the World Bank has, since the mid-1990s, promoted a narrative of inclusion that addresses ‘gender and development’ on a global scale. This narrative, Bergeron further points out, is particularly directed towards women in the Third World as unilaterally oppressed by their male counterparts rather than by the structures of capitalism and imperialism. Spivak points to this trend, as well, in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, theorizing that the shift in the World Bank’s language from the category of ‘ Women in Development’ – which was used through much of the 1980s – to ‘Gender and Development’ in the 1990s has everything to do with ‘the financialization of the globe’ (200), as ‘the Woman from the South is […] the favored agent-as-instrument of transnational capital’s globalizing reach’ (200-201). In other words, the World Bank has found it economically advantageous in recent years to (literally) buy into a liberal, pseudo-feminist rhetoric of inclusion. But Hennessy’s and Bergeron’s insights tend to run short when it comes to the racialised and racist implications of the ways in which the World Bank frames Third World patriarchy as the culprit of underdevelopment.

I’d like to fill in this gap of analysis to some extent, then. The questions I am prompted to ask in this context are: How does the racialisation of gender in Third World countries advance the World Bank’s own agendas? And what are the implications of this racialisation? In order to preserve its power, the World Bank must work to keep in place the First World hegemonic notions of capitalism as synonymous with democracy. So, basically, it is not rhetorically effective for the World Bank’s documents to blatantly call for the extreme exploitation of women in Third World countries. Although this remains the bottom line for World Bank projects, their documents must be coated with the liberal rhetoric of gender equality in order to garner support in the First World context. And if their projects fail to meet the goals stated in their public documents – which they inevitably do, because what appears in their public documents are not their real goals but rationalisation for the basic goal of extracting wealth, resources, and labour from the Third World – they are able to lay the blame on the patriarchy of Third World countries. Also, to lay such blame on the Third World is racist in character in that numerous anti-patriarchal movements that exist in the Third World are, on the one hand, lost sight of, and, on the other, the question of patriarchy in the metropolis – from which, as Gayatri Spivak argues, patriarchy is globalised – is completely ignored to the point that the Third World as a whole turns out to be nothing short of the patriarchal ‘devil’ that needs to be tamed by the good sense of the First World.

Grounding rhetoric in the material world

I have so far devoted this paper to a rhetorical analysis of the World Bank’s documents. But I want to connect rhetoric to the actual projects of the World Bank in its collusion with US imperialism and the current ‘war on terror.’ I want to make the relationship between US imperial war and the World Bank very clear. The sites and scenes may change, but the basic format remains the same. First the US military swoops in and destroys a Third World country’s infrastructure, hospitals, schools, media centres, water reserves, etc. Then the World Bank appears, offering loans to help the country recover from the devastation. A coincidence? I think not. A few concrete examples here may help clarify the point.

What has the World Bank been up to since the US declared war on Iraq, for instance? To begin with, in October of 2004, the World Bank signed a $60 million grant agreement with Iraq’s Ministry of Education to finance the construction of new buildings for 100 schools, and repairs to 140 primary and secondary schools (of course, the agreement does not explain how many of those schools are in need of repair due to US ‘smart’ bombs gone mysteriously astray). And then in November of 2004, the World Bank signed a $7 million grant agreement with Iraq’s Ministry of Planning and Development Cooperation to support a training programme for civil service. Then again in December of 2004 the World Bank signed three grant agreements with the interim Iraqi government that totalled $145 million for reconstruction and development projects as well as a $20 million grant to address water shortages in rural communities (once again, information is lacking as to how much that water shortage is actually the US’s own doing).6

And what about Afghanistan? It seems to have dropped off the political radar these days, at least in the US. But the World Bank has been busy promoting the profit-making enterprises of multinational corporations in Afghanistan. In 2004 the World Bank published several book-length reports on its work in Afghanistan: A Guide to Government in Afghanistan and Reforming Fiscal and Economic Management in Afghanistan.7 And the World Bank declares on its website on Afghanistan – which by the way, proudly flaunts images of Afghan women, declaring that they are ‘emerging as a major voice in Afghanistan’s new leadership’ (and, by implication, the World Bank takes credit for this) – that it has, since April 2002, committed $343 million in grants and an additional $436 million in no-interest loans, known as ‘credits’ for 18 development and emergency reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.

While at face value these seem like generous loans, unfortunately, we have seen over the past few decades that IMF and World Bank loans to Third World countries have ended up costing those countries more than helping them, and have made the First World rich in the meantime. To return to the first underlying principle of the World Bank that McMurtry theorises in The Cancer Stage of Capitalism, the debts are not meant to be repaid but are meant to increase exponentially with compound-interest payments. We can see this principle playing out in hard statistics. Walden Bello, for example, the director of Focus on the Global South in Bangkok, explains in ‘Meltzer Reports on Bretton Woods Twins Builds Case for Abolition but Hesitates’ why he argues for a complete dissolution of the World Bank: ‘In terms of achieving a positive development impact, the Bank’s own evaluation of its projects shows an outstanding 55-60 percent failure rate. The failure rate is particularly high in the poorest countries, where it ranges from 65-70 percent. And these are the very countries that are supposed to be the main targets of the Bank’s antipoverty approach’ (63). And according to a 1999 New Internationalist report, in six of the eight years from 1990 to 1997 ‘developing countries’ paid out more in debt service – that is, interest plus repayments – than they received in new loans, which meant a total transfer from the South to the North of $77 billion (qtd. in Ellwood 49). In addition, most of the new loans acquired by Third World countries during that time were used to meet interest payments rather than for productive investment.

Furthermore, according to the World Bank’s 2000 World Development Report, the foreign debt of developing countries are more than two trillion dollars and growing, which estimates out to a debt of over $400 for every man, woman and child in the Third World – where the average income in the poorest countries is less than a dollar a day (qtd. in Ellwood 48). It is a vicious cycle that keeps lining the pockets of the World Bank but has not lessened the crisis of poverty in the Third World. Rather, it has forced Third World governments to cut funding on the few public services which actually benefit the poor such as healthcare and education in order to make the interest payments to the World Bank. It is an irony that Iraq and Afghanistan, then, are asked to remain grateful for these loans while these loans in reality are precisely the monetary resources that were already extracted from Third World countries, Iraq and Afghanistan included.

Let me briefly recap. I have tried to make clear in this paper the fact that the World Bank’s agenda is to basically ensure that ‘developing’ countries never make it to the status of ‘developed.’ Or, to put it yet another way: While the World Bank claims that it works to alleviate poverty in Third World countries, it actually sharpens the global divide between the rich and the poor. Also, as I have tried to show, the World Bank is integrally connected to the US imperial project and the unjust wars the US is currently waging. And I have argued that the World Bank should be a target for feminist and antiracist work, because of the ways in which it re-inscribes patriarchy and racism on a global scale despite its rhetoric of inclusion and liberation. It is my hope that a politico-economically engaged rhetorical analysis of the World Bank’s documents as I have provided would help to expose the contradictions not only of the World Bank but of capitalism itself, in the interest of imagining and working for a more just world.

*Melissa Hussain is a Visiting Faculty at North South University, Dhaka, Bangladesh.


1 Also see Danaher’s 10 Reasons to Abolish the IMF & World Bank.

2 Gramsci argues that ideological hegemony is established mainly by civil institutions—such as schools, family, church, and certainly financial institutions such as the World Bank—rather than state institutions. Thus hegemony is a conception of reality, spread by civil institutions, that informs the values of society and induces consent to the status quo. For further discussion of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, see An Antonio Gramsci Reader, Selected Writings 1916-1935.

3 See, in particular, Marquette’s chapter four, “The World Bank’s Anti-Corruption Programme” (79-121) which outlines in great detail the various components of the World Bank’s research and agendas regarding corruption of Third World governments.

4 See, for instance, William Blum’s Killing Hope and Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America.

5 In fact, the relationship between the World Bank, the U.S. government, and U.S. multinational corporations—which can be seen as a grand class alliance—should be emphasized. In the 1960s, addressing a mass-gathering, the black activist Kwame Ture said, “the World Bank is in the pocket of the U.S.” Also, it is instructive to note that the largest five corporations in the world are from the U.S. alone and they variously dictate the direction of the World Bank.

6 For updates on the World Bank’s activities in Iraq, see the following website:

7 These two World Bank reports on Afghanistan are written by Anne Evans and Michael Carnahan, respectively.


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