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Economic World War

The World Bank and the IMF have played a pivotal role in shaping the global economic landscape and improving the lives of millions in Pakistan and South Asia.

By Zafar Masud | October 2023

In October, as the world’s attention turns toward Morocco for the Annual Meetings of the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), it is a historic moment to contemplate the legacy of these two leading global lending institutions.

Over the decades, they have played a significant role in shaping the economic destiny of underdeveloped and developing nations. This review embarks on a journey to evaluate their achievements, successes, failures, and, most importantly, their contributions to Pakistan and South Asia. We delve into areas such as infrastructure development, poverty alleviation, and disaster management and ponder on persistent questions about wealth distribution and the fundamental mission of these institutions - to uplift struggling economies and their institutions.

One of the most palpable contributions of the World Bank in Pakistan and the South Asian region has been in the realm of infrastructure development while the Fund ensured macroeconomic stability and relief.
Poverty alleviation is at the heart of the mission of the two institutions. In regions like South Asia, where a substantial portion of the population lives below the poverty line, the impact of the World Bank’s initiatives cannot be understated.

Microfinance projects, vocational training programmes, and social safety nets have provided a lifeline for countless families, pulling them out of the abyss of poverty. Yet, the task is far from complete, and the roots of poverty run deep. Comprehensive strategies are needed to address the multifaceted nature of poverty in the region.

In a world where natural disasters wreak havoc, the IMF and the World Bank have played a pivotal role in disaster management. South Asia, with its vulnerability to earthquakes, floods, and cyclones, has been a beneficiary of the institution’s support in disaster preparedness, early warning systems, post-disaster recovery efforts, and extended special financial financing facilities. These initiatives have saved lives and helped communities rebuild.

However, one pressing concern casts a shadow over these achievements - wealth distribution. Critics argue that, in some instances, the benefits of development projects have disproportionately favoured the privileged few or multinational corporations rather than reaching the intended beneficiaries - the downtrodden communities. A total of US $42 trillion in new wealth has been created since 2020, with US $26 trillion, or 63%, of that being amassed by the top 1% of the ultra-rich globally, according to the Oxfam report. The remaining 99% of the global population collected just US $16 trillion of new wealth. It suggests that the pace at which wealth is being created has sped up, and so has its concentration, as the world’s richest 1% amassed around half of all new wealth over the past 10 years. This is a very alarming development.

South Asia is no different than the rest of the world. For it, the ratio of the average income of the poorest 10% of the population to the richest 10% is 6.5%. In other words, the average income for the richest is more than 16 times the average for the poorest. The ratio is 7.5% for Bangladesh, 8.6% for India and 11.1% for Sri Lanka. The ratio of the average incomes of the poorest 20% of the population to the richest 20% is 4.8% for Pakistan and Bangladesh, 5.5% for India and 6.8% for Sri Lanka. The Gini coefficient — a measure frequently used to indicate the extent of inequality — is the worst for Pakistan: 29.6 against 32.4 for Bangladesh, 35.7 for India, and 38 for the world as a whole.

This raises questions about the effectiveness of monitoring mechanisms and the necessity for stricter regulations to ensure that the fruits of development are equitably shared amongst all segments of society. This also emanates from the fact that the belief in policies of the two institutions hovering around trickle-down effects on the economy as gospel perhaps needs a relook. There is certainly a question mark on this approach, and cases like India, where the bottom-up approach seems to have been working better than the traditional approach for growth, must be considered in future policymaking.

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