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Lessons from mutiny on the bounty

The recommendations of the World Bank/IMF are presented to us, the people of the South, as scientific, objective, necessary, fair, and in the best interests of the countries where they are to be implemented. This is why the rebellion episode by the bank staff to its restructuring is so significant

In the Financial Times of October 8, the columnist Shawn Donnan, reported that the World Bank was facing an internal “‘mutiny.” Yes, the word mutiny was used. The professional staff were apparently angry about several issues, a deep discontent, because of which the rebellion had been brewing over many days. The key issue was the restructuring exercise being undertaken by the President, Jim Yong Kim, to save, through both the elimination of benefits to staff on mission and also through possible lay-offs, the sum of $400 million. The restructuring exercise, staff felt, was deeply flawed both procedurally and substantively. The columnist reported some members saying that this “thing [restructuring] is affecting everything.” “We can’t do business. We don’t have the budget. It’s a mess, ...” Another staff member complained that “nickel and diming” on travel budgets was causing travelling staff to have to pay for their own breakfasts. “It’s really small beer,” she said. “Has anyone ever thought about the impact of these changes on staff morale?”

Resistance against restructuring

To assuage their feelings, before the semi-annual meeting of the Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) with Finance Ministers and Central Bankers of member countries, President Jim Yong Kim had to hurriedly convene a “town hall” meeting with the staff to discuss their concerns. The issues that was fuelling their anger were: (i) the cost-cutting exercise which meant that items of expenditure that they had been accustomed to, such as a paid for breakfast, were being withdrawn, (ii) the secrecy and opacity of the whole exercise i.e., appointment of consultants, payment of bonus to the senior management, hiring of new senior managers, etc, (iii) the award of a “scarce skills premium” of $94,000 as bonus, over and above his salary of $3,79,000, to the Chief Financial Officer who was carrying out the exercise, and (iv) to the appointment and payment of the huge sum of $12.5 million to external consultants such as McKinsey, Deloitte, and Booz Allen for advice on how to restructure a development Bank, as reported in the Economic Times of October 15, 2014.

For those of us from the Global South, who not only receive but also have to follow the advice of the Bretton Woods twins, on how to “restructure” our economies and change our policies, this episode has four very interesting lessons. The recommendations of the World Bank/IMF are presented to us, the people of the South, as scientific, objective, necessary, fair, and in the best interests of the countries where they are to be implemented. The World Bank is the repository of the most authoritative knowledge on development. It annually publishes the flagship World Development Report (WDR), the first of which in 1978 was titled “Prospects for Growth and Alleviation of Poverty.” Every year since 1978, it flags important themes for development with the 2013 WDR being on “Jobs” and restructuring required to align them with the new economy. The 2015 WDR is on “Mind and Culture” and the World Bank website reports the central argument as being “that policy design that takes into account psychological and cultural factors will achieve development goals faster.” This is scholarly knowledge and is used by many university classrooms as part of required reading. This is what positions the World Bank as a premier knowledge institution on development. Then why is the rebellion episode so significant? There are four aspects of that which merit discussion.

The first is the resistance against the restructuring medicine. This is the same medicine used by the World Bank against the rest of the world. The restructuring exercise, which has eliminated jobs within the public sector, whether this be in government or in the support services required by any public institution, such as of subordinate administrative staff, has produced an underclass of workers, who, although they are still needed, have been deprived of the welfare and security benefits that the permanent staff enjoys and were benefits that had been won by a long history of working class struggles. So, when security guards, drivers, mess workers, sweepers, the class IV workers, have now to live lives filled with anxiety about illness, unemployment, etc., because they work for labour contractors who do not provide any such benefits, the anger of the World Bank professional staff who, because of the restructuring, have to pay for their “breakfast” is a little difficult to understand. The restructuring exercise of economies in the global south has produced an underclass whose livelihood insecurity has increased exponentially. The mutiny at the World Bank appears somewhat paradoxical. Not only is the exercise personally dishonest, given the rebellion when the policy is applied at home, but it is also intellectually dishonest when read against the 2015 WDR. Is this the modern performance of the “mutiny on the bounty”?

Control by the few

The second aspect is the process adopted in the internal restructuring. The Reuters and FT reports tell us that the common complaint of the staff is that the many aspects of the restructuring exercise, initiated by the president, were non-transparent. There was an opacity to the process. For example, questions such as the following needed to be asked. What was the method followed to give the CFO a “scarce skills premium” of $94,000 over and above his salary? Was the work done outside the normal duty of the CFO? How did the president decide on who qualifies for a “scarce skills premium” and how many persons have qualified for this bonus? These were questions asked at the town hall meeting. If the “scarce skills premium” was based on sound management principles, why did the CFO agree to forego the bonus after the uproar? These are good questions and lead one to wonder if countries have the same option of protesting? Did Greece and Portugal and Ireland and Argentina have the protest option? The interesting lesson from this episode is that restructuring produces pain and distress to the many while it rewards the few especially those tasked with implementing it. These few have access to political and intellectual power. They control the methods adopted of public justification which produces a discourse that the restructuring is necessary and will benefit the whole. The few get rewarded while the many pay the price in the restructuring in many countries of the global south.

Neo-liberal triumph

The third aspect is the use of consultants. This is the most disappointing and alarming aspect of the episode. For an institution such as the World Bank, whose main rationale is that it is a knowledge institution about how to promote development, to now implicitly declare that it does not have the knowledge required to restructure itself is a severe admission of the weakness of its knowledge base and skill sets. How does it then prepare a road map to restructure economies when restructuring an institution is infinitely easier than restructuring the economy of a country? Restructuring an institution can draw on the interdisciplinary knowledge of the WDR 2015 such as best practice, graduated approaches, evidenced-based policies, results-based management, measuring and monitoring, etc. (all the keywords of the World Bank itself), to achieve the result of a better, leaner, more efficient, and fair institution. But the decision to hire outside consultants, paying a whopping fee of $12.5 million, shows that the World Bank does not either believe in its own capability, or worse doesn’t have this capability. What is alarming is the message that development thinking will, from now on, be done and propagated by the big global consultancies. Is the World Bank announcing that henceforth even its development knowledge will be outsourced? As reported in the Economic Times, one of the protesters said, “What do they know about development and the complexities of what we do?” Indeed, what do they know? But if we see the economic policy institutions of many countries, we will see a seamless movement of personnel between global consultancies and central banks. Our own development thinking has been outsourced to neo-liberal knowledge institutions, such as global consultancies, ratings agencies and investment banks. We can see this takeover of knowledge production in the area of economic policy, the triumph of the neo-liberal frame, even in India. Look at the key players of our economic policymaking. The World Bank has now given its stamp of approval to this trend. The recolonisation of the Indian mind and the policy discourse is near complete.

The fourth aspect of this troubling episode is the use of words to legitimise the action. In the last few months of the Indian public debate, we have come to see the power of words and the social power the purveyors of these words acquire. The word makes the world. Tagore argued for this philosophical position that language constructs reality, that we see the beauty of the world through our language, and that outside language there is no beauty. Controlling the word, the Bank decides to reward its CFO with a large bonus, while it is reducing the financial package of its other employees; it deploys the justification for this decision as a “scare skills premium.” The CFO gets the additional money because he has scarce skills. The investment Bank fraternity has to be rewarded with huge bonuses because they have scarce skills. Wall Street is built on this justification. This is capitalism’s masterstroke of controlling perception, controlling the public discourse by controlling words. We accept the differentials because we are made to believe it is a “scarce skills premium” to be paid for our own good. Sometimes a typographical error brings out the truth much better. By mistake I typed it as “scare skills premium.” It is.

(Peter Ronald deSouza is Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. The views expressed are personal.)

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Printable version | May 31, 2020 4:25:40 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Lessons-from-mutiny-on-the-bounty/article11078098.ece

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