Saturday, September 1, 2007

The IMF & the Ministry of Females

"Again???!!" The copier was out of paper. Again. And the second copier was out of ink. And paper. Again. By the time I finally unearthed a functioning copier, printed my document, and raced up the stairs to the 10th floor conference room --the elevator had been out of order for two weeks already -- the opening meeting of the visiting IMF mission was already underway.

My tardiness meant that everyone was already seated around the conference room table when I arrived. The scene in front of me was almost too striking to be true. With their backs to me sat a row of seven Caucasian men in stereotypical dark suits and smart eyeglasses. Across from the suited men, and with the windows and the clamorous noise from Broad Street behind them, sat six African women. Several of these women were wearing brightly colored African suits, and all of them wore smart eyeglasses. So extreme were the contrasts between the two sides of the table -- in terms of gender, race, geographic representation, fashion -- that the only visible similarity was the preponderance of eye glasses.

While it may not be surprising that the suited men represented the IMF -- although I was assured later by the visiting IMF team that the teams are normally more diverse -- the fact that the senior Ministry of Finance team is overwhelmingly female has turned many heads. Not only is the Minister herself female, but seven of the top ten deputy and assistant minister positions are held by women. In my opinion, it is no coincidence that this female leadership has coincided with a reputation for effectiveness and some of the biggest successes of the Sirleaf administration, including a doubling of revenues.

The women of the Ministry of Finance: me, Dabah Varpilah, Minister Antoinette Sayeh, Elfreda Tamba, Aletha Brown, and Angelique Weeks
Absurdly dorky picture of me with Revenue Growth sign. Negative five points for posting a geeky photo of myself on a blog; plus two points for finding any photo whatsoever that illustrates revenue growth.

The stark visual image of the opening IMF mission meeting turns out to be quite deceptive. Despite the observable differences, the Government of Liberia and the IMF have a great deal in common, and an exceedingly positive and collaborative relationship. Much like the IMF, the senior leadership of the Government of Liberia is dominated by economic technocrats with years of prior work experience at the World Bank and international institutions. Not only does the President actually welcome the IMF's advice and scrutiny, but there also exists a great deal of synergy between the IMF's philosophies of economic reform and macroeconomic stability and the policies of the Liberian Government.

Moreover, the IMF team that works on Liberia -- including in particular the resident representative of the IMF who is based in Monrovia -- is constructive, dedicated, collaborative, helpful, and involved. Even the much maligned conditionality that the IMF imposes has been largely productive in Liberia. The policy benchmarks tied to the IMF's "Staff Monitored Program" carry with them very weighty carrots and sticks (particularly eligibility for multilateral debt relief), and thus are among the highest priorities of the government. The result is what I call the “‘very urgent’ breakthrough:” the ability of a specific deadline to rise above the mountainous stack of "very urgent" memos and directives -- a stack so monstrous that even the most committed and competent staff cannot attend to all of the demands -- and command the attention of senior management, all the way up to the President.

During my time in Monrovia, I was struck by the impression that everyone was on the same team, the IMF and Government alike, all working towards the same goals. And yet had the IMF and Liberian Government actually been on the same team, it is simply inconceivable that the coach would have distributed the team's talent, remuneration and assets as it stands now. Virtually every single member of the IMF team held a doctoral degree; on the Government side, just one person in the entire ministry (Minister Sayeh) held a doctoral degree. The disparity in pay scale was equally as stark, with the senior Liberian civil servants in our Ministry having undertaken enormous pay cuts. The IMF offices in Monrovia stand in complete contrast to our Finance Ministry building. With its high speed internet access, pristine office, supportive administrative staff, and functioning copier machines, the IMF operated like a well greased machine, whereas we at the Finance Ministry squeaked by on a shoe string. Getting things done was infinitely easier in the IMF setup, and seeking their assistance was sometimes the only way to get things done. For instance, our malfunctioning copy machine proved a very large glitch the night before an important two-day budget cycle workshop that we had planned for weeks. To print copies of the presentations for the donors and government officials attending the workshop, we had to outsource our copying to the IMF office -- which, for a staff less than 10% of our Ministry's staff, had a very advanced (and functioning!) copy machine.

Beyond the obvious equity considerations, the very effectiveness of the IMF is called into question by this distribution of resources. Unlike many donors that operate their own programs independently and could arguably make a case for their employment of the best talent, the IMF in Liberia does not actually do anything per se. (At this point under the SMP, the IMF is not even providing funding.) Their primary purpose is to advise, monitor, and evaluate. Thus while their mission ostensibly is to ensure that Liberia's macroeconomic policy is sound and that public financial management is strengthened, it is the Liberian government that will actually do this, not the IMF. The IMF, for its part, observes the Government's efforts, double checks every number, re-crosses every t and re-dots every i, and gives Liberia performance marks in the equivalent of a report card. To be sure, in countries with weak political commitment or bad policies, the pressure of the IMF breathing down the necks of finance ministries may avert the worst policy decisions and motivate reform. Yet in a country such as Liberia -- where the Government is wholeheartedly committed to the reforms but where weak internal capacity limits the speed and quality of progress --- what is needed is not someone to check their work, but someone to do the work!

Short of revamping the infrastructure of international financial institutions, a low hanging fruit that the IMF should consider is salary compensation for senior civil servants in developing countries. Relying on the good will and civic mindedness of grossly underpaid civil servants is simply not sustainable. If the IMF and its donor siblings are serious about their lofty goals of promoting macroeconomic stability and economic growth, they need to adequately support the only team that can pull off a home run: the governments they work with. Otherwise, even an all star IMF team may just as well sit on the bench.


Mohamed said...

I am currently working for the Ministry of Planning in Palestine and I sometimes witness scenes of this kind - with the austere IMF people scrutinising a well-meaning but sometimes not-skilled-enough local crew.
In my case though, I realise that the only reason the Gov is keeping up is thanks to a few - very few - people who are incredibly good at what they do; yet by virtue become irreplaceable - you should see how a number of things fall apart when my boss is out of town for a few days - which is clearly unsustainable, and if developing such highly-qualified people isn't institutionalised, we're heading to an unavoidable crash.

I hope you're very well, and enjoying post MPAID life!
Mohamed (MPAID'07)

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