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Playing Favorites: How Shared Beliefs Shape the IMF's Lending Decisions

  • Stephen C. Nelson

International organizations (IOs) suffuse world politics, but the International Monetary Fund (IMF) stands out as an unusually important IO. My research suggests that IMF lending is systematically biased. Preferential treatment is largely driven by the degree of similarity between beliefs held by IMF officials and key economic policy-makers in the borrowing country. This article describes the IMF's ideational culture as “neoliberal,” and assumes it to be stable during the observation window (1980–2000). The beliefs of top economic policy-makers in borrowing countries, however, vary in terms of their distance from IMF officials' beliefs. When fellow neoliberals control the top economic policy posts the distance between the means of the policy team's beliefs and the IMF narrows; consequently, IMF loans become less onerous, more generous, and less rigorously enforced. I gathered data on the number of conditions and the relative size of loans for 486 programs in the years between 1980 and 2000. I collected data on waivers, which allow countries that have missed binding conditions to continue to access funds, as an indicator for enforcement. I rely on indirect indicators, gleaned from a new data set that contains biographical details of more than 2,000 policy-makers in ninety developing countries, to construct a measure of the proportion of the top policy officials that are fellow neoliberals. The evidence from a battery of statistical tests reveals that as the proportion of neoliberals in the borrowing government increases, IMF deals get comparatively sweeter.

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