The debate over the International Monetary Fund and Ebola

By David Bosco

For several weeks, a war of words has been underway about whether International Monetary Fund (IMF) policies contributed to the Ebola outbreak in parts of west Africa. The Lancet touched off the debate with this article, which contended that IMF-imposed austerity helped cripple already weak national health systems. One of the authors summed up its conclusions: “Policies advocated by the IMF have contributed to underfunded, insufficiently staffed, and poorly prepared health systems in the countries with Ebola outbreaks.” IMF official Sanjeev Gupta fired back, arguing that the article contained multiple inaccuracies. He also pointed out that the Fund has taken action to respond to the crisis:

The arrival of Ebola put severe pressure on already fragile infrastructure and health-care systems. The IMF recognised the urgency of the situation and moved quickly to help…The IMF made available an additional US$130 million to the three countries to fight Ebola. We are also working on mechanisms to allow us to move rapidly to provide more debt relief to these countries—which would free up more resources that could be used for health-care spending.

For the past several days, the Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage blog has been hosting a vigorous exchange on the question. Chris Blattman argued that the charges over the IMF and Ebola are actually a sign of how little most scholars know about politics in the affected countries:

[The Lancet article] assumes the IMF had any real influence over health policy and spending. As one senior adviser to the Liberian government wrote Tuesday, “the IMF has about as much influence over health systems building as the Lancet does over central banking.”

We so easily default to a Western-centric view, where it’s our aid or financial policies that are responsible for the success or failure of poor countries. It’s egoistic and exaggerated, and ignores domestic politics…

When it comes to Africa…too many people are willing to assume it’s a blank slate, and that nations dance to the tune of Western donors and banks. Or that weak states are functioning, rational bureaucracies. I think this is one reason why so many newspapers are picking up the “IMF caused the Ebola crisis” so uncritically.

Adia Benton and Kim Yi Dionne responded that Blattman is too quick to dismiss the charges. “Though we wouldn’t go so far as to say that the IMF is wholly to blame for the Ebola outbreak,” they argued, “the IMF and organizations like it have played an important role in creating a political environment in which the epidemic could emerge and become the deadliest on record.”

About David Bosco

Assistant Professor at American University's School of International Service. Contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine. Author of Rough Justice: The International Criminal Court in a World of Power Politics and Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World
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