Re-constructing IMF-Civil Society Engagement in the Arab Region

Re-constructing IMF-Civil Society Engagement in the Arab Region
  • Context

In a landscape where the global financial architecture increasingly dictates the pace and direction of development, engagement between the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in the Arab region has never been more crucial. As we navigate through economic risk, governance failures, and challenges to civic freedoms, the need for a  collaborative approach to policy making is paramount. Recognizing this urgent need, the Arab Watch Coalition (AWC), in partnership with other stakeholders, has kickstarted an effort to improve the engagement between the IMF and regional civil society¹.

This article is structured as follows. Section II describes AWC’s approach to analyzing and refining IMF-CSO engagement. Subsequent sections delve into the detailed analysis of different engagement phases as well as identify gaps in the process.  

  • Bridging the ‘Engagement Gap’: Our Approach

To kickstart this effort, AWC recently co-organized a webinar, gathering CSOs from Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan. These countries were selected based on their recent interactions with the IMF. The conversation was structured into three separate sections: pre-engagement preparation, in-engagement dynamics, and post-engagement follow-through, aiming to offer a comprehensive platform for CSOs to reflect on their experiences with engagement at different points in time as well as envision alternative approaches to interacting with the Fund. 

Our approach for understanding and improving engagements between civil society groups and the IMF is designed as a systematic, three-phase process. 

The first step involves an initial assessment of the current dynamics between CSOs and the Fund. This phase is multilayered, drawing from the rich experiences shared by CSOs, particularly insights from our recent webinar and augmented by input from IMF officials who have directly engaged with civil society in the region. The aim here is to critically examine and identify the existing gaps and challenges within these interactions.

Following this in-depth assessment, the focus shifts to formulating specific recommendations for improving the engagement process. This stage builds on the insights gained to pinpoint actionable strategies that can effectively address the identified challenges. The recommendations aim to bridge gaps and enhance the framework for engagement, ensuring that the contributions of CSOs are fully heard and integrated within the IMF’s programming. The development of these recommendations is a deliberate process, aiming to ensure they are practical, relevant, and aligned with the overarching goal of fostering more effective dialogue and inclusive development. 

The final phase involves creating a strategic plan that integrates the formulated recommendations into a clear roadmap. This plan serves as a guiding document, outlining the steps required to transform these engagements into meaningful collaborations. Through this plan, a commitment is made to a cycle of continuous improvement and adaptation, ensuring that the engagement process is not only responsive to current needs but is also localized and prepared for future challenges. 

This phased approach, from thorough analysis to strategic implementation, is aimed at redefining the engagement between CSOs and the IMF, making it more impactful, inclusive, and aligned with mutual goals of economic prosperity and social equity across the countries involved. In the following section, we present the first step of the above approach, namely assessment.

  1. Laying the groundwork for AWC’s programming

To kickstart the assessment phase, we will next delve into the findings from our recent webinar on engagement. This analysis serves as a critical first step, providing a foundation for understanding the current landscape of engagement between CSOs and the IMF. The structured approach of this webinar—encompassing pre-engagement preparation, in-engagement dynamics, and post-engagement follow-through—is not just a methodological choice but a crucial tool for AWC’s work. 

  • Pre-Engagement: Identifying the communication divide early on

Pre-engagement involves the initial steps taken by both the IMF and regional CSOs to prepare for upcoming meetings or consultations. Reflecting on these preparations, the participating CSOs have identified five main gaps in their engagement with the Fund. These shortcomings underscore the need for an engagement framework that is more equitable and prioritizes the needs and viewpoints of the concerned civil society groups.

  • Inclusivity and language barriers
      1. The complex language the IMF uses in documents sent to CSOs before meetings, like invitations, reports, or general talking points, appears to be hindering clear communication. This technical jargon not only makes it hard for non-experts to engage but also risks pushing away valuable voices from civil society. These voices are essential for understanding the real-world effects of economic policies. The way these communications are drafted can negatively influence CSOs’ expectations and may limit their willingness to participate fully in consultations.
      2. While engaging with economists and statisticians is undeniably important, it is equally crucial to listen to those directly experiencing the impact of these policies—individuals and communities, which many CSOs represent, who may not speak the language of economics but are experts in their lived realities. 
  •  Lack of grassroot inputs
      1. There exists a significant gap in the current IMF engagement strategy, characterized by insufficient inclusion of diverse perspectives from grassroots movements, labor unions, youth groups, and local community leaders. 
  • Selection bias
      1. Another important issue is how the IMF seems to prefer some CSOs over others, without making it clear why. This practice can make the process of engagement feel unfair and makes it harder to create environments where everyone feels safe to speak openly. Ensuring fairness in how CSOs are selected and engaged with is key to fostering honest and productive yet policy-centric conversations.
      2. Selection bias not only marginalizes a big chunk of critical voices but also risks overlooking important non-economic or finance-centric perspectives, such as those pertaining to climate change and gender issues.
  • Authenticity concerns
      1. The IMF’s promise of safety for CSOs in the region often falls short of expectations. The reality is that engaging with the IMF can expose CSOs, especially in areas with limited civic space, to significant risks. This complicates their ability to engage effectively. There’s a pressing need for strong safeguards to protect CSOs, ensuring they can safely and fully participate in dialogues with IMF country teams.
      2. Sometimes, the IMF’s consultations with CSOs appear to be more about validating its actions in certain countries rather than genuine engagement. This perception can undermine the trust in and sincerity of the process.
  • Lack of preparation at the level of CSOs 
    1. CSOs in general work in silos and are not prepared enough with research to back up claims during meetings.
    2. This leads to a situation where many CSOs are not unified in messaging or advocacy targets.

Across the board, many CSOs sense that this phase encourages a form of engagement that is more about going through the motions than fostering genuine, in-depth collaboration. This focus on just ticking boxes can weaken the chances for real conversation with significant impact on economic policies. It stands in stark contrast to a more desired ‘deep engagement,’ where open, participatory dialogue is prioritized, aligning with what civil society seeks.

  1. In-Engagement: Breaking barriers or building bridges?

In this part of the webinar, we looked at how the IMF and civil society groups interact during actual engagements, like Article IV consultations, mission discussions, and additional meetings. We defined the ‘in-engagement phase’ as the time these activities take place, including any type of meeting or consultation with the IMF. CSOs who participated in the webinar identified six key issues, highlighting deep-rooted problems in this critical phase. 

  • Limited feedback mechanisms hinder effective IMF-CSO engagement

A key problem with how the IMF and CSOs communicate during meetings is the lack of clear and open ways for sharing feedback. This means there is a fundamental issue in the setup of these interactions, resulting in valuable suggestions from CSOs not being considered as they should be. In other words, during these discussions, it’s not always straightforward for CSOs how their feedback is used, if at all, which leads to missed chances for their input to make a difference.

  •  Mixed landscape of interaction
  1. The way the IMF and CSOs interact changes a lot, sometimes being cautious and other times strategically picking topics. This inconsistency makes it hard to predict how meetings will go. This situation could mean that discussions are often guided in a way that fits into a pre-decided plan, limiting productive conversation and narrowing the window for discussion. Essentially, it appears that the focus might be more on controlling the meeting’s direction than on truly listening and working with CSOs towards a shared goal of economic prosperity and inclusive growth. This approach reduces the impact of what CSOs can contribute in engagements.
  2. One example of a cautious approach is when the IMF, for example, brings up the idea of budgeting transparency in a certain country. Here, they might suggest creating an online portal where all government expenditures are listed and explained in detail to the public. This proposal is generally agreeable and non-controversial because it focuses on improving accountability and efficiency without directly challenging existing and harmful financial policies or suggesting drastic reforms. 
  • Conversely, in a more strategic attempt, the IMF might zero in on the need for introducing a specific new tax to generate additional government revenue. This proposal is chosen deliberately to advance a particular policy the IMF supports, despite its potential to sideline broader debates about the socio-economic burden such a tax might place on lower-income families. By focusing on this, the IMF aims to push forward a specific agenda, possibly at the expense of overlooking the comprehensive social implications highlighted by CSOs.
  • Inclination towards self-censorship 
  1. When CSOs hold back what they really want to say because they’re worried about safety, it shows there’s a lack of trust and a fear of speaking openly. This self-censorship takes away from the depth of the discussions, leaving out important perspectives that could help make the engagement more meaningful. 
  2. The fact that self-censorship is common points to deeper problems: it highlights the unequal power between the IMF and CSOs. It also shows that CSOs don’t feel safe enough to express their true demands during these talks and that the IMF is not doing enough to address the latter.
  •  Impact of unpreparedness – a CSO self-criticism
  1. Sometimes, IMF-CSO meetings don’t go well because of a lack of preparation beforehand. CSOs have pointed out that they’re not always fully ready for these meetings, leading to scattered and inconsistent messaging during the discussions. This situation shows there are big gaps in how well CSOs can prepare and strategize for their talks with the IMF.
  1. Beyond the Meeting Room: Identifying gaps in IMF-CSO follow-through

The aftermath of engagements between the IMF and civil society is important for cementing impactful engagement. This is what we refer to as the post-engagement follow-through phase. Our analysis reveals significant areas where the current post-engagement process falls short. Two key gaps are highlighted by CSOs below:

  • Shortage of a standardized follow-Up protocol:
  1. CSOs have mentioned the importance of having a clear follow-up process after meetings, which should include detailed notes and clear answers to their questions and suggestions. Right now, the lack of this kind of process shows there’s a missing piece in keeping things accountable and making sure engagement doesn’t just drop off.
  2. The absence of a structured follow-up mirrors the broader problem of unclear communication channels during meetings, where CSOs find it challenging to see how their feedback is being incorporated as outlined earlier. 
  3. This complementarity between unclear communication and the lack of follow-up underlines the critical need for transparent, actionable engagement strategies, ensuring that CSOs’ contributions are acknowledged and acted upon effectively. If there isn’t a set way to keep track of and respond to what comes out of meetings, important feedback and ideas might get ignored or forgotten. This means the chance to build on each conversation over time could be lost, which is something MENA economies reliant on IMF support can’t afford. 
  1. Lack of actionable outcomes post-meeting
  1. The tendency of the IMF to issue empty promises without clear regard to concrete changes in their policy shows a disconnect between the discussions held and actionable outcomes. This gap underscores a critical deficiency in the post-engagement framework, where the momentum of dialogue fails to crystallize into tangible policy shifts.

These identified gaps within the post-engagement phase point to a broader issue of empty follow-through and accountability, highlighting the need for mechanisms that not only ensure the continuity of engagement beyond the meeting room but also guarantee that they serve as a driver  for inclusive economic policy.

¹CSOs may include grassroot organizations, non-governmental organizations, activist groups, and think tanks/research centers.

Sharing is caring!