Demystifying Bretton Woods institutions’ rhetoric on public services


Drawing on the specific case of IMF and World Bank’s response to the multiple crisis triggered by the pandemic, a journal article shows that there is a discourse-practice disjuncture in the Bretton Woods institutions approach to public services as they continue to favour austerity and market-oriented solutions for the delivery of public services. The article therefore seeks to demystify the institutions rhetoric and demand the adoption of a different way of understanding public services, and social policy more broadly.

The climate emergency, worsening inequalities and the COVID-19 pandemic have continued to reaffirm the failures and limitations of the current neoliberal model to respond to crises and deliver on basic needs. Market-oriented models for public service provision have greatly undermined the right to high quality and universal public services such as education, healthcare, water and sanitation, and housing, among others. They have also contributed to deepen the process of marketisation, commodification and even financialisation of essential provisions. Austerity policies accompanying these models have eroded the state’s capacity to deliver in the public interest, while placing an excessive burden on unpaid care and domestic work, borne disproportionately by women. As a result, the Sustainable Development Goals agreed by the international community in 2015 are increasingly out of reach.

The Bretton Woods Institutions—the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—have been a driving force in the global process of narrowing the scope of social policy both as a scholarly field and as a practice (Chukwuma 2021). The two institutions have embraced the neoliberal instrumentalist (or residual) approach to social policy, and to social protection and public services in particular. According to this approach, public services are to be supported as long as they efficiently contribute to economic development.

Over the past three years, these two institutions have positioned themselves as the ‘first responders’ to the multiple crises that the world face. They have used this as an opportunity to deepen their influence on countries’ fiscal and policy space, often with dire consequences for the financing and delivery of public services. This larger role has made more evident than ever the discourse-practice disjuncture in international development. The rhetoric has evolved to the extent that both institutions now recognize the importance of state-provided public goods and services in their external communication. However, the advice they offer to national governments has largely remained the same, squeezing the financing of public services and the public sector workforce and continuing to recommend the privatization of services and the use of public–private partnerships (PPPs) to deliver them. This is despite the mounting evidence against these practices.


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