The Washington Consensus: A Damaged Brand

by Moisés Naím

Originally published in the Financial Times, on October 28th, 2002

What a difference a decade makes. During the first half of the 1990s, it seemed as if all economy ministers from emerging markets were using the same PowerPoint presentation. When they gave a talk, in Washington or London, they appeared to use the same slides with the same messages and, at times, the same graphs. The similarities were eerie, considering one minister might be from, say, Russia and the other from Ghana or Mexico.

Privatisation, trade liberalisation and deregulation were the common building-blocks of the economic reforms that seemed to be sweeping the world. Many called these policies the "Washington consensus".

From these presentations and from the marketing pitches used by bond salesmen to lure investors, one could have safely concluded that all reforming countries had embraced the same economic policies. And one would have been wrong.

Developing countries embraced generic slogans that made their economic reforms sound similar. In fact they were very different.

What these countries embraced was a set of generic slogans that made their economic reforms sound similar. In practice, they implemented a huge variety of policies. Governments everywhere did indeed profess to share remarkably similar goals; many adopted a market-oriented stance in their economic policies. But what they in fact did was often at odds with the policies they had announced or even the promises they had made to the International Monetary Fund. As a result, the rhetoric of the time was far more homogeneous than the actions carried out by governments.

For most casual observers and media commentators, the diversity in the policies' implementation was almost invisible. This blindness resulted from the surprising mutation of the Washington consensus from a rather technical list of 10 recommended policies into a generic brand.

As with all brands, the label and the product's brief description were all that most people knew, or cared to know. As with all brands, the subjective reaction that the product provokes in the consumer is as important as its objective attributes. To its early-1990s consumers, the Washington consensus carried a whiff of imminent prosperity and the promise of a flood of foreign money and goods. Over time, the living standards associated with American capitalism and globalisation became important parts of this brand's allure.

Naturally, the politicians and multilateral institutions that were "selling" the product had no interest in curbing these illusions or in nurturing more realistic expectations about how quick, painless and widespread the benefits of these reforms would be. High expectations often lead to disappointment and this case is no exception. As befits a global brand, frustrations with the consensus are now global and the brand is irreparably damaged.

Instead of prosperity, the consensus now emits the poisonous odours of a recipe concocted in Washington by a cabal of inept technocrats who are out of touch with the realities of poor countries or, even worse, are in the pockets of Wall Street. Widely derided as "market fundamentalism" or "savage neo-liberalism", the concoction is accused of making the poor poorer and the world unacceptably inequitable and dangerously unstable. In many countries, privatisation, trade liberalisation and fiscal austerity have become politically noxious ideas.

That is too bad. The consensus may be an impaired brand, but some of the ideas remain sound. A recent study, for example, has found that infant mortality fell 6 per cent in the Argentine municipalities that privatised their water services and that this positive effect was larger in the poorest municipalities, where infant mortality fell 24 per cent. But the foul political mood is immune to such findings. Bolivia was recently rocked by violent street protests that in effect halted government plans to privatise water services. Tragically for the poor of the world, the blanket repudiations of the Washington consensus in the early 2000s tend to be as superficial as their blanket acceptance a decade ago.

The Washington consensus was never meant to be used as a development programme, a national project, a doctrine or a political platform, much less as an ideology. Alas, at one time or another and in different countries it was called on to perform all of these functions. Naturally, it failed miserably.

Also, the consensus was often badly or partially implemented and some of its policies are in urgent need of revision. It also ignores important areas where better government intervention is needed. But its core ideas are far better than the damaged brand that now leads most clients to repudiate the product. The hope, of course, is that government rhetoric and practice will diverge once again and that many governments will in fact be implementing policies inspired in the consensus while publicly denouncing them.

The writer is editor of Foreign Policy magazine. This column appears monthly