Multilateral organisations, those assemblies of ideology and acronyms, regularly produce documents with homilies for titles and non-sequitirs for content. It was with this thought in mind that your correspondent attended a seminar of the Inter American Development Bank on its report 'The Politics of Policies; Economic and Social Progress in Latin America 2006' . The report itself is remarkable only for its authors' ability simultaneously to state and ignore the obvious. The reaction of the audience at the seminar, made up of academic economists, ambassadors and their retinue, was rather more intriguing.
To offer up ‘The Politics of Policies’ the Bank sent two of the report’s authors. One, Ernesto Stein, is a plump, pleasant economist of the orthodox type; the other, Mark Payne, is what is known in the US as a ‘political scientist’. Their presentation, and the report on which it was based, offer little more than the commonplaces of both disciplines. They helpfully summarised the book length report into ten ‘main messages’. One usually lists points to make them more concise – a representative example of ‘Policies’ main messages reads
‘Effective political processes and better public policies are facilitated by political parties that are institutionalized and programmatic, legislatures that have sound policymaking capabilities, judiciaries that are independent, and bureaucracies that are strong.’
The IDB, one might object, is interested in financial performance not prose style. Perhaps, but the report is prolix precisely because it avoids anything to do with actual politics. For all the fluff about moving ‘beyond a technocratic approach to policymaking’ the authors remain certain about what makes a correct, or in their terms, ‘high quality’ public policy. The problem lies in the ‘making’. Good policies are those which in Stein’s words ‘ as technocrats we think are optimal’ – that is to say privatisation, wage cuts, lower social spending and all the other dreary panoply of neo-liberalism. It takes the specially trained obtuse not to see that the growing revolt across Latin America is directed against these policies, not the inability of governments to implement them. And one might expect such a revolt, given that the number of Latin Americans in poverty has doubled in the two decades of neoliberalismo.
At the beginning of the IPES report the wood peeps gingerly from the trees in the admission that the outcome of ‘Washington consensus reforms’ has been ‘somewhat disappointing.’ Intellectually incapable of criticizing those reforms, the authors briskly proceed to quantify cabinets, typologise judiciaries and regress re-election rates. All of this simply to repeat what one can already read in the Economist – ‘high quality policies’ are those that make businessmen happy.
Anxious to know the IDB’s quality control procedure for public policy, I asked Mark Payne, joint author of the report. Dr Payne cleared things up by explaining that good policies are ‘public regarding’ policies. But which public, and how is it regarded? A glance at point 5 of the appendix was revealing. Public regardedness, it seems, is based upon the responses of participants in the Global Competitiveness Report. That is to say, business executives are being asked about the impact of poverty, as the seminar panel later admitted. Ask a silly question…
At this sort of policy wonk bash, a lone radical is apt to feel compelled to stand up for the toiling masses. It was pleasing then, and testimony to the changes in Latin America, that the assembled high-heid yins started asking all the right questions. An experienced Chilean economist, author of a literally textbook model of international trade, protested that the word class appeared only five times in the report, and the word discrimination not at all. In his response, however, Dr Stein proved unable even to utter the word, let alone, analyse the concept, of class. Greater shock arrived when the Argentinian ambassador to Japan suggested that the report sought to promote stability at the expense of democracy. Most forthcoming was (His Excellency) the Panamanian ambassador, who attacked with vim and scorn ‘the financial policy of Wall Street’. Now, after this debate, the participants of course retired to slap backs and grease palms. Yet if the debate is being heard even here, what are they saying in the barrios and barricades? There's social progress worth writing a report about.