Business Standard

Haunted by the Washington Consensus

The Washington Consensus never had any time for such questions, and its ghost continues to impede the emergence of a new development paradigm based on cultural contexts and human cognition

WTO, trade, world trade

Illustration: Binay Sinha

Antara Haldar
In 1989, the British economist John Williamson christened what was to become the defining intellectual export of the era of globalisation: The Washington Consensus. Initially a reference to the policies adopted to tackle macroeconomic turmoil in Latin America, the term quickly morphed into a canonical “ten commandments” of development.
For at least two decades thereafter, evangelists of the “consensus” — the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the US Treasury (all headquartered in Washington) — would preach the orthodoxy with quasi-religious zeal. The end of the Cold War meant that the gospel could be brought both to newly decolonised countries and to the post-communist “transition economies”.
Three and a half decades later, we have ample evidence to assess the Washington Consensus’s track record. One clear takeaway is that its one-size-fits-all approach often amplified macroeconomic events (like the 1997 Asian financial crisis) and reduced developing economies to sites for sweatshops. These countries ended up in a race to the bottom as they tried to outcompete each other on labour costs — meaning lower wages and less occupational safety. Tragedies like the collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013, which killed 1,134 people and injured another 2,000, became all but inevitable. Moreover, none of these countries ever became a success story. The “development miracles” that policymakers and academics now fetishise — Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, China, India — all departed from the Washington Consensus by making government an active participant in development.
Ever since the 2008 global financial crisis, meanwhile, many countries in the Global North have been experiencing what used to be considered “Third World problems”: Declining growth, rampant inequality, failing institutions, a fractured political consensus, and anti-globalisation sentiment. The bright red line that the Washington Consensus presumed to draw between the developed and the developing world has grown ever blurrier.
By 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown — following on the heels of influential economists like Joseph E Stiglitz and Dani Rodrik — had pronounced the Washington Consensus dead. True, its lifespan coincided with the creation of the Human Development Index; the Millennium Development Goals and their successor, the Sustainable Development Goals; the Barcelona Development Agenda; the Beijing Consensus; the Seoul Development Consensus; and even experiments with new metrics such as Gross National Happiness. But none of these frameworks has proved especially resilient.
Indeed, the specter of the Washington Consensus continues to haunt us. Global climate negotiations could not be more important for the future of the planet and human civilisation. Yet whenever the question of climate finance arises, developing countries are subjected to the same kind of humiliating treatment that the Washington Consensus once prescribed. Even as critiques of “the China model” ramp up, the hype about India continues, stubbornly, to be framed in terms of the possibility of it being the “next China.” And despite widely accepted critiques of gross domestic product as a measure of economic development, it still sets the terms of policy debates.
What would it take finally to exorcise the ghost? Among the explanations for why the “West and the rest” diverged historically — from Max Weber’s Economy and Society to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel — the most influential hypothesis has centered on “institutions.” Douglass North’s Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, Hernando de Soto’s 
The Mystery of Capital, and Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail all make a persuasive case that an economy’s development depends on formal and informal rules, norms, and structures.

The balance of world power is rapidly shifting. The Global South is already where most of the world’s people live; and by dint of its younger population, it is where the world’s future lies. Indeed, in 2023, the concept of the Global South and its possible role in global leadership was deemed mainstream. To navigate this new world, we will need to confront questions that the old consensus pushed aside.
For example, is there more than one route to growth and development? Is there a way to reinvent or restructure the global economy, now that it has become a source of widespread dissatisfaction? Do some of the Global South’s core features — such as its relatively more communitarian cultures — make it better suited to a leadership role in the current era? And most importantly, what even is the goal of development?
The Washington Consensus never had any time for such questions, and its ghost continues to impede the emergence of a new development paradigm based on cultural contexts and human cognition. The Seoul Development Consensus, with its pluralistic approach, was a promising step in the right direction. But we now need a Soul Consensus that accommodates ordinary people’s psychic needs, in addition to countries’ aggregate material needs.

The writer is associate professor of empirical legal studies at the University of Cambridge  ©Project Syndicate, 2024
Disclaimer: These are personal views of the writer. They do not necessarily reflect the opinion of or the Business Standard newspaper

Don't miss the most important news and views of the day. Get them on our Telegram channel

First Published: Jun 07 2024 | 11:59 PM IST

Explore News