Pragmatic Numbers: The IMF, Financial Reform, and Policy Learning in Least Likely Environments

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    Do international organisations generate benchmarks as tools for policy enforcement or policy learning? This article suggests that the latter is possible even in unlikely scenarios. It does this through a case study on the ‘power of numbers’ in the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) Financial Sector Assessment Programme (FSAP). While the IMF is typically viewed as an institution that enforces global standards for economic governance through the imposition of quantitative targets (‘numbers’ for this special issue), I suggest that its use of benchmarking in the generation of financial data can serve as a policy learning tool to enhance independent policymaking. As such, the IMF's programme practices differ from its policy proclamations on the need for universal standards and transparency. Seen through a pragmatist lens, an admittedly optimistic assessment of the IMF's behaviour is that it seeks to generate a policy dialogue for learning with member states. But this aim also has to operate within broader international political and economic constraints. As such this process must yield to broader principal-agent dynamics in the IMF's governance structure, as well as tip its cap to private market actors. This article suggests that we cannot simply view the IMF staff as hostage to their commanders. Rather, the IMF's use of ‘pragmatic numbers’ within FSAPs demonstrates one method by which an institution seeks to foster learning under constraint.
    Original languageEnglish
    JournalJournal of International Relations and Development
    Issue number4
    Pages (from-to)486-505
    Publication statusPublished - 2012


    • Ambiguity
    • Financial Reform
    • International Monetary Fund
    • Learning
    • Policy Dialogue
    • Pragmatism

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