Skip to main content

Press releases Special Procedures

IMF has large brain and tiny conscience, says UN poverty expert calling for urgent change

Expert criticises IMF

19 June 2018

GENEVA (19 June 2018) – The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has a “tiny conscience” and must do more to protect low-income and vulnerable individuals from bearing the brunt of austerity policies, says a report by Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

“Taking action to help those who are least well-off financially has so far been little more than an afterthought in the work of the IMF around the world. But if it is to respond effectively in the years ahead to the challenges of a world in which both globalisation and liberal democracy continue to come under attack, the IMF will need a different mindset,” said Alston.

“The IMF is the single most influential actor on the international stage, not only in relation to fiscal and monetary policy, but also in terms of social protection. However, despite impressive rhetoric from its Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, its practice has lagged far behind what it has preached,” the UN expert added.

“The Fund needs to move beyond its obsession with the ‘targeting’ of social protection benefits to the poorest of the poor. There is increasing evidence that targeting often fails to reach the poorest, and that benefits often end up being given to those who are relatively well-off.

“Making social protection only about those who are most vulnerable also erodes political support from the middle classes and the rich for the welfare systems,” said the UN expert, presenting the report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“To date, the IMF has been an organisation with a large brain, an unhealthy ego, and a tiny conscience. If it takes social protection seriously, rather than making a tokenistic commitment to minimal safety nets, it can show the world that it has actually learned from its past mistakes.

“The Fund is currently developing a strategic framework for its engagement on social expenditure, and Christine Lagarde has nudged the organisation in a more progressive direction in relation to issues such as economic inequality and gender equality.

“However, if the IMF is genuine about change, it also needs to embrace internal diversity to ensure that different perspectives and assumptions influence its thinking. The average IMF staff member is a trained economist, male, from the West, who studied at elite universities in either the United States or the United Kingdom. The Fund cannot be expected to change without changing the diversity of its staff.

“Beyond internal diversity, the IMF has a dismal record in terms of consulting with civil society organisations in the countries in which it works, as well as with other international organisations with relevant expertise, such as the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the UN children’s fund (UNICEF).

“Taking external voices into account makes it less likely that the advice the IMF gives to governments ends up undermining democratic decision-making in the countries in which it works, a problem that has plagued the institution throughout its history.

“The IMF, as led by Ms. Lagarde, is on the right track, but it will be a mammoth task to change the direction of this ‘oil tanker’ of an institution and ensure that the benefits of globalisation no longer accrue overwhelmingly to the wealthy, and that its downsides are not suffered entirely by low-income earners and the vulnerable,” Alston said.


Mr. Philip Alston(Australia) took up his functions as the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in June 2014. 

As a Special Rapporteur, he is part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

Follow the Special Rapporteur on Twitter@Alston_UNSR and Facebook at

For more information and media requests, please contact Ms Junko Tadaki (+41 917 9298 / [email protected] )

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts please contact
Jeremy Laurence, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+41 22 917 9383 / [email protected])

This year is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN on 10 December 1948. The Universal Declaration – translated into a world record 500 languages – is rooted in the principle that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” It remains relevant to everyone, every day. In honour of the 70th anniversary of this extraordinarily influential document, and to prevent its vital principles from being eroded, we are urging people everywhere to Stand Up for Human Rights: