Our answer as to whether or not structural adjustment was successful will depend upon a number of factors. Firstly, it is important to establish what the main objectives of structural adjustment were. If we assume them to have been the elimination of poverty, coupled with sustained economic and social development, with the fruits of that development being fairly equitably distributed, then our answer certainly has to be no. If, however, we were to regard the main aim as having been the maintenance of export markets for surplus goods from the 'developed' countries, our answer might be somewhat different. A great deal will also depend on how we view development and growth; whether we see development as being purely growth in the industrial sector's share of GNP, or as an ongoing process whereby the material conditions of existence for all people, particularly those most affected by poverty, are improved, 

In order then to assess the success of structural adjustment, I shall start by presenting a brief description of the situation prior to the introduction of structural adjustment loans (henceforth SALs). This should enable a clearer understanding of the specific problems SALs were supposed to address, it should also make it possible to assess the suitability of structural adjustment as a means of dealing with those problems, and furthering development in general. This will, in turn, lead to a discussion of structural adjustment; the main policies and ideas embodied in structural adjustment programmes, what they were supposed to achieve and what they actually have achieved. In the third section I shall be looking at development and some of the key areas of debate. In this section I intend to concentrate on what the term development is supposed to represent, who is supposed to benefit and how this can best be measured. Although I shall be using examples of countries that have borrowed money under the auspices of structural adjustment lending, as well as some that have not, my emphasis will tend towards a theoretical approach, in order to analyse the suitability and success, or otherwise, of structural adjustment in the area of development. Finally, I shall be looking at the implications this analysis holds for both structural adjustment as a policy or set of policies, and development. 

The Emergence of the Debt Crisis.

The debt crisis of the late 1970's, is generally seen as having been the result of a coincidence of different factors. Throughout the 1950's and 1960's, many countries embarked upon courses of economic development. Latin American countries, many of which had experienced severe setbacks to their own economic development through two world wars and the global recession of the 1930's, were keen to re-establish themselves in the global market, whilst the host of newly independent countries in Africa and Asia were similarly keen to develop their economies following years of colonial rule. The IMF was formed as a means of balancing failures in the market system and ensuring that a global economic crisis like that of the 1930's should not occur again. The main role of the World Bank, or IBRD (International Bank For Reconstruction and Development) was to co-ordinate lending under the Marshal plan, concentrating on redeveloping infrastructure in Europe and attracting private investment. On joining the IMF countries paid a fee relative to their GNP. In the event of a serious balance of payments deficit, a country could draw funds from the IMF up to an agreed limit, which was dependent on their initial 'membership fee'. 

According to Amartya Sen, two themes were central in post-war development economics. These were: rural underemployment and 'late industrialisation'.1 The best route for development, therefore, was seen as expansive industrialisation, which would utilise under-employed rural labour thereby providing them with an increased disposable income and, the country with a greater supply of tradable manufactured goods. This industrialisation strategy was financed largely through increased export of, mainly, primary goods. 

Although it is true to say that for most countries this course of development was largely successful, insofar as most countries experienced a growth in GNP throughout this period, the strategy was also developing problems which were to become evident in the 1970's. Import substitution, whilst reducing the amount of basic manufactured goods imported, led directly to increased imports of other goods. In keeping with Engels' law, as income levels rose, so the demand for more sophisticated goods than could be produced on the home market increased, thereby causing imports of some goods to rise as others fell. This was similarly, and more importantly, matched by increased imports of raw materials and fuel in order to maintain and further develop industrialisation. The 1973-4 oil crisis and subsequent price rise of 350 per cent2 naturally effected most those countries that could least afford it. For Less Developed Countries (LDC's) the rise in oil prices necessitated a proportionately larger share of their GNP being used merely to maintain the vulnerable industrial base they had managed to establish. This, in turn, led to ever increased borrowing in order to meet their balance of payments deficits. 

During the mid 1970's, commercial banks, anxious to recycle excess 'petrodollars', began offering credit on favourable interest rates to less developed countries. With criteria somewhat less stringent than those of the IMF, commercial banks lent some $220bn between 1973 and 1981. Thus by 1981, commercial banks had replaced the IMF as principle lender to LDC's, to quote from Reed, "Whereas 66 percent of less developed countries' debt was owed to official lenders in 1971, 70 percent was owed to commercial banks by 1981."3 Matters were compounded by a tendency of both the demand for and price of LDC exports to fall towards the end of the 1970's. This problem was further exacerbated by United States financial policy in the early 1980's. The Federal Reserve Board, in order to counteract the effects of Government borrowing to finance its increased military expenditure, was forced to raise its discount rate to 16 per cent. This was rapidly followed by a rise in commercial lending rates to 18 per cent.4 The resulting need for LDC's to devote increasingly larger shares of their GNP's merely to meet the increased interest on their loans, led to a downward spiral of reduced capital investment and, therefore, reduced GNP. The net result being that many countries found themselves with a reduced GNP and an ever increasing proportion of that GNP going to service foreign debt, debt which was, in many cases, now far greater than the original amount borrowed due to the rise in interest rates. 

The problem reached crisis proportions when many countries found themselves no longer able to meet the repayments on their debt. Matters were brought to a head in 1982 when Mexico announced they could not meet their debt payment. Fear that this might cause the commercial banks to foreclose on their loans to LDC's, and thereby bring about a global financial crisis worse than that of the 1930's, caused the IMF to relax its policies somewhat, extending the duration of loans and widening the facilities available. In addition, the IMF also loosened its conditions for borrowers, including easing the requirements for currency devaluation and making a greater portion of the loan available in the first tranche. The situation, however, continued to deteriorate. Reluctantly, the World Bank intervened, mainly to protect its own project investments. 

Structural Adjustment.

Initially the Bank's approach to structural adjustment took the form of re-enforcing IMF goals. Loans were front-loaded with the intention of easing the pressure on balance of payments deficits. This was supported by immediate measures to reduce domestic demand and thereby imports. Demand was reduced by restraining the domestic money supply and cutting public spending. Such measures were accompanied by currency devaluations, the aim of which was to simultaneously further reduce domestic demand and make exports more competitive on the world market. In a bid designed to increase overall economic efficiency and promote growth objectives, the World Bank also introduced policies requiring thorough restructuring of economic and management institutions. This included market liberalisation - removing import quotas to stimulate internal competition, and improving efficiency and productivity in tradable export goods - as well as reforms in the public sector in order to reduce 'wasteful' public expenditure 

As it became clear that the global recession was not going to be as short-lived as had originally been thought, the Bank began to alter its strategy. Structural adjustment, or policy based loans, were extended from their original life expectancy of 12-18 months, to periods ranging between 3 and 5 years, they also tended to be awarded on a reward and punishment basis. With the loans generally being allocated in tranche form, the next tranche was usually dependent upon the conditions of the last tranche having been met. Thus if a country had failed to initiate the policy changes that were a condition of their loan, the next instalment would not be forthcoming. Whilst this may appear a useful strategy for convincing recalcitrant governments of the need for investing wisely, it was not uncommon for the amount of conditions in a loan to grow over time. David Reed writes that when Kenya received their first SAL in 1980, there were nine conditions attached; when they received their second loan in 1982, there were forty-two. He adds that the average SAL in the 1980's, carried around 40 conditions or policy directives.5 Chazan et al, list the following conditions as being typical of the terms embraced by SALs to African countries in the 1980's: Devaluation; Reductions in tariffs and quantitative restrictions; Reduction of the budget deficit by decreasing government expenditure (especially on subsidies for foodstuffs and agricultural inputs) and raising revenue through, for instance, user charges for education, health and water supplies; Restructuring of the public sector through institutional reforms, including managerial changes, capital restructuring and technical assistances; Divestiture of public corporations; and Agricultural reform, including increased producer prices, reduced subsidies in inputs, reduction in the scope of operations handled by public agencies or their complete abolition, and improved research and extension.6 

Clearly measures such as those listed above should, if carefully implemented, have a positive, if short-term, effect on a country's budget deficit problems. Through the re-allocation of practically all financial resources to meeting BoP problems and debt servicing requirements, a country should be able to 'keep its head above water'. The outlook for long-term economic growth, to say nothing of the social consequences of such policies, is, however, not so encouraging. 

Critics of the World Bank's structural adjustment policies argue that the negative effects of adjustment tend to fall disproportionately on the poor. With the loss of food subsidies, an adequate diet is rendered beyond reach for many people, while agricultural production itself falls, or becomes less efficient as small farmers are no longer able to afford costly inputs. The detrimental effects of poor diet on health tend to be further exacerbated as funding is redirected away from primary health care to increasing industrial efficiency. The resulting rise in infant mortality and general morbidity, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa attracted criticism from many quarters. The Bank's response to such criticism was generally to argue that a certain amount of hardship in the initial stages of adjustment was inevitable, but would balance out as the growth objectives of adjustment took effect and the wealth generated through more efficient industrial management began to 'trickle-down'. 

In the mid-1980's, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) published Adjustment With A Human Face, a study which condemned the World Bank's adjustment lending strategy for failing to take social factors into account in their policy directives. This report recommended that SALs should contain conditions for easing the effects of adjustment on the most vulnerable sections of society. Towards the end of the 1980's, the Bank did incorporate many policies designed to mitigate the consequences of adjustment. According to Reed, "by the end of the 1980's, one-third of all adjustment loans addressed social aspects of the adjustment process in one form or another."7 Reed, however, goes on to question whether these mitigation aspects were really intended to improve the social status of the poor, or whether they were merely used as a device for co-opting their support for measures which, in the long-term, served to strengthen the position of a small economic elite. 

Adjustment and Development.

As mentioned above, the initial objective of structural adjustment lending was to stabilise balance of payments deficits and channel resources to stimulate industrial productivity, priority being given to debt service requirements. It is generally agreed that adjustment measures were an aid to recovery in many countries, reducing fiscal deficits and increasing productivity in the tradable goods sector. The amount of money needed to achieve this, however, became an increasingly large portion of the GNP in many countries, with debt service requirements being as high as 54 per cent in Latin America.8 This not only affected the poor adversely, but also led to serious consequences for continued economic growth and sustained development. 

The effective channelling of resources to meet debt requirements and expand export productivity, has resulted in a serious lack of investment in infrastructure and capital stock. The subsequent deterioration in infrastructure has resulted in serious bottlenecks which impede not only further growth, but also the prospects for sustaining recovery where it has been achieved. Similarly, failure to invest in capital stock has the long-term effect of causing productivity to fall, in relative terms, thereby adversely affecting LDC industry's ability to compete on the international market. Health and education have also suffered serious under-funding, further eroding the basis for sustained development and widening and re-enforcing the gulf between rich and poor. 

Gillis et al., rightly argue that as urban industrial expansion occurs, thereby creating more jobs, so more people than there are jobs available will tend to migrate to the cities.9 The effects of this will be, at least, three-fold. Firstly, competition for work places will tend, ceteris paribus, to lower the going rate for the jobs offered; secondly, there will be an increase in urban unemployment and poverty, along with an increase in the number of unproductive people to be fed; and thirdly, the loss in agricultural production will tend, in the long term, to be greater than the consequent growth in urban industrial production, with the result that GNP will tend to decline. Furthermore, through the rise in unemployment, industrialisation may result in contracting rather than expanding the internal market for manufactured goods. Industrial expansion, therefore, needs to be matched by proportionate levels of investment in all sectors of the economic and social spheres. 

The effects of the World Bank's trade policies have also been subject to criticism. Although expanding output of primary products for export might be a good idea for one country to increase its foreign earnings potential, when several countries attempt this at the same time, which was the case under SALs, then the result is to flood the market and force prices down. This, together with an overall fall in demand for primary products fuelled by the global recession, resulted in a general fall in the rate of profits for LDC exports in the 1980's. This tendency for the rate of profit to decline was worsened by the effects of currency devaluation and market liberalisation. 

Currency devaluation was intended to achieve two objectives: Firstly, increase the price of imports and thereby reduce the demand for them, and secondly, lower the price of exports to make them more competitive on the world market. This meant, however, that LDCs had to export more just to maintain export earnings. This, coupled with the falling rate of profit, meant that an ever increasing share of resources was channelled in to production for export, the majority of the earnings from which, went to service foreign debt. It is also argued that currency devaluation also precipitated capital flight, further reducing the supply of available investment capital. 

Another aspect of Bank trade policy was its fundamental adherence to market principles regardless of whether they were appropriate or not. It was a condition of SALs that recipient countries open their markets to internal competition in order to stimulate competition amongst their own producers. Many small firms, however, found themselves unable to compete with the quality and price that OECD country producers were able to offer, and suffered accordingly. Whilst import liberalisation may be beneficial for stimulating competition within a fairly well established economy, experience tends to show that initial industrial growth stands more chances of success if it takes place within protectionist trade policies. Helleiner suggests that the World Bank's and IMF's insistence on market fundamentalism belies the reasons for and conditions within which they came into being.10 They were created in an economic world dominated by Keynsianism, where the general belief was that a certain amount of government intervention was deemed necessary to balance the market. They were, therefore, designed for the very purpose of overcoming market failures. Helleiner lists the following findings from a study of the 'East Asian Experience' which tend to suggest that import liberalisation strategies should only be implemented once the economy has experienced the beneficial effects of import substitution and industrial exporting:

There is likely to be a long time interval between stabilisation and a successful exporting or liberalisation effort; Substantial external financial assistance is likely to be an essential element in successful transition; Import liberalisation is likely to follow successful exporting with a fairly long time lag, and it is not an essential or typical part of successful export promotion efforts. The public sector is likely to play an important role in the shift into successful industrial exporting.11
If we look at the post-war experience of West Germany we find further evidence to support and strengthen the above findings. The German Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) took place amidst fiercely protectionist trade policies, as did Japanese redevelopment following WWII. Both countries also had the benefit of already possessing a skilled workforce and an established entrepreneurial class. The recent experience of the former German Democratic Republic, however, provides a clear example of the consequences of a rapid transition to a full free-market economy. Indeed, the World Bank itself argued in a report in 1987 that:
[T]he more ambitious and long-lasting liberalisations - in Portugal, Greece, Spain, Israel, Chile and Turkey - all started with macroeconomic stabilisation. The countries which have tried to liberalise trade in the midst of macroeconomic crisis have failed.12
The South Korean success story, usually regarded as a shining example of neo-liberal development economics, was down to government fostered, export oriented growth based on the firm foundations of 10 years of import substitution growth. This industrial base was established within a framework of import restrictions, with many items continuing to be either prohibited or restricted. Sen13 suggests that the South Korean government has been extremely active in creating and maintaining conditions within which the market could act to further stimulate economic growth. He further adds that the top three performers in his studies of both low and middle income countries, all have interventionist states. The top three countries in the low income group are: China, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, those in the middle-income group are: Romania, the former Yugoslavia and South Korea.14 

It would appear then that structural adjustment lending has not only be unsuccessful in creating the conditions for sustained economic growth, it has in many cases, served to retard it. Oxfam's senior policy advisor, Kevin Watkins argues that, "a decade of 'export-led recovery' has seen Africa's share of world trade fall from 4 per cent to 2 per cent."15 He further adds that since 1980, sub-Saharan Africa's debt has tripled to $180billion. Despite the apparent failure of structural adjustment lending to address the problems of sustained development, SALs accounted for around 25 per cent of its annual loan portfolio between 1980 and 1990, with 187 policy based loans going to 64 countries in the same period.16 A question therefore arises as to whether structural adjustment was intended to provide opportunities for growth in LDCs, or whether the main objective was to create the conditions whereby 'developed' countries would be assured of export markets, and a plentiful supply of cheap resources. The failure of structural adjustment, however, highlights the short-term and wholly inadequate approach to development, taken by OECD country governments, a problem I shall examine in greater detail in the next section. 

Development or Growth.

Traditional development economics assumes a lineal scale of development along which all countries, from least developed to most highly developed, may be placed. Central to this idea is also the assumption that there are certain stages in development that all countries have gone through, are going through, or have yet to experience. Apart from its obvious use as a justification or apology for the present unequal balance in the global distribution of wealth, this theory serves little purpose. It ignores the manner in which the most developed countries have, over the centuries, interfered with the economies and development of the LDCs. It also ignores the probability that it was also this interference, and accompanying exploitation, that allowed the most developed countries to attain the levels of material wealth they have. The argument that LDCs can only achieve development through increased economic activity on an international scale, serves only to continue this pattern of exploitation and inequality. Furthermore, acceptance of stage theory implies also accepting that in order for development to occur in LDCs, each country must first rule large portions of the globe if they are to achieve industrialisation and economic growth equal to the industrialised countries. 

Deepak Lal argues that there is nothing essentially wrong with development economics, except that it needs to be viewed in historically specific terms; as the product it is of a time when Keynsian economics reigned supreme in the Western 'developed' world, and high-level state activity was seen as essential in sustaining growth and balancing out fluctuations in the market. Such economic theory went well with development economics which stressed that growth must be even and spread throughout the country, not concentrated in a few sectors, if it was to be seen as development. As time passed, however, and the dominant economic theory switched to the neo-classical model, with the state seen as having only a minimalist role to play, this was similarly reflected in development policies. The results, even in Britain, have been catastrophic, with cuts in public expenditure and government economic activity, infrastructure has partially or wholly collapsed, poverty has increased and the environment has suffered as natural resources have been exploited in attempts to increase productivity. A similar phenomenon can also be witnessed in Eastern Europe, particularly the former GDR, where the rapid shift to free-market economics has highlighted a myriad of problems. As a result of the East European states and former Soviet Union having concentrated on industrial growth and export expansion to earn hard currency, capital investment has been negligible or non-existent. What there was of an infrastructure has, in many cases, collapsed with the removal of central planning. Exposed to the open market, countries such as the former GDR find themselves with totally redundant capital stock, massive unemployment and a hopelessly inadequate infrastructure. The point here is not to elaborate on the inefficiencies of central planing, but rather to stress that when economic policy concentrates purely on industrial growth, export expansion and the BoP, the results are likely to be the same whatever type of state is responsible. 

Amartya Sen suggests that traditional development economics has not resulted in an understanding of the economics of development. The problem, according to Sen, is that development economics has concentrated on economic growth, placing growth above and beyond all other considerations. Economic growth he argues, needs to be viewed as a means to development and not the desired result. He adds that even as a means, it is not appropriate for all ends. Using Sri Lanka as an example, which by the early 1980's had attained high levels of life expectancy and impressively low morbidity rates, Sen argues that to have achieved similar levels of life expectancy through growth rather than direct public action, would have taken, "somewhere between 58 and 152 years."17 Similarly, Helleiner argues that using GNP as an index for measuring growth, and more particularly development, is in itself questionable18. Capital invested in alleviating or slowing down depreciation of capital stock is also included within GNP. Thus what appears to indicate economic growth in our terms of accounting, may, in fact, be only slowed stagnation or stasis. If, for example, decaying capital stock requires increasingly greater investment merely to maintain productivity at current levels, then what might be, in real terms, static or negative growth, will appear as clear evidence of sustained growth using GNP as an index. 

The problem then is not merely whether or not structural adjustment has led to sustained development, but also whether economic growth, measured by GNP, is a sufficient index for measuring development. Sen suggests that a more useful index for measuring development would be what he refers to as 'an expansion of entitlements'.19 Sen's notion of entitlements refers to that which a person is able to acquire through the sale or exchange of either their labour or personal possessions. Through this sale or exchange, Sen argues, a person is able to acquire capabilities; i.e.. the ability to feed, clothe and house oneself and maintain ones health. This brings two factors into play, positing them in positions of equal importance. Firstly, there must be a supply of paid jobs, since the majority of humanity has only their labour to sell. Secondly, there must also be a reasonable supply of not only food, but access to housing and healthcare must also be available. Furthermore, it is important that a reasonable balance between the price of labour (wages) and the price of those goods and services available is maintained, thereby keeping them within affordable range. As the economy develops, Sen adds, so the quantity and quality of those goods and services should also increase. 

Using entitlements, Sen rightly argues, would provide a far better measurement of both overall national development, and its distribution, than the present index of GNP per capita, which tells us nothing about either average incomes or the availability and cost of essential goods and services. Sen uses the example of the Bangladesh famine of 1974 to illustrate this point, stressing that the famine was due not to a lack of food - which he says was abundant at the time - but to high levels of rural unemployment caused by extensive flooding, coupled with the effects of high inflation. The resulting famine was caused, therefore, not by a lack of food, but rather the inability to purchase it. Measured against Sen's 'expansion of entitlements' idea, Structural adjustment lending has not only failed to address the most pressing problems facing the majority of people in less developed countries, it has tended to accomplish the exact opposite. 


If we assume development to be concerned with improving the material conditions of existence for the world's poor, through greater life expectancy, provision of basic health care, education, and freedom from the daily struggle for physical existence, then it would be impossible to argue that structural adjustment has been a success. In the majority of countries which received structural adjustment loans, these conditions have actually deteriorated. Through the 1980's, LDC debt has increased to astronomical proportions, with very little chance of that debt ever being repaid. As a result the poorest countries of the world are now net contributors of resources, with interest payments alone totalling more than is received in aid and loans from all sources. As critics have highlighted the suffering adjustment programmes have visited on the poor, the World Bank's response has been to argue that a certain amount of hardship is necessary in the early stages of development. Surely in an age of super-abundance, when the 'developed' world is beset by problems of over-production and farmers in Europe and the USA are paid for not cultivating land, there can be no reasonable excuse for suggesting that a certain level of suffering must be endured in the process of economic development. As R B Sutcliffe suggests, "we live in potential affluence; the potential is unrealised for reasons which are basically political."20 

Looking at the manner in which structural adjustment has functioned, it would appear that the real purpose of structural adjustment was not to further economic and social development in less developed countries, but rather to protect and improve the economic interests of the 'developed' world. Whilst, as we have seen, structural adjustment measures have led to a deterioration in living standards for the world's poor these same conditions have, in the short term, been extremely beneficial for OECD countries. Structural adjustment policies have resulted in terms of trade that have provided OECD counties with a flow of primary products cheaper than has ever before been known. Structural adjustment, therefore, has succeeded in stabilising the international market by insisting that BoP and debt service requirements be given priority. At the same time these policies have ensured that the market serves the economic interests of the rich 'North', while increasing the degree to which the poor 'South' is dependent upon and further indebted to the rich 'North'. 

The future for many LDCs, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, looks extremely bleak unless there is a serious rethink concerning development issues. For development to succeed and be sustainable it has to take place at 'grass roots' level, that is to say, it has to involve the active participation of those most in need. Development, therefore, needs to be geared to encouraging local industries and agricultural production, it needs to provide, or rather help people to provide their own essential goods and services through the application of appropriate and affordable technology. Above all, there is a need for the policy makers of the World Bank to accept that any significant sustainable development in the world's poorest countries, is going to entail the 'developed' world 'giving back' at least some of what we have gained through unfair trading and exploitation. However, as long as we insist on repayment of debts which most analysts agree are unpayable, less developed countries seem condemned to a cycle of ever increasing poverty and deprivation, the effects of which will also be felt in the North as our export markets shrink, forcing higher unemployment and associated problems. 

Copyright © 1994 Ross Copeland 


1. Sen, Amartya, "Development: Which Way Now?", in WILBER, C.K. & JAMESON, K.P. (eds.) The Political Economy of Development and Underdevelopment, 1992. 

2. REED, D. (ed.) Structural Adjustment and the Environment, 1992, p.7 

3. REED, ibid., p.8 

4. REED, ibid., p.8 

5. REED, op. cit., p.16. 

6. CHAZAN et al, Politics and Society in Contemporary Africa, 1992. 

7. REED, op. cit., p.38. 

8. GILLIS, et al., Economics of Development, 3rd ed., 1992. p.399 

9. GILLIS, et al., Economics of Development, 3rd ed., 1992. 

10, Helleiner, Conventional Foolishness and Overall Ignorance: Currant Approaches to Global Transformation and Development, in, Wilber & Jameson, The Political Economy of Development and Underdevelopment, 1992. 

11. SACHS, 1987, pp.303-310, in HELLEINER, 1992, op. cit. p.43. 

12. World Bank, WDR, 1987, p.109, in HELLEINER, ibid. 

13. SEN, 1992, op. cit. 

14. SEN, 1992, op. cit., p.12 

15. Watkins, "We're not Doing Anyone Any Favours", in NSS, 08.04.94. 

16. World Bank, Adjustment Lending Policies for sustainable Growth, 1990, pp.69-70, in, REED, op. cit., p.1. 

17. SEN, op. cit., p.15. 

18. HELLEINER, 1992, op. cit., p.48. 

19. SEN, op. cit., p.15. 



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