In Box

Too Much Consensus

Ever since the Washington Consensus became the hottest brand on the policy block, wonks of the world have competed to define their idea as the next big thing. And what better way to market your idea than to tag it a "consensus," suggesting that it’s a grand unifying theory? In an attempt to help you sort through the hype, FP presents its exclusive Field Guide to the Consensuses.

The consensus that started it all. John Williamson of the Institute for International Economics coined the term in 1990 to describe the policy prescriptions of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and various Latin American economists. Inspired by the long struggle against Latin American debt, it encouraged developing countries to adopt 10 market-based prescriptions, including fiscal discipline, deregulation, and privatization. However, the failure of some economies that were supposedly following the Washington Consensus model -- notably Argentina and Indonesia -- contaminated the brand itself. As Williamson laments, the Washington Consensus became synonymous with a "dogmatic commitment to the belief that markets can handle everything." However, many of the individual ideas remain sound and discretely popular.

In March 2002, 171 nations agreed to what should perhaps be called the "feel-good" consensus, but it is more commonly known as the Monterrey Consensus. It was the result of the U.N.-sponsored International Conference on Financing for Development, held in Mexico. Its biggest fans include U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former World Trade Organization head Michael Moore, and German President Horst Köhler, then the managing director of the IMF. The goals of the Monterrey Consensus include halving global poverty by 2015, reducing child mortality, and combating HIV/AIDS. But few nations seem ready to make the sacrifices necessary to meet these goals. The Monterrey Consensus will be remembered as the brand that promised results, but delivered little.

Never one to be left without a media-friendly tag line, "skeptical environmentalist" Bjørn Lomborg launched his consensus in May 2004. The Copenhagen Consensus listed 10 great global challenges, prioritized by the "world's most distinguished economists." They were asked, "What would be the best ways of advancing global welfare, and particularly the welfare of developing countries, supposing that an additional $50 billion of resources were at governments' disposal?" The results were unsurprising: Stemming the spread of HIV/AIDS topped the list. Critics argue that developing nations shouldn't prioritize aid spending in the same way. (For example, controlling HIV/AIDS is more crucial for prosperity in Uganda than in Bolivia.) Also, the world's most distinguished minds were far longer on diagnostics than on cures.

1.3 billion people can't be wrong! The Beijing Consensus is the brainchild of Joshua Cooper Ramo, a former journalist who now lectures at China's Tsinghua University. In a May 2004 paper, he points out that China and India, who "most pointedly" ignored the World Bank- and IMF-championed Washington Consensus, "now have records that speak for themselves." The Beijing Consensus is skeptical about the benefits of privatization and free trade. Other nations can, and should, fit into the global system "in a way that allows them to be truly independent, to protect their way of life," argues Ramo, although he is unclear about what this platitude means precisely. It remains to be seen if Beijing's top-down model will work outside semi-authoritarian China, or if the Chinese economy can continue to boom without a bust.

If you thought a consensus had to solve all the problems of the world, think again. In the marketplace of ideas, the consensus label can be affixed even to projects with limited ambitions. The Mexico Consensus -- the product of a June 2004 conference organized by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, and Mexico's National Women's Institute -- confines itself to gender equity in Latin America and the Caribbean. The goal is to be achieved by combating sexually transmitted diseases, creating anti-poverty programs, promoting better education, and enacting legal reform. This consensus, like so many of the others, is as long on worthy goals as it is short on details. Maybe it is time for a consensus about the need for action rather than words: They could call it the "Doers' Consensus."


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