Can You Fight Poverty With a Five-Star Hotel?
(Photo courtesy of Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts)
by Cheryl Strauss Einhorn, Special to ProPublica, Jan. 2, 2013, 12 a.m.
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This story was co-published with Foreign Policy.
Accra is a city of choking red dust where almost no rain falls for three months at a time and clothes hung out on a line dry in 15 minutes. So the new five-star Mövenpick hotel affords a haven of sorts in Ghana’s crowded capital, with manicured lawns, amply watered vegetation, and uniformed waiters ...view middle of the document...
Why, then, did the IFC give a Saudi prince’s company an attractively priced $26 million loan to help build the Mövenpick, a hotel the prince was fully capable of financing himself? The answer is that the IFC’s portfolio of billions of dollars in loans and investments is not in fact primarily targeted at helping the impoverished. At least as important is the goal of making a profit for the World Bank.
I reached this conclusion after traveling to Ghana—in many ways typical of the more than 100 countries where the IFC works—to see firsthand the kinds of problems the World Bank’s lenders are supposed to tackle and whether their efforts are really working on the ground. I pored through thousands of pages of the bank’s publicly available reports and financial statements and talked to dozens of experts familiar with its performance in Ghana and many other countries.
In case after case, the verdict was the same: The IFC likes to work with huge corporations, funding projects these companies could finance themselves. Its partners are billionaires and massive multinationals, from oil giants like ExxonMobil to Grupo Arcor, the huge Argentine candy-maker. Its projects include not only glitzy hotels and high-end shopping malls, but also gritty gold and copper mines and oil pipelines, some of which end up benefiting the very corrupt, authoritarian regimes that the rest of the World Bank is urging to change. Nearly a quarter of the IFC’s paid-in capital from member governments—now standing at $2.4 billion—came from U.S. taxpayers, and every president in the World Bank’s 69-year history has been an American. But the United States has had little complaint with these practices, even when they have become a subject of public controversy.
Not long ago, the World Bank’s internal watchdog sharply criticized the IFC’s approach, saying it gives little more than lip service to the bank’s poverty-fighting mission. The report, a major 2011 review by the bank’s Independent Evaluation Group, found that fewer than half the IFC investments it studied involved fighting poverty. “[M]ost IFC investment projects generate satisfactory returns but do not provide evidence of identifiable opportunities for the poor to participate in, contribute to, or benefit from the economic activities that the project supports,” the report concluded. In fact, it said, only 13 percent of 500 projects studied “had objectives with an explicit focus on poor people,” and even those that did, the report found, had a “limited” impact. The IFC did not dispute the conclusions.
There is certainly need in countries like Ghana, whose per capita GDP ranks in the bottom third of the world, with life expectancy in the bottom 15 percent and infant mortality in the bottom fourth. The IFC committed about $145 million in loans and equity in Ghana just in fiscal year 2012. Yet Takyiwaa Manuh, who advises the Ghanaian government on economic development as a member of the National Development Planning Commission,...