Robert H. Wade
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The social construction of the Washington Consensus on international trade policy
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This chapter reflects the main ‘lesson’ I drew from the experience of doing a PhD in Bailey’s department at Sussex – the lesson being the virtues of understanding ‘big level’ phenomena by ‘soaking and poking’ at street level. I’ve written a lot about the World Bank with this approach. My chapter starts with reference to Tomas Piketty’s recent Capitalism and Ideology, in which he gives ‘ideology’ (or ‘mindset’ or ‘world view’) much more causal role – in income/wealth inequality trends – than other economists do. Then on to the Washington Consensus ideology, dominant in western capitals since 1980s, about appropriate public policies for developing countries. My interest is in how its dominance has been protected, via ‘the social construction of reality’. Then to ethnography – of a particular two-day meeting at UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade & Development, based in Geneva) I attended in 2012, on ‘rethinking trade policy’ with some 30 people (as I recall, offhand). I bring out how little rethinking there was, by design. The ‘rethinking’ meeting confirmed the Washington Consensus – which is all the more striking, because UNCTAD is the one UN development agency meant to be run by and for developing countries.

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