Opening Remarks at the 60th Anniversary of IMF African Department

December 15, 2021

A very good morning, good afternoon, and good evening to all—wherever you are. My name is Antoinette Sayeh. I am Deputy Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund and former Director of the IMF’s African Department. Thank you all for being here today.

I am most honored and pleased to open the AFR@60 Conference, celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the establishment of the African Department at the IMF. The conference follows a commemorative event with President Ouattara in May 2021 and is accompanied by the issuance of a special Finance and Development online publication.  It will discuss two important issues. First, how Africa, the IMF, and the African Department have evolved over the past 60 years. And second, what challenges the region, our institution and the African department will face in the post-pandemic world.

With only three African member countries out of the forty original members of the IMF in 1944, during our institution’s early days the IMF’s role in Africa and, more generally, in developing countries, was initially limited. But it has clearly grown over the years. And since the first exceptional loans to Ethiopia in 1948-49, the IMF has supported the region by providing lending, often on concessional terms, with the creation of the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF) in 1999 being a landmark in this respect.  We have also supported the region with debt relief, as well as policy advice and capacity development.

The African Department was created on April 10, 1961 to assist in the formulation and execution of IMF policies, to advise African member countries on their economic policies, and to inform Management and the Executive Board about relevant economic developments and policies in the region. The department’s mandate was expanded to allow consultations with official and private creditors on the financing of economic programs and the rescheduling of external debt. Although these functions have not changed much over time, the region and the Fund’s relationship with it have continued to evolve in line with the changing economic and political landscape.

Sixty years ago, many African countries were going through their Post-War and decolonization processes, facing adverse circumstances, including extreme poverty and lack of basic health care and education.

In the 1970s, the collapse of the Bretton Woods system and the two oil price shocks brought new challenges to the continent, which required difficult adjustments. In the 1980s, debt crises and inflationary spikes spread through much of the emerging and developing world, and Africa was not spared. The 1990s brought other external and capital flow crises to those emerging nations, including the devaluation of the CFA Franc in West and Central Africa.

The 2000s marked the beginning of the continent’s take-off. As the political situation improved in many countries, national governments began to crack down on corruption and improve governance, and macroeconomic growth plans aimed at improving living conditions began to be implemented.

The 2000s were also marked by a favorable external environment, including high commodity prices, the Heavily Indebted Poor Country or HIPC debt relief initiative and the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative, or MDRI, which helped countries reduce their debt levels and support macroeconomic stability. The 2010s continued on that path and also saw the reform of the IMF’s framework for providing financial support to Low-Income Countries via the Poverty Reduction and Growth Trust fund, or the PRGT. During this period, several countries achieved dramatic improvements in economic growth, poverty reduction and living standards (including life expectancy and educational attainments), as well as political accountability.

Nowadays, the IMF membership includes all 53 African countries, and assistance to Africa has become a major part of the Fund’s role and budget.

The IMF for its part has also changed significantly over the years. Indeed, we learned from our past mistakes when providing financial assistance. A key lesson was to listen more attentively to ensure stronger program ownership and to streamline conditionality. Through resident representatives, five regional technical assistance centers, and a very active African Training Institute, our presence in the field was also substantially strengthened. Such a footprint in the region has allowed close interaction with the authorities and civil society as well as other stakeholders on the ground, helping us better understand their needs and how to best support them. More recently, the IMF’s work has increasingly focused on making growth more inclusive; attention to inequality, gender, and climate change have become part of the Fund’s agenda. So it is clear that today’s IMF is not your grandfather’s IMF.  We believe that this evolution has made us more effective in helping country authorities implement policies to underpin stability, raise growth and improve development outcomes.

As you know the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take a heavy human and economic toll on Africa. The Fund responded to the crisis by enhancing its financial support and toolkit, quickly expanding concessional financing for LICs with hands-on and targeted technical assistance, extending debt relief to our most vulnerable members, and providing a financial boost with the SDR allocation to better support the recovery of LICs from the pandemic.

Our main worry for the region remains the pandemic, which is still spreading, as the new Omicron variant is reminding us. Vaccination policy is the most important economic policy worldwide, but especially in Africa. But with only about 4.5 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s population vaccinated, our top priority continues to be ensuring equitable and affordable access to vaccines for the region. The international community needs to come together to ramp up vaccine distribution and deployment. The world needs a fair mechanism to redistribute vaccines from surplus to deficit countries, and a fully funded system to accelerate vaccination in poorer countries.

Looking ahead, the path to development remains challenging; achieving the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs has become more elusive with COVID-19. But I remain optimistic that the region can adapt, alleviate the impact of COVID-19 and come out of this crisis on a path to a more inclusive, greener, and smarter recovery.

More than ever, the continent needs external financial assistance and transformative reforms to unlock its tremendous growth potential and boost prospects for reaching the SDGs. Without a doubt, the IMF and the African Department will deploy our utmost efforts and continue to assist our member countries. Together, we can do it!

With these remarks, I am pleased to welcome our outstanding panelists and guests as well as our two moderators for today’s event. Our current Director of the African Department, Abe Selassie, will moderate the roundtable on “The IMF and Africa: Sixty Years of Africa’s Development,” and IMF Deputy Managing Director, Bo Li, will moderate the second roundtable on the “Perspectives on the Future of Africa in a Post-Pandemic World.”

In closing, let me thank all of you for joining this debate and wish a Happy 60th Anniversary to our African Department!  And I’ll now give the floor to our African Department Director: Abe, please, the floor is yours…