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International Financial Institutions Must Stand Up for Civic Freedoms

When Alfredo Okenve, a well-known human rights and transparency activist in Equatorial Guinea, began the drive to his family home in Bata on the evening of October 27, he couldn’t have known that he would be attacked and left for dead a few hours later.
A relentless advocate for the fair use of his country’s oil wealth, Alfredo had grown accustomed to various forms of harassment over the years, from losing his post at Equatorial Guinea’s National University in 2010 to being detained for several weeks in April 2017.
Yet the most recent intimidation, during which he says he was severely beaten and stabbed by two armed plainclothes security officers, was unprecedented in its brutality and has been firmly condemned by prominent human rights organizations. A few months before the attack, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had released a report strongly recommending that authorities in Equatorial Guinea join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), the very same initiative that Alfredo has helped promote for many years. Yet those international financial institutions (IFIs) that claim to share Alfredo’s drive for greater transparency and accountability in Equatorial Guinea’s hydrocarbon sector have remained surprisingly silent about the attack.
Why doesn’t the IMF speak up when those who defend its agenda are violently silenced?
The IMF, like other international financial institutions and development banks, is a major source of financial and technical support for developing countries. Giving out billions of dollars in loans and other types of financial support every year, it wields significant influence over economic policies in many countries. This is particularly true for resource-rich developing countries, where volatile commodity prices often cause financial instability and difficulties to repay lingering debt. With this formidable influence on economies, the IMF and other IFIs could be powerful agents of change by linking their regard for values like civic space and free debate of fiscal policy to their decision making. But they rarely do.
Alfredo’s story is just one of many in which savvy IFI intervention could help make a difference and reverse IFIs’ poor historical record in upholding civic freedoms when applying “conditionality” (the terms under which financial assistance will be granted). This is true even when IFIs and local civil society don’t have overlapping objectives, as was recently the case in Niger. As demonstrations against Niger’s 2018 finance law (which the IMF had helped draft) gained increasing support, Nigerien authorities employed stalling tactics to shut down the peaceful protests. Two dozen civil society leaders who expressed strong concerns over the law’s potentially adverse consequences and risk of increased corruption were arrested on spurious charges in March 2018, eventually resulting in 121 distressing days behind bars for activists, including Ali Idrissa, who stood up to their government to demand greater accountability of public finances.  
Meanwhile, IMF officials congratulated the government for the adoption of the new finance law during a country visit in April. Then, in June, the IMF board approved a USD 20 million disbursement to Niger, acknowledging fiscal improvements through the finance law and ignoring the country’s suspension from EITI over deterioration in civil society freedoms. Yet, effective citizen participation and open debate are indispensable to sound public finances. Therefore, looking the other way when governments repress their critics might seem comfortable at first but it falls short of the IMF’s stated objective to advance greater transparency and accountability in Niger’s finances. Fund officials could instead have called on the Nigerien Ministry of Finance and Nigerien parliamentarians to engage in an open dialogue with civil society actors.
Another example: In 2017 several IFIs, including the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), failed to follow their own rules when they agreed to provide the Azerbaijani government billions in loans despite the country’s suspension from EITI following an unprecedented crackdown on critical voices.
These cases show that, while IFI officials say they want accountability and diversified, efficient economies, they turn a blind eye to abuses against civil society that undermine social, political and economic stability. At a time when democratic values are on the back foot with governments around the world feeling empowered to muzzle those questioning their actions – a nefarious phenomenon known as “shrinking civic space” — IFIs should take action and use the tools at their disposal to protect local transparency activists. Even a seemingly technocratic initiative like the EITI has acknowledged the linkage between sound governance of extractive issues and broader civil society freedoms when it adopted the Civil Society Protocol to benchmark effective civil society participation in the extractive sector. IFIs must improve their engagement on this linkage too if they want to secure long-term prosperity. Developing their own tools and frameworks to measure civic space and effectively engage with local civil society actors would be an excellent start.   
The IMF has already taken a small first step toward a change of course in Equatorial Guinea by recommending that the government there apply to EITI as a pre-condition for a loan that will shore up its finances. This should however not be reduced to a mere tick-the-box exercise. Instead, the IMF should stand firm in its expectation that Equatorial Guinea meets the minimum EITI requirement of ensuring an enabling environment for local civil society actors to participate freely in natural resource governance. Moreover, whether or not Equatorial Guinea moves forward with EITI, the IMF should make minimum civic space protections a meaningful criterion for all engagement.   
Asmara Klein is a senior program officer for civic space at the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI).