5 Dec 2023    Working Papers

The Role of Multilateral Institutions in the Perpetuation of Climate Breakdown and Vulnerability

WTI Working Paper No. 7/2023 by Sean Madden


The stated purview of the World Bank (WB), International Monetary Fund (IMF), United Nations (UN), and other Multilateral Institutions (MLI) is a reduction in poverty and inequalities, and the encouragement of sustainable development and economic growth. These goals permeate supranational institutions of global governance, and their importance is emphasised through agreements such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), and instruments including Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP).

When considered alongside the activities encouraged and legitimised through the epistemologies and praxis of these institutions, however, it can be argued that these aims are contradictory, and may in fact result in the exacerbation of inequality and anthropogenic climate breakdown (hereon in: ACC, or climate breakdown), and consequently, the perpetuation of vulnerability for some of the world’s most impoverished peoples.

Significant scholarship has articulated the inexorable connection between the colonial encounter and Third World debt[1], and subsequent centuries of extraction and exploitation legitimised through globalisation; indeed, postcolonial theory itself posits a continuity between the exploitation of the imperial past, and contemporary neoliberal globalisation[2]. When the IMF and WB mandate SAP in exchange for loans proffered in order to service this debt, the sale and privatisation of resources and access to land within the boundaries of the state invariably follows[3]. The subsequent extractive activity of Transnational Corporations (TNC) and foreign states may then propagate the cycle of exploitation and environmental depredation, whilst allowing former colonial states and other powers of the Global North to simultaneously profit and offset Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. This activity appears not only to be sanctioned, but encouraged through a neoliberal policy platform that prioritises economic growth and Western conceptions of development and sustainability above all else.

Consequently, Third World[4] peoples, rather than experiencing alleviation from the cycle of debt locked in since the colonial encounter, are rendered further impoverished and dependent, severely impeding their ability to mitigate or adapt to the effects of climate breakdown exacerbated by MLI policy.

This chapter contends that SAP aggravate climate breakdown and environmental depredation through the encouragement of extractive activity and industrial production in order to stimulate economic growth. It further argues that vulnerable Third World communities, the recipients of aid and associated SAP, bear the brunt of this devastation by virtue of their sustained impoverishment, and inability to mitigate or adapt to their effects.

I begin by describing how the inception of MLI occurred as a direct result of a system of international law that precipitated and entrenched impoverishment and environmental depredation – particularly amongst Third World peoples – and how this has inexorably led these institutions to emerge as propagators of impoverishment, explaining how this poverty is an aggravating factor in climate vulnerability. After describing the emergence of SAP from this context, I then briefly outline and rebuff the arguments in favour of the policy, as presented by the IMF and WB. I then elaborate upon their ramifications for inequality and the environment, before presenting the example of Madagascar. Here, I detail how the imposition of SAP has proved detrimental to the environment, to GHG emissions, and subsistence, and how the consequences are intensified by worsening levels of impoverishment and inequality also propagated by MLI.

Whilst this chapter analyses the impacts of MLI upon the climate and the world’s most vulnerable populations, in-depth analysis of WB and IMF macroeconomic policy is beyond its remit. Instead, the intention is to provide an overview of these organisations’ structures and practices, positing that their activities are borne of ideological underpinnings. My aim is to articulate how this is emergent of the existing system of international law, and describe the implications of their agenda and practice.

About the author

Sean Madden is a PhD candidate at Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham, and previously completed his LLM in International Development Law and Human Rights at the University of Warwick. His research interests lie across the intersection of international economic law, environmental law, human rights, and postcolonialism. 



[1] Penet and Zendejas (2021), p. 7.

[2] Mishra and Hodge (2005), p. 388 and D’Souza (2022), p .20.

[3] Summers and Pritchett (1993), p. 383 and Pfeiffer and Chapman (2010), p. 150.

[4] I choose this nomenclature as I feel it better reflects the (post)colonial dynamic, and disavows Western conceptions of ‘development’. More detail can be found at: Pahuja (2011), p. 261.

The Role of Multilateral Institutions in the Perpetuation of Climate Breakdown and Vulnerability