March 16th, 2010
01:58 PM GMT
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The last time I sat in the in the Wits University Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa was when I was dragged to watch a contemporary dance show. Generally, I find interpretive dance recitals quite confusing - all that jumping, leaping and contorting by dancers wearing unitards can be a bewildering experience.

I also find the work of the International Monetary Fund quite confusing sometimes - loaning money to governments is a highly complex process. However, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the MD of the International Monetary Fund, tried hard to demystify the work of this Bretton Woods institution to Johannesburg students and press who had gathered to listen to him speak in the intimate Wits theater.

Strauss-Kahn is a former economics professor whose one-hour talk turned into a two-and-a-half-hour lecture on everything from the root causes of the global crisis to the need to regulate and supervise the financial sector. He seemed optimistic about Africa –- praising African leaders for good economic policies that allowed the continent to weather the global credit crunch better than expected. He said also Africa’s recovery was not lagging behind the rest of the world, as it often does.

Our interview afterwards, on the Wits drama stage again, was a rushed affair because Mr. Strauss-Kahn had a plane to catch. He was zooming down to Cape Town to meet South African president Jacob Zuma. Zuma has just asked for an IMF loan to help rebuild South Africa’s problematic electricity sector.

We only had ten minutes to talk but the combination of a deadline and forced brevity often makes for a better interview, I think. There was less waffle and more straight talk. We talked about Zimbabwe and how politics makes the work of the IMF harder.

Mr. Strauss-Kahn also admitted the IMF had an image crisis and that many Africans saw the IMF as "the devil" in the past. He is certainly right because for the past decade many here believe the stringent conditionalities imposed by the IMF when giving loans created more problems for African economies. Strauss-Kahn says the days of "one size fits all" policies have changed and that the institution has learned from its mistakes and criticisms. He says his IMF teams are far more adapting and flexible to the peculiarities of each country.

Is the IMF a force for good?

I asked him if he was on a bit of public relations tour to try to convince Africans that he and his IMF teams are not "the devil." He agreed that they needed to better explain what they do. He believes IMF assistance to Africa in the past year ($5billion in loans and $12billion pumped into foreign currency reserves) has helped to save lives, stabilize democracies and prop up currencies.

Simple talk on a small stage for a powerful man - who did not resort to the leaping, jumping and contorting to which Africans have traditionally become accustomed when many Western institutions come calling.

March 16th, 2010
11:26 AM GMT
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