Ambiguity and Uncertainty in International Organizations: A History of Debating IMF Conditionality


  • Author’s note: I would like to acknowledge the help of staff at both the British National Archives and the IMF Archives and would like to extend a special thank you to Premela Isaac and Jean Marcouyeux for their help in the IMF archives, and to Maxime Ouellet for his research assistance. I would also like to thank Tony Porter, Len Seabrooke, Jeff Chwieroth, Mark Blyth, Eric Helleiner, André Broome, Michael Best, and Jessica Allina-Pisano for their comments on earlier versions of this paper, as well as the anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback. I would also like to acknowledge the financial assistance of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.


Best, Jacqueline. (2012) Ambiguity and Uncertainty in International Organizations: A History of Debating IMF Conditionality. International Studies Quarterly, doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2478.2012.00744.x
© 2012 International Studies Association

How do international organizations deal with the persistent challenge of uncertainty? The most intuitive answer is through regulation. Yet, rules are not always the best solution in times of uncertainty or in dealing with complex and diverse problems. More ambiguous policies that leave room for interpretation, can often be more functional for an international organization (IO); moreover, ambiguities can also be a source of power—and are therefore often a subject of conflict among institutional actors. Focusing on the case of International Monetary Fund conditionality policy, this article provides several key insights into IO practices. It provides an account of the different forms that ambiguity can take in international organizations and develops an explanation for why institutional ambiguities appear and persist. Looking inside the IO black box, the study examines how interests, institutional culture, and legitimacy concerns shape actors’ support for ambiguity, and how these preferences combine with broader structural factors to produce a predisposition toward institutional ambiguity. Finally, this article points toward certain implications of organizations’ tendency toward ambiguity, suggesting that this may play an important role in enabling institutional expansion.