This article adopts a diachronic view to compare patterns of institutional evolution of cooperation between the International Monetary Fund (IMF or Fund) and the World Bank (or Bank) before and after the global financial crisis. While the rules for Fund‐Bank cooperation had typically been tightened in response to crisis episodes, on balance they were loosened in the wake of the global financial crisis. Building on over 90 semi‐structured expert interviews and relevant official documentation, I argue that this new trend was grounded in changed imaginaries of cooperation among IMF and World Bank officials. Whereas they had tended to envisage integrative futures in key areas of operational overlap before the crisis, alternative visions of more fragmented joint futures came to prevail after it. This difference manifested itself in a profound shift in official discourses about, as well as interviewee accounts of, the function of the Financial Sector Assessment Programme (FSAP) and Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs). The analysis foregrounds the reflexivity of relationships between international organisations (IOs), especially the ability of IO staff involved in cooperative activities to (re)construct imaginaries that can foster or foreclose inter‐organisational change.
- Relationships between IOs are reflexive in the sense that what officials think about inter‐organisational cooperation shapes how this cooperation works. Successful cooperation therefore requires IOs to pay attention not only to ‘hard’ input factors (such as material resources) but also to ‘soft’ ones (such as shared imaginaries of an inter‐organisational relationship).
- Since the global financial crisis, the relationship between the IMF and the World Bank has become institutionally looser and more selective. As the anticipated future tasks of the organisations gradually diverge, new cooperative relationships with other actors, including the Financial Stability Board (FSB) for the Fund and the United Nations (UN) for the Bank, will need to be built or deepened.
- At least in the case of Fund‐Bank cooperation, staff members enjoy considerable influence on matters of institutional design. Unless member states develop greater knowledge of processes of inter‐organisational cooperation, they will be unable to effectively monitor how staff teams cooperate on a day‐to‐day basis.
- To understand how institutional fragmentation can complicate global governance, policymakers and analysts alike should pay more attention to relationships between IOs. Inter‐organisational fragmentation can have knock‐on effects on other institutional elements of global governance architectures, such as international regimes or norms.