The World Bank and the IMF argue that SAPs are necessary to bring a developing country from crisis to economic recovery and growth. Economic growth driven by private sector foreign investment is seen as the key to development. These agencies argue that the resulting national wealth will eventually "trickle down" or spread throughout the economy and eventually to the poor.

Many groups argue that SAPs impose harsh economic measures which deepen poverty, undermine food security, and self-reliance and lead to unsustainable resource exploitation, environmental destruction, and population dislocation and displacement. These groups, which include non-governmental organizations (NGOs), grassroots organizations, economists, social scientists and United Nations agencies have rejected the narrow conception of economic growth as the means to achieve social and environmental objectives. They believe SAP policies have increased the gap between rich and poor in both local and global terms.