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World: Demonstrators Protest World Bank/IMF Meetings

  • Andrew Tully

Advocacy groups are assembling in Washington to hold protests during the annual spring meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). They say the two institutions are ignoring the poor and the environment in the way they loan money to needy governments. RFE/RL's Andrew F. Tully reports that these demonstrations could be as disruptive as those in Seattle last December during the meetings of the World Trade Organization.

Washington, 11 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund begin their annual spring meetings in Washington this week under threatened demonstrations by protesters who say the two institutions hurt the poor nations and people that they are supposed to be helping.

Ordinarily, the spring meetings themselves generate little interest. For the most part, World Bank and IMF delegates to the spring meetings simply help set the agenda for the more comprehensive Annual Meetings conducted in early autumn.

But groups advocating causes from the environment to human rights are emboldened by their success last fall in disrupting meetings of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the western U.S. city of Seattle and by protests at the economic conference in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year.

The overall sponsor of the demonstrations is the Mobilization for Global Justice. One of its key goals, as articulated by its World Wide Web site, is to forgive the debt of poor nations.

The IMF is accused of imposing harsh conditions for its loans. Melinda Saint Louis of the Campaign for Labor Rights says these conditions are often anti-democratic.

"These policies actually almost require an authoritarian government because a truly democratic government could not get those policies passed through their parliament and so forth. I mean, you can't -- you can't expect a democratic government to say, 'OK, overnight, we're going to quadruple the price of bus -- of the buses [bus fare],' and that everybody in the country -- we're doing away with all subsidies on food and transportation that everybody has counted on."

Thomas Dawson, the IMF's chief spokesman, tells RFE/RL that the conditions are not imposed unilaterally but are agreed upon after extensive consultations with the governments. He says the lending institution is careful to weigh the needs of the poor in a country that receives IMF aid.

"The alternative [to IMF aid] of economic collapse and runaway inflation is in fact the cruelest attack on the poor."

Dawson says the IMF is equally cautious about the environment. He says loans from the fund are of course designed to encourage economic growth, but stresses that the fund works to design each country's program in a way that does not damage natural resources.

The World Bank is accused of investing in development that harms the environment. Andrea Durbin is director of international programs for the environmental group Friends of the Earth. At a Washington news conference on Monday, she highlighted the bank's investment in drilling for oil and natural gas.

"The bottom-line, most fundamental issue is this, that investments in these sectors are not the best way to fulfill the World Bank's core mission: to fight poverty and promote sustainable development. In fact, investments in oil, gas and mining take away from other important investments that more directly fulfill this mission."

Durbin says the World Bank should invest instead in renewable energy resources and in health and education. These investments, she says, would more directly help the world's poor.

John Donaldson, a senior spokesman for the World Bank, tells RFE/RL that investment in oil, natural gas, and mining is a "small and declining" percentage of the bank's lending programs. He says the bank tries wherever possible to have private investors handle such programs.

"I think anybody who looked at our website or our annual report would see that 40 percent of our lending already goes to the types of programs they want us to be more involved with and that this is a growing part of our portfolio of lending."

Donaldson says the World Bank is investing increasingly in health care and education. He expresses bewilderment that the protesters contend that the bank is ignoring these subjects.

The two sides are clearly far apart, and there are fears that this week's demonstrations could rival or even surpass the Seattle protests in terms of unrest. But Saint Louis, of the Campaign for Labor Rights, says monitoring demonstrators will be only a small part of the organizers' mission.

"We will not be distracted from what our goal is, which is really focusing on: What kind of violence are we talking about? And the violence that we're talking about is the violence that is perpetrated by these institutions [the World Bank and the IMF] around the world."

The Washington police have been studying how their colleagues in Seattle handled -- or mishandled -- the WTO demonstrations. But the city's police chief, Charles Ramsey, says there is a limit to how well his officers can be prepared. Ultimately, he says, the outcome of this week's protests will be up to the protesters themselves.