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U.S.: World Bank Chief Responds To Protesters' Accusations

  • Andrew Tully

The demonstrations have not yet begun in earnest, but they appear to be very much on the mind of World Bank President James Wolfensohn as he prepares to co-preside over the annual spring meetings of his institution and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Indeed, RFE/RL's Andrew F. Tully reports that Wolfensohn referred to "noise out there" on a day when the streets were quiet.

Washington, 13 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- There were no protests outside the headquarters of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) when the two organizations began their annual spring meetings on Wednesday.

But World Bank President James Wolfensohn found himself on the defensive at a news conference to inaugurate the sessions.

The bank and the fund have arranged tight security for meetings that ordinarily would generate very little news. Advocacy groups have vowed to disrupt the gathering as they did last autumn last autumn at the meeting of trade ministers of nations belonging to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle.

For the most part, these groups -- known as "non-governmental organizations" or NGOs -- are opposed to globalization of the economy. They contend that governments intent on global trade put wealth of the few ahead of the rights of workers and the poor, and ahead of the environment. And they say the World Bank and the IMF are just as guilty as corrupt governments.

The headquarters of the bank and the fund are across a narrow street from each other. So far this week, that street has been empty of auto traffic, for the most part, blocked off by police to prevent the kind of disruption at the WTO meetings. Anyone wanting to get to that area must pass a police checkpoint. Those wanting to enter either the IMF or World Bank building must go through metal detectors to enter beyond the lobby.

There was one demonstration on that street on Monday, and seven people were arrested, but since then the area has been quiet. But despite the protesters' absence, they were very much on Wolfensohn's mind.

At two separate news conferences on Wednesday, both the World Bank president and the IMF's chief of economic research, Michael Moussa, dismissed the NGOs' complaints about globalization.

Moussa said globalization was responsible for the quick economic recovery of southern Asia after the 1997 Asian financial crisis. About two hours later, Wolfensohn was less specific, but no less emphatic.

"The issue of globalization is not an issue that I think we can either turn back or say is not there. The issue of global community is clearly with us, and the question is one of adaptation and how it is that it can be properly dealt with for the developing countries in particular."

Wolfensohn was asked when he would speak directly with the NGOs, rather than relegate them to street demonstrations. He replied that the World Bank has always had good relations with NGOs and consults with them frequently.

He also expressed dismay that the protesters -- organized by a group called the Mobilization for Social Justice -- have accused his institution and the IMF of being in complicity with corrupt governments.

"We have very good relations with very many NGOs around the world, dealing with the issues that we're concerned with, and so it's a bit demoralizing when you see that there is a Mobilization for Social Justice when you think that that's what we're doing every day."

At one point, Wolfensohn seemed to speak dismissively of the demonstrators by referring to "noise out there." But his demeanor remained polite, even as he expressed his frustration.

"There is no subject that I am not prepared to discuss. I just regret it when that debate is forestalled because of an attempt to close down the meetings. And it's my hope that, once we're through this, the dialogue can continue and that we can again become constructive in the dialogue that we're having."

During his news conference, Wolfensohn also said he hopes Russia's president-elect, Vladimir Putin, will offer his people a sound economic plan when he is inaugurated on May 7. The World Bank president said he had met many hours with Putin and was encouraged by the Russian's demeanor. But Wolfensohn stressed that he could not say more about him until he sees Putin's plan.

The formal meetings of the World Bank and the IMF do not begin until the weekend. At that time, the delegates will discuss the agenda for the more comprehensive autumn meetings, which will be held this September in Prague. Until this weekend's sessions, delegates from 182 nations that are members of the two institutions are conducting informal meetings.