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Economy: World Bank Chief Calls For Dialogue With Protesters

  • Breffni O'Rourke

World Bank President James Wolfensohn, on a visit to Prague, has called for dialogue rather than street protests during the coming annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Let's talk reasonably, he says, not shout abuse at one another across the barricades. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 1 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- James Wolfensohn, the head of the World Bank, has sought to break the circle of protest and violence which has lately surrounded key gatherings of international finance and trade institutions.

In a speech in Prague, he made a passionate plea for an end to confrontation in the streets in favor of dialogue between people of differing views. He says he's totally convinced that working together is the only way that the pressing problems of the planet can be solved.

His comments came during a visit to the Czech capital yesterday to discuss preparations for the annual meetings of the governing boards of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which are set to take place in Prague from 18-28 September.

Traditionally such meetings were of interest largely to a specialized network of bankers, financiers, diplomats, and economics reporters. But all that changed last year when a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle was the scene of massive street protests by demonstrators opposed to economic globalization.

The protest wave, though less violent, continued at this year's spring meetings in Washington of the World Bank and IMF, and now Prague is bracing for similar mega-demos at the coming 2000 annual meetings. The demonstrators are concerned that globalization -- that means the further internationalization and integration of the world economy -- threatens the environment, jobs, and incomes.

Wolfensohn's remarks show the extent to which the financial establishment has moved to recognize the widespread fears over globalization. At the same time, in grasping the initiative yesterday, he sought to remove the justification for violence in the streets. He said:

"I am totally convinced that there is no way we can address these problems in a constructive manner unless we work together, and my plea, which is the plea I make for Prague, is that if there is a difference of view, let's have a dialogue, let's listen to each other, let's discuss. I have no problems in discussing any issue in which the bank is involved, none."

He said the reality is that the modern world will be increasingly interlinked, whether one likes it or not. And he said the key thing is to face the challenges of the next 25 years, when the world's population will swell by an extra 2 billion people, to some 8 billion. Wolfensohn sought to capture the high moral ground from the demonstrators, with their social and environmental concerns. He said:

"I feel no sense of shame, nor do I feel at any moral disadvantage to anyone, on the questions and the issues of poverty, on the issues of social justice, on the issues of debt, and on the issues of where mankind is going, nor about the contribution my institution is making to make the world a better place."

He acknowledged that not all the World Bank's projects had turned out optimally, but he said the bank's staff is hard-working and learns from its mistakes.

Founded in 1944, the World Bank is the world's largest source of development assistance, providing some $30 billion annually to client countries. For many years, environmentalists raised doubts about the adverse ecological impact of various World Bank projects, such as major dams, but the bank has moved over time to take account of these criticisms, and to become more sensitive to local cultural and environmental conditions.