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World: IMF, World Bank Meetings Begin Amid Protest Threat

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Today is a big day for IMF and World Bank governors, and for protesters who oppose the institutions. The leaders of both the IMF and World Bank are expected to set out their respective visions in major policy addresses. Not far away from the proceedings, several thousand anti-globalization activists are hoping to send out a very different message. RFE/RL's Breffni O'Rourke is attending the meetings and has this report.

Prague, 26 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank group today begin the formal part of their meetings in Prague: their annual Boards of Governors sessions. IMF Managing Director Horst Koehler and World Bank President James Wolfensohn are expected to give major addresses, setting out past achievements and their vision for the future of their two institutions.

Following that, lasting through tomorrow, senior representatives of more than 180 countries will give speeches. The following day (Thursday), Koehler and Wolfensohn hold a concluding press conferences.

But their voices could be drowned out by protesters opposed to the institutions' social policies who say they will try to disrupt the meetings.

Demonstrators began gathering earlier today around the capital's "Peace Square" (Namesti Miru) ahead of a planned blockade of the Prague Congress Center, a couple of kilometers away, where the main meetings are being held.

The Czech Interior Ministry earlier said a number of buses carrying anti-globalization protesters had crossed the border and were coming to Prague.

Czech authorities have mobilized 11,000 police to maintain control. Many shops and offices in the city center have closed for fear of rampaging mobs. However, protest rallies held over the weekend were much smaller than expected, and they passed off peacefully.

The protesters claim the IMF's austere conditions on lending to poor countries cause unacceptable hardship to the poor, while World Bank project funding is often seen as detrimental to the environment or causing social dislocation. And critics claim that promises of debt relief for the poorest countries are being fulfilled too slowly.

The financial institutions took a step toward answering the latter accusation over the weekend, when the IMF's policy-making panel -- called the International Monetary and Financial Committee -- approved measures designed to make debt relief worth some $30 billion available to 20 of the world's poorest countries by the end of the year.

The plan, which also has the approval of the World Bank policy-making Development Committee, is aimed at delivering on a pledge made by the two institutions last year to speed implementation of the heavily indebted poor countries initiative, known as the HIPC.

IMF spokesman Bill Murray said the acceleration of the program has been a major aim of both the IMF and World Bank.

"The whole idea [of debt relief] is one of faster and deeper, and this is the deeper part. Now is the time to deepen debt relief. You want to do it for a number of reasons -- including building momentum -- you have to develop a critical mass. There are now 41 low income countries that would qualify for debt relief, for HIPC assistance, and you want to get that assistance to as many countries as possible."

HIPC offers debt relief to impoverished nations as long as they follow IMF-approved economic reforms, and also commit themselves to poverty reduction action plans. But until now -- and this is what critics deride -- only 10 countries have qualified for HIPC benefits.

The chairman of Sunday's IMF panel meeting, British Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) Gordon Brown, indicated to journalists that the terms for qualifying for HIPC could be made somewhat more flexible.

The World Bank's policy-making panel, called the Development Committee, met yesterday in Prague. Bank spokesman Nicholas van Praag said that two main issues were on the agenda. One was the issue of lending policy toward middle income countries, and the other related to wider issues on the bank's efforts to create a better world.

"The second item on the agenda is the whole question of the bank's role in what we term 'global public goods,' these are things that require collective action to bring about broad benefits -- like dealing with communicable diseases, preserving the environment and this kind of thin. Those are the two major issues on the agenda."

Under the heading of global public goods, U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers has praised the stated determination of World Bank President James Wolfensohn to fund HIV-AIDS programs. Summers said the member countries of the World Bank must ensure that sufficient funding for that is actually available.

Summers also said last week the United States believes the World Bank should expand its involvement in global public goods not only in the area of infectious disease prevention, but also in environmental protection and agricultural research.