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World: IMF, World Bank Hold Annual Fall Meetings

  • Andrew Tully

The two top international financial institutions say their agenda is focused on making the poor nations of the world more prosperous. Members of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are meeting in Washington this weekend to map out strategy.

Washington, 27 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The World Bank and the IMF annual autumn meetings in Washington this weekend come against a backdrop of an economic crisis in South America and a halting recovery from economic recession elsewhere in the world.

The IMF's managing director, Horst Koehler, on 26 September acknowledged these problems at a news conference to introduce the meetings, but he said it would be wrong to take a pessimistic view of the world economy. He said he expects it will rebound with the help of the U.S. economy.

And James Wolfensohn, the president of the World Bank, said at a separate news conference that he believes that at this autumn's meetings of representatives from 183 member states, the two financial institutions will be able to take major steps in fighting poverty worldwide.

Wolfensohn said that previous world economic summits in recent years have focused on discussions about including developing countries in decision-making and encouraging them to enact judicial and legal reform. With this planning stage complete, he said, it is now time to realize these ideas.

"The important thing now is to perform. And my hope is that at this meeting we can move into a new phase in which all the attention is given to action and how we get things done. And that is not just action on the part of developing countries, but it's also action on the part of the rich countries," Wolfensohn said.

In short, the World Bank president said, it is time, as he put it, to "move from theory to practice."

Both the World Bank and the IMF have come under criticism in recent years from virtually all sides. Some say they waste the resources of wealthier countries by spending them on needier nations whose governments are incapable or, in some cases, unwilling to spend the money wisely.

Others say the two institutions hurt poor countries by authorizing loans only if their governments impose harsh economies that deprive their people of needed services like medical care and food.

As they have many times in the past, Wolfensohn and Koehler addressed these criticisms, and stressed that both institutions have undergone drastic reforms that lead to more efficient programs to reduce poverty and strengthen currency values.

Again, the World Bank-IMF meetings will be the target of protests. About 20,000 demonstrators have arrived in Washington over the past few days. The organizers of most of the protests say they will be peaceful. But some have promised to disrupt workday traffic.

Local police have set aside 3,200 officers -- including 1,700 reinforcements from other areas -- to help keep the peace. They also have closed off the immediate neighborhood around the World Bank and IMF headquarters to all but those with credentials authorizing them to enter.

The protesters' agendas range from globalization to the Israel-Palestinian conflict to U.S. President George W. Bush's policy on Iraq. But their chief complaint about the World Bank and the IMF is that the two institutions promote globalization. They say this allows wealthy multinational corporations to exploit workers in poor countries.

Koehler said he shares this concern because the economic benefits of such globalization are not always enjoyed by these workers. But the IMF's managing director added that it would be wrong to abandon globalization altogether; rather, he said it should be improved.

For his part, Wolfensohn said there are two kinds of globalization, and that the World Bank and the IMF recognize only one of them: "Not the narrow definition of multinational corporations, but globalization in the sense that everything joins us, whether it's trade or finance or crime or drugs or migration or health."

Some protesters' objections go beyond globalization to capitalism itself. One such critic is Shrayas Jatkar, an organizer for the protest group known as "Fifty Years Is Enough," a reference to the half century since the World Bank and the IMF were created.

Jatkar told RFE/RL that capitalism is in itself an unfair system. He said it is bad enough that the World Bank and the IMF meet privately to decide the economic fate of a needy country. Even if the two institutions operated openly, he said, the system they employ -- world capitalism -- still leaves too many people with too little.

"The worst part about it, perhaps, is the differences that it causes, the fact that, you know, some people are extremely well off while others are extremely destitute," Jatkar said.

Because finance ministers from around the world are in Washington for the World Bank-IMF meetings each autumn, the United States takes the opportunity to be the host of a ministerial meeting of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations -- Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States, as well as Russia.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and Alan Greenspan -- the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, the U.S. central bank -- were expected to lead this year's G-8 meeting on 27 September.