Published on Thursday, April 13, 2000 in the Baltimore Sun
Shaking A Fist At Global Finance: Washington Protests Focusing Anger On World Bank And IMF
by Jay Hancock
 

 WASHINGTON - If the dissonant messages rising from the district's streets could be filtered into a coherent, bottom-line plea, it might sound like this:

Hey, World Bank. Yo, International Monetary Fund. Stop subsidizing Third World pollution. And stop dunning poor nations for money they don't have.

Third World debt relief and better environmental policies for developing nations are the common threads running through the welter of protests in Washington this week, as thousands of environmentalists, union members, students and human rights and anti-business activists demonstrate against the power of global capitalism.

The protests began Sunday, with about 5,000 people singing "This Land Is Your Land" around the Capitol, and continued yesterday as more than 10,000 union members lobbied Congress against a proposed U.S.-China trade treaty.

"Let's keep China on probation," Teamsters President James P. Hoffa said of a proposal in Congress to lower trade barriers between Beijing and Washington. Opponents believe the measure would wipe out U.S. jobs and reward China for human rights abuses.

This evening, protesters plan to assemble outside the World Bank to highlight the displacement of Third World people by the bank's giant development projects.

The climax to the week of protests is supposed to come Sunday and Monday, when activists intend to disrupt the IMF and World Bank's joint spring meeting by blocking entrances to those institutions' buildings in Northwest Washington.

Mindful of the violence that marked protests in Seattle by some of the same groups against the World Trade Organization in December, nearby businesses have been bracing for trouble, boarding up windows and shutting their doors.

Sprinkled among the major actions this week are demonstrations against the restrictions on Iraqi oil sales, protests drawing attention to alleged human rights abuses in Colombia, and a dinner supporting democracy in Myanmar.

What ties it all together?

"Exporting sweatshops," is how Jonathan Crowell, a red-bearded, 25-year-old environmentalist from New York, summed up what the protesters decry.

Capitalists and "imperialist pow- ers" are shifting pollution, low wages and other "costs of our consumer culture" onto the backs of poor people everywhere, Crowell said yesterday, as he paused in painting an anti-World Bank banner in a Washington alley.

As agents of capitalism, the Washington-based IMF and World Bank are apt symbols of what Crowell is talking about. They occupy the apex of global finance, dispatching well-heeled ministers to backward parts of the world with instructions to do what critics view as Wall Street's bidding.

Targeting debt

But complaints against the World Bank and IMF go deeper than their status as free-market totems. Many demonstrators in Washington this week offer detailed criticisms of the institutions' policies and realistic prescriptions for reform - views that are often shared by mainstream groups.

One priority is reducing the debt crushing many developing nations after decades of failed development projects undertaken by the IMF and World Bank.

The two institutions have lent hundreds of billions of dollars over the years to finance dams, electrical grids, currency stabilization and other programs in places from Ghana to Bolivia to Indonesia. The loans were supposed to stimulate developing economies while generating the wherewithal to pay back the money. In hundreds of cases, they didn't.

Instead, the funds were stolen by corrupt government officials or wasted on projects that didn't produce the expected return.

The money essentially disappeared. But the debts and mounting interest payments stayed on the borrowers' balance sheets, with devastating effects.

Take Tanzania, where AIDS runs rampant and nearly two children in 10 die before their fifth birthday. Tanzania's debt to the IMF, World Bank and individual nations is more than twice the budget of its government, pinching its ability to improve health and education programs.

Take Nicaragua and Honduras, two other seats of poverty. They spend more than 60 percent of their government revenue on loan payments to the IMF, World Bank and other aid organizations. Angola's IMF obligations are twice the country's gross national product.

The sums owed are so large and the chances they'll be paid back so small that Third World debt relief has gained many adherents in recent years - among them Pope John Paul II, and including the IMF and World Bank themselves.

Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers has said that "debt relief for the poorest countries is both a moral and economic imperative."

Three years ago, the IMF and World Bank agreed to begin forgiving a portion of the debts of the world's 41 poorest countries. So far, the IMF and World Bank have agreed to cancel loans worth a total of $28 billion, and have started doing so in nine nations, including Uganda, Mozambique, Bolivia, Mauritania, Tanzania and the Ivory Coast.

But activists say there's much more to be done.

"It's a step in the right direction, but it's not nearly enough," said Dan Driscoll-Shaw, national coordinator for Jubilee 2000 USA, a nonprofit group devoted to debt reduction. "You look at a situation like Mozambique and the terrible floods they just had. They were paying back $1.4 million a week at the same time they had this disaster. We believe it has to go much faster."

An IMF spokesman defended the fund's debt-relief pace.

"The caricature that we don't care or that we're just trying to hold up debt relief isn't true," an IMF spokesman said yesterday. "Debt relief isn't an end in itself. What we're trying to achieve is poverty reduction, and you need the appropriate policy framework to do that."

Jubilee 2000 and many other groups want debt cancellation - not just reduction - for all impoverished nations. And they want this relief without the IMF or World Bank imposing conditions - such as balancing their budgets - on the debtor nations.

Such relief would cost the World Bank, IMF and their rich-country shareholders more than $200 billion, or by some accounts more than $300 billion.

The IMF and World Bank say that their debt relief programs are substantial and that accelerating them might do more harm than good.

Environmental issues

Besides drawing money from social programs in developing nations, huge debts to the IMF and World Bank also promote environmental destruction in those countries, critics argue.

International lenders "will come in and say to the countries, 'You need to export your logs. You need to export your forests. Export your oil,'" said Erick Brownstein of the Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco. "They believe that when you sell these commodities, you'll raise money to pay back the debts. But that doesn't take into account that when you're doing this, you're raping the country's resources."

Despite good intentions, the World Bank, especially, is known for promoting huge capital projects that displace people and scar the countryside. International outrage helped prevent the World Bank from financing construction of China's huge Three Gorges Dam, but the bank remains involved in other projects that draw criticism. For example, it is considering backing a pipeline that would move oil from Chad to Cameroon.

"The fear is that the pipeline will damage the rain forest" in Cameroon, said Delphine Djiraibe, a lawyer in Washington for the Chadian Association for Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. "We really don't know how they can manage to avoid air and water pollution."

Some also want the World Bank to pay reparations in countries where its projects have damaged the environment and displaced residents.

"There needs to be some kind of admission from the bank that it has caused these terrible consequences to people's lives," said Aviva Imhof of the Berkeley, Calif.-based International Rivers Network.

While far from promising reparations, World Bank officials say they've made large environmental strides by promoting alternative fuels and reducing projects that displace people.

"We're putting a huge amount of money into environmental issues," World Bank President James Wolfensohn said yesterday. "We're putting money into solar, into wind, into water."

But even reparations and the wiping out of debt wouldn't be enough for some planning to protest against the IMF and World Bank on Sunday and Monday.

Jonathan Crowell, the activist from New York, wants them abolished.

"They're controlled by corporate power," he said. "I don't have faith that they'll reform."

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