Published on Thursday, September 28, 2000 by InterPress Service
Anti-Globalisation Activists Seek Dialogue with World Bank/IMF
by Brian Kenety
PRAGUE - As the Czech capital began to deal with the aftermath of anti-globalisation protests that turned violent, a public forum critical of IMF and World Bank policies convened in a church on Wednesday to discuss what had been achieved.
Over the course of the four-day 'A Different Message' forum, sessions were held on debt relief and poverty reduction, the relationship between trade and development policy, and the social and environmental aspects of these efforts in the developing world and the 'transition' economies of eastern Europe.
The sponsors of the 'A Different Message' forum - international environmental and debt relief campaigners, CEE Bankwatch, Jubilee 2000 and Friends of the Earth - denounced the violence, saying that such actions ''undermine the efforts to advocate positive changes within these institutions'', which they say was the purpose of both the public forum and the peaceful demonstrations in which an estimated 10,000 people participated.
The organisations say they are also looking for constructive dialogue with the institutions, and IMF and World Bank representatives joined in Wednesday's panel discussion, which was moderated by Jessica Woodruffe of the London-based World Development Movement, co-author of a new report on organised resistance in the developing world to IMF policies.
On the panel were representatives of the forum's organisers - Andrea Durbin (Friends of the Earth USA), Juergen Kaiser (Jubilee 200, Germany), Tomasz Terlecki (CEE Bankwatch, Poland) and Dennis Brutus (Jubilee South, South Africa) - alongside Mats Karlsson (World Bank vice president for external affairs) and Masood Ahmed (deputy director of the IMF's policy, development and review department).
Under discussion was the legacy of the two institutions, the need for reform to focus on development that was socially and environmentally sustainable, and the status of the movement to cancel the debt of the world's poorest countries, and the effort to achieve a meaningful dialogue between the institutions and civil society.
Of specific interest to the forum participants was whether the new Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) required by the Fund and the Bank of governments wishing to qualify for the ''enhanced'' Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiatives marked a real change from the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), widely considered a failure by bankers and protesters alike.
Brutus, a dissident under South Africa's apartheid regime, whose comments throughout the session took on a strong tone of moral condemnation of the institutions, said it was clear to him the bankers would never really listen or understand the voices of civil society.
''A new initiative is being prepared p the PRSPs. At Jubilee South we regret this new strategy, which is simply SAPs under another name,'' he said. ''There is one difference: we (the non- governmental organisations) are being asked to assist in the exploitation of the poor.''
He portrayed their efforts to hold dialogue as a public relations exercise and announced he would never again participate in a panel discussion alongside representatives of the IMF and World Bank.
The largest umbrella group of protesters - the Prague-based Initiative Against the Global Economy (INPEG) which this week convened its own ''Counter Summit'' p took a similar stand, having refused to meet with the bankers.
Karlsson said they had declined his offer to speak in that format, but if the protesters would really listen, they would find that they and the international financial institutions actually shared a common goal - to alleviate poverty.
In recent years the IMF and World Bank have been reaching out to formally engage civil society, in an effort to become more transparent, democratic and accountable p something Karlsson gave repeated examples of Wednesday in defending what he and Ahmed portrayed as a new era for the institutions.
But that effort has been greeted with much scepticism by many civil society actors, who say that consultation with non- governmental organisations (NGOs) comes after the agenda has already been decided.
Durbin, who said she had had constructive dialogue with World Bank officials this week, nonetheless objected to attempts by the Bank, in the wake of the street protests that had turned violent, to distinguish between ''constructive and unconstructive'' NGOs.
She said this was ''unfair'' and that the heads of the World Bank and IMF had taken the criticisms of the NGOs and protesters ''too personally''. The institutions are bigger than the individuals who now head it, she said, and until they realise that, they will never understand what civil society is asking is for.
Namely, Durbin said, NGOs at a minimum want the institutions' portfolio to be sustainable, and to carry out social and environmental impact assessments, so that projects and programmes do not harm the poor.
The concluding session of the public forum, which lasted two hours, was the first time that most protesters had had a chance to directly question representatives from the two international financial institutions.
As such, the moderator made a point of giving persons who had not been accredited to attend the IMF/World Bank meetings most of the floor time during the question and answer session.
Several audience members asked the bankers to explain the rationale behind the PRSPs and why debt relief seemed to have stalled; some demanded that the institutions apologise for their past failures, including lending to undemocratic regimes, and that they explain why there is a perception that the institutions only benefit the richest countries and multinational corporations.
The CEE Bankwatch Network argued that neo-liberal structural adjustment programmes of the IMF have failed to foster economic growth or stem rising levels of poverty and that it has increased the debt dependency of developing country governments and prematurely exposed domestic businesses to unfair competition from multinational enterprises. Women, children and other marginalised groups have been particularly hurt by these programmes, it said.
The Network has called on the IMF to halt the HIPC initiative and to instead pursue a policy of debt cancellation that benefits the impoverished, other marginalised groups and the environment in the short and long terms.
Ahmed of the IMF said the PRSPs were ''substantially different'' from past policies, as the measures would be ''explicitly drawn from a set of priorities set down by countries themselves'' in conjunction with local partners in civil society and the private sector.
He acknowledged that in some countries the level of debt ''is a crushing burden - there is no doubt about it'' but that writing off the debt outright alone would not lift countries out of poverty. He also said that it was up to the institutions' shareholders, in particular the G-7 (the world's wealthiest industrialised countries), to allocate more money to the HIPC initiative.
Copyright 2000 IPS