Shaking a fist at global finance

Washington protests focusing anger on World Bank and IMF

April 13, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

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 powers" 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.

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