Fighting the hand that feeds

International financial organizations have become a protest target of the young and the angry, so expect no less when the IMF and World Bank meet.

September 09, 2001|By Michael Hill | By Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

FULL RIOT GEAR will be the dress of the day in Washington late this month -- the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are coming to town.

Only a few years ago these two groups and other international financial organizations existed in a well-deserved obscurity. If their names were used in an angry epithet, it was probably by some billionaire upset over a currency investment. Now they are screamed at by the young and angry from Seattle to Genoa, Italy.

"This is really a crazy marriage of labor and unions and environmentalists and people who care about the welfare of the world's poor all marching together but with radically different agendas," says Lloyd Gruber of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

The objections are many. Trade unionists -- mainly from the United States -- say the economic policies furthered by these organizations ship jobs overseas. The environmentalists -- many Green Party types from Europe -- say the type of development these groups support causes ecological damage. The Third World advocates say the policies support international big business, creating sweatshops, not decent jobs. Then there are the black-shirted anarchists who just seem to enjoy a good head-banging and get on television a lot.

The defenders of the World Bank and IMF and their peers say these organizations encourage good economic policies and stimulate development, the only proven method for alleviating poverty.

The weird thing is that these institutions have become the object of such scorn. For those who remember taking on George Wallace and Bull Connor in the civil rights years, or Richard M. Nixon and the National Guard in the Vietnam years, the economists and bureaucrats of the World Bank and the IMF seem like awfully tepid targets.

The protestors' high point came in 1999 in Seattle when 35,000 turned out for the World Trade Organization, overwhelmed an underprepared police department, disrupted the meeting and did a lot of damage.

"Since then, these demonstrators go after any established international gathering of high muckety-mucks in the world of trade and finance," says I. Mac Destler a political scientist at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It's taken on a little bit of a ritual character. It's now obligatory of them to come."

Destler says it began with opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 when Ross Perot's "whooshing" sound of jobs headed to Mexico raised the profile of these treaties. In 1998, he says, the protestors, led by Ralph Nader's Public Citizen, took credit for uncovering a secret agreement on international investment rules that was being discussed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

"This is basically the rich nations' economic club," Destler says of the OECD. "It's not exactly a potent organization, more a forum for consultation."

Destler says the talks were going nowhere anyway, so when the protests got loud, the agreement was abandoned, energizing its opponents. That set the stage for Seattle in 1999.

Many showed up in Washington in April last year for IMF and World Bank meetings. Their most recent gathering was in Genoa in July when an estimated 100,000 protesters rampaged around a meeting of the Group of Eight top industrialized nations (G-8), resulting in 500 injuries, a death and a great deal of criticism of the Italian police.

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien announced his plan to deal with the protestors when the G-8 meets in his country next June -- the meetings will be held in an isolated resort in the Rockies.

The World Bank and IMF are coming to Washington on Sept. 29 and 30 for their annual meetings because that is where they are headquartered. The United States is a big funder.

The preparations have been theatrical. Police plan to erect more than two miles of fence to seal off an area that includes the White House and the buildings of the World Bank and IMF. Demonstrators plan to denounce the fence with terms used against the Berlin Wall, cutting off symbolic pieces. Will the barrier be breached? Stay tuned.

This all seems an odd fate for two groups formed in July 1944, in a meeting at Bretton Woods, N.H. The idea was that the IMF would stabilize the world's currencies while the World Bank would finance the reconstruction of countries ravaged by World War II, which ended within a year.

Over the years, their roles evolved into the IMF handing out loans to rescue failing economies, keeping their currencies sound -- Argentina at $8 billion is the latest example -- while the World Bank focuses its development efforts on the Third World.

All of which sounds positively altruistic. Indeed, many who work at these organizations undoubtedly see themselves as the same sort of idealistic do-gooders that the demonstrators claim to be.

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