Seattle, Round Two?
Now that the tear gas has finally settled in Seattle, activists are planning their next assault on irresponsible global capitalism. Their latest target: the semi-annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, set to take place on April 16 and 17 in Washington, DC.Like the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank evoke the ire of a diverse group of activists, including women's groups, environmentalists, labor unions and human rights organizations. Activists opposed to "globalization from above" see these institutions as an economic "Unholy Trinity" created to move the world into an era of unhindered global capitalism, regardless of the social and environmental costs."If the WTO is the corporate rule maker in the global economy, then the IMF and the World Bank are the institutions that push third world nations into that system," explains Mike Prokosch, who coordinates the Globalization project at United for a Fair Economy (UFE), an organization that works for economic justice.The UFE and dozens of other organizations are mobilizing for a week of training and education culminating in two days of nonviolent direct action intended to raise awareness about the IMF and World Bank and to disrupt their meetings (www.a16.org). From April 9 to April 15, thousands of people from around the country are expected to gather in Washington for what organizers are calling an "activist convergence," a week of education, protest and direct action training that will serve as a sort-of pre-game warm up for the 16th and 17th."There will definitely be an action to shut down the IMF and World Bank meetings," Prokosch says. "The objective is to really let the nation know that thousands of people in this country think these institutions need to be shut down."Key organizers won't say exactly what will happen on the 16th and 17th -- partly because they don't know and partly because of the tone DC police have taken toward the protests.According to The Washington Times, "The Metropolitan Police Department is re-equipping and training 1,400 officers for crowd control, stocking up on less-than-lethal weapons like tear gas and rubber bullets, and setting up locations to send suspects if officers conduct mass arrests."The Times quoted Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer as saying, "We will not put up with civil disobedience that leads to breaking windows, burning cars or pelting people with rocks. We won't be caught sleeping."Despite the fact that no cars were burned and few if any rocks were thrown during the WTO protests, the message from the authorities is clear -- direct action protestors, stay home. Thousands of activists are prepared to ignore that warning, however, because they believe IMF and World Bank policies are too destructive to overlook.Emerging from the "Bretton Woods" global economic system devised by the victors of World War II, the IMF and World Bank were designed to manage global economic activity by fostering monetary and financial stability, reconstructing countries devastated by war, and promoting free trade. Unfortunately, activists say, their policies have often augmented socio-economic inequality, destroyed local environments, and slipped third world nations even further in to debt.Take the IMF. Today, that institution's primary activity is providing loans to countries that face financial hardship. Such assistance, however, often comes with a heavy price. Countries that accept IMF loans or grants must agree to "Structural Adjustment Programs," crash policy diets imposed on developing nations in an effort to make them more "stable" and "competitive." That generally entails making cuts to social services, privatizing industries and reducing tariffs, policies that benefit local elites, foreign investors and multi-national corporations, but can devastate emerging societies."Ruling elites [in developing nations] have their interests with elites in the North, not with ordinary people," says Kenyan-born activist Njoki Njehu. "The choice [to accept IMF loans and structural adjustment programs] is being made by bureaucrats and people in government. No ordinary person in the Third World would choose declines in health and education spending and increases in infant mortality."The IMF also mandates that the countries it loans money to increase exports, in order to make sure that they have enough money to pay back their IMF loans. According to the American Lands Alliance (ALA), a Washington-DC based environmental group, the IMF-sponsored drive toward export-oriented growth has become a lead factor in the destruction of developing nations' ecosystems. In Indonesia, the ALA states, "The government is encouraging clear-cutting and burning of millions of acres of ancient forests for conversion into 'cash crops' such as oil palm, intended for export rather than domestic use. The result is rampant forest destruction with no end in sight."World Bank policies, like those of the IMF, often negatively impact Third World nations as well, Njehu says, by promoting a "one-size-fits-all model of development that is often destructive to people and the environment." Despite a stated commitment to help the poor and promote responsible development, the Bank funds projects such as dams and roads in a manner which often encourages corruption, drives local populations off their land, devastates the local environment and increases poverty.Njehu, who heads the "50 Years Is Enough Network" (www.50years.org), a coalition of 205 organizations dedicated to the "profound transformation" of the IMF and the World Bank, believes "development should be measured by social and environmental indicators, rather than by a country's Gross National Product or by how many roads and international airports it has."She decries the neo-liberal claim that while globalization may at times augment socio-economic inequalities and promote environmental destruction, a rising economic tide will lift all boats. "Maybe in the boating world," Njehu quips, "but not in the real world."Surprisingly, Njehu and the movement against the IMF and the World Bank recently received a boost from the most unexpected of places -- the United States Congress. A Congressional report released on March 7 slammed the two institutions for being secretive, bullying and ineffective."At the entrance to the World Bank's headquarters in Washington, a large sign reads: 'Our dream is a world without poverty.' The Commission shares that objective as a long-term goal. Unfortunately, neither the World Bank nor the regional development banks are pursuing the set of activities that could best help the world move rapidly toward that objective or even the lesser, but more fully achievable, goal of raising living standards and the quality of life, particularly for people in the poorest nations of the world," the report states.The bi-partisan Congressional panel came down even harder on the IMF."Transformation of the IMF into a source of long-term conditional loans has made poorer nations increasingly dependent on the IMF and has given the IMF a degree of influence over member countries' policymaking that is unprecedented for a multilateral institution," the Commission maintained. "Some agreements between the IMF and its members specify scores of required policies as conditions for continued funding. These programs have not ensured economic progress. They have undermined national sovereignty and often hindered the development of responsible, democratic institutions that correct their own mistakes and respond to changes in external conditions."To correct these injustices, the Commission recommends "many far-reaching changes to improve the effectiveness, accountability and transparency of the financial institutions," reforms anti-globalization activists have been demanding for decades."It's amazing to see this in the mainstream," Prokosch says. "We were outcasts saying this a year ago."Still, organizers like Prokosch aren't leaving IMF and World Bank reform to Washington bureaucrats. They're working round the clock to make sure as many people as possible make the trip to DC. Despite his efforts, even Prokosch doubts the protests in DC will be as large as those that rocked Seattle during late November and early December of last year, for two reasons: first, because the IMF and the World Bank are more difficult for most people to understand, nonetheless critique; and second, because organized labor -- which brought tens of thousands of rank and file to Seattle -- hasn't endorsed the direct action protests."The difference is that the WTO clearly was holding a gun to the head of a number of different interests -- environmentalists, people who care about health and education," Prokosch explains. "Even though the IMF and the World Bank probably hurt labor more than the WTO because they foster a global race to the bottom for workers everywhere, there was more of an acute crisis surrounding the Seattle meetings."Despite those obstacles, organizers say anything is possible. They point out that few people knew what the WTO was before November, and that activists, not the AFL-CIO, organized the direct actions that disrupted the meetings and brought globalization to the forefront of national debate. Washington is also more centrally located than Seattle and is home to dozens of activist groups, making mass mobilization easier.With police loading their tear gas launchers and activists honing their direct action skills, Washington seems destined for a round of demonstrations that may rival the Seattle protests in their intensity.