printer printer Click on the green icon on the right
Activists Target IMF, World Bank on Their 60th Birthday
by Soren Ambrose
4 April 2004

The author works with the 50 Years Is Enough campaign/network — the national coalition of organizations opposed to the IMF and World Bank. His articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Z Magazine, Toward Freedom and elsewhere, and he edits a quarterly newsletter, “Economic Justice News” (see

The internet is again buzzing with talk of protest. The targets are many in 2004: the Democratic convention in Boston in July; the Republican convention in New York City in September; the Group of 8 industrialized countries meeting off the coast of Georgia in June.

Before those, however, there’s an old favorite to take care of: the joint meetings of the architects and enforcers of corporate globalization, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. They will be convening in Washington on April 24, and thousands of demonstrators are planning to be there as well. The serendipitous timing of the March for Women’s Lives on April 25 - scheduled before the institutions set their meetings - means that many thousands more potential allies, well-acquainted with the disproportionate burdens forced on women by corporate globalization, will be in Washington at the same time.

At the World Social Forum in Mumbai, India in January, the IMF and World Bank were popular candidates for global justice groups’ discussions and agendas. People from across Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Pacific and Caribbean islands - the regions where the IMF and World Bank impose their economic austerity policies in exchange for loans to indebted governments - endorsed a call to action that included the April mobilization in Washington, international days of action in both April and September, and four core demands. Those demands, familiar to many global justice campaigners, include (1) cancellation of impoverished country debt claimed by the IMF and World Bank; (2) an end to the imposition of economic austerity and deregulation (“structural adjustment”) programs; (3) an end to financing for environmentally- and socially- destructive projects; and (4) an opening of the hyper-secretive institutions’ board meetings to public observation. (Additional endorsements are welcome at .)

The meetings, and the opposition activities that will accompany them, come roughly five months after the last big globalization summit in the U.S., the meeting of trade ministers from the western hemisphere (excluding Cuba) in Miami in November to negotiate the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The police repression that dominated headlines out of Miami should not obscure the fact that the meeting was the site of a substantial defeat for the Bush Administration’s corporate globalization agenda. Put on notice by the collapse of the World Trade Organization meeting in September in Cancún, the U.S. in Miami gave up on its dream of an FTAA in which every country would be obligated to uniformly open markets to U.S. goods and adopt pro-corporate legal codes on patents and investments. Instead it accepted a compromise “cafeteria” plan that would allow each country to declare what provisions it would “opt in” for - a plan that drew immediate fire from its usual friends in the corporate lobby.

The WTO Cancún collapse, however, fuelled an atmosphere of optimism that pervaded Mumbai. The refusal of developing countries there to accept the U.S./E.U. agenda - Africans demanding the U.S. end its cotton subsidies that have crippled African growers; about 70 states that refused to go along with the European agenda for expanding the scope of the WTO; a high-profile group of countries led by Brazil and India which demanded more access to U.S. and European markets - has buoyed the global justice movement, which at last sees governments refusing to submit to oppressive agreements just because the powerful countries declare them the only game in town. Calls to bring the spirit of Cancún to the IMF and World Bank resonated in Mumbai. The Washington-based institutions, where the rich countries control all the levers of power and no space is provided for democratic debate, remain tougher nuts to crack, however.

The urgency is unmistakable, however. Even in an era of unilateralism, the Bush Administration is content to let the multilateral institutions (at which the U.S. can exercise nearly unlimited influence when it wants to) continue to do the dirty work of restructuring and monitoring the economic programs of most developing countries.

IMF/World Bank programs have resulted in devastated healthcare systems in Africa, making it more susceptible to the scourge of HIV/AIDS. When the World Bank claims to be the largest funder of AIDS programs, its claims should be put in the context of the devastation it wrought in years past - and with a recognition that the loans they make to countries, like those in the Caribbean, that do not qualify for grants for HIV/AIDS programs, add to their client countries’ mountainous debt burdens.

The institutions have long insisted on trade liberalization and export-dependency - the cornerstones of corporate globalization. Since most of their clients grow the same cash crops - coffee, tea, cotton, flowers, cocoa - and because the law of supply and demand has not been repealed, many in the Global South have wondered if the historic bottoming out of world commodity prices is really an unfortunate accident or a calculated gift for the multinational corporations positioned to benefit from the permanent buyers’ market. World Bank officials’ protests in the last couple years about the North’s rigging of the global trading system seem particularly disingenuous after 20 years of re-structuring global markets - are we really to believe the Bank is only now noticing that the policies it has imposed don’t work in the face of Northern dumping, subsidies, and closed-off markets?

Undaunted, the World Bank’s latest idea for the world’s poorest countries is requiring that they turn over delivery of the most basic public services, particularly water provision, to private providers, a move that has already caused price spikes in several countries, and revolts in others.

The damage caused by the IMF and World Bank first attracted broad public attention in the U.S. ten years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the IMF and World Bank. The “50 Years Is Enough” campaign focused on the debt crises, the structural adjustment fiascos, the lack of transparency at the institutions, and the destructive dam, oil, and other infrastructure programs of the World Bank. It helped set in motion a focus on corporate globalization that led to the Seattle demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in 1999, and a few months later brought 25,000 opponents of the IMF and World Bank to Washington.

Now, ten years later, the IMF and World Bank face their 60th anniversary having changed disappointingly little.

Some improvements have been made in transparency and provision of information - their websites are full of data, and the IMF now says it will release reports on their meetings after 5 years (as opposed to 30 years). But most of the information is in English, and very little of it gets translated into the languages spoken by the people most likely to be affected by a dam, power plant, or road-building project.

Pushed by the Jubilee campaigns which reached an international peak in 2000, the IMF and World Bank introduced their own debt management scheme, which has failed to provide the promised levels of relief, leaving many countries in officially “unsustainable” debt situations even after graduation. Suspicions among campaigners that the program was a sophisticated system of bribery to keep countries considering default from opting out of the debt treadmill have been confirmed by World Bank reports that the program never had a prayer of doing what it promised.

The institutions have responded to the universal disrepute of “structural adjustment” by changing its name. Fifteen years after 1984, they did the adjective “Orwellian” (and the noun “chutzpah”) proud by announcing the programs would henceforth be known as “poverty reduction and growth.” By requiring that governments involve civil society organizations in the drafting of their own structural adjustment programs, the institutions attempted to respond to the charge that they did not solicit the participation of affected peoples. The participatory processes have largely been shams, however, and in none of them have people been allowed to argue against the trade and investment liberalization, interest rate hikes, privatization, and other policies that are the core of structural adjustment. The initiative is now widely considered a public relations stunt and a clumsy attempt to co-opt civil society into appearing to sign its own death warrant.

Most recently, the resignation of the head of the IMF, Horst Koehler, to accept nomination as President of Germany, has exposed the IMF to renewed criticism from many of its usual supporters in mainstream op-ed pages. That’s because all signs suggest the IMF, which demands transparency of its client countries, will again choose its Managing Director through a closed-door process which by custom restricts nominees to Western Europeans. This gross hypocrisy, which is mirrored by the U.S. fiefdom at the World Bank, frustrates the institutions’ defenders, precisely because it so clearly exposes their identity as agents of the big economic powers.

In a presidential election year, the IMF/World Bank meetings may seem like a sideshow. But with international trade already playing a prominent role in the Democratic primaries, and with the power and damage done by the institutions growing daily, global justice activists are hoping that increased attention to the U.S. role in the world will cause voters, and candidates, to conclude that the institutions’ 60th birthday is a good time to start planning for their retirement.

Soren Ambrose