Activists declare a victory over the World Bank

by Gumisai Mutume

Washington, 21 May 2001 (IPS) - Anti-globalization groups opposed to the World Bank are claiming a major victory over the institution following the Bank’s cancellation of a conference scheduled for Spain in June due to fear of protests.

In an unprecedented move, the Bank announced that it will no longer hold its Annual Bank Conference on Development Economics (ABCDE) in Barcelona, Spain at the end of June but will instead conduct it over the Internet to avoid protestors.

“It is a major success,” Njoki Njoroge Njehu of ‘50 Years is Enough’, a civil society network that has been campaigning to change the Bank ‘s policies for years, said Monday. “It shows that it’s not just a small group of trouble-makers in Washington, but global civil society who are questioning the Bank’s legitimacy.”

Although ABCDE-Europe only draws a few hundred academics, it also usually pulls in government officials and civil society groups to its meetings. The last two conferences in Europe were held in France without incident.

“Despite our efforts to reach out to some of the groups planning demonstrations and to include them in the conference, the intention of many of the groups is not to join the debate or to contribute constructively to the discussion, but to disrupt it,” says Caroline Anstey, the Bank spokesperson.

“We do not want to expose academics from around the world and our hosts in Spain to such a situation.”

Recently, Bank president James Wolfensohn had a pie smeared on his face by protestors in Finland. At the annual board meetings of the Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) last year, the institutions ended proceedings a day early in the wake of violent protests on the streets of Prague, Czech Republic.

The agenda of the ABCDE conference included analysing globalization and its impact on development over the last decade, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean.

‘Campaign Against the World Bank’, the group coordinating the Barcelona protests, described the cancellation as “an unprecedented success of the movement against capitalist globalization.”

The anti-globalization movement attained its height at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial meetings in Seattle in 1999.

Described as the ‘Woodstock of globalization’, Seattle attracted between 30,000 and 40,000 protestors. The mass action, coupled with the failure to reach agreement in the conference halls, stopped the WTO in its tracks and no new round of trade negotiations has yet been launched.

However, subsequent protests have not had the same impact. They have failed to stop meetings of the multilateral institutions and are yet to roll back globalization, which - a number of IMF reports show - has spurred a decade of strong global economic growth and trade.

“Disrupting the meeting was a less important goal than consciousness-raising,’ notes economic analyst and anti-debt activist Patrick Bond, commenting on the failure of protestors to halt the April 2000 Bank and IMF Spring meetings.

The event saw thousands of protestors clog downtown Washington DC and Bond says an important outcome was the launch of the World Bank bond boycott during the period. The campaign aims to stop investors from buying bonds that provide most of the institution’s annual budget.

“Its not just that meetings need to be stopped,” says Njehu. “That is the easiest part. The bigger job is that harmful policies need [to] be stopped.”

The growing trend toward anti-globalization activism is directed against big business in the form of multinational corporations and against big capital, global agreements on trade and the flow of investments.

Accusations of exploitative labour practices during the mid-1990s targeting large corporations such as Nike, Gap Jeans and Starbucks Coffee, ignited a blaze on the Internet as activists spread the word on union-busting, sweatshop working conditions and child labour.

Activists have mostly singled out the Bank for pushing economic reform in developing countries, which they say, have not improved the plight of the poor, and colluding with undemocratic and unpopular regimes.

“One of the outcomes of the movement is that ordinary people are learning more about globalization, what its benefits and costs are and questioning it,” says Tamar Gutner, an assistant professor of International Relations at the American University.

In a paper prepared ahead of the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City last month, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service warned that anti-globalization protests and demonstrations will continue.

“Significant meetings, especially those featuring senior government or corporate leaders, such as G-8 Summits and IMF meetings, will attract large numbers of peaceful protesters, as well as those predisposed to violent activities,” the agency said.

Made up of a wide spectrum of groups, lobbyists and networks - including some violent extremists - the movement has often been labelled by its detractors as directionless.

“I know what they are against,” says Trevor Manuel, South Africa’s finance minister, who was in Washington recently, attending this year’s Spring meetings of the Bank and IMF. “But I don’t know what they are for.” – SUNS4901

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