The Common Good
July-August 2000

It's a Start

by Ryan Beiler | July-August 2000

The IMF/World Bank protests raised long-neglected issues.

Recalling my days of fire-breathing student activism with a slight cringe, I assumed an air of aloof bemusement at the strident rhetoric of the IMF and World Bank protesters this April in Washington, D.C. Oh, for the lost days of Idealism vs. evil Establishments (for me, that was two whole years ago) - before the complexities of life in the "real world" hopelessly jaded me. Sigh.

But, for the most part, the protesters are right. The IMF and World Bank (and the WTO) do promote policies that hurt the poor. Whether these institutions should be razed or reformed is subject to debate - a debate that wasn't taking place in the mainstream until students, steelworkers, and people in turtle suits marched on Seattle and Washington, D.C.

Of course, at both events violence by police and protesters grabbed disproportionate attention. Though our local news coverage did a reasonably good job of covering the actual event, the crowd of journalists followed - and nearly outnumbered - the relatively small band of anarchists they hoped were going to "do something." Power plays in which police and activists tried to show each other who was in charge made exciting footage but focused attention on the event rather than its goal. Chants of "Whose streets? - OUR STREETS!" confused rather than clarified the real issues at stake.

More aggravating than these tangents, however, were those of the pundits. While news coverage was generally accurate, the general line on the op-ed pages of the major papers was this: These protesters are a bunch of well-intentioned but ill-informed privileged white kids desperate for something to rebel against. One letter to the editor thought it important to mention that marchers were seen wearing $150 hiking boots - obvious proof to the writer that these were just the ungrateful children of global prosperity.

Well, perhaps those boots cost so much because the people who made them earned a living wage. And perhaps that protester invested in solid footwear to trek among the villages of rural Costa Rica, as was the case for one student I talked to. He was certainly well-intentioned, but far from ill-informed. He knew - from living with a rural family - that IMF structural adjustment policies had hurt poor people by forcing them to switch from growing their own food to growing coffee for export cash. Because of IMF-mandated currency devaluation, that cash wasn't enough to buy the food that they used to grow for themselves - but the coffee companies were certainly making out just fine.

Even Joseph Stiglitz, chief economist for the World Bank from 1996 until last November, indicts IMF policymakers of the very thing its critics are accused of. In an article in The New Republic, Stiglitz wrote: "These economists frequently lack extensive experience in the country; they are more likely to have firsthand knowledge of its five-star hotels than of the villages that dot its countryside."

Stiglitz further criticized the IMF's tendency toward secrecy, saying, "The IMF likes to go about its business without outsiders asking too many questions. In theory, the fund supports democratic institutions in the nations it assists. In practice, it undermines the democratic process by imposing policies." The result, he concluded, is that "smart people [he means the IMF] are more likely to do stupid things when they close themselves off from outside criticism and advice." How's that for well-intentioned but ill-informed?

But whether you think the IMF is eeevil or simply imperfect, the protests' main achievement was to get people talking. A week after the protests, I was sitting in a darkened theater awaiting a movie - trying my best to ignore the projections of Coca-Cola-sponsored trivia questions - when I heard an elderly gentleman's voice from the back rows talking to his companion, saying something to the effect of "Even with all the hype and hoopla, those kids had a point. Those poor people in developing countries are making terribly low wages, and their governments have no choice but to try to bring in investment by keeping them low - and you know the people at the IMF and World Bank don't care one bit."

Would that conversation have happened without idealists in the streets? Probably not. Is it the kind of complex analysis that needs to take place to really help the poor of developing nations? Hardly - but it's a start.

RYAN BEILER is news/Internet intern at Sojourners.

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