Hiding out in Cyberspace

Article excerpt

Few media eyebrows went up when the World Bank canceled a global meeting set for Barcelona in June 2001 and instead shifted it to the Internet (not yet held of press time). Thousands of street demonstrators would have been in Spain's big northeastern port city to confront the conference. Cyberspace promises to be a much more serene location.

The World Bank is eager to portray its decision as magnanimous, supposedly sparing Barcelona the sort of upheaval that struck Seattle, Prague, Quebec City, and other urban hosts of international economic summits. "A conference on poverty reduction should take place in a peaceful atmosphere free from heckling, violence, and intimidation," says a World Bank official, adding that "it is time to take a stand against this kind of threat to free expression." A senior adviser to the huge lending institution offered this explanation: "We decided that you can't have a meeting of ideas behind a cordon of police officers." Presumably, the meeting of ideas will flourish behind a cordon of passwords, bytes, and pixels.

If hackers can be kept at bay, the few hundred participants in the Annual Bank Conference on Development Economics will be able to conduct a lovely forum over the Internet. The video conferencing system is likely to be state-of-the-art, making possible a modern and bloodless way to avoid uninvited perspectives.

The World Bank's retreat behind virtual walls may fulfill its goal of keeping the riffraff away, with online discourse going smoothly, but vital issues remain--such as policies that undercut essential government services in poorer countries, while promoting privatization and user fees for access to health care and education.

"The objectives of the World Bank with this failed conference were simply an image-washing operation," said a statement from a Barcelona-based campaign that had worked on planning for the demonstrations. Now, the World Bank is depicting itself as the injured party.

Protest organizers are derisive about the bank's media spin. "The representatives of the globalized capitalism feel threatened by the popular movements against globalization," one said. "They, who meet in towers surrounded by walls and soldiers in order to stay apart from the people whom they oppress, wish to appear as victims. They, who have at their disposal the resources of the planet, complain that those who have nothing wanted to have their voice heard. …