Following the Money

Article excerpt

A youthful movement forces public questions on those who do the world's business in private

OUTLAW BANKERS CANCEL ALL DEBTS QUESTION PROPERTY RIGHTS DESTROY BOUNDARIES DRAIN BANKERS' BLOOD INTO THE POTOMAC

The dialogue had begun!

Friday evening, April 14, I had been in Washington for less than an hour, and, to unwind from my drive from Jersey City, N.J., I scooted my bike down the hill from Georgetown University, across the Key Bridge, south along the Potomac, then back, to be confronted with OUTLAW-CANCEL-QUESTION spray painted in four-foot letters along the ramp from the bridge to the Whitehurst Freeway -- to be considered by bankers and bureaucrats on their way to work each morning.

Before the November demonstrations in Seattle, and before April 12-17 in Washington, few -- even well-informed -- citizens had given much thought to the World Trade Organization, the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund or imagined them as a stealth triple-threats to both the freedom for the world's poor and American democracy. Much less did ordinary citizens -- the overwhelming majority in or under their 20s -- imagine that they had the power to make these institutions change their policies and behavior.

Why do they care? The answer is not simple. Partly because the World Bank (181 members) and IMF (182), founded after World War II to provide development assistance and help overcome short-term balance-of-payment difficulties, see themselves as friends of the poor. Years ago World Bank president Robert McNamara redefined its mission as patron of the poor and protector of the environment. My Washington friends tell me of World Bank and IMF staff members who see their work in terms of a missionary vocation, and the World Bank 1999 Annual Report (www.worldbank.org) stresses poverty, good government, environmental protection, debt relief, and becoming a more open, transparent organization.

Their critics say that, in order to meet the terms of their loans, poor countries have been forced to cut back on health and education, thus undermining the one resource that can rebuild the country -- human potential. In some countries development money has been stolen by corrupt rulers; and in others, like Russia, IMF advice, such as the call for immediate privatization, enabled the oligarchy to grab state-owned industries and funnel their assets into Swiss bank accounts. In general, they say, IMF regulations favor bankers, weaken labor and ruin the environment. The trickledown economic philosophy doesn't work on a global scale either. The rising tide does not raise all boats: It raises big ones while waves swamp the little ones. Finally, the World Bank and IMF, though theoretically answerable to the people because funded by taxpayers, operate like secret societies free from public scrutiny or evaluation.

But in a number of ways unique or special to this generation -- music, concerts, cell phones, cheap travel, socially and environmentally aware high school and college teachers and the Internet -- 10,000 protesters have converged on the nation's capital to shut down, shout down, out-talk and embarrass the spring meetings of the World Bank and the IMF.

And have a little fun too. Friday afternoon two protesters from PETA, an animal rights group, one dressed as a farmer, the other as a cow, dumped four tons of horse manure. (collected at the police stables) on Pennsylvania Avenue near the World Bank Headquarters. The gesture, which the media declined to explain, was not a comment on the quality of the World Bank/IMF discussions, but an attack on their lending policies, which force debtor countries racked by famine, like Ethiopia, to raise cash crops for export to pay back their loans, rather than raise food crops to feed their own people. Thus, they raise grain to fatten the beef of the First World rather than wheat to make bread for their children.

Elsewhere in the world and the city that day: On Wall Street, in fear of higher interest rates, the stock market hit bottom. …