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USA: World Bank, IMF Meetings Shrink Amid Security Concerns

Inter Press Service
August 11th, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Security concerns have forced the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) to drastically scale back plans for their annual meetings here next month. The agencies say the meetings, usually held over the course of about a week, will take place on Sep. 29 and 30. Their executive boards are expected to formally approve the change Tuesday. The meetings had been scheduled for Sep. 28 through Oct. 4.

The decision follows earlier agreement to restrict this year's gathering of finance and development officials from 183 shareholder countries to the downtown headquarters of the two lending institutions. It also comes as local officials prepare to ask the federal government to help finance the city's security operations, including plans to contain expected protests. Terrance Gainer, executive assistant chief of Washington's Metropolitan Police Department, says the decision would reduce the city's request for federal money to about 38 million dollars, from 50 million dollars. ''The Meetings are being consolidated after consultation with the U.S. Government,'' the lenders say in a joint statement. ''The World Bank and IMF fully share the interest of the U.S. authorities, in their role as host of the event, in ensuring the conduct of all essential business with the least possible disruption to the people who live and work in Washington, D.C. We will conduct all of the necessary and essential business of the Annual Meetings during these two days.''

While the decision would save money needed for security operations, it remains unclear what effect it would have on the local economy. Traditionally, the annual meetings - two days of formal talks on the agencies' policies and programmes, accompanied by four of five days' worth of ceremony, seminars, and opportunities to conduct business on the sidelines - have been a lavish affair, involving fleets of limousines, heavily booked banquet halls, and packed hotel conference facilities. The agencies decided last month to cancel plans for sessions at a historic hotel in one of Washington's more leafy and affluent neighbourhoods and to restrict official business to their headquarters, a stone's throw from the White House, Treasury Department and U.S. Trade Representative's office. Since the early 1980s, their plenary sessions, attended by finance and development ministers and central bank governors from around the world, had been held at the Wardman Park hotel.

The decision to forsake the suburbs for a confined but relatively easily defended space downtown was made before the melee late last month in Genoa, Italy, where, a demonstrator was killed about one mile from the site of talks between leaders of the Group of Seven industrial powers plus Russia (known collectively as the G-8). Police there have since admitted a number of abuses in dealing with the crowds, even as some protest organisers have sought to distance themselves from elements, including the 'black bloc', widely described as prone to violence. Events in Genoa are understood to have contributed to the latest World Bank-IMF decision. Nevertheless, local activists say police officials - who plan to reinforce the 3,600-strong local force with as many as 4,600 officers from other jurisdictions, troops from the National Guard, and federal agents - are overreacting. ''We're preparing for a peaceful protest,'' Adam Eidinger, an organiser with the Mobilisation for Global Justice, told reporters. ''The police are preparing for a violent protest.''

Officials say they expect as many as 50,000 protesters during the annual meetings. This would be far fewer than the crowds that have thronged Washington to protest the Vietnam War or to rally for and against abortion rights. Protest plans include rallies in support of debt relief and a religious service involving followers of various faiths. The decision to shorten the meetings will leave both business and civil society organisations with less time and fewer opportunities to get their views across. ''There will be a loss of time for dialogue,'' Merrell Tuck, the World Bank's deputy chief spokesperson, told reporters.

Protesters have heard similar arguments before and say they've been forced to take to the streets in the first place because they don't have access to the corridors of decision-making. Other civil society groups, however, have been able to engage the World Bank, IMF, or specific government delegations. The two camps - partners and protesters - often manage to work together but tend to regard each other with disdain, the former accusing the latter of selling out and the latter regarding the former as ill-informed.

Regardless of whether war breaks out on the streets of Washington, preparations so far are consistent with an emerging trend in high-level talks involving economic globalisation: Security is getting tighter, venues are becoming less accessible, and - at least in this case - meetings are getting shorter. After the bruising embarrassment handed the World Trade Organisation and its U.S. hosts at Seattle in 1999, the trade body opted to hold this year's ministerial talks in Doha, Qatar, which has tight border controls and thousands fewer hotel rooms than the expected number of delegates, let alone media and civil society groups. Following the pitched battles in Genoa and, earlier this year, during the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, Canada, the Canadian government has decided to move next year's G-8 talks to a remote location in the Rocky Mountains. Even before the Rocky Mountain decision, security cordons around talks had been getting larger as police everywhere from Seattle and Washington to Genoa and Quebec City have opted to render larger and larger swaths of their cities off-limits to anyone without official clearance.

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