If you ask a Mexican farmer, Indian civil servant, Filipina garment worker, Bolivian miner or South African student what structural adjustment is, chances are they would be able to explain IMF and World Bank mandated belt tightening because their lives have been touched by it. But if you took your survey to shopping malls, subways, county fairs and college campuses across the United States, few people would have a clue what you were referring to. That is, until this week.
Organizers of the week long Mobilization for Global Justice, which culminated in a rally and civil disobedience here over the last two days, say that putting IMF and World Bank policies on the public agenda in this country was a major victory. Their colleagues who have been fighting these international institutions in the Southern Hemisphere for twenty years or more say it is a major breakthrough that U.S. activists have joined their cause.
"Finally people in the United States have woken up to the fact that these institutions are creating tremendous injustice and are willing to take to the streets in support of their brothers and sisters in the Third World," observed Filipino activist and scholar Walden Bello. Similar demonstrations in the past drew only about 200 protestors, said Bello, a leading critic of the World Bank and IMF for nearly two decades. But throughout last week tens of thousands took part in events ranging from forums and teach-ins, to marches, rallies and civil disobedience.
Bello noted that there was growing consensus around the world that the IMF and World Bank instead of promoting economic stability and reducing poverty, do exactly the opposite. He observed that even the Congressionally mandated Meltzer commission recently found that these institutions foster stagnation instead of growth, increase poverty, are disproportionately influenced by the United States and put their own bureaucratic interests before those of the world's poor.
Earlier in the week a delegation from 11 countries delivered a "wake up call" to World Bank President James Wolfensohn at his home here. They serenaded the Bank President in the dawn hours, delivering a letter of protest. "We've shown the World Bank and our critics that people from the North and South understand each other's language," explained Dr. Vaneeta Gupta, who works against Bank funded healthcare privatization in India.
Significantly, support for the protestors comes from the leadership of Southern governments as well. Meeting in Cuba this week as part of the G77 group of the world's poorest countries, a number of heads of state endorsed the demonstrations. Among them was South African President Thabo Mbeki who told journalists that "We believe consciousness is rising, including in the north, about the inequality and insecurity globalization has brought about the plight of the poor countries." Mbeki suggested that the protests in both Seattle and Washington DC are a sign of "a changing atmosphere which a more coherent Third World voice can take advantage of." Arthur Mbanefo, head of the G77 added that "we are very supportive of demonstrations that could forcefully handle those concerns."
In Washington, Trevor Ngwane, a city council member from Johannesburg went a step further and compared supporters of the World Bank and IMF to the international defenders of South Africa's Apartheid regime. He noted that some world leaders supported "constructive engagement" with the racist government. Liberals debated how to reform it. In the end, he said it was South Africans in the street who said Apartheid should be abolished. "It is the same thing with the World Bank and IMF," Ngwane observed, referring to the reform versus abolition debate that has gained prominence with the week of protests. Today and tomorrow South African activists are launching a campaign against Citibank in Johannesburg which underwrites and sells World Bank Bonds in conjunction with activists in this country who announced a boycott of the bonds earlier this week.
Applause for the growing consciousness and mobilization in the US is not limited to seasoned Third World activists and government leaders. Four Latin American ESL students who happened by the intersection of Washington's 20th and I Streets, just a few blocks from World Bank and IMF headquarters were taken by surprise today at the sight of hundreds of protestors facing off with police in riot gear. The confrontation started when police stopped a spontaneous march of about two thousand on its way to the international institutions' headquarters. The students, from Colombia, Bolivia and Peru, were buoyed by the show of support from U.S. citizens for poor countries. All said they had felt the impacts of structural adjustment in their homelands. "They bleed us to death," said Ignacio, from Colombia referring to the multilateral lending institutions.
The standoff between police and demonstrators lasted for hours in the pouring rain. It started with police pepper spraying several protestors at close range. It ended with a negotiated de-escalation in which activists who wanted to commit civil disobedience were allowed to cross police lines ten at a time. Organizers said about 300 people were arrested.
Activists say the goal of the weeklong protests was not simply to shut down one meeting of the IMF and World Bank, but to shut them down permanently while paving the way for more democratic international institutions. As they head home, they are satisfied that they have achieved a small step in that direction.
Julie Light is Managing Editor of CorpWatch.