Cancun to Dubai

Well, that was a really great moment on the southeast corner of Mexico on Sunday, was it not?! A few Third World elites — led by Kenyan and Ugandan delegates — finally walked out of the World Trade Organisation summit, insulted to the bitter end by US and EU dictator-negotiators Robert Zoellick and Pascal Lamy. Meanwhile, thousands of activists on the outside tore away at the barricades, a few getting within yards of the Cancun conference center.

(As many predicted, South African officials played the subimperialist card as long as possible, finally saving a bit of face by joining the group of 20+ agricultural exporting countries. Trade minister Alec Erwin expressed ‘concern and disappointment’, while South African progressives in the streets of Cancun were thrilled at the meeting’s demise.)

Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South director Walden Bello summed up: ‘The WTO has been severely damaged. Two collapsed ministerials (Seattle and Cancun) and one that barely made it (Doha) recommend the institution to no one. For the trade superpowers, it is no longer a viable instrument for imposing their will on others. For the developing countries, membership has not brought protection from abuses by the powerful economies, much less serving as a mechanism of development.’ Last week also bore two other gifts of ‘deglobalization,’ that shorthand phrase Bello has been using to promote the roll-back of corporate power. The Swedes voted decisively against adopting the Euro, and the Argentine masses maintaining sufficient pressure on president Nestor Kirshner to prevent a sell-out to the IMF. Along with economists interviewed by the Financial Times, French water privatizer Suez is furious that the IMF failed to get the desired massive increase in utility price hikes as part of the new loan deal, indicating an unprecedented degree of Argentine official resistance to neoliberalism.

Can anything comparable reoccur this weekend, in the midst of the annual meetings held by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank? It’s worth considering both the last summit on financing (back in 2002), and prior annual meetings. Once out of every of three years, these are held away from Washington.

In Berlin in 1988, 80,000 protesters came out to demand an end to structural adjustment and Third World debt. In Bangkok in 1991, the urban movements of the Klong Toey ghetto fought displacement by a government intent on prettifying the meeting site and, in turn, they harangued and harassed the Thai regime and IMF/WB delegates. In Madrid in 1994, more tens of thousands came out to say, ‘Fifty years is enough!’ (the institutions were founded in 1944). In 1997, the Hong Kong meeting hosted Asian elites in their most angry, anti-Washington mode, in the midst of the regional economic crisis. In 2000, Prague became the birthplace of 21st century European anti-capitalism, as 15,000 people managed to force the chairperson of the IMF/WB board of governors to close down the meeting a day early.

That man, South African finance minister Trevor Manuel, was once an anti-apartheid revolutionary, but at the famous Prague Castle debate with Bello and other leftists, he insisted, ‘Without the international financial institutions, things would be even worse for poor countries.’ A few months earlier, in April 2000, Manuel was called into flack-catching duty when 30,000 demonstrators made life miserable for several hundred suits at the annual spring meeting in Washington.

One accomplishment arising from the A16 Washington and S29 Prague protests was forcing the two institutions to look in the mirror and put on some makeup. Because of the grotesque hypocrisy associated with the bankers’ hedonistic partying, subsequent annual meetings were cut back dramatically from eight days to three. Instead of the fanciest Washington hotels on Rock Creek Parkway, the Bank and IMF retreated to their headquarters, in the staid (and more readily defended) center of town, two blocks west of the White House.

Now, in the wake of their Cancun catastrophe, those responsible for global minority rule are reconvening in a favoured terrain: an undemocratic Arab state where protest is simply not tolerated. With Qatar’s capital of Doha serving nicely as the WTO conference retreat in 2001 (and no demos to speak of), the question now is whether Dubai will allow global financiers the breathing space to reassert forward momentum for corporate globalisation.

Here are two worrying signs: first, the elites are sufficiently confident to extend the meeting time back to eight days; and second, Trevor Manuel again appears in their midst, suavely chairing the policy-making IMF/WB Development Committee, as Mr Fix It (see his line at http://www.imf.org/external/ pubs/ft/fandd/2003/09/).

Back in March 2002, under Manuel’s co-leadership (with former IMF boss Michel Camdessus), the Monterrey UN Financing for Development conference was the first major opportunity to correct global capital markets since the spectacular late 1990s emerging markets crises. South Africa’s own 2000-01 currency crash of 57% was the freshest evidence. But similar financial problems and power relations were patently obvious, having spread from Mexico through Latin America (1995), then to Eastern Europe and South Africa (1996), to Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia (1997), then to South Korea, Russia and South Africa again (1998), to Brazil (1999), then to Turkey (2000), and then Argentina and South Africa (2001).

Yet in Monterrey, Manuel revitalised the Washington Consensus. He openly endorsed privatisation in a major address to big business: ‘Public-private partnerships are important win-win tools for governments and the private sector, as they provide an innovative way of delivering public services in a cost-effective manner.’

Meanwhile, back in South Africa, the ‘partnerships’ were nearly universally failing, from the standpoint of both workers and consumers (and sometimes also businesses), in the water/sanitation, electricity, telecommunications, postal system, forestry, air transport, ports, road transport and road construction sectors. In August 2001 and October 2002, South African workers Cosatu held two-day mass stayaways against private partnerships involving essential public services. Manuel didn’t mention these problems, even as caveats.

Debt relief was even more elusive. The Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC) was endorsed by Manuel as ‘an opportunity to strengthen the economic prospects and poverty reduction efforts of its beneficiary countries.’

Within a year, however, even the World Bank openly conceded HIPC’s failure, including longstanding criticisms both that its staff ‘had been too optimistic’ about the ability of countries to repay under HIPC, and that projections of export earnings were extremely inaccurate. HIPC debt cancellation had by then reached only around $30 billion (and hasn’t proceeded much further since), while the total Third World debt which the Jubilee South movement demands be cancelled exceeds $2 trillion.

In late 1999, HIPC was accompanied by the renaming of the Washington Consensus philosophy of structural adjustment: Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs). At Monterrey, Manuel told fellow finance ministers that the PRSPs were ‘an important tool for developing countries to reduce their debt burdens.’

In contrast, civil society resistance to structural adjustment intensified across the Third World, including Manuel’s home continent. The World Development Movement’s annual ‘States of Unrest’ series covers dozens of countries and hundreds of IMF Riots. The report covering 2002 showed that ‘this broad based movement clearly indicates how policies promoted by the IMF/WB are not only keeping the poor in poverty, but are also impoverishing sectors of society generally relied upon for wealth creation, economic development and civil society leadership.’ Civil society meetings in Africa now regularly denounce PRSPs as a scam.

Is better global governance the answer? The charge of ‘global apartheid’ certainly applies to the IMF/WB, where nearly fifty Sub-Saharan African countries are represented by just two directors, while eight rich countries enjoyed a director each and the US maintains veto power by holding more than 15% of the votes. (There is no transparency as to which board members take what positions on key votes.) The IMF/WB chief executives are chosen from, respectively, the EU and US, with the US treasury secretary holding the power of hiring/firing. It’s much like what was termed, in the days two centuries ago when Washington, DC hosted slavery, the ‘Big House.’ Nevertheless, the Financial Times reported that the 2003 governance reform strategy emanating from Manuel’s Development Committee offered only ‘narrow technocratic changes,’ such as adding merely one additional representative from the South to the 24-member board. (Even this was vetoed by the Bush regime’s executive director to the Bank, Carol Brooking.)

Far more than mere intra-organisational positioning is at stake. The IMF/WB remain central to lubricating US imperialism, including in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Bank, for example, is reinvigorating its push towards state services privatisation in the 2004 World Development Report, which will be released on Saturday. (The best preliminary english-language critique, by Uruguay-based Tim Kessler of Citizens’ Network on Essential Services, is at http://www.servicesforall.org/ html/tools/2004WDR_critique.shtml )

According to London School of Economics professor Robert Wade, ‘The World Bank has made no evaluation of its earlier efforts to support private participation in social sectors. Its new private sector development thrust, especially in the social sectors, owes almost everything to intense US pressure.’

As a result, the frustration over African impotence in Washington occasionally boils over. In June, at a UN meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopian president Miles Zenawi poignantly implored, ‘While we will not be at the high table of the IMF, we should be at least in the room where decisions are made.’

In sum, as we will see again in Dubai, the likes of Manuel and Zenawi are reduced to serving as the international equivalents of South Africa’s apartheid-era bantustan leaders. Their function is merely begging the new global version of the hated apartheid state for a few crumbs and a bit more dignity, while promising to obey the rules of the game and even endorsing the language as their own homegrown policy.

Maybe Manuel’s softly-softly approach divulges that, in the words of a Business Day newspaper report in May, he has been considering other ‘international posts–perhaps at the World Bank or IMF,’ allegedly, ‘for ages. The rationale is that he… is seeking new challenges. A few other reasons have been put forward, but a desire by the well-respected finance minister to move on to the global stage seems most plausible.’

But it is certainly not necessary to endorse a conspiracy theory to explain Manuel’s spinelessness. His patriotism is not an issue; his consistent application of damaging neoliberal policies is, however. That’s why, in contrast to the lowly Kenyan and Ugandan trade negotiators, we can’t expect African leadership from the current chair of the IMF/WB development committee. Nor can we expect an end to structural adjustment, debt peonage or the institutions’ massive democracy deficit at Dubai.

Manuel is an Anglican, and occasionally joins a congregation in Cape Town presided over by Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane (Desmond Tutu’s successor). I bet he hasn’t read Ndungane’s new book, A World with a Human Face (published by David Philip, CT), which contains these useful marching orders for the global justice movements:

‘[If] we must release ourselves from debt peonage–by demanding the repudiation and cancellation of debt–we will campaign to that end. And if the World Bank and IMF continue to stand in the way of social progress, movements like Jubilee South Africa will have no regrets about calling for their abolition. To that end, the World Bank Bonds Boycott movement is gaining even great momentum. Even a money centre city like San Francisco decided to redirect funds away from Bank bonds into other investments, on the moral grounds that taking profits from World Bank operations contributes to poverty, misery and ecological degradation. More and more investors are realising that profiting from poverty through World Bank bonds is not only immoral, but will not make good financial sense as the market shrinks.’

Have a look at http://www.worldbankboycott.org to join this great movement – and then help prepare for a 60th anniversary (‘retirement party’); protest in Washington next year.

(Patrick Bond’s updated book, Against Global Apartheid, is published this month by Zed Press, London and University of Cape Town Press.)


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