IMF & World Bank Protests, Washington D.C.

Author and Page information

  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Friday, July 13, 2001

To complement the public protests in Seattle, the week leading up to April 16th/17th 2000 saw the other two global institutions of the so-called "unholy trinity", the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, as the focus of renewed protests and criticisms, in Washington, D.C.

As with the WTO protests in Seattle, the purpose of the mass demonstrations was to protest against the current form of globalization, which is seen as unaccountable, corporate-led, and non-democratic. It has also been to further the calls for more justice and democracy in the globalization process.

It further shows the links between tremendous odious debt and poverty in the developing countries with the effects of the current forms of globalization that marginalizes a vast majority of people around the world.

While not the only part of the global financial system that has been destructive for most people of the world, the IMF and World Bank policies have been a major instrument to structure the global economy (via structuring the national economies of developing countries) to allow a form of neoliberal globalization to be pursued that has led to the criticisms mentioned above.

Critics also point out that the beneficiaries will be largely the wealthy people in western nations and the transnational corporations, while the majority of people in the world will not benefit.

For more about the flawed Structural Adjustment policies of the IMF and World Bank on developing countries, and the race to the bottom effect it has predictably had, go to this web site’s Structural Adjustment part of the Poverty Section.

While not as large a turn out as Seattle, estimates vary from ten thousand to twenty thousand or more that turned up during the week long protests.

Mainstream Media Representation

As with the poor Seattle coverage, the media have concentrated more on the sensationalism.

  • Again the mainstream ignored the in-depth issues around the IMF and World Bank and why they are being criticized by so many around the world.
  • As with Seattle, the mainstream media also ignores the protesting of lack of democracy and global justice in the current process to achieve globalization and in the major institutions to realize it.
  • According to the IMF’s own official statement, they themselves did “not provide press accreditation to public access TV, community radio, nor student or academic publications to attend our meetings.” See this alert from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting for more information. In fact, the Washington, D.C. corporate media, for example, sensationalized the traffic disruptions and policing efforts as the headlines and then occasionally mention the meeting, the protests and the reasons.
    • A small number of people unfortunately did clash with police, but compared to the thousands of peaceful protestors the media’s coverage has so far been disproportionate.
    • In fact there was little discussion on the police tactics, who
      • "used illegitimate preemptive arrests
      • set out a huge restricted area around the World Bank and IMF keeping activists from even the vicinity of their focus of dissent
      • invaded and closed the Convergence Center as intimidation
      • used a mixture of arrests, aggression, and sometimes even forbearance in an effective brew to try to channel outcomes
      • and worked hard to goad protesters into acting out, though unsuccessfully"
      as summarized by Michael Albert in a reflection on the week long protests.
    • (It is interesting to note how some US Republicans were shocked at the aggressive police raid in Miami to take Elian Gonzalez to return him to his father. They commented that such tactics are typical of somewhere like Cuba, not the United States. However, there wasn’t even a slight comment to that effect when there was an equally, if not more brutal, crackdown on more people at Seattle and Washington D.C. protests.)
  • With little debate between IMF/World Bank officials/spokespersons and major protestor representatives in the news and very short sound-bites from each side, the issues were not covered and presented very well.
  • However, to be fair to the mainstream media, compared to Seattle, they did at least look into some of the concerns that the protestors were raising a bit more, which is a good indication of the positive effects of the protests.
  • Often, the majority of the “experts” interviewed were economists who support the current policies. There had been a few interviews with economists critical of current policies, but hardly any with human rights activists, subject experts from developing countries, or others who could also provide valid insights and perspectives into the issues at hand and the effects on societies of so many countries that are affected by the decisions and policies made at the IMF and World Bank (and supportive industrialized countries and multinational corporations).

Media reduces a complex matter to just two “sides”

[Interviewer] Thomas Friedman, writing in the New York Times, called the demonstrators at Seattle “a Noah’s ark of flat-earth advocates.”

From his point of view that’s probably correct. From the point of view of slave owners, people opposed to slavery probably looked that way. For the 1 percent of the population that he’s thinking about and representing, the people who are opposing this are flat-earthers. Why should anyone oppose the developments that we’ve been describing?

An interview with Noam Chomsky, by Nation Magazine, April 24, 2000

A complex subject matter is reduced to “either you are protectionist, or you are pro free trade.” Instead, most protesters are pro international trade but with more emphasis on a fairer, accountable and democratic process to get there. It doesn’t mean that the current way is the only way. The globalization debate has many perspectives, not just two. For example, the following are some broad categories of perspectives, but by no means exhaustive:

  • People who are pro free trade in its current form because it allows them and the corporations to continue and benefit from exploitative practices.
  • People who are pro free trade because they genuinely believe that it will be a positive force in the long run.
  • People who are pro free trade, but not in its current, largely corporate-led form.
  • People who are pro international trade and globalization, but not “free” where free is defined by economic neoliberal definitions, which is different to political liberalism. An approach with more regulatory measures in the international arena to help protect local industries and people from the possible effects of runnaway, free captial (as seen in the global financial crisis toward the end of the 1990s) would be preferred.
  • People who are against free trade because of nationalistic, isolationist or overly protectionist ideals
  • and so on.

There are many other perspectives. Some have a mix of the above and so on. The point is that the media often looks to accidentally, or purposely, simplify the picture in order to get their sound bites in and hence the level and range of discourse on the topic is sorely affected. For example, in Seattle, as well as Washington D.C, many protestors were often portrayed as the same people as right wing protectionists, like Pat Buchannan, who also oppose the WTO, IMF, World Bank etc, but for very nationalistic, purposes. As noted in the mainstream media section, most corporate media are pro free trade, hence, this also affects the presented perspectives.

The term “anarchist” has always had a very weird meaning in elite circles. For example, there was a headline in the Boston Globe today on a small article saying something like “Anarchists Plan Protests at IMF Meeting in April.” Who are the anarchists who are planning the protest? Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen, labor organizations and others. There will be some people around who will call themselves anarchists, whatever that means. But from the elite point of view, you want to focus on something that you can denounce in some fashion as irrational. That’s the analogue to Thomas Friedman calling them flat-earthers.

An interview with Noam Chomsky, by Nation Magazine, April 24, 2000

There was some media coverage that tried to look at the issues and criticisms of the IMF and World Bank, and while for a moment it was hopeful that more people in the United States, as well as around the world, would be more aware of the issues the coverage proved not to be too indepth and without sustained analysis. Once the meeting was over, so was the concern it seemed.

The US is influential at the IMF and World Bank. As mentioned in the structural adjustment part of this web site, the IMF and World Bank are largely controlled and “owned” by the developed nations such as USA, Germany, UK, Japan etc. The US, for example, controls 17 to 18% of the voting power at the IMF and when an 85% majority is required for a decision, the US effectively have veto power. The World Bank is also 51% funded by the U.S. Treasury. (See this site’s section on Structural Adjustment for more details and sources on this.)

A continued rising awareness within the US would hopefully help stimulate increased debate with a wider range of discourse. American citizens are honest and caring people. However, if the mainstream media, from where a large functioning aspect of democracy proves to not provide all relevant information, the opinions and decisions of the American people are also affected. Hence their ability to hold their leaders properly accountable is also affected.

For more on media portrayal and coverage, you could start with the following:

Back to top

More Information

The following sources provide good information about the meeting. It is also a useful set of resources to see the criticisms of current globalization models and current forms of free trade practices.

  • Mobilization for Global Justice". This is the main web site about the process. It it brought together by three main organizations who also have a lot of information:
    • The 50 Years Is Enough campaign is a coalition of 205 organizations dedicated to the profound transformation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
    • Global Exchange, a human rights organization dedicated to promoting environmental, political and social justice around the world.
    • Direct Action Network, a decentralized, directly democratic organization working to create a movement to overcome corporate globalization and all forms of oppression.
  • CorpWatch have a section on globalization and the role of the two Bretton Woods institutions.
  • Global Economic Crisis from Z magazine provides a lot of in-depth and background articles on the problems of the current forms of globalization.
  • This Web Site’s section on Poverty
  • The Third World Network takes a look at liberalization
  • Some articles from Foreign Policy in Focus:
  • UNCTAD: Time to Lead, Time to Challenge the WTO This article suggests that the United Nations Conference on Trade And Development could be a more appropriate and inclusive body for issues of international trade and development. As the article says, “UNCTAD may not have the material resources of these institutions, but it has something that the billions of dollars of the World Bank and IMF could not buy: legitimacy among developing countries.”
  • Fighting Corporate Sponsored Globalization, by Robin Hanhel
  • The DC Cop Crackdown looks at some of the police tactics leading up to the protests, especially given the events in Seattle, earlier.
  • The IMF & World Bank Campaign section from OneWorld provides more articles from other organizations as well.
  • The Bretton Woods Project, in their own words, “works to monitor and reform the World Bank and IMF. It tracks key policy statements and reports, and provides critiques and early warnings used by non-governmental organisations across the world.” They also show that it isn’t just Washington D.C. seeing protests of this nature. In other countries around the world, people are protesting. Sometime the number of people who turn out are even larger. For an example, you can see towards the end of section 2 of this update.
  • What I learned at the world economic crisis. The Insider by Joseph Stiglitz, former Chief Economist at the World Bank, until the beginning of 2000, when he resigned, harshly criticizing the IMF.
  • Time to Rein in Global Finance by William Greider, suggests that while the IMF and World Bank are problematic, a reform, rather than complete closure could be the way foreward (afterall, they were created with a more positive goal in mind initially, before their roles changed to promote Friedman’s neoliberalism in the 1970s) and that they are only a part of the global financial system that needs to be addressed.
  • Growth May Be Good for the Poor — But are IMF and World Bank Policies Good for Growth? is a detailed critique of the World Bank’s report showing that globalization is good for the poor. It claims to show that “growth generally does benefit the poor and that anyone who cares about the poor should favor the growth-enhancing polices of good rule of law, fiscal discipline, and openness to international trade.” However, there have been many criticisms about the report for making far too many assumptions and not considering many interrelated issues.

Back to top

Where next?

Other options

Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Saturday, April 08, 2000
  • Last Updated: Friday, July 13, 2001

Back to top