- The Washington Times - Monday, April 17, 2000

World finance ministers celebrated the health of the world economy in daylong meetings yesterday at the International Monetary Fund building, largely oblivious to demonstrations outside.

The IMF delegates were upbeat about the outlook for growth around the world and were quick to congratulate the IMF on the role it played in rescuing nations in Asia and Latin America from the global financial crisis of 1997-99.

Seemingly in a nod to protesters, the IMF's governing committee agreed to push for more rapid debt relief for the world's poorest nations. But finance ministers said that already was on the agenda and was not a response to the protests. They said any debt relief would be conditioned on countries carrying out economic and social reforms.

"Our message to demonstrators is this: The way to stability and prosperity is not to … turn our back or retreat from international cooperation," Gordon Brown, England's chancellor of the exchequer, said after the daylong meeting.

"This is the best way to tackle poverty and injustice," he said, noting that most of the day's discussion was on how to expedite $27 billion in debt relief to 42 poor countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, without abandoning requirements that countries use the debt relief to finance poverty reduction, health care and education.

Despite hopes of rushing the relief to more countries this year only six so far have met the IMF's conditions Mr. Brown cited obstacles holding up the debt forgiveness. One of those is failure by Congress to authorize the IMF to sell 500 million ounces of its gold reserves to finance the relief.

But he said that, outside efforts by the IMF and World Bank, the major industrialized nations have agreed to cancel 100 percent of the debt they extended to the most heavily indebted countries.

The protesters want the lending agencies to "dump the debt" without conditions. Most want at least 10 times more debt relief than the IMF and World Bank are planning, and many want to simply end the agencies' lending programs.

While chaos prevailed on the streets, the atmosphere was "business as usual" inside the IMF building. Delegates said they didn't discuss the protesters, except to inquire whether they were still blocking entry and exit.

All but four delegates evaded a morning blockade by protesters, getting to the meetings as early as 5 a.m. in buses arranged by Metropolitan Police. One bus was blocked for about 20 minutes before police freed it. The finance ministers of France, Brazil, Portugal and Thailand were turned away by the protesters, but joined the meetings several hours later.

Ursula Weide, interpreter for the German minister of finance, was not so lucky.

She parked in the George Washington University parking lot an hour before her 9:30 meeting at the World Bank and walked to the barriers.

She was pushed back by protesters shouting insults at her. She tried alternative routes to get to work, but each time she was followed by demonstrators or pushed back at the barricades.

After appealing to police many times for help and being ignored, she turned around and went home.

Ms. Weide isn't scheduled to attend any meetings today, but her experience will make her think twice about attending future meetings, she said.

"When you're in the middle of something like this, it's pretty scary," she said. A "citizen who is going to work is entitled to some kind of protection."

Even delegates from the Third World, for whom the protesters claimed to speak, said the IMF is on the right track. They pushed for increased aid and more trade, saying that is the only way poor countries can elevate the incomes and living standards of their citizens.

Rather than cut off aid and trade ties with the rest of the world, as protesters prescribe, the quick integration of the poorest nations into the global trading system is urgently needed, a group of 24 Third World delegates said. They added that the World Bank plays an important role in making that happen.

Pedro Malan, finance minister of Brazil, one of the hardest-hit countries during the global crisis, praised the IMF for helping nurse his country back to health and for setting the world economy back on track for robust growth this year.

"The Brazilian economy weathered well the recent global financial turbulence," he said. The fund played "a key role" in containing the crisis and giving Brazil the breathing space it needed to restore confidence when its financial markets crashed in January 1999, he said.

"The outcome has been a generalized improvement in economic prospects, a higher global growth rate, and an expansion in global trade," he said.

The finance ministers noted that economic prospects have been brightening in most corners of the world, even in African nations that experienced mostly stagnation in the last decade.

"While we have seen notable improvement in the economic record in several parts of the continent, the challenge for many of Africa's leaders remains the creation of conditions of peace, stability, democracy, openness to trade and market-based incentives, and good governance," said U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers.

"We are prepared to help," he said, "but responsibility for creating such conditions lies with the authorities of these countries."

• Suzin Schneider contributed to this report.

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